The central pair behind electronic project AmPm didn’t have high expectations when they flew to Jakarta last August for Spotify On Stage, a live event organized by the market-leading music streaming service.

“We were the first act up, and I think most of the audience came to see other artists,” says “K,” one half of the unit. “But when our picture came up on screen, they made so much noise. When our music started, everyone sang along. They must have listened to the event playlist beforehand and memorized the lyrics.”

Their set in Indonesia’s capital, opening an evening headlined by K-pop heavyweights NCT127 and American pop group DNCE, was a high point in a year where AmPm (pronounced like “um palm”) possibly scored the biggest international hit of the year from a Japanese artist. You may not have noticed as the project lacks a cooky concept like Babymetal’s idol-meets-metal proposition, or a viral video like Pikotaro’s “PPAP.”

Rather, AmPm excelled on Spotify and seem to be the first Japanese act to really master the service. Their breakout came via “Best Part Of Us,” a breezy bit of dance-pop topped by melancholic vocals courtesy of singer-songwriter Michael Kaneko. It broke 1 million plays on the service within 10 days of going live, and sits at well over 10 million at the time of writing. As most Japanese write-ups of the group note, 90 percent of AmPm’s plays come from abroad.

The Tokyo-based duo’s songs fall between light tropical disco and hazier electronic fare in the style of Australian DJ Flume. Each features a guest vocalist singing predominantly in English. The artwork accompanying each is simple, and the pair themselves always wear masks in press shots. They were polar bears for their Jakarta trip but changed to rabbits shortly after, saying they switch when something big is afoot.

“We just ordered new masks … we’ll wear them whenever they get in from Lithuania,” K says.

It’s masks off for our interview, though. The two artists ask not to share their real names because of work reasons at Play Today, the design company they both work at and from which AmPm sprung.

“Our relationship with our clients might be hurt if they knew we are AmPm,” K says. “It might get weird.”

In Japanese interviews, the two often simply identify by which side of the table they sit on — right or left — and there isn’t much consistency as to who sits where. K’s partner goes by “Y” in our interview, presumably a nod to the Japanese slang term “KY” (kūki yomenai, referring to someone who’s unable to read a room).

K also says they remain anonymous because they aren’t that young.

“We want our listeners to have a dream that we are good-looking,” he says with a laugh.

The pair have no problem sharing their backstories, though. Y, 39, hails from Niigata and got into music as a child after seeing a Michael Jackson concert on TV. He loves all types of music but says house legend Frankie Knuckles inspired him to start DJing.

K, 33, became a fan of J-pop producer Tetsuya Komuro’s various projects, before going through a British phase inspired by Jamiroquai and the Beatles. (“I went to John Lennon’s grave and brought him a flower.”)

At Play Today, they create music for clients, providing tunes for commercials, video games and purikura (photographic sticker) machines. The pair, however, say they wanted to try something different, so they got in touch with Kaneko.

“He was our client, but we wanted to work together, not as clients,” Y says.

AmPm presents itself as a “creative unit” rather than a traditional music group. K and Y both emphasize the fact they don’t do everything (and once again, their anonymity helps them on this front). Most of the tracks are produced by Atsushi Asada, a longtime music producer both masked founders of AmPm were friendly with, and they say he’s part of AmPm too. As are Kaneko, and singers such as Nao Kawamura and Vlada Vesna, who all hail from different countries.

“We don’t mind where they are from, but they should speak and sing in fluent English so as to reach out to global audiences,” K says. “Once the AmPm project gets bigger, it could be in Japanese, Spanish … all that’s possible.”

The concept fits for Spotify, a service that prioritizes playlists centered around mood and which critics argue turns music into sonic wallpaper, partially because they are designed with help from algorithms. “Best Part Of Us” managed to find a home on some of the company’s most popular playlists, such as “Chill Hits” (nearly 3 million followers), “Chill Tracks” (over 1.3 million) and “Chill Vibes” (over 760,000), alongside niche and user-created lists. Spotify’s lists feature a mix of major-label heavyweights (Kygo, Camila Cabello, Maroon 5) mixed with more obscure names, some of which are still on big labels. But others, such as AmPm, are mostly on their own, using the digital distributor Tunecore as their way onto the lists. Their music just happens to work wonders on a playlist titled “The Stress Buster.”

“When we got into the global viral chart, Spotify Japan noticed us. They then put us on the ‘Tokyo Rising’ list, which really solidified things for us,” K says, thereby making AmPm the first reverse-import success story of the streaming age.

K says he studied the viral chart alongside other available info found on software platform GitHub after the project started making music.

“Like with the top 50, I’d look at how many R&B or hip-hop songs there were, or how many rock ones. I just didn’t want to make the least represented genre of music, for marketing purposes,” he says, adding they also use the information to target specific sites for promotion.

AmPm’s approach to Spotify is businesslike, down to their key belief that if a young Japanese artist wants global attention on the service, they should be using English.

“I think all artists should challenge themselves more. They need to really refine their work if they want to compete in a global music market,” K says. “As the AmPm project, we wanted to go to that level, challenge ourselves against the world.”

This call to partially sandpaper off the edges has worked for them, and stands in contrast to how most other Japanese artists have gotten big overseas this decade. Pop acts Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Babymetal built up strong bases thanks to their music, but they got viral attention for visuals leaning toward “wacky Japan” fodder for content creators and proto-Logan-Paul types on YouTube.

There is nothing stereotypically “Japanese” about AmPm and this has made its no-frills-attached music stand out on the platform. For now, it offers a blueprint for Japanese artists on how to make the service work for them.

“If artists want to be cool, they need to take the proper steps to do that. Look at Pikotaro — if you want to be funny, you are going to do it differently,” K says. “You have to take certain steps to have a different image.”

Spotify playlists show what Japan can offer

Spotify stands as the world’s biggest streaming music service, boasting 70 million paid subscribers, according to the company. Central to its appeal are its playlists, designed to highlight the most popular songs on the service alongside those geared towards moods or activities (say, cooking or exercising). Some of its biggest lists have turned lesser-known acts into mainstream commodities — Spotify’s own Rap Caviar playlist in particular has been successful.

The service remains a fledgling enterprise in Japan, but its flagship playlists for the country are starting to take shape.

Tokyo Super Hits! serves as Spotify Japan’s primary J-pop playlist. Although the folks behind it have weaved in a handful of lesser-known artists to buff out space — hey, major labels and artists are still pretty hesitant about the internet — this set offers a good snapshot of the nation’s biggest hits, including cuts from Daoko, Nogizaka46 and Twice.

Japan Viral 50, meanwhile, captures the most viral songs on the Japanese side of the service and changes almost every day. Those wanting to know who the Spotify Japan staff specifically hope to introduce to the world (and hear tracks not organized by a computer) should take a listen to the staff-curated Tokyo Rising playlist.

But maybe you want input from artists you like. Plenty of acts have started their own playlists, highlighting numbers they dig. Trio m-flo made a big splash recently with its The Tripod Playlist, while AmPm has its own monthly favorite series. The group has used the service better than anyone else in Japan — why not see who they recommend?

For more information on AmPm, visit www.ampm.tokyo.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.