Music acts found new ways to get noticed in 2017, but nothing beats an established brand

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

The path to J-pop stardom used to be pretty simple: Align yourself with the right talent agency and label — they’ll do all the work.

That didn’t change much in 2017, but it also became clear that there are many paths to success. Old institutions remain important — and established artists still wield the most power — but this past year showed how messy and, at times, exciting the journey to the top can be.

Take the year’s biggest song, “Uchiage Hanabi” by Daoko and Kenshi Yonezu. Save for some EDM-appropriate percussion, it’s a rather standard ballad that serves as the theme song to the film “Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom?” and could’ve just as easily come out in 1997. But “Uchiage Hanabi” exploded online, easily outpacing the film it was made for, racking up more than 80 million plays on YouTube and leading the two artists behind it to pop up on weekly music shows and news programs.

It barely registered on the Oricon charts — its single and album rankings still lean primarily on physical sales. The organization introduced a digital chart this year but treats online plays, views and streams like a quirky addition rather than the go-to medium for discovering new music.

Journalists and analysts outside Japan have long zeroed in on the country’s continued infatuation with physical media formats such as the CD, but while still more prominent here than anywhere else on Earth, sales are slumping. During a presentation at this year’s Tokyo Dance Music Event, consulting company MusicAlly’s founding director Steve Mayall shared a report on digital music in Japan that gave hard data to something that has felt true over the past few years: The No. 1 platform for discovering new music in Japan nowadays is YouTube.

And alongside Daoko and Yonezu, some of the year’s biggest acts rose to prominence on YouTube. Acts like Wednesday Campanella and Mondo Grosso are signed to traditional labels but attracted the bulk of their attention via eye-catching videos. Young rock groups, from crusty-looking pop-punk trio Wanima to ghost-headed outfit Kami-sama, I Have Noticed, solidified their bases on the internet. Current clown prince of J-pop Taiiku Okazaki continued turning piss-takes into gold thanks to his funny music videos, while singer Chihiro Nakamura found her breakthrough with a number that pokes fun at Japanese dating parties from a woman’s perspective. Even 1980s singer Yoko Oginome’s bubble-era hit “Dancing Hero (Eat You Up)” enjoyed new life after an Osaka high school’s dance club used it in a performance that went viral online.

Those working just outside the traditional music industry fared even better. Singer-songwriter Heartbeat ended 2017 as a buzzed-about entity thanks to a theme song she wrote for the hyper-popular YouTube video gaming channel 2bro. The biggest double whammy, though, came courtesy of comedian Blouson Chiemi. Her “career woman” sketch aired on TV, before reappearing online in numerous uploads that spread it — and American pop star Austin Mahone’s 2015 track “Dirty Work,” which soundtracked the sketch — even further. She became a TV staple, while Mahone improbably ended up with the biggest English-language song of 2017 in Japan.

It’s important to note the role television played in Chiemi’s case. While all sorts of paths exist for attention, getting a broadcaster’s attention still feels like the end game. Just look at 2016’s biggest viral star, Pikotaro. He avoided vanishing into irrelevance over the past year by popping up frequently on TV — even meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump when he came to Tokyo, a surreal sight that will only be topped if Big Shaq can get a seat at Brexit negotiations.

The bridge between our computer and smartphone screens to TV helped give two styles of music new life. Korean pop music has been a lucrative niche market over the past few years, but the Japanese mainstream mostly ignored it. K-pop group Twice, however, became one of the year’s biggest success stories thanks to the popularity of its “TT pose” on the website MixChannel. The presence of three Japanese members helped, but it was a groundswell of online support that made the group a smash hit, setting them up to be the first Korean act to appear on NHK’s Kohaku Uta Gassen show since 2011.

Idol groups similarly earned a slight resurgence. AKB48 has been an afterthought to the general public for several years now, propped up by hardcore fans but carrying little impact outside of controversies (or Kendrick Lamar-inspired shirts). Another biggie-sized group rose to national attention, though, by performing songs that actual teenage girls could relate to. Keyakizaka46 sang about the confusion of being a teen and the struggles of student life in singles such as “Silent Majority,” themes that resonated with younger people far more effectively than AKB’s chirpy odes to friendship. The group is not without its issues, though. AKB producer Yasushi Akimoto also created Keyakizaka46 and writes most of its songs — but at least the videos did well on YouTube.

J-pop in 2017 was deeply fragmented and younger acts now have way more options when it comes to grabbing the limelight. Ultimately, though, nothing beats being a big deal already. Pioneering pop-punk act Hi-Standard released its first album in 18 years to great fanfare, while long-running rockers B’z and Keisuke Kawata enjoyed robust album sales.

However, nobody came close to J-pop diva Namie Amuro. Her announcement in September that she planned to retire in 2018 became one of the year’s biggest entertainment stories, hurling older fans into the throes of nostalgia. Her subsequent best-of collection “Finally” moved over 1 million copies in its first week and is easily the year’s highest seller. For all of the new developments this year, Amuro reminded us that the old guard still holds the most power, especially when listeners are in the mood to time travel. Given how many TV shows have already started running “I Love Heisei” segments ahead of the Emperor’s abdication (in 2019!), expect looking back to be the dominant trend until the Olympics roll around.

But for all the nostalgia, one set of veterans tried out a new way forward. Former SMAP members Goro Inagaki, Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Shingo Katori reintroduced themselves to the Japanese public via a 72-hour livestream on online TV channel Abema TV. Since that early November stunt, they’ve done something they never could do while in their old group: use the internet. They’ve embraced digital platforms (possibly because they aren’t allowed to be on regular TV programs), and proven to be naturals at it. They charm by eating food, playing songs or just hanging out with cute dogs.

They’ve found platforms perfect for them. And while already having clout helps, they aren’t far removed from many of the breakthrough artists of 2017, who showed that adapting to new technologies can be quite profitable.