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Land of the rise in fun: Why booming Japan is such a tough market to crack

Japan is dominated by domestic acts. But the addition of new venues post-2020 could provide opportunities for international artists in the world's second-biggest market

By Adam Woods on 12 Aug 2019

Summer Sonic in Japan

Creativeman's twin Summer Sonic festivals are among the biggest events in the Japanese calendar

Big in Japan’ was a term, in the 80s and 90s, for modestly successful American and European acts that found slightly unlikely mega-stardom in the Land of the Rising Sun.

It wasn’t an insult, exactly – who wouldn’t want to be big in Japan? – but it was often used sneeringly, whether directed at Mr Big, the early-90s rock supergroup who still hop up into the big leagues every time they touch down at Narita International Airport, or Scatman John, whose 1994 record Scatman’s World is, remarkably, Japan’s 17th biggest-selling international album of all time.

But the days when Japan might have been seen as an easily impressed bonus market for Western acts are long gone. Over the past 20 years or so, the balance has shifted dramatically, as Japanese domestic music output – as well as that of nearby frenemy South Korea – has surged in both quantity and quality. Today, international music takes, at most, a 10% share of the live market, with domestic on a commanding 85% and South Korea’s K-pop juggernaut accounting for about 5%.

Today, the Japanese music market is the second biggest in the world, behind the US and ahead of Germany. Its live sector has set new records in both of the past two years, hitting ¥332 billion in 2017 (around €2.7bn) and then rising again to ¥345bn (€2.8bn) in 2018 – a 3.7% uplift that came in spite of a small decline in the number of shows – according to the All-Japan Concert and Live Entertainment Promoters Conference (ACPC).

“The Japanese market in live entertainment has been on the upward trend since the middle of 2010,” says ACPC director Takao Kito. “That’s not only because of the increase in live shows caused by a drop-off in CD sales, but because of a change in users’ minds from consuming products to experiences.”

Clearly, Japan remains a highly appealing market for international promoters and artists, and the big ones are certainly chipping away at it. Live Nation has a Japanese office and, with local partners, has co-promoted plenty of recent arena shows. AEG, meanwhile, worked in partnership with Japanese giant Avex on its recent Ed Sheeran and Celine Dion concerts. But both global promoters know they face a stiff challenge to get much deeper into the Japanese business.

Korean stars record Japanese versions of their songs. In a country where little English is spoken, and even less Korean, such things make a difference

“It is a very mature, competitive market that Live Nation has had a hard time getting traction in,” concedes Live Nation Japan president John Boyle, who has headed the giant’s Japanese push since early 2018. He says Live Nation has big hopes for Japan but fully appreciates the challenge of bringing them to fruition. “I think it is more challenging than anywhere else in the world,” he says.

The fact is, for all its surging fortunes, Japan has numerous characteristics that fly in the face of Western music business orthodoxies and, in many cases, restrict access from outside. CDs remain dominant, claiming 80% of music sales, but though the physical market has certainly declined, streaming has not yet caught on, removing a vitally important channel for artists seeking to find exposure in a new market.

Record companies remain powerful but heavily domestically focused, with local majors – of which there are many, including titans such as Avex, Universal, Sony Music Entertainment Japan and JVC Kenwood – unlikely to take a punt on an unknown foreign act, however successful they may be elsewhere. Tour support, once commonplace, has fallen out of fashion.

Meanwhile, large venues, remarkably scarce in the immense sprawl of Tokyo, book up years in advance, with weekends often block-booked by domestic promoters working in groups. For international operators attempting to route world tours and finding only assorted weekday evenings available, locking down an appropriate venue at the right time becomes profoundly difficult.

Where smaller international bands are concerned, the situation is not much easier. There are no booking agents in Japan, and mixed festival bills are limited and hard to crack. While promoters are heavily engaged in scouting new talent, few are tempted by foreign artists with little following. So new indie artists looking to build an audience typically need to deal direct with Japan’s rai-bu houses – small, private venues that usually don’t pay – and organise their own promotion.

But of course, that 10% doesn’t come from nowhere. Sheeran, needless to say, does good business, selling out the Tokyo Dome and Osaka’s Kyocera Dome in April, supported – as he was across all of Asia – by Japanese rock heroes One OK Rock. Live Nation, too, has its own pipeline: recent arena shows include Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and Maroon Five, with U2, Queen and Adam Lambert and the Backstreet Boys coming soon.

“The market for international artists – not counting K-pop – is now around a third of what it was 45 years ago”

Paul McCartney, who spent a memorable nine nights in a Tokyo jail in 1980, once again has the run of the place: he has played 19 shows and a dozen VIP soundchecks in Japan since 2013 – at the Tokyo Dome, the Ryōgoku Sumo Hall and the Nippon Budokan in the capital, plus trips out to arenas in Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka.

What is very clear though, is that, Western rock and pop sensations aside, Japan’s growth is very much coming from within. “I have been in this business for nearly 45 years,” says Yoshito Yamazaki of long-serving music, sport and musical theatre promoter Kyodo Tokyo, which promotes Korean sensations BTS in Japan, “and I’d say the market for international artists – not counting K-pop – is now around one third of what it was 45 years ago.”

Japan’s own J-pop is a broad and varied thing, nominally encompassing everything from singer-songwriters such as Kenshi Yonezu and Gen Hoshino, to multiplatinum pop-rockers Mr Children, to J-pop/metal fusion Babymetal, although its most prominent category is idol groups – manufactured pop bands assembled by all-powerful, notoriously controlling management agencies. Many of Japan’s major pop stars are made this way, including boy bands Arashi, KAT-TUN, Exile, Suchmos and others, and girl bands such as AKB48, Morning Musume, Momoiro Clover Z, Keyakizaka46 and Nogizaka46, who inspire obsessive cults and make most of their income through live work and, more to the point, relentless merchandising.

Homegrown rock is booming in Japan, too, led by Babymetal but also One OK Rock, Band-Maid, Scandal and Man With a Mission. And, of course, the nation has long supplied intriguing cult artists to the rest of the world, from the Yellow Magic Orchestra and its lynchpins Haruomi Hosono and Ryuichi Sakamoto to Shonen Knife, Cornelius, the Boredoms and Boris.

K-pop, meanwhile, has made a big impression in Japan, even as diplomatic relations between the two countries have soured in recent years. But unlike Western artists, Korean stars such as BTS, Blackpink and Twice record Japanese versions of their songs. In a country where little English is spoken – and even less Korean – such things make a difference.


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