Music December 2012

Synergy and Synthesis

Punk-era rebel thanks Japan for opportunity and inspiration

• Came to Tokyo penniless aged 24
• Formed firm here with Simon Le Bon
• Makes music for corporations and stars

Nick Wood can trace his musical career back to the day at boarding school when he realised that students who signed up for piano lessons were excused from prep.

Once he had completed his escape from the allocated homework time, however, the 12-year-old Wood knew that music was really what he wanted to do.

“There was a community of people playing and composing, so I was hooked very early”, he told BCCJ ACUMEN.

“This was in 1977, so punk rock had just started and it was all very exciting and rebellious”.

Today, Wood is a producer, songwriter, musician and award-winning composer of commercials. He founded Syn Productions in Tokyo with Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran and the frontman’s wife, Yasmin, in 1991.

Wood has since worked with artists ranging from Robert Palmer, Maxi Priest and Dr. John, to Tetsuya Komuro and Julian Lennon. Wood joined Lennon, Komuro and Grammy Award-winning producer John Jones to raise money for quake relief, through a song called Hope, which premiered at the BCCJ’s Road to Recovery event in March. And he wrote Last Run for a video of the fifth annual BCCJ British Business Awards, held in November:

After boarding school, Wood attended the renowned Mabel Fletcher College of Music and Drama in his native Liverpool, before moving to London and getting a job with a friend at the Marcus Studio.

“That studio became our home and we used every spare moment that we had to develop our own sound, which was Appassionata”, he said.

The band was then signed to Virgin Records and Wood found himself rubbing shoulders in the studio with industry giants such as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and record producer Trevor Horn.

“Appassionata didn’t last very long, but it was an amazing time for our education”, he said. “There was a constant stream of classic rock and modern artists working there—and we were using it for free”.

While drum machines and computer-programmed synthesizers are mainstream in the music industry today, in the early 1980s bands such as Depeche Mode, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Duran Duran were experimenting with the new technology.

After meeting Simon Le Bon, the two became friends. Le Bon asked Wood to write and produce a song to accompany Drum: The Journey of a Lifetime, a documentary featuring the musician and the 1985 Whitbread round-the-world sailing race. The result was the track called Grey Lady of the Sea.

Buoyed by this success, Wood found himself in Tokyo in 1987 with his model girlfriend and put his growing reputation and Virgin connections to work.

Within weeks, he had written and produced Glamorous Jump for the hugely popular Japanese musician Koji Kikkawa.
Returning to London was a let down after the highs of Tokyo.

“England felt dull in comparison”, he said. “I had thought that I needed to make it in London, but I knew there were opportunities in Japan. I split up with my girlfriend and there was nothing to keep me in England. I was 24 and I wanted an adventure”.

Le Bon came up with the name for their joint venture—the letters “S,Y and N” stand for Simon, Yasmin and Nick, but also incorporate the idea of synergy and synthesis.

Wood returned to Japan in February 1989 with little more than the firm’s logo and a suitcase.

In the time that he had been away, Glamorous Jump had taken off and was being used in a huge advertising campaign that was fronted by Kikkawa for telecommunications operator KDDI.

At that time, British pop stars did not get involved in commercials, so the idea struck Wood as innovative.

After Wood’s stint as in-house composer for Virgin, he saw Syn Productions swiftly take off.

The hundreds of firms that have since commissioned music from Woods’ studios make up, almost literally, an A to Z of the biggest corporations in the world, including adidas, Cartier, Kirin Brewery Company Limited, Mercedes-Benz, Nike, Inc., Sony Corporation, Unilever and Walt Disney Japan.

In 2002, Passion, the theme for Kirin Beer’s Love Sports campaign, reached number one in the Japanese charts and remains the most popular sporting anthem in Japan. Seven years later, Wild at Heart was selected as the main theme for the Coke Zero nationwide football campaign supporting the Japan national football league, J. League.

Wood began composing movie scores for the Wim Wenders production Dream Island and has since worked on a number of award-winning films and documentaries, including the animated Coo: Toui Umi Kara Kita Coo.

Syn employs 12 full-time staff and a number of freelance contributors across its four divisions: Songs, Studios, Entertainment and Create.

The Songs division covers licensing and rights clearances, label operations and publishing. Studios oversees the music studio, production and editing, while Entertainment looks after event production, live music entertainment and artist bookings.

Syn Create is tasked with branding, marketing, graphic design, public relations and concept development.

“Japan gave me a chance when I was a 24-year-old”, said Wood.

“The landscape here was very different when I first arrived; there were not many foreigners or professional musicians.

“This country opened its doors to me and, in return, I will never let it down”, he added.

“I consider it my duty to do the best I can.

“Japan has allowed me to do so much professionally, personally and creatively”, he said. “And I still find Tokyo the most inspiring and magical city”.

Like the vast majority of firms, Syn struggled in the immediate aftermath of last year’s Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Firms stopped commissioning cheerful tunes to sell their products and hotels placed on hold contracts with foreign musicians, another area in which Syn is involved.

“If anyone had asked me on 10 March [2011] how things looked for the business, I would have been quite optimistic”, Wood admitted. “It was pretty devastating and, when we came back to work a week later, I realised that if we didn’t do something drastic then, there was a good chance that we could go out of business”.

The firm moved to new premises, in Tokyo’s Jingumae district, and business has since recovered across all four divisions.

The events of 2011 also encouraged Wood to look at new markets and fresh challenges. In the past 12 months, he has spent a large amount of time in Los Angeles creating new opportunities for the Syn brand.

“We’re not known over there, so it’s a little bit like having to start all over again—and that’s quite hard after 20-plus years, but I also find it very motivating”, he said.

“We haven’t cracked it yet, but I believe there are great opportunities for Syn in the future—in Japan, Hollywood and the rest of Asia”, he explained. “We are entering a period in which people know our name or are learning about us. They’re seeing our expertise and our credentials, and I find that exciting”.

Simultaneously, Wood is working on a solo album that is being recorded in Tokyo and Los Angeles. It is scheduled to be released in 2013 and will feature two songs with Simon Le Bon’s vocals.