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Where dreams come true

by Steve McClure

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Right? That was certainly true of the various losers and sociopaths who “taught” me when I was in school. But this hoary old adage doesn’t apply to a showbiz school recently launched by leading Japanese record label Avex.

Avex President Ryuhei Chiba, Chairman Tom Yoda and Yoshihito Aoki, general manager of the new Avex Artist Academy

Most of the teaching staff at Avex Artist Academy are musicbiz professionals supplementing their day jobs with part-time teaching gigs. The school opened Oct. 1 in a building near Takeshita-dori in Harajuku, which is about as close to the heart of Japanese youth culture as you can get.

The idea behind the school, explains Avex Chairman Tom Yoda, is to expand the pool of talent from which the record company draws its artists and staff. The label gets loads of demos from amateur artists and resumes from people interested in working for Avex as office or studio staff. But aside from these self-starters, Yoda felt, there were likely to be a lot of young people who could use some guidance and encouragement before plunging headfirst into the shark-infested waters of the music business.

His intuition seems to have been right on the money. Some 10,000 young people from all over Japan applied to get into AAA. Just 1,000 were accepted.

A wide range of courses are available in four general categories: Vocal (voice training); Creator (including music composition and lyric-writing); Dance (including freestyle, jazz and hip-hop, among other styles); and Music Business (copyright law, artist management, promotion, music production, etc.). Students can sign on for six-month or one-year courses.

Avex is the first Japanese record label to launch a talent school on this scale. But there is a precedent for this kind of thing: Back in the 1960s, Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown label, made his artists study things such as dress and deportment so they would make a better impression when introduced to the media and the public.

Yoda shows the same kind of paternalistic concern about his young charges. “Today’s young people don’t know how to speak,” he says bluntly.

Which raises an interesting question: How can you teach things like self-assertiveness and creativity? Some might say that you either have those skills, or you don’t. And when it comes to specific skills like songwriting or music production, some of the biggest names in those fields have been largely self-taught, or have worked their way up from the bottom, either alone or by apprenticing themselves to big names.

As far as I’m concerned, the Japanese music business and Japanese society in general could use a lot more of that get-up-and-go spirit. I teach a class at a music-industry vocational school in Tokyo, and I can’t believe how passive many of my students are. The thing they have to realize is that their sensei isn’t going to plot out their career paths for them; They’ve got to show at least some initiative.

Having said that, it’s true that the music business is a lot more complicated than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago. Increasingly complex recording technologies, digital rights management (especially with online delivery of music) and a myriad of legal issues mean that anyone thinking of a music career had better do their homework if they want to succeed.

And on the performance side, as the quality of J-pop continues to improve steadily, artists are going to need better vocal and dance skills. I suppose there will always be idol groups trading on their gormless, cutesy charm, but I think the music-buying public is soon going to get terminally tired of being subjected to such trash (wishful thinking on my part?).

AAA General Manager Yoshihito Aoki says that most of the students who’ve enrolled at the school are interested in the kind of dance-oriented J-pop in which Avex specializes. That’s hardly surprising, since Avex is one of the Japanese music industry’s most spectacular success stories, starting out as a small import operation back in 1988 and steadily growing to become one of Japan’s top-five record companies.

It’s natural to expect Avex to hire the cream of AAA’s graduates as artists, producers or backroom staff, but Yoda says there’s nothing to prevent AAA grads from getting jobs with other music companies. That’s smart long-range thinking on Yoda’s part; in this way, Avex will build up a strong network in the Japanese entertainment world, boost its prestige and finally convince some of showbiz’s stodgier elements that the upstart label has definitely arrived.