m-flo’s Taku Takahashi talks about Japan’s music scene, K-pop and that controversial tweet

by

Special To The Japan Times

Taku Takahashi wants you to know, he’s a positive person.

The producer and DJ, who is one half of the group m-flo, says that when he controversially tweeted “F*ck Jpop 2012″ three years ago, it was more of a plea for something new than old-fashioned Net rage.

“It was about the industry and the format,” Takahashi tells The Japan Times at the recent Waku Waku +NYC festival in New York. “When the term ‘J-pop’ was created, it was an alternative. People needed it in the 1990s to separate themselves from kayōkyoku (Japanese-style pop music). ‘J-pop’ had more of an American or European influence, so it needed a name — people like Tetsuya Komuro and Misia. But it’s not something different anymore … we call everything J-pop.

“A lot of people were offended by my tweet, but I didn’t mean to offend them. If I meet them face to face, I’ll apologize. I didn’t think it was going to blow up the way it did … I just wanted a challenge, for myself and the system.”

The system is something Takahashi knows about firsthand. He debuted with m-flo partner Verbal in 1998, and this August marked a decade since the release of m-flo’s first album to hit No. 1 on the charts, “Beat Space Nine.”

“The whole scheme is different,” Takahashi says when asked about how things have changed in the past 10 years. “Back in the day, the business model was based on how many CDs you sold. Japan is still the No. 1 CD-selling country in the world, but we’re dying slowly. Now people are using iTunes, renting CDs and listening on YouTube.”

While iTunes and YouTube are among the most common ways for teenagers to listen to music overseas, major Japanese labels often keep their artists offline for fear of piracy. Takahashi firmly believes the “conservative” industry in Japan has been slow to adapt to the new realities of the market.

“How can you buy Japanese music internationally?” he asks. “The labels should have been aware of how to sell things on iTunes earlier. We should’ve been going to conventions and meeting fans back when labels had more money. We didn’t look abroad like we should have because we were content with the domestic market since we were selling so many CDs.”

So, is money the issue?

“Money is the issue,” Takahashi replies. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we need to do more internationally. We should be more Internet-friendly, we should have English translations (on websites). I’m able to connect with foreign fans and artists by speaking English, it allows you to see the outside world.

“The industry is in transition, figuring out how to operate with less money — we have to. Fifteen years ago, there was more space for something different and m-flo was fortunate to debut at that time. We wouldn’t have been signed if we debuted now; we’d probably be on a netlabel.”

When it comes to the current Japanese music scene, netlabels are something Takahashi sees some promise in. He thinks fans are “getting ready for something new” and points to the growing popularity of the do-it-yourself Internet labels and artists as proof there is opportunity for change.

“I love Seiho, I love tofubeats and I think they deserve more credit,” he says. “I wish more people inside and outside of Japan knew about them. Tofubeats’ management is great at buzz marketing via the Internet.”

Almost as a response to his own tweet, Takahashi launched Internet radio station Block.fm and began to contribute to the NHK English-language Japanese music show “J-Melo.”

“I feel it’s my duty to play people great new music,” he says.

Takahashi is even sympathetic toward the government’s “Cool Japan” initiative, a culture-focused promotional campaign that has drawn scorn from other domestic artists.

“They’re working hard, but they need someone with vision,” he says. “I’m sure they’re trying their best, but they’re not functioning — and the name is not cool.

“They should do something like Korea did, where the government invests in acts going overseas and then they take a percentage back. Japanese music needs to go abroad.”

Takahashi has never been shy about his admiration for the way K-pop has been able to break into foreign music markets.

“K-pop knew to expand overseas,” he says, “but they were forced to since they went bankrupt. But the Koreans are definitely better singers and dancers. They never really had much of an underground scene, but they are getting one now. I could never play drum and bass in Korea a few years ago, but now I play 30 minutes of it during my DJ sets there and people go crazy over it. I don’t listen to that much K-pop, but I go there like four times a year. I have a residency at a club in Busan.”

The idea of Koreans being better singers and dancers may sound controversial at first, but Takahashi thinks it has more to do with what Japanese music fans perceive as OK when it comes to listening to music.

“Japanese people can’t really tell if a singer is good or bad,” he says. “People in the U.S. say Jennifer Lopez can’t sing, but if she was a Japanese singer in Japan then people would think she was someone who can sing very well.”

This inability to differentiate between what’s good and not so good may come from a tendency in Japanese music journalism to shy away from criticizing people of importance. When the press doesn’t point out what’s bad, though, fans are less likely to realize what’s exceptional. When it comes to good Japanese singers, Takahashi believes strongly in a few.

“Hikaru Utada, Crystal Kay, Jasmine, Ai, Miliyah Kato … I also like Yui,” he says off the top of his head. “These women are inspired by Amerian R&B, but I don’t think that this influence is the sole reason (they are good). We don’t have a lot of good singers, I don’t think the industry is good at putting them out. We have a lot of great producers, though.”

Perhaps Takahashi will be adding m-flo to the list soon. He reveals during the conversation that he and Verbal will head back into the studio shortly to record a new album together. He doesn’t reveal too much, but when talking about music he admits a preference for ’90s genre Shibuya-kei.

As a producer and DJ, Takahashi has been gaining a reputation for promoting EDM (electronic dance music) in Japan. He thinks the club scene was in a bit of a mess, especially after police began cracking down on club owners due to so-called antidancing laws. But EDM has been able to attract new music fans through the success of events like Electrox and Ultra.

“I love EDM and will continue to work in it, but now I think Japan is ready to move on to something different,” he says. “Things have gotten samey since so much of the production is computer-based. I’ve moved on to more sampling now, and I listen to a lot of Pizzicato Five these days — I’m very into Shibuya-kei now.”

He also mentions a recent remix he did for the band Shiggy Jr. The “Ghost Party” single featured a version called “Taku’s Future JPop Remix” and Takahashi says his aim was to inject something new and different into the band’s work.

“I think what is being made is something new to both people inside and outside of Japan,” he says. “It’s something like Shibuya-kei, so maybe it’s not new to older people.”

So will we see m-flo doing a Shibuya-kei album in the future? It may be too early to tell, but with all he has learned we can at least count on Takahashi doing his damndest to bring Japanese music further into overseas markets.

“Technology has changed music a lot,” he says. “We went from vinyl to CDs to downloads to streaming. It’s changed the creation of it, too. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that people love music.”

For more information on Taku Takahashi, find him on Twitter at @takudj or visit www.m-flo.com. Tune into Block.fm at www.block.fm.

  • Yoreruu

    Great interview!! I’m glad someone is bringing back that discussion and it’s a big name too!
    Is it okay if I translate it to portuguese and link you guys back? Please contact me if it’s not so. This is all really informative and I want it to reach more people.

    • Jean Muse

      last week I bought a brand new McLaren F1 after making $19427 this-past/4 weeks and-over, 18-k this past-munth . this is actually the coolest work I have ever had . I began this 3 months ago and straight away started making a cool at least $97 per-hour . Learn More At
      ..sv.
      >➤➤➤➤➤➤ http://www.GooglesMoney11.Tk

      !!#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#!!.

    • Jean Muse

      last week I bought a brand new McLaren F1 after making $19427 this-past/4 weeks and-over, 18-k this past-munth . this is actually the coolest work I have ever had . I began this 3 months ago and straight away started making a cool at least $97 per-hour . Learn More At
      ..sv.
      >➤➤➤➤➤➤ http://www.GooglesMoney11.Tk

      !!#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#=#!!.

  • wrle

    He is very incorrect though when he says implies the korean government was somehow the driving force behind kpops international popularity of Kpop. It was because of the strategies implemented by korean music labels such a foraying into the japanese market and fully utilizing the internet to draw a large fan base.

    I understand comparing to your neighbor is a natural thing but kpop and jpop are essentially different and Japan just needs to further develop their own strategy with what they already have.

    • http://soundofjapan.hu/ Case

      JPop and KPop are indeed different in many ways, but the comparison is understandable because if you look at KPop’s history, actually they took a lot of things straight from Japan… especially from Johnny’s, which is obviously the model for their trainee system and they also push their artists to every corner of the entertainment industry, including acting, tv show hosting and all that, just like they’ve been doing it in Japan for decades now. What’s really interesting is what the Korean agencies did with their scene on an international level after they took their basic lessons from the JPop industry.

    • http://soundofjapan.hu/ Case

      JPop and KPop are indeed different in many ways, but the comparison is understandable because if you look at KPop’s history, actually they took a lot of things straight from Japan… especially from Johnny’s, which is obviously the model for their trainee system and they also push their artists to every corner of the entertainment industry, including acting, tv show hosting and all that, just like they’ve been doing it in Japan for decades now. What’s really interesting is what the Korean agencies did with their scene on an international level after they took their basic lessons from the JPop industry.

      • Brion Valkerion

        Yeah the korean scene is really interesting. A lot of the top producers and artists are from abroad and moved there to make money in the 90s (hence a lot of the sounds you hear.) Like you pointed out they took the trainee system to the next level and… actual talent. Taking people who have never sung a note or danced a step, having them train for 2 years and debuting them to stardom is nuts.

        But I completely understand what the m-flo guy is saying. There is more interest in making a image that sells these days over music that is quality in terms of vocals, dancing, and what not hence the million idol girl groups trying to be the next AKB. Speaking of, coming back to AKB after like 2 years of not really following it their stuff sounds so obviously edited by a computer, even more than before. Johnny’s groups all sound exactly the same too, SMAP sounds exactly like Arashi, Kanjani, Sexy Zone, and w/e 12 year old trainee group.

        Japan definitely stagnated into safe zones for music the past 10 years but hopefully it will get more interesting soon.

      • http://soundofjapan.hu/ Case

        Actually there are a lot of interesting and exciting things going on, but they mostly remains more or less underground. The mainstream acts / companies usually prefers to stay in its little safety zone.
        There is hope tho… EXILE and its related acts (3JSB and such) are coming out with some really great stuff for example and they obviously care more about actual talent than JE ever did. And they are probably even more successful since they started to try out new thing than they were back when they hardly did anything beside run-of-the-mill RNB ballads.

      • wrle

        Contrary to the belief of some, the development of kpop and jpop idol music in particular is very different. One of the biggest differences is infact the training system you mention where korean idols undergo strenuous training and debut as a polished group and many of them fluently speak several languages and some members are foreigners and they release music in different languages as well. Sm has been doing this since the 90s. Evidently this is very different to japanese idol music. Kpop did not just come out of nowhere. There have been pop groups since the 80s and 90s which became the foundations to modern kpop groups and they were able to internationalize their music scene using the media and of course investment.

      • wrle

        Contrary to the belief of some, the development of kpop and jpop idol music in particular is very different. One of the biggest differences is infact the training system you mention where korean idols undergo strenuous training and debut as a polished group and many of them fluently speak several languages and some members are foreigners and they release music in different languages as well. Sm has been doing this since the 90s. Evidently this is very different to japanese idol music. Kpop did not just come out of nowhere. There have been pop groups since the 80s and 90s which became the foundations to modern kpop groups and they were able to internationalize their music scene using the media and of course investment.

      • https://instagram.com/mikedo2007/ mikedo2007

        “especially from Johnny’s, which is obviously the model for their trainee system and they also push their artists to every corner of the entertainment industry, including acting, tv show hosting and all that, just like they’ve been doing it in Japan for decades now. What’s really interesting is what the Korean agencies did with their scene on an international level after they took their basic lessons from the JPop industry.”

        Even if it’s true, the K-pop idol training get more attention and I’ve seen Asian idols from other part of Asia going to Korea and not Japan to get these training. Ironically, I don’t see J-pop idols going to South Korea to get these training.

      • http://soundofjapan.hu/ Case

        Why would the Japanese go there? Their local training system gets them ready for the local market and that’s all the management companies want obviously.

      • https://instagram.com/mikedo2007/ mikedo2007

        Because a lot of Asian idols are going to South Korea and not Japan if they want training and debuting back home. I wish I could link the video on this website but I don’t think it would pass moderation status. I’ll tell you what look this up on Youtube:

        Arirang News-K-pop exports training to China’s music industry

        Arirang Special – M60Ep248C05 Success stories of Rainbowbridge Agency in training foreign singers

        As you can see those local idols from other part of Asia go to South Korea to get these training and they go back home and debut and they somehow get a lot of audiences back home. I always thought J-pop could benefit from these training. As I said, J-pop idols don’t go to South Korea to get these additional training which could improve their performance and singing.

    • Brion Valkerion

      Actually the korean government does push k-pop. They saw the boom internationally and use it as part of their tourism and work promotions. Sure the labels were the first to notice, but the government now supports it and encourages it. If you go visit or plan a trip you get a ton of information about concerts and what not. Korea saw how popular their media was and are using it to promote themselves.

      Japan should have done it 15 years ago when the anime boom started, instead they just coasted on the interest and let all that money float away. There is a reason a lot of japanese music fans are also korean music fans, or were former japanese music fans.

  • mee-KE-le

    “How can you buy Japanese music internationally?” he asks. “The labels should have been aware of how to sell things on iTunes earlier. We should’ve been going to conventions and meeting fans back when labels had more money. We didn’t look abroad like we should have because we were content with the domestic market since we were selling so many CDs.”

    This is the sad truth. Now that they NEED an international audience, most labels don’t have enough money to actually go for it.
    Fox example. I’d really love to see Kato Miliyah doing international activities, but her label (Sony) doesn’t even release her music on iTunes (internationally) and her videos are blocked on youtube.
    A lot needs to change in the J-Pop industry. They have the talents, but they need someone with a vision. Taku is absolutely right on this.

    • Brion Valkerion

      Yup. They should have struck when the interest was burning hot during the early/mid 2000’s. Amazes me to see Taeyeon (girls generation) can have her first solo mini album hit top 10 in the world and number 1 in hundreds of markets… yet I still can’t get some basic j-pop stuff these days without ordering a $45 cd and importing it.

      Same with Youtube, k-pop pushed all these markets and J-pop still lags behind for no reason. Inconsistent upload times, putting music videos up 3 months after their run on tv and what not kills me. So many easy solutions that k-pop did to get on top, translating everything, music, shows, interviews… j-pop can’t be assed to do it unless the artist does it themselves. Really frustrating to be a fan of Japanese music.

      • http://sayonarababy.tumblr.com/ Ronald

        It comes down to either the artists doing it or the fans.

      • https://instagram.com/mikedo2007/ mikedo2007

        I had a talked on Onehallyu about why K-pop fans don’t try J-pop and the problem is accessibility. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s govt has set up plans to globalize Taiwanese pop, and this shouldn’t surprise you. look up Taiwanese Wave on Wikipedia, I think Taiwan can replicate it’s own Korean Wave. On Dramafever and Viki, we’ve been getting a lot of Taiwanese dramas and not a lot of J-dramas. People on Dramafever have complain about the lack of J-dramas, and it doesn’t help that J-dramas are not getting Spanish dub for Latin/South American audiences when Korean and Taiwanese dramas are getting dub in Spanish. Not even 1 liter of Tears got a Spanish dub and that J-drama was popular in Asia.

    • https://instagram.com/mikedo2007/ mikedo2007

      That’s the problem, that’s why Gackt blasted Cool Japan and there is a CNBC article that talked about how Japan govt and companies decide which part of Japan is cool.

  • starlightshimmers

    “Japanese people can’t really tell if a singer is good or bad.” Newsflash, a lot of people in the West don’t know what’s a good singer either, why do you think Jennifer Lopez is so popular?