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Japan: Inside the world’s second-largest music market

With a slew of new venues under construction, Japan has a new drive to return to the glory days as a crucial tour destination for international acts

By Adam Woods on 12 Sep 2023

Bruno Mars at the Tokyo Dome

The western concert business tends to view itself as a global movement these days, professionalising and supercharging new markets one by one – and there is plenty of truth in that narrative.

A market like Japan, however, sits stubbornly outside that vision. Already the second-biggest live market in the world, Japan doesn’t require professionalising by American or European operators, and Covid pains aside, it hardly needs supercharging.

It remains a market ruled by large domestic operators, in which major western live powers are relative minnows, domestic artists are by far the biggest attractions, and big western touring stars often find themselves invited to swap stadiums and arenas for theatres or even clubs.

As it has been for 20 years or more, Japan remains strikingly self-contained. Anecdotally, domestic acts make up 90% of concert ticket sales; for incomers, the market can be riven with complexities and local peculiarities.

But for companies with global intent, Japan represents both a vital strategic beachhead for the wider Asian region and, of course, a glittering prize in its own right.

“Japan has always been a priority for US agents given the importance of the market,” says Kaori Hayashi of leading Japanese promoter Hayashi International Promotion. “The anchor dates for an Asian tour are the Japanese ones, and post-Covid this remains the same.”

Japan was hit hard by the pandemic, but its bounce-back is well underway. In 2021, the concert market in Japan amounted to roughly ¥154.7bn – a big fall from ¥423.7bn in 2019 [source: ACPC], but a partial recovery from the inevitable 2020 slump, which saw the market plummet to ¥58.9bn. In 2023, however, the market is surging once again and widely predicted to return to pre-Covid levels in 2024.

“After the Covid-19 pandemic, the concert and event industry has been recovering, including a surge in demand due to a backlash against the pandemic,” says Naoya Kurami, CEO of leading ticketing provider eplus.

“As a result, our core business, the ticketing industry, achieved its highest transaction volume from April 2022 to March 2023. Between April and September this year, we predict that the recovery trend will continue, and from October to next March, it will settle into a gradual uptrend.”

In the meantime, a wave of new venues is on the horizon, creating fresh possibilities for new content and potentially easing the booking difficulties that have frustrated many an international tour.

Incoming interests
The biggest international corporates have made no secret of their Japanese ambitions in recent years. Live Nation, CTS Eventim, and AEG all operate there – Live Nation since 2012, most recently under former UDO Artists executive Kei Ikuta; Eventim since 2021, with Asian veteran Jason Miller at the helm; AEG Presents in partnership with local indie giant Avex Entertainment, an arrangement enshrined in a joint venture in 2021.

These operators, alongside large local promoters with a stake in the international business – who include companies such as Creativeman, Hayashi International Promotion, Kyodo Tokyo, Smash, and UDO Artists – are highly engaged with the problem of increasing international music’s share of the market.

“Japan is getting closer to the overseas market as distribution grows and YouTube and TikTok become mainstream,” says Naoki Shimizu, president of Creativeman, operator of the prominent Summer Sonic Festival and one of the leading Japanese promoters. “Our goal is to return to the 25% share of western music that existed 20 years ago. Now it is said to be 10%, but I believe that the share has risen to about 15%.”

There are signs that the market is already moving in a positive direction for international artists. The domestic business returned with restrictions at the end of 2020, whereas the international business had to wait until 2022. That in turn led to an explosion of demand for international shows, particularly at the higher level.

“For the international artist market, we think that there will be continued growth in the arena and stadium show sector, as the supply of new star acts from not just the US and UK but other global markets increases,” says Ikuta, who reels off recent sell-outs for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Tokyo Dome and Osaka Jo-Hall, Ariake Arena shows for Harry Styles in Tokyo and successful arena dates for the Backstreet Boys and Sting.

“Alongside that, we think there will be a continued expansion of a new generation of more globally minded young Japanese artists who are born into the social media era and have a great appetite to tour around the world.”

The international challenge
Japan is not an easy market for western acts, for a multitude of reasons, starting with a longstanding shortage of venues in most cities. Most stadiums and arenas in Japan are publicly owned and primarily designed for sports events, which inevitably take priority over music shows.

“The typical business model involves renting out the venue as an empty space and charging rental fees, while the responsibility for ticket sales, stage production, and event operations lies with the promoter,” says Ikuta. “As a result, there is less motivation [for venues] to actively attract concerts, which are often seen as lucrative in the western market.”

International artists also struggle to secure dates, given their limited flexibility and relatively short lead times. “The reason it is hard to hold venues in Japan is that domestic artists book weekends two years in advance – weekdays are not a problem,” says Shimizu.

Significantly, in the coming five years, the Japanese market will witness a large number of new arena builds, partly spurred by the revised rules of the national basketball leagues, which now demand that teams in the top B1 tier maintain an average of 4,000 attendees and build, at minimum, a 5,000-cap arena. Given that most teams have a maximum of 30 games a year, that leaves most such venues with a lot of downtime for other uses.

The basketball-based building boom is set to bequeath a host of new arenas – from Mitsui Fudosan’s 10,000-cap LaLa Arena Tokyo-Bay, due in spring 2024, and the 10,000-cap Tokyo A-Arena, due in autumn 2025, to tentative new arenas in Kobe, Osaka, and Nagoya from 2025 onwards.

“The number of venues with a capacity of 5,000 to 15,000 is expected to increase in the future,” says Keiji Sugimoto of promoter-operation Backstage/LIVE EXSAM. “These venues will primarily be used for basketball games, but additionally, they can be utilised as music venues for the rest of the time. By 2025, there will be a sufficient increase in venues of this size – although smaller halls with a capacity of around 2,000 people will continue to be in short supply.”

As the primary market, Tokyo claims the lion’s share of the larger venues, with more on the way – though many believe other cities would benefit from a greater share of the attention now.

“I’m involved in several arena projects,” says Masato Kitaguchi, advisor to Billboard Japan, which operates Billboard Live venues in Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama, “and I believe that with [Yokohama’s 10,000-cap] Pia Arena in 2020, and others such as the K-Arena in Yokohama, the LaLa Arena in Funabashi, and others in Odaiba and Kawasaki that will be built by 2029, we will have an oversupply of arenas in the Greater Tokyo area.”

The K-Arena, with a capacity of 20,000, opens in September and is expected to bring 3m additional guests annually to the second city of Yokohama, according to K-Arena president Tsuyoshi Tamura. While venues in Japan have traditionally been multipurpose facilities designed primarily for sports events, K-Arena will specialise in music.

“This is one of its distinguishing features,” says Tamura. “We are opening on September 29th, and our occupancy rate for the remainder of the year is expected to exceed 80%.” In October and November, K-Arena has Sam Smith, Mötley Crüe, and Def Leppard scheduled to perform, as well as a number of J-pop and K-pop artists.

“Japan has always been a priority for US agents given the importance of the market”

Tamura believes the new venue has the potential to make a dent in neighbouring Tokyo’s strong grip on the bigger shows. “In terms of cities, Tokyo is often mentioned, and when it comes to venues, Tokyo Dome is commonly recognised,” he says. “However, Yokohama City is located within a 30-minute radius of Tokyo and is approximately 40 minutes away from Haneda Airport. Yokohama has various venues, including K-Arena Yokohama, and it is striving to develop as a music city, attracting fans from both domestic and international locations.”

A necessary next step, Kitaguchi suggests, is to invest comparably in other cities – particularly third city Osaka – in order to create new touring networks. “I feel that Osaka lacks an adequate number of arenas of the appropriate size, and I would like to accelerate support for arena constructions there,” he says. Shimizu agrees. “There are more than 15 arenas in the Tokyo area with a capacity of over 7,000, and the number is still increasing,” he says. “In Osaka and Nagoya, on the other hand, there are only two or three arenas with more than 7,000 capacity.”

Others in the business identify a problem at the lower level. “The primary challenge in the Japanese live market is the lack of suitable venues, especially mid-sized halls that serve as the cultural foundation,” says Sugimoto. “While arenas are increasing in number, major metropolitan areas are severely lacking in mid-sized halls. As a result, the environment for nurturing new artists is not conducive, and they are unable to emerge.”

Venue availability isn’t the only difficulty in a market that has grappled with the fallout of the pandemic in distinctly familiar ways, from rising ticket prices to skilled staff shortages. But an increase in the number of arenas creates an opportunity for a bulked-up touring market, and that is the kind of invitation the international giants of live music don’t need to hear twice.

“The post-Covid landscape has made it financially and logistically challenging for all parties involved, but traffic is bigger than ever, and international content is at an all-time high,” says Eventim Live Asia director of touring Mitsuyo McGroggan.

International artists going east
While Japan once had a reputation for revering western pop, as many globetrotting stadium and arena stars have found, western superstar cachet no longer automatically translates.

“Japan, and Asia regionally, in many ways have their own identity in terms of the touring landscape,” says McGroggan. “But in particular, an act that may be classed as an arena-level act in the west doesn’t necessarily translate as such in Japan. Many a time, an arena-level show needs to be scaled down to a theatre-level, even a club-level show.”

Humility and hard work are therefore a necessity for established acts, though not everyone believes international artists are simply not trying hard enough.

“I don’t believe there is much lacking among overseas artists,” says Naoki Wada, CEO and creative director of label and promoter Land Inc. “The bigger issue lies in domestic media and labels adopting short-sighted strategies and not featuring foreign music as much. As a result, people are becoming more disconnected from western music.”

A further disadvantage for those with Japanese aspirations lies in the fact that the promotional tools that work in other markets don’t always have the same traction in Japan.

“Japan operates very differently to the rest of the world,” says McGroggan. “Here, 90% of the live sector is comprised of domestic talent, streaming stats aren’t as relevant as in the west, and ticketing systems are still very much unique in their own ways.”

“But time and time again, I am in awe and am reminded of the loyal nature of the Japanese fanbase. Their listenership and respect to the artistry is true class, and from my experience, the artists and managers that put Japan and Asia at the forefront of the global touring circuit – and not as an afterthought – have proved that the investment in the early years of their career has been repaid ten-fold with long-standing careers in the region.”

Noted Japanophile Bruno Mars illustrates the size of the opportunity for hard-working international stars. Mars sold out five shows at the Tokyo Dome in late 2022, amounting to more than 200,000 tickets – a feat he now looks set to exceed in January 2024.

“Bruno has sold out five Tokyo Dome shows, and we are adding two more,” says promoter Kaori Hayashi. “These shows will be the biggest by any international act in Japan this century,” she adds, noting that Michael Jackson was the last to accomplish anything comparable.

The Hawaiian star has worked hard to ingratiate himself to his Japanese audience, throwing himself into promotion and weaving Japanese music and patter into his stage show.

“It has never been true that success in the west correlates to success in Japan,” Hayashi says. “[But] Bruno has regularly toured Japan and actively promotes his shows here. I think his incredible success will encourage other artists to invest more time in Japan.”

In a similar vein, Coldplay’s two Tokyo Dome shows in November will feature Sony duo Yoasobi, one of the most influential groups in the current J-pop scene.

“Collaborations like these are highly beneficial for expanding the artist’s fanbase, especially among younger audiences, and we expect this significance to grow further in the future,” says Ikuta. “It also presents a unique opportunity for local artists to step onto the international stage,” he adds, noting that the ‘matching’ process between local and international artists is an important skill for international promoters.

Lady Gaga likewise has invested time and energy into building her Japanese fanbase, coming for promotional trips throughout her career. She is one of very few non-Japanese acts to appear on the New Year’s Eve TV special Kōhaku Uta Gassen and was famously interviewed on Japanese icon Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s daytime talk show Tetsuko’s Room, giving her huge mainstream exposure.

“Our two stadium shows with her were one of the first major shows post-Covid reopening and were an instant sell out, which is a testament to her profile here and her special relationship with fans,” says Ikuta.

An essential foothold for global corporates
Broadly speaking, the companies that populate the mainstream Japanese market are diverse and numerous. For domestic repertoire, there are busy promoters in each of Japan’s eight regions. Major broadcasters also have concert divisions, while powerful management stables create their own talent from scratch, controlling all aspects of their careers.

And while this all adds up to a mature market with no automatic need for international content, a foothold in Japan is clearly an essential requirement for international firms with broader regional ambitions.

“Japan is a mature market in Asia, but entering it as a competitor can still be beneficial for several reasons,” says McGroggan. “Japan’s status as an anchor market means that success there can serve as a foundation for expanding and leveraging your brand in other cities within the region.

“Also, the knowledge and experience gained from operating in Japan can provide valuable insights into consumer preferences and market dynamics, helping you to adapt your strategies effectively in other markets in which you do shows. Essentially, Japan acts as a launchpad for your expansion efforts in the broader Asian market.”

Live Nation certainly agrees. “Japan is an important growth market for Live Nation given its scale and appetite for live music, so we are always looking for opportunities to build our business both organically and through acquisition,” says Ikuta.

Among Live Nation Japan’s local initiatives is a stake in the consortium behind Tokyo’s 11,000-cap Ariake Arena, built for the 2022 Tokyo Olympics.

“While the building is owned by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, it is operated by a private entity, making it a unique endeavour in Japan,” says Ikuta. Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, Sting, and the Backstreet Boys have already been through in recent months, while Charlie Puth, Post Malone, and others are lined up for later this year.

Eventim Live Asia, based in Singapore, also has a clear roadmap for Japan and the wider region. “As a global promoter and ticketing company now operating in Japan, our goal over the next five years is to achieve consistent growth in show count across all levels of artists and genres,” says McGroggan.

“We aim to expand our business and presence in the market by eventually introducing Eventim ticketing services. Additionally, we plan to capitalise on opportunities in the festival landscape to further grow and diversify our offerings. By leveraging these strategies, we hope to establish a strong foothold in the Japanese entertainment industry and position ourselves as the leading player in the market.”

“I am in awe… of the loyal nature of the Japanese fanbase. Their listenership and respect to the artistry is true class”

Japanese acts going west
Buoyed by the global success of Korean and Latin music, the J-pop and J-rock business is beginning to sense its time may be nigh – though it has a way to go before it can challenge the output of South Korea.

“Unfortunately, the current situation is such that K-pop, rather than J-pop, dominates the global market, particularly in Asia. J-pop would make a significant difference if even one artist could achieve international success,” says Kitaguchi, who recommends chart-topping, Nissan Stadium-filling, Tokyo four-piece End of the World, known in Japan as Sekai no Owari.

“Japan is a cultural and artistic nation, but we have lacked the know-how to industrialise it, so culture and the arts have not become a key industry like in South Korea,” says Takeo Nakanishi, chairman of promoters organisation ACPC and president at Tokyo-based promoter Disk Garage Holding. “The economic impact BTS has created in South Korea is far greater than the market we have. At the same time as I am amazed by the success, I also believe that we have potential.”

Shimizu, too, sees plenty of opportunity. “Baby Metal, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and Perfume have been active in the past, but new artists such as Yoasobi, Ado, New School Leaders, Fujii Kaze, and Vaundy are starting to make their mark overseas,” says Shimizu. “J-pop has a variety of genres, and more and more young people are interested in its diversity. Some may be a little bored with K-pop.”

Live Nation has recently organised US tours for the Japanese all-female hard rock band Band-Maid, who will play Lollapalooza in Chicago this year, and for the Japanese rock band Man With A Mission.

“In recent years, J-pop and J-rock acts have been taking success overseas more seriously, and we have seen a significant increase in the number of domestic act managers reaching out to us to discuss touring abroad,” says Ikuta.

“We’ve established a system to assess the potential of each artist in each market around the world and have strengthened our collaboration with the Live Nation Global Touring team and individual promoter teams in the US and APAC regions, enabling us to provide optimal proposals to the artists.”

Festivals have traditionally been an important melting pot for international, domestic, and regional artists. Internationally, festivals such as Smash’s Fuji Rock and Creativeman’s Summer Sonic are the best-known of the country’s big events.

“At Summer Sonic, which is now in its 22nd year, we have had the earliest sell-outs [this year] in both Tokyo and Osaka. Ticket prices have gone up, but 200,000 people are expected to attend,” says Shimizu. “This is a better number than for any other festival for artists in Japan, and we have high expectations for the future.”

Hayashi International Promotion pioneered the mainstream rock market in Japan with headliner-branded festivals such as Ozzfest in 2013 and 2015 and Slipknot’s Knotfest, which first landed in Japan in 2014 and continues to thrive, selling out a two-day event in April.

Japan hosts numerous other large music festivals annually, most of which are composed entirely of domestic acts. Rock In Japan, the largest domestic summer festival, boasts a line-up of entirely Japanese artists and attracts over 300,000 attendees each year. Naturally, global players watch this area with interest.

“Live Nation Japan is actively exploring opportunities to bring and/or create large-scale international festivals in Japan,” says Ikuta. “We see there are great opportunities to introduce new and exciting large-scale events to the market, with location and venues being crucial factors.”


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