Not many music-business executives compare themselves to Oda Nobunaga or Napoleon Bonaparte.

But Keiichi Ishizaka is not your average Japanese exec. He cites those two historical figures as role models as he begins his campaign to build up Warner Music Japan (WMJ) into one of the country’s top three record companies.

“I can be like Nobunaga or Napoleon by (harnessing) the power of our employees,” says Ishizaka, with no hint of false modesty.

Ishizaka, who has been chairman/CEO of WMJ since November, sees his mission as changing the mind-set of the label’s workforce by providing that kind of strong leadership.

“I’m 66, but I think I’m still powerful,” Ishizaka tells The Japan Times during an interview at his office in Tokyo’s central Aoyama district. “The important thing about rationalizing the company is making full use of my intellectual power. People say I’m a walking dictionary of music and the music business.” That statement is borne out by the sight of a Delaney and Bonnie boxed CD set on his desk.

Ishizaka has a reputation as one of the more colorful and outspoken characters in this country’s music industry. He proves this when asked what he thinks the greatest challenge facing the music business is.

“Illegal digital downloads,” Ishizaka replies, his voice rising. “We have to exterminate them.” I can only presume that he doesn’t mean the downloaders themselves.

Ishizaka’s picks for Japanese artists to watch


Special to The Japan Times

Pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and singer-songwriter Yu Takahashi are on Warner Music Japan Chairman/CEO Keiichi Ishizaka’s list of acts to watch in 2012.

Kyary, who initially gained attention as a fashion blogger, released her first single, the terribly catchy “PonPonPon,” in July. The accompanying music video — a surreal riff on Harajuku’s kawaisa (cute) and decora-pop culture — became a viral hit on YouTube.

Takahashi on the other hand is a more conventional artist with the kind of earnestly adenoidal voice and histrionic delivery that somehow always seems to strike a chord with a certain section of the Japanese music market.

Ishizaka cites Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ) data showing that while in 2010 there were nearly 440 million legal music downloads in Japan, there were nearly 10 times that number of illegal downloads.

“The RIAJ has been doing a superb job” in fighting illegal downloading, Ishizaka says, adding that he expects the local industry body’s efforts to result in harsher legislation to clamp down on music piracy. Ishizaka took a similar hardline stance during his 2007-10 term as RIAJ chairman. The association played a key role in supporting legislation that in 2009 made it illegal for private individuals in Japan to download copyrighted material uploaded without rights-holders’ permission.

WMJ is the third internationally affiliated record company for which Ishizaka has worked. He started his career in 1968 at Toshiba-EMI, where he was known as “Mr. Beatles” for his work in promoting the British band in Japan.

In 1994, Ishizaka surprised the music industry when he left Toshiba-EMI to head PolyGram’s local subsidiary, then very much an also-ran in the Japanese market. He made PolyGram (which later became Universal Music Japan) into one of the territory’s biggest labels, in large part by developing a strong roster of domestic acts such as female vocalist Ai and pop group Greeen.

By 2008, Universal had the biggest market share of any Japanese label, according to the RIAJ.

In November 2010, Ishizaka retired from Universal, although he continued serving as chairman of the RIAJ until last June. Everyone in the local music business assumed that Ishizaka would settle down to a comfortable retirement, reading history books while listening to his all-time favorite musician, Jeff Beck.

But his peers were thrown for a loop last fall when Warner Music Group announced that Ishizaka would become chairman/CEO of its Japanese subsidiary effective Nov. 1. He took over from Hirokazu Tanaka, who had been serving as the company’s acting CEO since the October 2010 suicide of President/CEO Takashi Yoshida. Ishizaka reports to Warner Music Asia-Pacific President Lachie Rutherford, who is based in Hong Kong.

“Lachie Rutherford asked me to join Warner Music,” says Ishizaka. “My purpose is very clear: We should make more hits. We should make more money. We should be more digital.” Ishizaka says he’s confident that the physical and digital music markets can co-exist.

Asked why Japan’s physical-music market is still relatively strong (unlike in the United States, where digital downloads now outsell CDs), Ishizaka goes back to the history books. In the year 701, he explains, the government set up the Gagakuryō (Music Bureau) to establish a unified “Japanese” style of music. That shows how seriously Japan takes music, Ishizaka says.

While Lawrence of Arabia had his “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” Ishizaka of Aoyama says the Japanese music market has its own five “pillars”:

1) Domestic pop idols and “hit pop,” including visual-kei

2) Japanese singer-songwriters

3) Enka

4) “Adult-oriented music” (e.g., Saori Yuki)

5) International pop music

Ishizaka says that WMJ currently has a strong presence in just two of those categories: Japanese singer-songwriters (such as female vocalist Superfly and male vocal duo Kobukuro) and international acts.

While domestic music comprises just over 80 percent of recorded-music sales in Japan, at WMJ its share is 70 percent. Ishizaka says he wants to increase that to at least 75 percent.

Rutherford, who follows the Japan market closely, says that instead of making an effort to ape AKB48’s success, or banking on yet another Korean girl group, WMJ will try to get on top of the next pop-music trend to outflank the opposition.

Dismissing this interviewer’s expressed disdain for AKB48’s quasi-pedophilic pop pabulum as a typical comment by an over-informed and superannuated music writer, Ishizaka says he’d sign the group — if the price was right.

“The AKB48 type of marketing is not appropriate for others kinds of acts,” he adds. Meanwhile, WMJ is looking at some 20 local acts and thinking of adding them to its roster.

Although recorded-music sales have steadily declined since the market peaked in 1998, Ishizaka is bullish about the state of the industry. He cites a healthy increase in music-DVD sales in 2011 (up 20 percent over 2010 in value terms, according to the RIAJ) as well as CD singles (up 15 percent in value terms last year). It’s worth noting, however, that those increases are largely due to the AKB48 phenomenon.

Another role model comes to Ishizaka’s mind. “I’d like to be like Doug Morris,” he says, citing the former Universal Music Group chairman/CEO’s success in building up Universal into the world’s top record company.

As for WMJ, “This is a very good company as far as the spirit of the company is concerned,” he says. “We are fighters.”

Steve McClure, formerly Billboard magazine’s Asia bureau chief, is executive editor of the online newsletter mccluremusic.com.

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