The nations that make it easier for bands to leap overseas

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

At the end of last November, a flock of Canadians descended on concert venue Duo Music Exchange in Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya district. It wasn’t an attack of any sort; the Canuck invasion was only peppered with spirited calls to “Clap with us!”

The event was called “Canadian Blast,” a showcase of Canadian artists hoping to break into the Japanese market. It was organized by the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), which is financed by various public and private organizations and partly funded by the government. The bands played to a smattering of fans and a hefty number of music industry bigwigs who were on the lookout for that “next big thing” from overseas.

For the bands, it was an opportunity to get a foot in the door of the Japanese market and to help boost album sales here, something that would also help their profile back home. For Canada, the success of one of its bands in Japan could encourage interest in other Canadian acts, and such “soft power” of cultural exchange could have knock-on effects for tourism and trade.

CIMA President Stuart Johnston says the Canadian music industry and the authorities have had a lot of success working together. When the organization brought a group of Canadian acts and music executives to Tokyo in 2008, some 170 business meetings took place, generating C$3 million dollars (around ¥2.5 million at the time) of business, according to Johnston.

Johnston says CIMA has multiple layers of funding that contribute to its annual revenue of C$292 million, and 8 percent of that revenue comes from the public sector, which includes the federal and provincial governments as well as a public radio station.

“(The money from the public sector) is instrumental to help cash flow, to help create artist promotions and this tour,” he says, adding that CIMA conducted 36 such events in 18 countries in 2011 and 27 events in 15 countries in 2012.

“We are still targeting key markets — Britain, Europe, the United States, Canada, of course, and South Asia and Japan,” he says. “We are a country of 34 million, and we, like many industries this size, cannot survive on the domestic market alone. We have to export in order to survive.”

Johnston also notes that when Canadian artists are successful in the United States, Europe or Japan, it translates into higher sales domestically. Given these knock-on effects, he says it’s worthwhile to spend millions of dollars to promote musicians overseas.

“It is expensive, but this is an investment,” he says. “Our government recognizes this, and from our previous mission to Japan and missions in the other parts of the world, there were returns from the investment that are greater than what the public dollars were.”

Canada is not the only country that helps financially support local artists who want to sell their music overseas. In Australia, the government has donated money to home-grown jazz acts to help them perform in Tokyo for the last several years.

Ciaran Chestnutt of the Australian Embassy in Tokyo says the embassy’s main project for promoting Australian music in Japan is getting the bands and artists to participate in the Tokyo Jazz Festival (TJF).

“Part of our general strategies is to find genres in which Australia excels,” Chestnutt says. “Jazz is one of those genres. Australia produces very unique and high quality forms of jazz. So we’ve been participating in the Tokyo Jazz Festival since 2006, and bringing up at least one or sometimes two Australian acts each year. The festival gives them very big exposure to Japanese audiences.”

The Australian government directly funds jazz musicians who join TJF, Chestnutt says. For the 2012 auditions to select the musicians who would join TJF in September, there were some 100 entrants, he says, adding that the judges met in Tokyo to listen to audition performances submitted via the Internet.

“It was a very hard choice, actually. I was the least experienced on the panel. Others included the manager of the Cotton Club, some critics, the editor in chief of the magazine Jazz Japan, (and people from) the DIY record label and (co-organizer) NHK Enterprises,” says Chestnutt, who points out what a great experience it was for 19-year-old vocalist Steven Rossitto, an audition-winner who was able to play at Tokyo’s popular Cotton Club jazz venue.

However, Chestnutt also notes that the goal behind Australia’s strategy of financial support is not so much the promotion of an individual band, but building links between the country’s musicians and promoters, and between Japanese record companies, critics and venue operators.

While Canadian and Australian efforts represent just two campaigns among many being employed by countries trying to boost their cultural assets overseas, there are also cases of collaboration among regions. Since 2011, Music Export Finland (now Music Finland), Export Music Sweden, Music Export Norway, Music Export Denmark and Iceland Music Export all work together as the Nordic Music Export Programme (NOMEX) to put on an annual Hokuo Music Night concert with Japanese touring agency Creativeman (“hokuo” is Japanese for “Nordic”). The mini-festival is similar in setup to Canadian Blast, with last year’s event featuring four acts from the Nordic region.

According to Sami Haikio of Music Finland, the participating countries’ embassies cover part of the cost of Hokuo Music Night, namely the reception that precedes the concerts. The actual production and marketing costs of the live show are funded by the income from tickets. In Finland’s case, Music Finland has also contributed to some of the travel costs for its country’s artists. Haikio says that the Icelandic Music Export office and the Embassy of Iceland covered not only the travel costs for the Icelandic artists but also other expenses related to Iceland’s participation in the event last year, while Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs funded the travel costs for its musicians through programs administered by Music Norway.

After its performance at the concert, Swedish representative Lo-Fi Fnk was offered invites back to Japan, as well as a record-distribution deal with one of the major Japanese labels. Finnish act Husky Rescue also found a Japanese partner to cooperate with for its upcoming release.

“More than that, all the companies and the artists made a lot of new contacts in the Japanese music industry — record labels, music publishers, media and so on,” Haikio says. “It was very fruitful for the whole Nordic music industry to showcase in Japan as one and bring all the connections together.”

Historically, Japan has never felt the need to expand its market overseas. It’s the second-biggest music market in the world, so it’s natural that other countries would want to get a foot in the door here. That market, however, is shrinking, and Japan’s music industry was recently reminded of its inward-looking rut when Korean pop artist Psy demonstrated the clear benefits of breaking overseas. Unlike other countries, however, Japan still hasn’t set up institutions to help artists go abroad, something independent and smaller acts need.

Though the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industries (METI) is currently sponsoring the “Cool Japan” campaign to spread Japanese culture around the world, the project mostly focuses on anime and traditional Japanese culture. In the music field, there is some cash going toward a Vocaloid project aimed at overseas audiences, and since 2007, METI has also been financing the Tokyo International Music Market, the ninth edition of which happened in October. Though METI representative Takahiro Mochizuki will not disclose exactly how much the ministry pays, he says the money goes toward management costs and venue rentals. At that event, 17 Japanese acts played before an audience of Japanese and (around 100) overseas buyers.

Mochizuki says the events have been deemed successful but the results haven’t been too visible. However, he points out that one all-female idol group found some success in 2011.

“Momoiro Clover Z performed at Tokyo International Music Market in 2011,” he says. “The group is known for upbeat tunes, eccentric choreography and the members’ costumes. It attracted the attention of organizers of Japan Expo in France, so Japan Expo invited the group to perform there in July 2012, which helped gain it some popularity with the French audience there.”

Mochizuki says he and other officials consider it an effective strategy to use anime to promote music by having tracks used as theme songs, explaining that the costs associated with doing so are also low.

“I believe the approach of promoting music with other kinds of content is important,” he says, explaining that this is a part of the “Cool Japan” strategy the ministry is highlighting. “If the music becomes popular via other means in a foreign country, it should sell itself and musicians would be able to hold concerts there. At the concert venue, local fans could then buy the CDs of the musicians’ work.”

This approach, however, could only work if the band is able to get its music onto an anime soundtrack, has the financial means to go to the country that the anime and their music has managed to gain some fans in, and can liaise well enough with venue owners to put on a show impressive enough to encourage attendees to buy CDs. In other words, it would be a difficult option for smaller acts, many of which also face strong competition from bands producing similar styles of music in other countries.

Returning to Canada, there are plenty of programs that award money to up-and-coming artists to help them put themselves on equal ground with competition funded by major record labels. One such program is MuchFACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent), which assists bands in creating music videos. Some bands become successful, some don’t, but it is the market that decides their success, and they don’t pin their hopes on the efforts of one “Cool Japan”-esque campaign.

Another opportunity for independent acts to promote their music overseas is at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas (which this year will be held from March 8-17). The showcase even has a Japan-focused event called Japan Nite, for which seven bands are performing this year. Those musicians, however, need to pay all of their own traveling and accommodation costs.

This year, Toronto showcase Canadian Music Week will hold an event called Spotlight on Japan in which eight Japanese bands are set to perform. And, again, those acts will have to pay the traveling costs. According to Canadian Music Week President Neil Dixon, however, the musicians will benefit from access to a Music Summit Conference, which is valued at C$499 (¥46,500) and includes tips for performers on how to break into a market. It might seem a small gesture, but in the current climate every little bit helps.

  • XeonForge

    I used to work for the record industry and they are notorious for being slow on adapting new technology. Remember how everyone said the VHS would be the death of the movie industry lol. The reason you don’t hear more artists speak up is because they are bound by contracts!! Many of which I know are waiting for the day of expiration and they sever their relationship with the RIAA and go on their own. Not sure what Japan’s governing music body is but I doubt it is much better the RIAA.

    With the internet it’s a lot easier for artists to reach the consumer directly and get more of the money they deserve. That is what the RIAA truly fears, the internet itself. They fear it will decentralize the music industry. Which in all reality, the sooner that happens the better. According to a Japanese friend of mine. He admits he was a prisoner under his Japanese record label. They control everything we do and we have very little say in how and in what way our music reaches our fans.

    I recently spoke with him and he said now they sell far more through i-tunes then they had sold CD’s for an entire year lol. He is currently working on a US tour which their record label never allowed before. Another thing to consider is that most artists singed under a major label like SONY don’t have rights to their music. Most of the royalties that come from CD’s & concerts also go to everyone but the artists themselves. They receive very little of those royalties. Record Labels (or their supporters.)

    They continued to peddle the line that no artist could succeed without them or record anything better-sounding than a bedroom-made demo without an advance long after that position ceased to have any credibility. Shows you how little they know lol. They’ve undermined their stated role as a quality filter by releasing an awful lot of lowest-common denominator dross. Doing this at a time when people actually cared about music. Not to mention their are far better acts who didn’t get signed then ones that do.

    Finally, they’ve alienated many, many music fans by lobbying governments to pass draconian laws to stop the internet moving their fluff, rather than adapt their business models to fit the times. Had the major labels been more forward-thinking a decade ago, illicit file-sharing would not have become the problem it did, and iTunes wouldn’t have eaten their lunch. For an independent artist, the threshold of fan-base they need for their music to be economically viable is far smaller than the traditional record company setup.

    I know at least 2 artist friends who turned down record deals because they didn’t believe a record company could expand their audience enough to justify sharing earnings with them. They would be making less money than would be as independent artists. If artists like PSY can do it. There is no reason Japan can’t either which frankly has much better artists on average with a few exceptions. Although I have much less confidence in an industry which seems to be making all he wrong decisions.

    I am sure they all wished the internet never existed but it does. For that you either learn to adapt or you go down in flames. This might explain why so many Japanese artists aren’t available on i-tunes outside Japan. It certainly isn’t the artists as there are plenty which would like things to change.

    • Ai Zhealy

      Thank you for this comment, very insightful and interesting.

  • XeonForge

    It certainly isn’t the artists as there are plenty which would like things to change. With Japan’s new extreme downloading laws. It is having the opposite effect then the Japanese music industry probably intended. According to a recent statistical survey, however, since the law was passed, sales of music in Japan have continued to fall and consumers are actually showing less interest in music than ever before according to a recent Japan Today article. Livedoor News reported that the results of a consumer survey show that more than 68% of respondents spend “0 yen” on music in an average month; the highest the figure has been in almost 10 years.

    That goes for CD’s digital or otherwise. Most Japanese people I have spoken with have stooped purchasing music altogether. They say it just isn’t worth the hassle anymore. Is this what the industry wants? What good is it going to be for artists which want to expand overseas when there isn’t going to be an industry left if this trend continues. As one of my closest Japanese musician friends put it. “It’s shocking and humbling to see the support of our fans, but it’s also evidence of a new era of the fan/artist relationship.” “Why should a band pay thousands of dollars to middle-men?” Fans know what they like, and no matter how the labels whine about the death of music as a business.

    It’s obvious that people WILL pay to support the artists they believe in and that they WON’T pay if they aren’t sufficiently engaged. Is the industry dying? Is music unsustainable now that the masses can acquire it for free with little or no effort? From where I’m sitting, it’s hard to understand that argument. If anything PSY has proven is that success is no longer bound to recording contracts. If the industry (SONY, BMG, EMI, Universal) can’t find a way to fit into the relationship artists have with their fans. Then they will find themselves on the outside looking in and I can’t say I’ll miss them much. It’s an interesting time to be an indie musician. :)