|

The man with the plan

Getting Nippon Columbia back on track

by Steve McClure

Jack Matsumura is a man with a mission: to turn Nippon Columbia, Japan’s oldest label, into a profitable, hit-making record company once again.

Matsumura, who became president and CEO of Nippon Columbia on Oct. 2, certainly has his work cut out for him. The last time the label had anything like a hit act on its roster was with rock band The Yellow Monkey a decade or so ago.

Since then poor old Nippon Columbia — whose history goes all the way back to 1910, when it was established as Nippon Chikuon-kai — has lost its sense of direction and sunk further and further into a sea of red ink.

It’s a far cry from the label’s glory days, when, thanks to the extraordinary popularity of Hibari Misora, the late, great queen of enka, Nippon Columbia was Japan’s biggest record company.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” Matsumura says of his new job. “Nippon Columbia has a vast catalog, and it covers all demographics.”

True enough, but as one of my rather cynical colleagues puts it, “They can’t live off of the catalog of Hibari Misora forever.”

Matsumura is acutely aware that the key to Nippon Columbia’s future success is finding and developing new talent. One of the main reasons he was hired as president was his role in launching and developing the career of female vocalist Misia when he was an executive at BMG Japan (now BMG Funhouse).

Matsumura is one of that rare breed of Japanese music-biz executives with both solid musical and business backgrounds. Before joining CBS/Sony (where he worked prior to joining BMG), he was an active member of Japan’s extraordinarily creative early-’70s music scene and played bass with crucial ’70s Japanese rock outfit the Sadistic Mika Band.

Interestingly enough, Matsumura isn’t the first member of his family to serve as an executive at Nippon Columbia — his paternal grandfather, Takeshige, was a founding board member back in 1910.

It’s obvious that Matsumura is still a “music guy.” Our conversation soon turned to the incredibly lively Shimokitazawa music scene, in which he has a special interest, as he was born and raised in Shimo and still calls it home.

“I saw two guys playing guitars and singing in front of the Peacock store near the North Exit of Shimokitazawa Station the other day,” Matsumura says. “They were good, so I gave them my card and told them to send me a copy of their demo.” Nice to hear that at least some record company executives keep in touch with what’s happening on the street.

One act already on Nippon Columbia’s roster that Matsumura is confident can do better both in Japan and overseas is Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. TMGE are a great — and VERY LOUD — hard-rock band, but in the current J-pop climate, it’s hard to see how they could become as big as, say, L’Arc-en-Ciel without watering down their sound. But I agree with Matsumura that with the right kind of promotion (read “TV commercial tie-up deal”), the band could do much better saleswise.

More likely to appeal to a broad demographic is pop-rock band The Collectors, who recently formed their own label, Wonder Girl Records, within Nippon Columbia. Excerpts from the band’s new album, “Supersonic Sunrise” (out Feb. 1) can be heard online at columbia.jp/~collectors/ The band’s music is infectious, punchy power-pop and, with clever marketing, could sell very well indeed.

TMGE and The Collectors, along with now defunct pop-kitsch duo Pizzicato Five, were previously handled by Nippon Columbia subsidiary Heat Wave, which in contrast to its parent company, had a very hip, cutting-edge image. But it never made any money, and so Nippon Columbia pulled the plug on Heat Wave earlier this year.

Nippon Columbia’s mounting losses led majority shareholder Hitachi this May to sell the bulk of its stake in the record company to New York-based investment firm Ripplewood L.L.C., which named former BMG Entertainment CEO Strauss Zelnick chairman of the label and split off hardware division Denon as a separate company. Zelnick will work out of New York while Matsumura runs Nippon Columbia on a day-to-day basis here in Tokyo.

It was a major psychological shock for the Japanese music industry, analogous to Mitsubishi Estate Co.’s 1985 purchase of New York’s Rockefeller Center. Foreign companies have long been involved in the Japanese music industry, but it was unprecedented for a non-Japanese company to buy out one of the country’s most venerable labels.

The problems that Nippon Columbia faces — a bloated payroll, a sclerotic corporate culture and an inability to sign hit-making acts — are shared by other long-established Japanese record companies. Matsumura knows that the best way to put Nippon Columbia back on a firm footing is to forge strong links with Japan’s powerful music-production companies, which know how to develop and package mega-selling acts like Morning Musume, SMAP and Ayumi Hamasaki, to cite a few obvious examples.

One thing I’d like to see Nippon Columbia do is try to repackage veteran acts, such as ’60s belter Mieko Hirota (who’s still signed to the label), to give them a more contemporary feel. The template for this kind of makeover is Tina Turner, and it sure worked for her. Maybe Matsumura should try re-forming the Sadistics and sign them to Nippon Columbia.