Japan’s biggest breakout musical act of 2017 wear polar bear masks. The duo AmPm debuted this past spring, cloaked in fuzzy headgear and withholding all biographical information. In just over six months, the pair have had their easy-breezy electronic music released via Dutch label Armada Music and performed to thousands in Indonesia, sharing the bill with pop heavyweights DNCE and NCT 127.
If you’ve never heard of them — or are wondering how you could miss two polar bears manning a set of decks — don’t worry too much: AmPm’s success can’t be seen on any traditional chart or even YouTube view counter.
Rather, the dance-pop duo’s success has played out almost entirely on the streaming service Spotify, pushed on by non-Japanese listeners. The group’s debut track, the mid-tempo “Best Part Of Us” featuring singer Michael Kaneko, broke a million plays within 10 days of hitting the industry-leading service. Subsequent songs have topped the million mark too, while Japanese articles focused on AmPm’s success note how more than 90 percent of plays for its songs come from abroad.
Internet buzz spurred on by international audiences has been key to several breakout acts in Japan over the past decade, such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal. Last year, cheetah-print fan Pikotaro became an online sensation thanks to his endearingly goofy “PPAP.” Yet all of these cases benefitted from a long-standing obsession with “weird Japan.” For the most part, all of the above racked up attention thanks to articles highlighting their wackiness, or by videos of popular Western YouTubers staring slack-jawed at their clips.
AmPm’s approach is the complete opposite. Despite the face garb, its songs on Spotify sport simple artwork that borders on basic. The duo has no music videos. The tracks, meanwhile, sound borderless, featuring tropical-tinged music reminiscent of Australian producer Flume. Guest vocalists such as Kaneko and Nao Kawamura sing in English and Japanese.
AmPm is the first Japanese act to unlock the secret of Spotify. Its songs match up with the kinds of contemporary musical trends that have proven popular on streaming services. As many Japanese reports have noted, the pair’s songs have landed on more than 20 playlists, Spotify’s calling card.
And they get sneaky too. Two of AmPm’s songs are covers of Hikaru Utada tracks, a megastar whose music can’t be found on streaming services. Anyone searching for some of her biggest hits are instead likely to come across AmPm’s bistro-ready versions, which helps give the duo extra exposure.
It’s a savvy move, and part of the reason AmPm’s music has spread, especially across Asia. They aren’t the only Japanese act benefitting from streaming — Kobe’s tofubeats saw one of his songs perform huge in Taiwan, helping lead to a tour of the country — but AmPm is the first to play the game the right way. The question now is whether this Spotify success can lead to something more.