In the last month, I've had three different artists' managers and agents from the USA, Ireland and Britain ask me for help in getting them a release deal or a music publishing deal in Japan. These people ask me because I play a lot of new and independent music on the FM radio. Perhaps they also know I used to run one of Japan's most successful Indies labels (in the late 80s & early 90s) and I have been involved with alternative music and the promotion of that kind of music since the late 70s.
Today, I'd like to write a short post about why it is next to impossible for an unsigned independent artist in the west to get a record or publishing deal in Japan in the year 2012. I do this to help people and I do this to help myself because I've written this explanation more times than I care to and don't want to do it anymore.
This example though, I'm sure, is not just limited to the music industry. I think this example is a microcosm for all industries across the board in Japan when it comes to subsidiaries and licencing product across international boundaries.
Let me give you specifics.
I can think of three artists that I really like and have been playing on our nightly FM radio show. These artists have also hit the Top 5 Japan countdown. You can see that chart here.
Because of this support and these efforts to bring new music to Japan, I have earned the reputation for being the guy who finds these new artists and plays them years before they break even in the west. May I pat myself on the back? Recent examples were Amy Winehouse who we began playing heavily in 2006, a full two years before she she broke big and, more recently, Adele who was introduced to me by Rodney Bingenheimer. I was the first one to play these artists in Japan years before they got popular even in the west. Over the years there were hundreds. Guns and Roses was another notable one way back when.
Like I said, this is an example, a microcosm, of how other businesses in Japan work also. If there is a parent company and a subsidiary involved you can be sure that politics play a big part in all decisions that are made... This point is obvious but many artists fail to grasp this.
In the past, I have also introduced independent artists to Japanese record labels and music publishers and have gotten them contracts. But that was well before the year 2000. Japanese labels and music publishers today are not interested in signing new western acts for the Japanese market and here's why...
Let's take the example of a world-wide label like Warner music. Warner in the USA releases hundreds of albums annually. Of those hundreds of albums, only a handful get released in Japan. It is unclear how the process for deciding which artists' albums get released in Japan is made. Ostensibly, it would be a decision founded on which artists' album the local label people believe would be most popular and sell the best, but I would be a fool to tell you that is exactly how it is done. I have been in Japan long enough to know that politics and favors are quite important in the decision room. I know that sometimes the good of the company is sacrificed in order to placate some employees' desires and wishes.
I have witnessed, more than five times in my life, adult Japanese men over 40-years-old of age, actually crying or pouting like little children at business meetings because they didn't get their way. I've seen this in the last month, actually! Grown men crying like children! It was astounding.
So remember that, perhaps, sometimes an album is released just because Mr. Tanaka is a fan of that artist even though the rest of the staff don't feel that it will sell well... And when it doesn't sell well? Does Mr. Tanaka suffer any penalty? Not immediately and perhaps never. In a few years he might be transferred to another section.
Ever heard of the Peter Principle? If you haven't you should. The Peter Principle says that, "In a hierarchy, every employee will rise to their highest level of incompetence." That, in a nutshell is one of the biggest reasons I can see why business is bad in today's Japan.
But I digress.
The western arm of the label releases hundreds of artists a year. In Japan, only a few of those are released. Politics play a big part. Now, when hundreds are not released, what would happen if the Japanese side arbitrarily picked up an artist from, say, London who wasn't signed to the sister or parent label and released that artist in Japan? Well, you can bet that the sister or parent company would soon find out about it and they would be very pissed off. It would become a major political problem for the western label (destroy their credibility in the local market) and it would then become a major political problem for the Japanese side too.
The western arm of the label would say (of course), "Hey! We have all these other artists that we released. Why don't you release one of those? Why don't you help us promote our artists?" A big row would ensue. And people would be angry and relationships frayed or destroyed.
The Japanese, not being ones to want to make trouble, would rather decline unilaterally signing an artist from the west - one that, by the way, doesn't even have management that the Japanese side has a relation with - so if there is trouble, they have no one to blame.
The Japanese just won't do it.
Suddyn, one of the best bands in the world today? Not signed in Japan.
There is one more problem. In spite of what you've heard, western artist CDs and album sales have dropped off a cliff in this country. Even Lady Gaga and Coldplay are second rate in this country compared to Japanese artists.
In the west, you have the Billboard charts. In Japan, we have the Oricon charts. They are both corrupted by payola but they are what we use. To see the most recent Oricon charts, we have to subscribe and pay money. There's no way I'm going to pay money for that so here's the most recent Oricon Chart Top 30 chart that we can see for free. It's from Nov. 11, 2011. See if you recognize any names on the Top 30:
See any Adele? Lady Gaga? Katy Perry or Flo Rida? No? Neither do I and you will rarely, if ever, see them on any Japanese charts. Like I said, sales of western artists have dropped off a cliff in Japan.
There won't be any recovery of those sales anytime soon, either.
Understanding these things, then you can see why your band, unsigned in the west, has a basically zero chance of getting signed here in Japan. I hate to break this news to you good folks and great musicians but it is what it is. Don't take it personally at all if a Japanese label or publisher doesn't answer your inquiries about your music. It's not about the music anymore.
Imagine if there were a time slip and your band were the Beatles, as yet undiscovered in 2012 and unsigned to a label in the west, there's no way a Japanese label will sign you for release in Japan. It has nothing to do with your music and your talent and gift; it has everything to do with intra-company politics.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, if they were 18 years old today, would have a major problem. And that's why the major music industry is dying.
For Linda, Margaret, Jp and Allison
An interesting article. It's no surprise that big businesses (labels) are conservative and getting more so... I wonder how the internet is affecting all this? Hopefully more and more Japanese people are just downloading music and bypassing the labels. (Wishful thinking?) However, As a content crater myself (albeit in a different medium) this poses a bunch of other problems.
wow... very interesting stuff, Mike.
Wow... very interesting stuff Mike. Have no fears though... how many UK labels also failed to sign the Beatles? All of them.
Still... this nationalism of Japan's music industry is disturbing. It rewards you for being Japanese. Of course, I would like to know just how many Japanese bands get signed abroad...
Japan has been lagging in adopting music downloads, according to this Nikkei article: "TOKYO (Nikkei)--Apple Inc. on Wednesday kicked off its cloud-based music service, "iTunes in the Cloud," in Japan, marking a change of tempo for the country's music industry, which has been unwilling to embrace online music downloads... Japan's digital-music market last year shrank 16% to 71.9 billion yen, dropping for the second year running. One obstacle has been the emergence of smartphones, since some models are incompatible with full-song download services offered by Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc. and others that have typically worked better with conventional mobile phones.
Even before the launch of cloud services, Japan lagged well behind other countries. Apple's iTunes Store made its Japanese debut more than two years after being unleashed in the U.S. Japan's music industry had bristled at Apple setting song prices at a low 100 yen apiece.
Now, Japan's market is suffering from a Galapagos syndrome, where it is evolving out of step with the global market, and the entire segment is shrinking."
Japan's music industry is playing Ray Barboni's old song: "Where's my +**#$! money?!"
Thanks for the article! I found it rather interesting.
You probably know about the industry better than I, but from what I've heard, it does not look good in the US.
Compared to the US, I'm rather surprised that you can actually play what you want. In the US, so many of the radio stations are so corporatized, one gets a machine, “Selector” being one brand name, where they've determined what songs appeal to the demographics they want. The machine does almost all of the programming by itself. It has a specific selection of songs, and that is all they play, ca. a selected 2-3000 songs, with something like 50-100 in heavy rotation.
As to the Billboards, don't they use Soundsource?, which tracks actual sales? Of course there are probably other ways to game the system.
As to payola, as bad as it is, one at least in theory, could get on a radio station, if someone got paid. If, on the other hand, one had upset Clear Channel, they wouldn't get played or get any media coverage from any Clear Channel outlet , and they would have trouble getting booked at every Clear Channel affiliated venue...
Do you think the reason for US artists dropping off a cliff is due to a fall in the “US brand?” The US used to be viewed as cutting edge, exotic, and exciting. Now, it seems that many outside of the US view it as rather dangerous, unsophisticated, and sad. What do you think?
Finally, with the reluctance of so many Japanese labels in signing foreign acts, do you think that starting an independent label in Japan would be a good idea?
All the best Mike!
Easy question. Start a band and look for a label: stupid. Start a band and use that to start a label: smart.
Great Post. I was talking with my brother about how the Japanese entertainment is moving backwards. Such difficulties for western media companies to just get anime distribution rights. I find it kind of sad and such a waste of opportunities. I think it is mostly because these companies are run by people who are too old or don't understand the concept of a 'Modern Globalized World'. Just look at South Korea, they are doing the exact opposite. They are promoting their artists and media abroad. They take pride in the fact that Korean pop culture is now the rave. Japan should of done the same in 2000-2010. They should wake up and smell the coffee, there are millions of people hungry for Japanese products...
Hi Mike, very interesting article i have to say. In my case i had it different, about 2 years ago i was pursued by sony japan to sign me & also sony america, an agreement couldn't be met so the deals never went through. 3 months later i was contacted again this time it was 3 majors from Germany & 4 promotion companies, it was so rushed giving me no time to think about anything so again them deals never went through. I have all the proof of this & i am a artist from the uk so i would say there is exceptions to the rule. Something i did learn was that what they wanted to sign me for was pop rap but i am not a pop rap artist it really wasn't me, i write, produce & sing pop music so in a way i am glad i never did end up in any of them deals because i would of lost all that was me & i like to have my integrity. Thanks for the article it gives an insight that independant artists may encounter but you never no other people could be the exception aswell & i hope so. I am going to be looking at releasing my new stuff out into Japan shortly so i got to look at all angles of promotion like all of us independant artists
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