One Direction takes the J-pop path to success

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

By the group’s standards, it was a low-key finale. When One Direction completed its eight-month Take Me Home Tour at the second of two Makuhari Messe shows last Sunday in Chiba, it was in front of a relatively compact audience of 12,000 Japanese fans, whose adoration seemed good-humored rather than hysterical. If you’d read reports from earlier gigs, it was almost anticlimactic: where were the onstage pie-fights, the tampon throwing, the teenage girls so overcome with hormonal lust that, as GQ magazine put it, they were “turning themselves inside out, some almost literally”?

But of course, this is Japan. When The Beatles made their epochal trip here in 1966, the Nippon Budokan auditorium was reportedly so quiet that, for the first time in years, the band could actually hear themselves play. Were it not for some distracting earpiece malfunctions on their final Tokyo date, One Direction’s five members might have experienced something similar. To artists accustomed to performing amid a squall of shrieking adolescence, it was probably mildly disconcerting. To veteran industry watchers, though, the scenes at Makuhari Messe were remarkable.

Given that the British-Irish quintet is already playing arenas from Melbourne to Mexico City, the fact that One Direction has conquered Japan might not seem all that surprising. Yet the music market here is a prickly beast, one whose belly needs to be tickled in a certain way if you want to get results. For every Backstreet Boys or Lady Gaga, there’s a clutch of acts whose international success has been met with widespread indifference here: just ask Adele, Beyoncé, Kanye West or even Justin Bieber.

One Direction might have met a similar fate. “Up All Night” became the first debut album by a British artist to enter the U.S. Billboard charts at No. 1 when it was released there in March 2012, but a Japanese edition of the record wouldn’t come out until August. “We launched very slow, a kind of soft launch,” admits Akiko Ozawa, vice president of Sony Music Entertainment’s strategic marketing division in Japan. “It was totally behind, marketing-wise and promotion-wise. The market hadn’t matured enough.”

If you want to pinpoint the moment at which One Direction went from being just another Western pop import, it was their trip here last January. Arriving for a three-day blitz of fan events and media appearances, the group touched down at Narita Airport wearing red happi coats, consciously aping the outfits sported by The Beatles in 1966. By the time they left, TV shows and magazines nationwide were chattering excitedly about these dishy youngsters, and their just-announced Japan tour.

Local label Sony Music Japan was by now better positioned to help the group penetrate impressionable young hearts. Official Japanese Facebook and Twitter accounts were set up in May last year, translating the members’ social media outpourings for the benefit of local fans (the @1D_OfficialJP account recently surpassed 300,000 followers). When sophomore album “Take Me Home” came out last November, the Japanese edition was released simultaneously, and the record has since shifted 450,000 copies. But perhaps the biggest innovation was to give One Direction something that’s standard issue for J-pop acts: a fan club.

Established in January, One Direction Club Japan is the group’s only official fan club — anywhere. Members pay just under ¥5,000 to sign up for a year’s enrollment, which includes first dibs on concert tickets, the opportunity to buy fan-only merchandise, and access to a website featuring messages from the group. Sony declined to reveal the exact number of people who’d joined, so I signed up myself to get a figure: as of Oct. 29, it was 59,448.

For all the advances in social media, clubs like this are still an integral part of J-pop fandom. “It makes a lot of sense for international artists,” Ozawa says. “International artists are only in the market a couple of days out of the year — if that — so it’s difficult (for fans) to have a connection. If you have a Japanese-style fan club that’s official, that’s directly connected to the artists, and it’s paid, and it’s exclusive … Japanese fans are familiar with that model from domestic artists, and it gives them a special connection.”

There have been other local touches, too. You can buy Japanese translations of the group’s official annuals, the latest of which was released just last weekend, while there’s an “English with One Direction” educational DVD due later in the month. The panoply of official merchandise available online — ranging from duvet covers to a One Direction perfume — has been supplemented with a few products more attuned to local tastes. These include Japan-only lapel pins, towels and tote bags — and, if you’re a fan club member, Hello Kitty products depicting the band in feline form.

In the future, Ozawa says, we’ll probably see more Western artists “putting out things that are targeted to Japanese fans in a more direct way.

“(Artists) think that the Japanese market is just big, but it’s not true — it’s big and different. Only artists who realize that difference can find success here.”

The upshot of all this tinkering is that One Direction’s Japanese fanbase isn’t just bigger than for many comparable acts: it’s also broader. One of the idiosyncrasies of Japan’s music market is that even international pop that’s aimed at teenagers generally ends up finding an older audience. With the obvious exception of Korean groups such as TVXQ and Girls’ Generation, who maintain parallel identities as localized J-pop acts, it’s unusual for overseas pop artists to develop widespread followings among high school or junior high students.

On first glance, One Direction seems to be managing it. At the band’s Chiba show, the majority of the audience appeared to be of university age and younger, and overwhelmingly female.

Nobody wants to go on the record dissing another label’s act, but it’s clear who the point of reference is. Justin Bieber was an immediate forerunner for One Direction, garnering obsessive fans and a 46 million-strong Twitter audience via the kind of clean-cut, desexualized pop that you could take home to your parents. Yet despite repeatedly proclaiming his love for the country, the Canadian singer hasn’t managed to court Japan as effectively. While One Direction’s two 12,000-capacity shows sold out immediately, there were still tickets available at the door when Bieber played a single, 15,000-capacity concert at Saitama Super Arena last month.

Even Creativeman, the promoter for both gigs, seemed surprised by the demand for One Direction. “I believe the response was much greater than anyone expected,” says Creativeman’s Yoshinari Hirayama.

Such surprises may be in shorter supply from now on. Coming so soon after their Japan trip, One Direction’s third album, “Midnight Memories,” looks guaranteed to top previous sales records when it’s released here Nov. 27. BusinessWeek has projected that the group’s total worth could exceed $1 billion in 2014, as they graduate from playing arenas to stadiums. But will the bubble burst after that? And when it does, will Japanese fans extend the same courtesy given to the Backstreet Boys, and carry on loving them anyway?

“Midnight Memories” is scheduled to be released in Japan on Nov. 27. For details about One Direction’s 2014 stadium tour, visit www.onebigannouncement.com. For more information on the band, visit www.onedirectionmusic.com.