menu Home chevron_right

How K-Pop Is Inspiring a More Connected East Asian Market (Guest Column)

tazz | May 15, 2023

TOKYO — The traditional path to financial independence through music creation has been evolving for years. While there was once a clear-cut approach that included labels, publishers, touring, and CD sales, now the vast majority of artists need to find a different way to make it. The world is bigger now, and the borders and boundaries of music are being torn down piece by piece. Not only are more and more people listening to music from outside their markets, even in once more locally focused countries like Japan, Korea and India, but more and more people are watching how other music pros operate and taking notes.

This means that new markets are opening up to creators in the United States and that, simultaneously, Asian artists are rethinking their whole approach to the business. Together, these dynamics are leading to new career paths and new sounds.

In Japan, we’ve witnessed a huge change in the incentive structure. I’ve worked for years in the Japanese market as a producer and have watched things change firsthand. One of the biggest sources of change came not from our market, but from South Korea. BTS broke the world charts and now everyone’s looking outside of Japan. Korea opened their eyes.

BTS, BLACKPINK, and other K-pop groups set a precedent and demonstrated what’s possible. Before, everyone assumed you had to change for export, to sing in English, to adjust your look and feel. But these young Korean stars didn’t initially feel a need to sing in English; instead their fans learned Korean. Korean artists and producers were able to prove that an Asian person who doesn’t know English or even have perfect pronunciation can top charts and win a Grammy. The most important factor is entertainment. Are you entertained? If so, that’s all you care about as a fan.

Watching BTS take the world by storm, Japanese artists began to expand their ambitions, and the industry has had to respond. Music professionals used to be focused on monetizing this island and that alone, but now younger artists are looking outside and considering their options. The entire ecosystem of labels and publishers has come into question, as young artists are asking why they should sign to a label. Talented musicians who sign to a major are a huge deal now. Artists know they have to pull through all their fanbase themselves.

As young Japanese creators think globally, the market is starting to open up more and more to new global talent. Yet creating the relationships to make this openness work has proven a slow evolution, not a quick pivot. The first and foremost reason that there’s a disconnect is the language barrier, as not everyone in the Japanese industry feels comfortable conducting business in English. They can’t communicate the way they’d like.

This further enhances local skepticism about working with foreign producers. Instead of a set deal, things change as the project evolves, terms change, as, say, three more writers start asking for advances out of the blue, all problems that I’ve heard about from A&Rs I’ve talked to. Relationships with people in Japan make project management easy. Because of the way publishing works in Japan, local producers cost less and everyone knows the terms of a standard contract. No negotiation is required. It’s safe and administratively simple, by comparison.

Yet if a Japanese A&R exec turns to a producer who isn’t big in Japan, they can feel shocked by higher prices and more complex terms, with international publishers and other parties involved. They have to put out their neck personally and that’s a major risk. As things change at home, however, and Japanese creators rethink their strategies, this risk can feel worth taking, and more and more tools and services are working to enable better communication and collaboration.

This has implications for artists far from our corner of the world. Artists in the United States are fighting for attention for percentages of pennies—this is not new information to anyone. In Japan, however, one play of an artist’s track in a karaoke booth can generate a hundred times as much revenue as a Spotify stream. Write, produce, or perform a hit that gets played regularly in karaoke rooms across Tokyo, especially if it’s a song that works for weddings, birthdays, or graduation, and you could receive a comfortable check for life. Yet even as artists continue to search for new ways to stand out from their peers, opportunities in East Asia often get overlooked as viable options. I see this changing, as both Japanese and non-Japanese players understand one another better, and it’s thrilling.

We’ve entered a space without borders, where business practices as well as sounds cross and blend. We can look at each other, communicate and share information any time, even across languages. The quicker that moves, the quicker the trends flow. We don’t go through decades of rock; it’s a one-month period of rock, until someone comes up with a new crazy sound. This is often happening on platforms with global reach, key gateways to new music and to what kids are making right now. How the next steps unfold–how labels, publishers, and established players react to this new global exchange–are still being determined. But once distant markets are growing closer, and the entire business stands to benefit.

Kenneth Kobori, CEO of SURF Music, is a songwriter and producer in Japan as 2SOUL. He achieved early success with “Story” by AI in 2005, which charted in Oricon’s top 10 for 73 weeks. He’s worked with Earth, Wind & Fire and Little Glee Monster, among others, and is also a former executive and startup member of Breaker, Inc.

Written by tazz

This area can contain widgets, menus, shortcodes and custom content. You can manage it from the Customizer, in the Second layer section.





  • play_circle_filled

    RZZR Radio

play_arrow skip_previous skip_next volume_down