Entertainment March 2011

Japan’s Got Talent

But key is selling it to major foreign markets

The number of Japanese musicians and singers who have made it in the lucrative markets of Europe and North America is miniscule. Artists who cut their teeth in this market have fared somewhat better in other parts of Asia, but J-pop is still a relatively minor export.

It should not be that way, argues Robert Michael Poole, who insists there is plenty of talent here and that it is just a matter of getting it to the right markets. And that is why he set up SomethingDrastic, in 2005. “When I first came here in 2002, I was amazed at the size of the music industry—but also that no one outside Japan knows about it”, said 31-year-old Poole, who is originally from Swindon in Wiltshire.

“In Britain, you can buy music from India, Africa, South America, but there’s no J-pop”, he said. “There has definitely been more interest in the last few years, but I think that’s probably because of a more general interest in Japan—anime, manga, computer games and songs related to these—but mainstream Japanese artists have not crossed over in the same way.

“The potential in terms of the talent is here and there are singers with enough quality”, said Poole, who studied Music Industry Management at Buckinghamshire New University before going to Copenhagen Business School to study Japanese. That was followed by an MA in Asian Studies, focusing on music and feminism, at Sweden’s Lund University, and eight months of research at Waseda University.

In the last few years, a number of mixed-race artists have emerged—Yuna Ito, Crystal Kay, Thelma Aoyama—who are equally comfortable singing in English and Japanese, and it is this group of musicians who have an international appeal and can drive overseas interest in Japanese music. But the evolution of management agencies capable of operating in foreign markets has not kept up with the pace; indeed, many Japanese agencies say they are not particularly interested in making their singers into stars abroad as they already have a huge domestic audience and the costs and potential hassles involved mean it is not worth the effort.

Another concern, Poole pointed out, is that going abroad might actually damage a domestic career, as Korean singer BoA found out when she tried to crack the American market. Six straight number-one albums in Japan counted for nothing when she went to the US, but when she returned to Tokyo her next album was a flop.
“So that is where my company comes in”, said Poole. “Japanese management companies don’t know how to go abroad, so we were set up to bridge that gap. Initially that was within Asia, but we quickly realised that the demand was there for the rest of the world”.

The company’s first major project was acting as the Japan agent for Jane Zhang, one of China’s leading pop singers with a string of number-one singles in her country. SomethingDrastic arranged her first press conference and debut live show in Japan; coordinated coverage in Rolling Stone Japan magazine and on the Oprah show in the US, before accompanying her to the Grammies. The upshot was a worldwide recording deal with Universal Music.

R&B singer Ai is another client, with Poole coordinating an internationally broadcast live performance in Australia, coordinating the release of her album and promotional work in the country, and exclusively revealing her hosting of the first ever Michael Jackson Tribute Concert, complete with the rest of the Jackson Five, planned in Autumn 2011.

SomethingDrastic was also behind last year’s hugely successful MTV Video Music Awards Japan Party, bringing together some of the biggest names in the industry, including m-flo, Big Bang and 2NE1, as well as Miss Universe Japan. This year’s event, in late June, is going to eclipse that party, Poole insisted. Other projects have included working with Namie Amuro, Nana Tanimura and Double, while Poole also manages Japan-based songwriter Chris Mosdell, who worked on all the classic Yellow Music Orchestra albums with Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as writing for Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton.

“We started out doing quite small things—providing a model for an event here, working on a video shoot there—but it has just got bigger and bigger as the number of clients has built up”, said Poole. “It’s typical of any industry in Japan, I would imagine, earning and then protecting a good reputation in business is crucial”.