In Japan, the mainstream music industry, and Johnny’s Jimusho in particular, is infamous for unyielding, top-down control of its artists, most notably how and where their images are displayed. Naturally, the explosion of fan Web sites, blogs and social networking sites has threatened to erode that control. In many cases, the industry’s response is to flex its muscles even more. Johnny’s has long forbidden digital photos of their pop idols to be uploaded to even major media sites. We’re talking about official photos that promote a movie or TV show in which the agency’s artist stars.

This set-up works in Japan because, as a rule, the media is beholden to the big talent agencies and labels. But what if, one day, Johnnys’ decides to sell its boy bands to a global market – could it keep the overseas media on a similarly tight leash? When that day comes, the agency would do well to study the track record of Big Bang, a South Korean hip-hop boy-band sensation that has obviously figured out a way to make the series of tubes work to its advantage.

Formed in 2006, Big Bang is determined to milk the Web for all it is worth in its aggressive attempts to market the band’s brand beyond South Korea. While the band has the requisite official sites in both Korean and Japanese, several of the band members have me2day pages where they post tweet-like messages in Korean with attached pictures and video. The band also has an extremely open attitude when it comes to fan sites. Fans around the world run a cavalcade of sites devoted to the band and gather on “VIP” (the self-applied name for Big Bang fans) forums whose theme is to promote friendly fandom and prevent “claim wars.” A Tokyo-based fan group named Team.Bigbang has made the band particularly visible via a Twitter account, Flickr account, Facebook page and Blogspot blog. These sites and forums traffic in high-quality photos, snapshots of the band from what appear to be personal mobile phones and even bootleg concert video filmed by fans.

The net-friendly approach seems to be working: According to Wikipedia, by the end of 2009 Big Bang was the most frequently searched band in South Korea. Although not as famous in Japan as Tohoshinki, who were at the top of the Oricon charts as recently as the end of January, Big Bang has a formidable presence in Japan and their February concert in Yokohama on the Electric Love Tour will air on TBS on March 27.

On the bright side, it would appear that segments of Japanese music industry are tentatively exploring new channels of promotion.  Case in point:  the recent launch of My YouTube. Instead of kicking fans for uploading unofficial videos, the labels are giving them what they want. My YouTube not only shows full-length promo videos from artists such as Koda Kumi, Morning Musum and BoA but also provides fan messages straight from the artists.

Then there are some big-minded artists who are just diving into the social Web head first. Miyavi, a solo rock artist who got his start in visual kei bands, is clearly making use of all online marketing channels. For a start, check out the social networking banner at the top of his Web site. To commemorate the release of his World Tour DVD, he’ll even be broadcasting an hour of live rehearsal online on March 23.

Despite the change in tides, it may still be a while before major Japanese pop groups catch up to Big Bang’s Web growing presence. An easy test of their chances of success should be a quick check of Wikipedia where currently Big Bang has a publicly available photo (used at the top of this post) and Johnny’s bands, such as SMAP and Arashi, have none.

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