There are many factors to keep in mind when trying to break into the Japanese music industry as a non-Japanese person. One that might be easy to overlook but ultimately rings true: You’re going to have to work hard.
“I wouldn’t say Japan or Tokyo is welcoming. Nobody is going to be like, ‘Oh, you’re a foreign person who wants to work in music! Here’s a bunch of money and contacts. Do you need anything else?'” says Ricky Wilson, manager of independent idol group Necronomidol. “But if you really want to do it, you can pull it off.”
This is a sentiment shared by three other members of a roundtable discussion held recently at The Japan Times regarding life as a non-Japanese member of the country’s music industry. Joining Wilson were Jayda B, a radio personality and organizer of the women-to-the-front creative agency and electronic-music event Bae; Adam Graham, a member of rock band Joy Opposites and formerly of Fact; and Lauren Rose Kocher, who works in business development at Sony Music Japan and who co-founded the Tokyo Dance Music Event.
Each comes from a very different background, with some working with large corporations while others operate independently. But similar details crop up in each of their stories, the earliest of those being a job teaching English at some point as a means to get a visa and establish themselves in the country.
A rush of shared anxiety seemingly hits everyone after Jayda B describes the time an American artist canceled a show she had organized two days before the event. It looks like shared experience No. 2 is having to deal with things not working out the way you plan.
“The past month and a half, I’ve probably worked over 60 or 70 hours for five weeks straight,” says Kocher, who has just wrapped up the second Tokyo Dance Music Event. “It comes in waves. Maybe it will happen two or three times a year. But when it’s spiking, I’m in the office from 9 a.m. to midnight over and over again. I just really want the things I work on to succeed.”
She adds that other periods can be far less intensive — she’s OK to join the roundtable for a few hours, for example — and the heavy workload isn’t particular to Japan; she has seen plenty of folks overseas follow a similar regimen.
“I find more people (abroad) are happy to work outside of the office, though,” Graham adds, reflecting on his time working in his native England. “I find the atmosphere and working style in Japan very different. Everyone had a Blackberry in England, everyone was on call 24/7 — but they weren’t in the office.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I can not look at my computer on the weekend if I want, and nobody gets mad. But people in the U.K. need to be on call at all times,” Kocher says.
“I could never do that,” Jayda B replies. Coming from the more independent side, she has helped bring Japanese artists to the States and organized shows in places such as Los Angeles. But she has to be ready at virtually all times to make big decisions, she says, because otherwise she’d have more to clean up afterward. “If I’m unavailable, it would be irresponsible.”
Surprises abound even on the more corporate side. While Kocher and Graham both touch on the passion their co-workers have for music, they also both note how mightily the Japanese music industry struggles with international matters.
“There was nobody who could speak English, there was no international department, as such,” Graham says of a major label he used to be involved with. “Even though I was the artist — and it was fine, I didn’t mind it — I got involved translating things the label should have been doing. I shouldn’t have been put in the position I was.”
The four are pretty much unanimous on the need for great Japanese-language skills.
“In the beginning, for sure, I think it’s best to know the language, know the culture, know what to do and not to do. Especially in marketing,” Jayda B says.
“If you are saying, ‘I want to release Japanese music in this format internationally,’ you’re fine, you can do it in English. Even if you want to bring an act over to tour,” Wilson says. “If you want to be on the ground here, making or managing a group … you’re dead.” He’s the only member of team Necronomidol who isn’t Japanese, and he does everything in the language. Including the nitty-gritty of organizing gigs.
“We’re signing the contracts, and they are very clear, if you are 30 minutes over, we are charging you another $500, $600 in hall rental fees,” he adds.
Not being Japanese can have benefits too though. Everyone knows Japanese, but not everyone will know the language you speak.
“I get asked if I know someone who can fill a job in the music industry where the requirement is being bilingual in English and Japanese maybe at least every month, if not every two to three weeks,” Kocher says, especially when it comes to tech platforms. “They need more people.”
But it doesn’t end at just language. Another universal thing everyone agrees on is, if you want to excel here, you need to deliver.
“If we can perform the same, in terms of drawing crowds and selling CDs, in terms of overall output, as other groups … nobody cares if you are foreign. Results matter,” Wilson says, to a chorus of “trues” from the table.
“Once you get some results, you’re in,” Kocher says.
Extra thoughts on working in the Japanese music industry
After two hours of discussing what it’s like to work in the Japanese music industry, our four participants agreed they could have continued for at least another two hours. Here are some thoughts that didn’t make the final cut for the article:
On the people who work in the industry:
Kocher: Before I started (in the industry), I was an English teacher, and I worried about what it would be like working at a big Japanese company. But it wasn’t what I thought. It was all these people who were doing their jobs because this was their passion, and those people became pretty successful. Even now, my boss at Sony always brings his bass into the office, because he has practice after work. There’s so many people who have motivation beyond the paycheck.
Graham: One guy that stuck out to me, he was working in the imports department, things that weren’t getting a proper Japanese release. No liner notes, no big release — just imports. But he had to write the sales notes for all these releases that went out to Tower Records and all the record stores across Japan. And every single release he would just research and research, listen and listen, and he would come up with the best notes. His attention to detail was insane.
On when things go wrong:
Jayda B: We had a show in South Korea earlier this year, and it was the Asia debut for an artist from the States. People from Tokyo were actually buying tickets for this show in Korea. Now this girl, she backs out two days before the show. It was like, ‘What are we going to do?!’
We all still went. A lot of people from Japan didn’t go — they bought their tickets, but got refunds. The agency we were working with offered them. We were lucky to get two other female DJs to fill in for the main act and still went on with the show — I mean, what can you do in two days, honestly? — but some money was lost.
Wilson: We were scheduled to play at this music festival in New Caledonia in October. We didn’t have any problems with the guy who set it up, he’d done tour coordination for us for about two years. We’d just had a big one-man (a concert with no other acts) at Liquidroom here in Tokyo. That was on Sept. 30, and 10 days later we were going to this festival. No, it was three days before! I get an email from (our tour guy) on the Wednesday before the show and he says, “There was an issue with my company registration in Japan, so I canceled the show.”
I thought, ‘Oh, you … canceled the show we were supposed to fly out for in two days. And that we built our entire schedule around for this month. I had to find out who the point person in New Caledonia was … and it was a government-sponsored event. So not like the usual concert promoter. I had to email the actual city we were playing in — I had to fill out a web form!
We ended up not going. It was for a culture festival and they wanted to bring in some Japanese culture. We were the Japanese culture that didn’t show up [laughs].
Graham: In my old band, we toured a lot outside of the country and my Japanese band members had huge culture shock (in terms of performing) when they went to the States and England.
If you play a show here, though, and you’re booked by, say, Creativeman, it’s the smoothest experience. You just need to show up at the venue. It’s almost like someone just puts a guitar on you and it’s like, there you go [laughs].
It’s not like that when you go overseas, It’s much harder work. I have a lot of tour manager friends who have come to Japan and they’re like, “We don’t have anything to do here.” I’ve managed tours for indie acts before and it’s not easy … but I see what they mean. Going abroad though, you have to do everything yourself.
On the difference between Japanese and foreign professionalism:
Kocher: Imagine being out to dinner with eight Japanese dudes who don’t speak English and someone important from overseas. I’ve seen people wear slippers in a Japanese office, your company can seem like your family — but it’s not. Still, there’s a different type of professionalism here.
So at this hypothetical dinner, the Japan side may ask things like, “How old are you? Are you married? Why not?” Things that can feel way too personal to non-Japanese people. There’s no company policy on how to interact with people in an international setting. There is if you work in the international department, of course, they know very well what to do. But when you have people doing it for the first time, they make all these missteps and maybe say things they shouldn’t, or forget to shake hands. You can’t have a business dinner for three hours and not talk about royalty percentages or money.
Japanese workers build their relationships on mutual trust, that’s the business culture here. At the end you figure out money stuff. However, you really are wasting people’s time if you don’t get to the point right away. So you have these very accomplished people from other countries saying things like, “What are we doing? What do you want? Why are we having this meeting?” The Japanese side might just be like … “Nice to meet you!”
On being a bridge between Japan and your home country:
Kocher: With my job, I don’t want to be the default interpreter or the one explaining how things work or covering for people’s mistakes. I don’t think that’s my job. Of course I will help out where I can, and I have pulled colleagues aside to help them. I’m pretty comfortable doing that because I really like where I work and I want it to be a good place to work.
There are some Japanese people whose job it is to be the bridge between Japan and another country, and they don’t have the benefit of being non-Japanese, a position that can allow you to get away with stuff or make social mistakes by Japanese standards. The Japanese people have less room for error, so they know the role of being a bridge much better than I do. I just stick to the things I’m good at.
On Japan — or Tokyo — as a place of opportunity in the music industry overall:
Jayda B: For me, I feel like it’s Tokyo (not Japan) that has the opportunities. New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. It’s such a major city that people want to be here. Even if you have the Japanese-language ability, when it comes to music you should be in Tokyo.
A lot of people I don’t know message me on Instagram and say the same thing: “I make beats, I’m in whatever city, I want to come to Tokyo.” They don’t say Japan.
On whether you should be in Tokyo or Los Angeles when it comes to music:
Jayda B: I would suggest L.A., over Japan. Especially because a lot of people come here expecting one thing, and it has a lot to do with money. And then they can’t make that money, “This is Tokyo, and I played Vision and I only made ¥5,000!”
Somewhere in L.A., you can do a night on Thursday and easily make like $300, which is nearly ¥34,000.
Kocher: I agree with that. If the choice is between Tokyo and L.A. … then you should be in L.A. If you want to specifically be in Japan or you want to work in the Japanese music industry then of course you should be here. But if you are making a strategic career decision, I don’t know if picking Tokyo because it’s on the up and up is exactly the right way to go. There is opportunity, though.