A Turning Point Of Japanese Music Industry

As previously introduced in our blog, Japan is the second largest music market in the world and this highlights the potential of its music market business development. Right now the Japanese music scene is reaching a big turning point. Although CD sales in Japan are gradually decreasing, they are still popular and constitute more than 80% of music sales. In addition, while the majority of young Japanese people listen to the latest music on YouTube, music streaming services such as Line Music or AWA have started to bloom one after another. The Japanese music industry is required to rethink and transform its business model profoundly, like America and Europe did over the past few years.

In such a decisive time, the point that deserves much attention when we talk about the Japanese music business is that the Japanese industry is not only focused on domestic strategy anymore; it is now actively looking to expand overseas.

Japanese music producer Norikazu Yamaguchi is showing his enthusiasm about Japan opening up towards the international market: “The crucial point is to consider how to sell J-POP overseas. While the Japanese population is decreasing, Japanese markets including music would shrink if nothing is done. However, as the popularity of Japanese animation and the increasing number of overseas J-POP fans show, we know that there is room for expansion in the music market. The question is, how? ” Yamaguchi also approaches the issue of overseas promotion. In his view, there are two main axis of strategy for selling Japanese music abroad: one is the network of Otaku-culture (a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests such as anime, idols or gaming) and the other one is the network of niche music genres. The former is derived from the so-called “Cool Japan” scene, targeting J-POP fans who love Japanese “geeky” culture represented by anime or cosplay. The latter is aiming to reach people who love niche genres such as heavy metal, hard rock or dance music, which were originally popular on the international network.

During the 90’s and 00’s, Visual Kei (a movement among Japanese musicians characterised by elaborate make-up, hair style and flamboyant outfits) experienced a boom in some European countries. Yamaguchi concludes that the reason why the Visual Kei trend got so popular is because it succeeded in combining both J-POP culture and niche genres.


Recognizing the economic potential of “Cool Japan” culture as an export, the Japanese government have started strongly championing it abroad. Indeed, the Japanese Ministry of Economy together with the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications established a programme called “J-LOP”, which support the localisation and promotion of Japanese media contents. As well as government backing, MTV Networks Japan got on board with the launch of “MTV 81”, an all English media platform aimed at getting Japanese artists more exposure abroad (check it out on www.mtv81.com).

From an actual business promotion point of view, meanwhile Japanese anime songs and idol groups already have some popularity overseas, Japanese music producers estimate that there is still room for improvement in promoting J-POP, J-ROCK or other popular genres like Enka and Kayoukyoku. With this aim in mind, they founded J-Music LAB, a promotion event that creates an environment for Japanese musicians to expand their activities overseas more easily, through participating in the making of a Japanese music boom. J-Music LAB’s chairman of international marketing, Hirofumi Shigemura, who is also the vice-chairman of the Recording Industry Association of Japan and the representative director of King Records, considers that overseas promotion is an essential subject for the Japanese music industry. He states in an interview: “As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games are approaching, this is a golden opportunity for Japan to appeal itself. In such a globalised society, Japanese language is gradually spreading among young generations through anime and my feeling is that it is getting easier to promote Japan overseas. However, as digital streaming services are more advanced abroad than in Japan, I really wish to push the promotion of Japanese music by getting permission and understanding from Japanese artists, productions and music rights holders.”

However, despite such a variety of attempts, Japanese music is still expected to have a long way to go before concretely achieving its goal. As of today, the “Cool Japan” strategy only has succeeded in exporting the Japanese games industry, which represented more than 90% of all exported Japanese content in 2013. All other contents, especially music, need to focus on the creation of a specific system for selling overseas, based on a real understanding of the scope and limitations of the “Cool Japan” wave. Japanese artists, production companies and music rights holders don’t have a strong overseas promotion system that is ready to be deployed yet. Moreover, it is risky for famous Japanese artists to leave the Japanese market and promote themselves overseas, considering the fact that their popularity relies on the strength and the scale of the Japanese market. Even “Avex”, one of biggest and most successful labels in Japan, has been having a hard time with overseas promotion.
The Japanese music industry is watching out for a chance to expand overseas, right now! Responding to this ambition, some international companies are actively looking for business opportunities in Japan, like London based  digital distribution company “CI” are encouraging Japanese music to be distributed overseas. And many other business opportunities are only waiting to be discovered. How can American or European companies respond to the Japanese ambition of expansion and deal with its challenges? That’s a hot topic that needs to be followed closely.

Evan Stein

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