Last month, 500 members of the media gathered for the debut of singer BoA at the Roppongi club Velfarre.
Although it may seem that an unusually named pop idol is born in Japan every minute, this occasion was different. Engineered by a major Japanese label, this was the debut of a 14-year-old starlet from South Korea. BoA not only displayed impressive singing and dancing talents but admirable linguistic skills as well — she handled interviews in Korean, Japanese and English.
“Since she is trilingual, we will treat her the same way as the J-pop singers and promote her as an international artist,” said Tatsumi Yoda, chairman and CEO of record company Avex. A Japanese version of BoA’s debut single, “ID: Peace B,” which is already in the top 10 in South Korea, will be released locally in May, and Avex USA will release an English version in the States this month. Her first album, produced by a renowned hit-maker team, and a Japanese television commercial featuring the singer are also on the way.
Korean youth have long embraced J-pop — albeit not through the usual channels. Until last June, when Seoul softened its stance against Japanese cultural imports, fans could only find J-pop through the Internet, pirated CDs and satellite broadcasts. Still, the pop stars of Japan had a presence.
Now pop music is beginning to flow in the other direction. And unlike the Korean enka singers who enjoyed popularity here in the ’80s, this time around the imports are young and hip.
Avex recently drew up an alliance with S.M. Entertainment, a fast-growing Korean record label that manages prominent hip-hop and R&B artists, including BoA. Gradually the company plans to release S.M.’s catalog of established K-pop artists. Producing international talents such as BoA, however, will be a joint project in which both companies will share the artist’s licensing rights. They plan to launch similar projects with promising newcomers on an annual basis.
Toshiba EMI, another Japanese label, is pushing the singer/songwriter Lee-tzsche. Since her Japan debut in 1995, Lee-tzsche has contributed to a Japanese film soundtrack and a theme song for a Korean-language show currently on NHK. Her new album of “Asian healing music” will be released here this month.
Victor Entertainment, meanwhile, is currently promoting the dance music trio To-Ya, a unit that began appearing on local late-night TV shows before its debut in Korea this spring.
“Korea is ahead of us in some sectors, such as American-style dance music. There are a number of good artists who can sing and dance,” explained Yoda.
He also noted that, in light of the upcoming collaboration between Japan and South Korea in hosting the World Cup soccer championship, the time is ripe for the introduction of Korean pop culture into Japan.
Akiko Konishi of upstart Japanese magazine K-Popstar agrees, noting the recent success in Japan of Korean hit movies such as “Shuri.”
K-Popstar has tied up with Korea’s popular teen-idol magazine Music Life and features translated articles covering the latest developments on the K-pop scene. Its inaugural issue, published in January, features greetings from Korean pop stars to the Japanese audience.
The importance of this cultural exchange should not be discounted, but there is also a promising business angle here.
Seoul eased regulations last summer to allow Japanese musicians to hold concerts and release CDs of instrumental or non-Japanese-language songs in Korea. With the further easing of the ban to allow for singing in Japanese expected next year, the Japanese music industry sees considerable growth potential in the Korean market.
While Japanese record companies are building a rapport with their Korean counterparts, there are other ways that Japanese music has been making inroads into the Korean market. Production company Amuse last year founded Amuse Korea, which releases Korean music titles as well as periodic information on Korea’s music market and changing laws on Japanese imports.
Among its releases is “I Love You,” a selection of 10 Korean-language covers of Japanese hit songs by the Korean band Position. “Many artists here showed an interest in covering Japanese songs after the lifting of the ban,” said Amuse Korea’s president, Kim Yong Bum.
Listeners seem to have matched that interest: The album hit No. 1 on the Korean charts this past winter, and its title track has remained in the top 10 since February.
Meanwhile, other Japanese record companies, such as Victor Entertainment, Teichiku Entertainment, Japan Columbia and King Records have also set up branches within Amuse Korea to produce Japanese CDs in the near future, according to Yong Bum.
Avex will prime the Korean market by initially releasing instrumental versions of its artists and will eventually, once current law is amended, process Japanese-language songs through S.M. Entertainment.
Dealing with drawbacks
The current restriction on Japanese-language songs aside, Korean law holds a fundamental drawback to the licensing of original Japanese music to local distributors. Once a release is licensed to a Korean company, Yoda explained, Japanese companies lose all control over how their titles are distributed in the Korean market.
This is cause for concern. According to Yoda, currently more than half of the Japanese music available on the Korean market consists of pirated copies. If licensed Japanese CDs are pirated and/or sold in Korea below market price, there is nothing the Japanese industry can do. The Record Industry Association of Japan is now lobbying for laws to change that.
But these are still early days in the countries’ efforts to put their music on an equal footing. For now, a two-way exchange in the pop market is at least possible.