(jinsei wa gojuusai kara hajimaru)

J-Pop Primer (101)

This is a short primer explaining what goes on in the Japanese music industry, as it is quite different from how it works in most other countries. Also please note that most of the comments relate to my knowledge of female solo artists – I don’t know as much about male artists or groups.

The recording industry in Japan is the second largest in the world for albums behind the U.S.A., with 16-19% of the world market, and more than just about all the others combined for singles, with 26-32% of the world market.

There are 4 major media companies (in order of market share) …

  • UMG (Universal Music Group – includes the old Polygram) – based in France
  • Sony/BMG – based in Japan/Germany
  • Warner Music – based in the US
  • Toshiba/EMI – based in the UK

In Japan there is one major independent label (Avex Entertainment, also known as AvexTrax) and many smaller ones. Avex started as a CD wholesaler in 1988, opened a recording studio in 1990, in 1993 & 1994 opened subsidiaries in the US & UK, in 1997 together with Sony opened a series of concert halls, in 2001 opened a music school and in 2004 moved into the Korean market. Run by President Max Matsuura, who is known for discovering and developing new artists personally and converting them into big stars, the company is probably THE major force in the Japanese music scene, with most of the top artists like Ayumi HamasakiAi Otsuka, Hitomi Shimatani, Beni Arashiro, Namie Amuro, BoAAmi Suzuki, Every Little Thing & TRF in their stable, as well as Kumi Koda & misia on their sub-label RhythmZone and hitomi on her own label LoveLife. They are actually one of the largest independent record labels in the world. Other well known artists on the major labels are …

  • UMG – ZARD, Maki Ohguro
  • Sony/BMG – MISIA, Mika Nakashima, Soulhead, Dreams Come True, Nami Tamaki, Misato Watanabe
  • Warner Music – Chisato Moritaka, Yuki Koyanagi, Miki Imai
  • Toshiba/EMI – Hikaru Utada, Jyongri

Japanese artists are prolific releasers of material, and often put out singles every 2 or 3 months. Singles usually have 2 or 3 tracks (sometimes as re-mixes of the main song), as well as instrumental versions of the songs (used for Karaoke). Albums are done nearly every year, and the end-of-year period is a popular time for releasing a new album (Xmas sales !!!). This album will normally contain all the singles released since the last album (sometime as slightly different versions), and there are often alternate versions of the album, with different covers (this can apply to singles as well). Many of the singles will be used as the background music in TV advertising campaigns for products that the artist endorses (even just as 15 or 30 second exceprts), so it is common to see these short ads as separate videos (called CM’s). There are also usually alternate versions of an album which includes a DVD containing the music video clips (called PV’s  – Promotional Videos) of the singles etc. that are on the album. Sometime there may even be a 3rd version (again with a different cover) which will also contain a live concert DVD or other extra content !!! As far as I know, all these versions count as the same entry towards sales chart statistics, so this is a bonus when the ‘true’ fans buy all 2 or 3 versions of the same album 🙄

DVD’s are also often released containing compilations of these music videos, and ancillary content like ‘making of” footage is usually included. As many artists do a national tour every year, and there is usually also a DVD package released of these tours not very long after the tour is concluded.

So now you can see why Japan’s recording industry has such good statistics 🙂

Aspiring artists are often selected in huge audition campaigns (like Kumi Koda) and it is rare for an artist to be personally selected (like Ayumi Hamasaki). ‘Manufactured’ groups are also very common (like Morning Musume), and when members get older they may leave the group (‘graduate’) and continue with successful ‘solo’ careers (like Namie Amuro). Some artists actually change and control fashion trends, based on their own styles (like Namie Amuro & hitomi). However most artists do not write their own songs – the record companies have teams of writers that do this. If an artist creates something, it is usually just the lyrics (like Kumi Koda, Mika Nakashima & Ayumi Hamasaki – although Ayumi has been known to write her own tunes anonymously under the name of ‘CREA’) – it is very rare for a Japanese artist to write both the words AND music (like Hikaru Utada & Kohmi Hirose).

No-one packages a CD album quite like the Japanese. Known as a culture for elaborate and excessive packaging, their approach to the CD album is no exception. So one annoying thing about Japanese CD (and DVD) releases, is that there is always a thin strip of paper around the spine of the case. It usually has information about the album and record label, price etc, and it is called an ‘obi’ (like the sash around a kimono). An amazing amount of information is packed onto this little wraparound piece of paper, often noting special tracks, concert dates, discography information and release anniversaries. And, as this information is intended to be read in the home market, it’s all printed in Japanese kanji and ~kana script! Whilst they are safely sealed on new release CD’s they are often discarded once opened, so they should be considered a real bonus when intact on out-of-print CD’s or DVD’s (second hand items with it included are always more expensive than those without it). But this is the first thing that falls off when you open it, and then what do you do with this ‘thing’? I don’t like to throw it away, so you can either (1) store it inside the case with the booklet (although sometimes it is a little too long!), or (2) you can leave it on the outside when you put the CD on the shelf. I used to do (1) but now do (2) – it looks better, but is a hassle every time you get the CD down 😦

Anyway, that is a short introduction to the peculiarities to some aspects of the Japanese music industry. Please note that as this is an English language site, person’s names will be written first name first (e.g. Ayumi Hamasaki), not surname first as the Japanese do (e.g. Hamasaki Ayumi). If you have any comments, corrections or questions, please feel free …..


5 Responses to “J-Pop Primer (101)”

  1. catchopcd said

    nice post thanks for sharing this

  2. Stephen said

    Ah, thanks for this information. It’s neat to find out how things work in other countries. 🙂

  3. redracer said

    I have just watched Kumi Koda’s ‘making’ video from the ‘Aisho’ single, and I heard her use the words ‘Promotional Video’, so I guess that ends the debate 🙂

  4. redracer said

    Thanks for your comments Kimitsu. You may be right about what PV means – I read what I used somewhere else, but who is to say they were right ?

    I agree Avex is very controlling, and forgot to mention the immense impact Tetsuya Komuro had both with Avex’s initial group of artists and on the whole Japanese music industry in the 90’s as well.

  5. Kimitsu said

    Thanks for directing me towards this post! It’s always interesting to see others’ take on the Japanese music industry. (I’ve always read “PV” as “Promotional Video”, for example, but since the term doesn’t seem to be used outside of referencing Japanese videos, and by extension, Chinese and Korean ones… I don’t know what it really stands for.)

    While it’s rare for Japanese solo artists to write both words and music (those who do are those tend to play instruments as part of their image, such as YUI or Suga Shikao), hip-hop groups and rock bands, of course, do write their own releases, though occasionally using outside help.

    From what I’ve seen, SONY’s artists actually tend to have more artistic creativity in their releases (Rie fu even draws her own cover artwork), while avex is more concerned with the manufacturing of their artists to fit certain types unless they’ve proven themselves a guaranteed hitmaker.

    While avex was a pretty big force in the Japanese music scene during the 90’s thanks to Komuro Tetsuya, I think lately SONY’s stepped up to form some pretty good competition for that title, between the surge in popularity over pop-rock and their large stable of artists working in that genre.

    But all that’s just what I think, and I look forward to seeing more thoughts from you!

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