A Tale of Two Countries: The Impact of Smartphones and Online Radio on Listener Behavior and Corporate Strategies in the United States and Japan

The past decade has seen a revolution in the way consumers use their cellular phones for music—a trend that Japan has led the United States by about four years. First, polyphonic ringtones were popularized by the late 1990s in Japan but only by ca. 2003 in the United States. This trend was furthered by sampled mastertones and full-track downloads—introduced in Japan in 2003 and popularized in the United States in the mid-2000s—which allowed consumers to use cell phones as backup iPods.

In recent years, the smartphone, particularly the iPhone, has enabled a quantum leap in the use of mobile phones for music. In addition to allowing users to have instant access to music through the internal iPod, and instantaneously share music and events through Facebook and Twitter, the smartphone serves as a highly customized radio through apps such as Pandora, Slacker, and Last.fm. However, the reception of smartphones and online radio has differed markedly between the United States and Japan, due to a divergence in the historical use of mobile phones and traditional radio in these markets, as well as differences in the corporate infrastructure and regulations for these services.

This paper recounts the growth of smartphones and one of their most popular music-related applications—online radio—in the United States and contrasts this experience with that in Japan. I describe the history, workings, and user reactions of three of the largest online radio services in the United States—Pandora, Last.fm, and Slacker—and consider the impact of these services on the listening behavior of consumers. I then examine the reception of smartphones and online radio in Japan to provide a case study of the impact of business history and corporate strategies on the reception of new media.