A little while ago, I stumbled upon an article named Why Independent Artists From USA, UK and the West, Cannot Get a Recording Deal in Japan. While this article is somewhat dated, I thought I would share what I know about the current industry.
Before I begin covering these topics, one thing I really like to emphasize is in Japanese music industry, often the merit of the musical work often does not play much of relevancy. So if you are getting rejected, that’s nothing about quality of music you are putting out.
First of all, how well music are consumed in Japan? Not too bad, some research reveals that 60% of respondent replied that they listen to music every day on their smart phone.
Reality: Japanese Music Industry Is, More or Less a Secondary Industry
Assume that you have great music in your hand, now you are trying to sell, you bring it to the record company, you get rejected. Why?
First of all, you are nobody, let alone if you are independent musician. Did your music piece used in a movie? What about on TV? Aired on a radio show? If you answered no to all of those question, sorry, you are that nobody.
Media tie-ups are big in Japan. Although audiences of TV broadcast are often said to be declining, it still plays big part of the musical discovery process. Research by the Japanese record association shows that in 2016, 24% of respondents listen to music through TV and 21.6% from radio. (YouTube and CD and musical media are larger, but I will cover this other places in this article.)
If you see ORICON ranking, it is very evident. For example, ranking from May 2017, only two items out of top 10 are free of tie-ups. Most others are used in songs used in the commercials (yes, commercial music matters in Japan) drama, or anime. (And those remaining two have had established their tie-ups elsewhere.)
So the shortcut of getting your music successfully launched in Japan is by getting your music used in one of those shows.
Sounds easy, right? Perhaps if you know some famous musical producer, maybe? Otherwise you will have to be very creative.
Essentially, many musicians start establishing their presence by luck; you have to be in right place at right time. If you are foreigner outside of Japan trying to establish identity this way, you are already of disadvantage, as your exposure will be minimum.
Shortcut 1: Be (Very) Successful in Your Country
If you already have some, industrial presence in your country, pursuing to be successful there is perhaps most realistic way. (If your goal is truly to be successful in Japanese industry) if you are successful in a country of your choice outside of Japan, then perhaps Japanese music industry will take a notice on your work. The catch is that you will have to be very successful.
Shortcut 2: Establishing Digital Presence Yourself (And Cater to Your Audiences!)
If you are still not well established outside of Japan, and you want to get some presence in Japan, another way to go direct approach.
There are pretty decent presence in Japan for a streaming media in Japan, such as YouTube and Niconico. Previously mentioned year 2016 research by Japanese record association reveals that 42.7% of respondents listen to music on YouTube. (12.1% on Niconico) so there are audiences.
Since pure musical presence on YouTube is big, if you are to get some exposure, YouTube would be excellent medium to get you noticed.
Japanese people use Niconico differently; it’s commenting feature is very different from YouTube’s and hence, more listener interaction is active in Japan. Particularly, covers, experimental songs, and other performances are more prominent in Niconico.
There are many cases independent artists experienced major debut this way, particularly through providing music to anime. Kenichi Maeyamada, and ZAQ and others for example. Example of Kenichi Maeyamada is notable for the fact he is now performing compositions for well-known singers.
Vocaloids and YouTube/Niconico
One aspect of Niconico is that there are major prominence of using Vocaloid in YouTube and Niconico. If you are making vocal song, you may want consider taking advantage of this medium. (Especially if you are more about showing off your musical work than vocal.)
There are many established industry presence this way, including 40mP, Hachiouji P, and many others.
What Really Matters
In any case, the most important aspect of getting big in Japan is to be able to communicate with potential listeners. You are already behind the mark if your music does not specifically cater to the audiences, and you will have to communicate your work and yourself, thus there’s matter of language barrier.
Unlike traditional media where it resolves around TV and radio, there is a big contrast to make. After all, you really don’t have to be very good artist to be successful in TV and radio; major idol groups like SMAP, and AKB48 (and some of their sister groups) aren’t really well known for their quality as a musical talent — some are actually notoriously known (and self-admissive, more or less) for their tone-deafness. Metrics such as ORICON, is really a reflection of that part of industry, and unfortunately, a lot of record labels look for that. Essentially on those mediums, you just have to look presentable and has quality other than what traditionally people will be looking for when they talk about musicians.
YouTube and Niconico are more strict in the quality of the work, as you will have to very good or they will simply hit that “next” button. In other word, it is a few if not sole variable listeners will be considering. You will certainly overwhelmed by sheer number of works on those media, too.
Import thing is how you measure success. Do you measure success in the fact record label signs a contract with you? Or is it merely recognitions you are looking for? That’s up to you to decide.