Shukan Bunshun recently ran some articles describing how last year the talent management company LDH allegedly paid entertainment behemoth Burning Productions to ensure that one of LDH’s acts would win the top prize at the 2015 Japan Record Awards (JRA). Accompanying one of the articles was a photo of an invoice on Burning stationery showing that LDH owed it ¥108 million for “end-of-year business promotion expenses.”

LDH manages the all-male R&B collective Exile and its side projects, one of which, Sandaime J Soul Brothers, was the subject of LDH’s under-the-radar largesse and won the JRA last year. They also won it the year before, and their senpai (senior) group, Exile, won it in 2008, 2010 and 2013.

Though Burning does not run the JRA — that’s done by the Japan Composers Association (JCA) — it plays a central role, in selecting the winners along with two other major entertainment companies: Avex Holdings, which owns Avex Records; and TBS, the television network that sponsors and broadcasts the JRA ceremony. The jury is made up of employees of these three companies, as well as journalists and industry insiders.

Following its investigation, Bunshun contacted the related organizations. Gendai Kano, the 78-year-old chairman of JCA, apologized and told the magazine the payment was “unacceptable” without admitting that it actually occurred. Ryotaro Konishi, the chairman of the jury and a former executive of tabloid Sports Nippon, said he would have to “scrutinize what really happened.” The TBS producer in charge of JRA, Yoji Ochiai, said his company had nothing to do with the award selection, only the broadcast, but there were seven TBS staff on the jury.

This confluence of denial in the face of arguably strong evidence would normally spark its own media circus, but as entertainment writer Takashi Odajima wrote in a Nov. 4 blog post for Nikkei Business Online, there has been no secondary coverage of the scandal. Odajima explains that rumors of JRA bribery have been circulating for years, “but this was the first time a related article was published with evidence, and I expected a lot of noise.” In the end, Bunshun’s bombshell “turned out to be a dud,” says Odajima.

TV ignored the story completely. Odajima says that’s because broadcasters are beholden to a handful of “dons” who head the country’s major talent agencies and control which stars are available for TV appearances. What perplexes Odajima is that this corporate dynamic remains unchanged as the JRA declines in significance.

Since the 1990s, an increasing number of popular artists have shown less interest in the award, and every year “the ceremony itself becomes increasingly insular, more irrelevant to viewers.” He predicts the award will not last “10 more years, after all the dons are dead.”

Odajima hears the organizers are “struggling” just to find a winner this year, partly due to the scandal but also because one of the unmentioned conditions for receiving the award is that the recipient show up at the ceremony, which is broadcast live. That’s why it was moved a decade ago from Dec. 31 to Dec. 30.

Formerly, the JRA acted as a prelude to NHK’s much more prestigious New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” but when NHK started airing the show an hour earlier, it overlapped with the JRA, and traditionally the victors at JRA also appeared on “Kohaku.” Consequently, JRA winners opted to forego the ceremony to sing on NHK.

Also, some best-selling artists are disinclined to appear on TV at all. Three of the biggest songs this year have been by Hikaru Utada, Namie Amuro and Radwimps, none of whom have shown much interest in TV lately, so they probably won’t make the JRA’s shortlist.

The JRA was launched in 1959 as the Japanese answer to the Grammys and used sales as the main selection criterion. Ratings peaked in 1977 at 51 percent, but by 2005 audience share had dropped to 10 percent. It rose a little after the live broadcast moved to Dec. 30, but last year it was still only 13 percent.

Music consumption in Japan has become atomized. There is no national consensus on the year’s “best song” as there was when everyone watched the same TV shows and adored the same singing stars. The late songwriter Eiichi Otaki once told the Asahi Shimbun that in the golden age of pop “certain songs really represented entire years to the Japanese public.” Those days are long gone.

According to web magazine Litera, Burning has exploited its considerable power to dominate the JRA since the early 1990s, when the award was no longer a big deal to the public and had merely become a promotional tool. At that time, TV was still the main means for selling records, and every TV network had its own music publishing subsidiary.

As advertising dried up, TV stations relied more on publishing for revenue. They have been known to give money to record companies to cover the high costs of recording and promoting their artists in exchange for rights to those artists’ songs, which they would then use on their programs. The songs became hits due to TV exposure and, in turn, generated more money through ancillary products such as ringtones and karaoke tracks. The TV stations would share in the profits.

Burning and Avex are major beneficiaries of this system, since Avex controls many top artists and Burning has the nation’s best PR resources. In addition, both companies administer the song rights of their charges, such as top ’90s dance music producer Tetsuya Komuro, who was eventually arrested for fraud because he tried to sell rights he didn’t own. In order to increase sales, LDH sought Burning’s help in winning the JRA. Burning was simply providing a professional service, though one that isn’t known to the general public, since that would demean whatever cachet of prestige the JRA enjoys.

At this point perhaps no one genuinely thinks the JRA acknowledges quality — maybe no one ever did — so to most people the LDH payment doesn’t count as a scandal. It’s just business as usual, and as such helps explain why the state of Japanese pop music, not to mention Japanese TV, is as bad as it is.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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