Billboard’s Women in Music event has celebrated artists, producers and executives who have made significant contributions to the music industry and empowered women through their work since 2007. In 2023, Noriko Ashizawa of Spotify Japan was recognized on this esteemed list.
Billboard Japan launched its Women in Music initiative last year, highlighting women in the country’s music industry through projects including interviews by leading figures in their respective fields. As the next featured guest in this series, Ashizawa spoke about working to support up-and-coming artists as Spotify’s Head of Music Planning and Operations in Japan. She also shared the company’s efforts to expand the reach of domestic artists and their work beyond borders to new listeners and fans. As the one who has been involved in the process that the streaming service has become the mainstream way of listening to music in Japan, how does she see the future of the music industry?
Congratulations on making Billboard’s Women in Music list for 2023. Could you tell us how you feel about this honor?
Noriko Ashizawa: Honestly, I was surprised to hear the news because I never expected to be chosen for such a prestigious award as someone who works in Japan. It still feels kind of unreal, but if it means that Spotify’s various efforts in Japan were acknowledged, I feel very honored about that.
Spotify encourages the activities of female creators in music through its global EQUAL project. What have been the results so far?
Spotify’s EQUAL program has selected 700 women around the world across various genres as ambassador artists, and more than 4,000 acts have been featured in the related playlists. We launched the localized program, EQUAL Japan in 2021, continuously spotlighting the works of Japanese female artists and creators and their voices through playlists. So far, a diverse range of female acts including the all-women band CHAI, rapper Awich, and Utaha of WEDNESDAY CAMPANELLA have been also highlighted as ambassador artists in the project. Moving forward, we’d like to further raise awareness of the program itself and make it more meaningful for artists to participate in it.
When a platform highlights that many artists, it definitely creates more opportunities for users to discover them. By the way, the year-end Billboard Japan top 100 chart for 2022 shows a noticeable gender imbalance with 58 male artists, 27 female artists, and 15 mixed groups. Spotify also has its own annual rankings. What trends do you see?
Spotify releases various annual rankings at the end of each year. Looking at last year’s ranking from the perspective of gender balance, there were 11 female acts including solo artists and groups on the “Top 50 Most Streamed Domestic Artists in Japan” list and 3 mixed groups with women as main vocalists. The “Top 50 Most Streamed Domestic Songs in Japan” tally saw similar results, with 10 out of the 50 songs by female acts. The ratio of women announced globally the year EQUAL launched was one in five, so it could be said that gender imbalance still exists on a worldwide level.
But there were some major differences between the global and domestic rankings. Looking at the “Top 5 Most Shared Artists” globally, female artists ranked in the upper tier with Taylor Swift at No. 1 and Lana Del Rey at No. 4. In Japan, the top 3 were boy bands — JO1, BE:FIRST, and INI — and the “Top 10 Most Shared Songs” list was dominated by tracks by these three groups.
That’s an interesting result. Do you know the demographics of their fans?
The majority of listeners supporting these boy bands are women. Supporting your favorite artist or act in a tangible way is called “oshikatsu” in Japanese, and especially during the pandemic, momentum rose to support those artists by listening to their music on streaming and then sharing it proactively via social media. In fact, when this ranking was announced, female fans of these groups posted many comments on social media expressing their joy. Looking over at K-pop, many female artists are also very popular among women in Japan, but it seems that in such cases, it’s more of a “listening for themselves” kind of mentality at work, encompassing feelings of empathy and admiration, rather than actively expressing their support for those artists.
It’s interesting to hear that men are dominating the charts fueled by the power of women. How do you analyze the current situation where women account for only one-fifth of the most played songs and artists on Spotify, both in Japan and globally?
I think there’s probably a gender imbalance in the number of creators to begin with. Many next-generation artists aspiring to become stars like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish are emerging, but I think it’ll still take a bit more time to change this situation in a significant way.
What do you think about the gender balance on the production side of the music and entertainment industry?
Many women work at Spotify and looking around the workplace, not only at Spotify but also at other companies in Japan, I don’t see any significant lack in the number of women these days. But if you look at the industry’s senior management, it still feels like it’s mostly men, and I think there is a difference between the state of frontline workers and that of management.
Could you share some of your background? Did you envision a particular kind of woman you wanted to be growing up?
I don’t think I’ve ever thought about men and women in a separate way. I don’t personally share the view that being a woman should be given special weight, so I respect the type of woman who can assess any given situation to realize her goals as an individual human being.
You’re certainly someone who has stuck to that value of making decisions as an individual person, transcending labels and existing frameworks imposed on you by others. How did you come to work in the music industry?
I’ve been loving music since I was a child, and always vaguely wanted to make a career of it. I listened to Western music (along with J-pop), so I became interested in English and studied abroad during my college years. After joining Sony Music Entertainment Japan and building my career in the International music division, I gradually became more interested in production work, so I chose to move to a domestic label where I was in charge of A&R for a number of years. Then, when I got transferred to Sony Interactive Entertainment in 2014, I became involved in the formation of the PlayStation Music. Until then, I’d only been involved with the artists and labels that created and delivered the music, but I had an opportunity for gaining a new point of view by working on the side of a digital platform for the first time in my life.
That was just at the time when people in Japan were starting to think that the ways of listening to music might shift from physical formats to streaming. After a while, I was fortunate to get involved in the launch of Spotify in Japan as an external partner at PlayStation Music, and although I then had to return to my previous workplace as my transfer period came to an end, I decided to work at Spotify considering much potential in streaming as a game-changing platform for bringing more opportunities to various creators by enhancing discovery between listeners and artists.
Reaching out to a global audience, which had been a high bar in the past, is now relatively easier to achieve through streaming. For instance, Fujii Kaze’s “Shinunoga E-wa” hit No. 1 on Spotify’s viral chart in 23 markets outside Japan last year and spread throughout the world. The more successful cases of Japanese artists I actually see, the more I believe there’s a lot of potential in the Japanese music industry and that we can work together to make unprecedented dreams come true.
That must have been the period when people thought it’d be hard for streaming to penetrate the Japanese market, but it turns out you made a bold decision. And since then, you and your team have supported a variety of artists to build a career in a way that might not have been possible before. Are there any female artists or acts you’d like to shout out at the moment?
Rina Sawayama’s work has been particularly remarkable lately, and her message of inclusiveness of diversity has encouraged many people. In 2020, she was selected for Spotify’s “RADAR: Early Noise,” a year-round emerging artist support program in Japan, and now she’s a superstar with a global following. Haru Nemuri is one of this year’s RADAR: Early Noise artists, and it’s really encouraging to see Japanese artists like her who convey strong messages from various angles being supported overseas even more so than in Japan, and I’d like to see this movement spread domestically as well.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan