Hostess exists rather happily on the edge

by Steve McClure

Special To The Japan Times

With international repertoire’s share of the music market down to about 15 percent, it has never been harder to break foreign acts in Japan. And given the shrinking market for non-Japanese music, it seems quixotic to set up a company specializing in bringing foreign repertoire into the country — especially if the company in question is run by a non-Japanese.

Against those odds, transplanted Briton Andrew “Plug” Lazonby, has carved out a niche for his company, Hostess Entertainment, here in Japan. Hostess’ forte is to spot acts that have got what it takes to make it in Japan and sign them before local labels catch wind of them.

Hostess — which Lazonby describes as a “local-services company,” as opposed to a traditional label — has signed Franz Fedinand, the Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead, Moby and several other foreign acts for Japan. Labels with which the company has licensing deals include the Beggars Group (4AD/XL/Matador/Rough Trade), Domino, V2/Co-op, Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar, PIAS and Fat Possum.

Although Tokyo-based Hostess has a distribution deal for Japan with Sony Music Entertainment, Lazonby sees his company as an outsider in Japan’s often stuffy, hidebound music business.

“I don’t believe we have really broken into the industry,” he says. “We exist somewhere around the edge of it, happily.”

Lazonby founded Hostess in 2000 after moving to Japan from his native Britain, where he’d been a classical percussionist.

While working for a local music publisher, Lazonby began to get enquiries from British acts and labels seeking licensing deals in Japan, but with more control over how their product was marketed.

The erstwhile percussionist then decided to march to a different drummer by setting up Hostess.

“We were asked by a friend, Matthew Herbert, to help him promote his 2000 album release ‘Indoor Fireworks’ in Japan, and act on his behalf,” Lazonby recalls. “Going into it with plenty of ideas and beliefs on how music should reach people but without much of a clue as to how to realize such ideas, we mistaked our way through the early days, learning as we went along.”

Since then, Hostess has become a player to be reckoned with in the Japanese industry, often beating out major local labels in signing up-and-coming overseas acts — and ruffling a few feathers in the process.

“We’re in a space where it’s hard for the larger companies to focus on, the un-sexy zone, if you like,” Lazonby says. “That’s also where the best new music is.”

One of the company’s biggest recent coups came in May when it reached a deal with Domino Records to release Franz Ferdinand’s fourth album, “Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action,” in Japan and the rest of Asia. The band previously had a deal with Sony for its releases in the region.

Hostess’ approach is to create “the same feeling and buzz” in Japan for foreign acts as in their home country, Lazonby says. He claims Hostess has developed a business model that “puts artists and audiences first and … values musical integrity and long-term development above anything else.”

“We re-invest heavily in the markets in that continuing quest to create a stronger bond between people and music, and to encourage the people to explore and invest in that music, at their own pace.”

Some people have wondered how Hostess can afford to hold three two-day Hostess Club Weekender (HCW) festivals a year.

“It was more a question of what’s going to happen if we don’t do this,” is Lazonby’s characteristically contrarian answer to that question. “HCW has many small tweaks to standard live business procedure that have enabled a heightened sense of involvement/ownership for the audiences attending, which in turn provides an enhanced atmosphere and platform encourage the best out of the artists.”

Lazonby sees weak foreign music sales in Japan as a reflection of the overall malaise affecting the country’s music industry.

“It is no surprise normal people are giving up exploring and investing in music,” he says. “We’ve forgotten the value of emotion in music, and we’ve brushed under the carpet the concept of engagement with music.”

Lazonby says Hostess’ game plan is simple: “Stay on course. Keep our feet firmly on the ground as music fans so that we can continue to improve the process of getting and engaging with music for people who aren’t in the privileged position we are where we know what music is coming out and where/how to get it. Watch it grow.”

Hostess Club Weekender takes place at Yebisu Garden Hall in Meguro-ku, Tokyo, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. For more information, visit www.hostess.co.jp.