Western Music’s Decline in Japan

From Mariah Carey and Avril Lavigne to Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, everyone that follows the Japanese music industry knows that Western artists do have a place in it. But that place is shrinking due to a number of reasons.

In the past, when music was only sold via physical formats, international artists and labels would license their music to be sold abroad, so that it could be marketed in such a way that appealed to local tastes. This is one of the reasons Japanese editions of Western albums became a thing. Dedicated Western fans of Western acts still clamor for these editions due to their exclusive bonus tracks and special packaging.

But this practice of licensing music by international acts overseas is coming to an end as a result of the globalization of the music industry. Labels are now holding onto the right to their music and marketing it overseas how they see fit, even if they are unfamiliar with how to do so.

In order for artists from abroad to be successful, Jonny Thompson, a former employee of Warner Music Japan and currently general manager of the international division of Japanese music publisher Nichion, says that they “have to show up whenever they release an album and tour and do things like TV, which is still important in Japan.”

Thompson says many international artists only want to interact through their music, and while the music itself is the eventual draw, “artists have to play by the local rules, and many don’t want to.”

A good example is Adele, one of the biggest selling recording artists worldwide in recent years. However, her Japanese sales to date have been relatively low.

“It would have taken an investment of time and resources to make Adele popular in Japan,” says Archie Meguro, who works for an international entertainment company. “It doesn’t matter if she sells a zillion albums overseas — Japanese people don’t care about that anymore.”

In contrast, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Bruno Mars, and Carly Rae Jepsen are all very popular in Japan because they have made an effort. They have visited Japan and interacted with fans and the media through concerts and promotional activities.

The difference is that all five artists were designated as “priority” artists by their respective major labels, and while local marketing and A&R (artists and repertoire) staff handled the promotion here, the strategy was overseen by the global head office. These days, there’s little local promotion of international artists who aren’t prioritized by their record company’s headquarters.

Touring Japan is even becoming more difficult now. International artists are going to have a tougher time getting noticed in Japan unless they are invited to tour by a concert promoter. “It’s now so cost prohibitive for promoters to bring artists into Japan,” Thompson says.

Many artists make most of their money now by touring rather than record sales, and with Japan’s notoriously expensive hotels and transportation, exacerbated by fluctuating exchange rates, ticket prices for international acts have skyrocketed in the past decade. Thompson says that Japanese promoters used to be successful at negotiating fees down because so many artists wanted to play Japan. “But now the artists can go somewhere else and make three times as much money,” he says.

Another reason for the shrinking fortunes of Western acts in Japan is the change in the radio industry. In the 1970s, Japanese pop was monolithic. Everyone liked the same artists and listened to the same songs, because the media and the music industry were symbiotic. For those who wanted something different, there was foreign music, which was easy to promote because it was the only alternative. “TV pushed Japanese pop,” says Tadd Igarashi, a veteran music writer. “Whereas FM radio almost exclusively played foreign music.”

Until the late 1980s, Tokyo had only two FM radio stations, but they became the preferred media for more worldly music consumers. Igarashi says that through the 80s and early 90s many FM stations encouraged on-air talent to be as free as possible. “We would play everything,” he recalls. “Advertisers were not concerned with selling products. They were more interested in selling an image of being hip and cool, and that image was associated with foreign music.”

Once the government relaxed regulations in the late 80s, more FM radio stations appeared, and now they mostly play Japanese music.

Up until the 1990s, the market for recorded music in Japan was roughly 75 percent domestic, 25 percent international. The gap has only widened over time.

“When I got into the business 25 years ago, the split was about 80-20,” says Thompson. “Now, I think, it’s 90-10.”

Some in the industry argue that this shift is more about the changing face of domestic music, which has become more diverse and sophisticated, as well as the increasingly insular nature of Japanese youth, who seem uninterested in foreign things.

Streaming services remain a sticking point for the domestic music industry. Spotify, the world’s biggest music streaming service, took forever to launch in Japan owing mainly to negotiations with Japanese record labels over domestic content. Now that it has officially been launched and is competing with other streaming services that were already up and running, no one seems to know what to make of it.

Keitaro Sumii, head of the international division at Warner Music Japan, is especially doubtful. “The numbers (so far) are limited,” he says. “Japanese people aren’t really comfortable with the concept of all-you-can-eat. They just want to pay for what they want.”

According to Thompson, however, international record companies are happy with Spotify, and not just because it cuts down on piracy. All an international label has to do these days is make a worldwide deal with Spotify — there’s no need to negotiate with individual territories. “Because of the worldwide homogenization process, labels can collect income directly from streaming services,” he says. “International artists are licensed globally now. That wasn’t the case before.” Consequently, major labels have even less incentive to promote artists on a regional basis.

“We get good revenues from streaming for people like Justin Bieber, but it isn’t reflected on the charts,” says Masaya Inokuchi, managing director of Universal International. “It’s difficult to understand the nature of a song’s success. We’re making money, but we don’t really know how much each artist is earning.”

The full Japan Times piece can be read here.

  • Comments

    • trebletones

      Adele is not big in Japan because Japan has had enough of slow ballad songstresses.

      • Guest

        Even though she isn’t “big”, she still sells 100k of her album which is what A-list intl acts — such as 1D, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Gaga — do in Japan. So her sales there are actually high, just not as high when you contrast with how exceptionally well she does in the rest of the world.

      • Midori

        lol no…we Japanese still love our ballads! Maybe not as much as in the past, but still…

    • iora89

      in our country, the local artists are struggling because most of us only listen to foreign artists. i honestly dont see anything wrong if japanese people much prefers their own. J-music industry is very big. you want idol/pop, you have lots of choices. you want hiphop, lots to choose from and same with J-rock. their indies arent bad too. i believe though that japan should keep up with changes like with digital downloads and streaming music.

      • kamben is here

        “. i believe though that japan should keep up with changes like with digital downloads and streaming music.”

        You mean they should let people from outside Japan to buy their digital music.
        I don’t get why people like to say that Japan needs to start selling digital music when it does, already.

        They have websites like music.jp and the recochoku store where you can actually buy the music. Unfortunately, from my own experiences, you have to be living in Japan to buy it. I have been denied several times. So what I always do is, I buy CDs from auction sites and Amazon instead. If the stores refuse to let me buy the CDs or other goods I want, I will use ‘buying service’ like ZenMarket, From Japan, etc. It’s not that hard to get japanese music actually, people just have to know where to look.

        Some labels actually do allow the outsiders to buy their digital music, but this depends on which artists you follow and their labels/agencies. I’m a huge fan of Golden Bomber and their agency lets international fans to pay like 341 yen to stream their videos and stuff. I also bought some of their albums online. One doesn’t even have to be a fanclub member to buy all this.

        Sorry that this is long -.-” but I just wanted to share my two cents.

    • maguro part deux

      Thompson says many international artists only want to interact through their music, and while the music itself is the eventual draw, “artists have to play by the local rules, and many don’t want to.”

      Heh heh. Remember when TaTu failed to show up for Music Station and got blackballed? Good times.

      • Guest

        TaTu and Ayumi Hamasaki.

        • ChaiChai

          Really? Whats the story behind it?

      • Matcha

        I miss TaTu ;”)

    • nothingsover

      “artists have to play by the local rules, and many don’t want to.”

      But the thing is, many don’t need to ether. You talked about Adele. I’m pretty sure Adele isn’t really feeling the loss or absence of a Japanese audience. Promoting in Japan is expensive and time-consuming and these big-name artists, even if they’re missing out, aren’t exactly desperate for more fans abroad. Smaller artists and bands are probably the ones most in need of Japanese support.

      • Guest


        I mean, Japan is the world’s 2nd biggest market so being big there is good and great for the ego but, at this point in time, it is not really necessary. artists make most of their money on touring and most music consumption is made via streaming. streaming is not popular in Japan and touring there is not cost efficient. so yea…. in the 90s/early 2000s, acts would kill to be huge in Japan but nowadays it is not really all that relevant.

    • Michele

      “Some in the industry argue that this shift is more about the changing face of domestic music, which has become more diverse and sophisticated, as well as the increasingly insular nature of Japanese youth, who seem uninterested in foreign things.”

      Japanese music is also more and more influenced by Western music.
      For example, take all those indie rock bands that are getting so popular these days. They’re all heavy influenced by their Western counterparts that boomed from mid 2000s to early 2010s. Which is why the international Japanese music fandom doesn’t follow them and lost interest.

      Anyway, focusing just on your own backyard might not be a smart move in the long run.

      • starlightshimmers

        If American artists want to be popular in Japan, they need to do Japanese promotional activities. Being a Western artist doesn’t make you automatically entitled to Japanese sales.

        • Keep in mind that music industries and global ad campaigns are things of the developed world, and Asia is not 60% of that population.

          • starlightshimmers

            Which further highlights the disadvantage of the Asian majority of the world.

        • Michele

          My last sentence (“focusing just on your own backyard might not be a smart move in the long run.”) doesn’t apply to Japan only. This article is about Japan and my comment reflected that.
          Maybe I didn’t explain myself well enough, but I think you misunderstood what I said.

          • starlightshimmers

            It’s irrelevant. North Americans, Australians and Europeans (especially Western Europeans) are all part of the West. For example, a Spaniard or a Ukrainian is more likely to listen to Adele than to Namie Amuro, because Adele is a Western artist, and Namie Amuro is an Asian artist therefore regarded as the “other.” Despite the fact that most Spaniards and Ukrainians do not speak English or Japanese, they’ll prefer the Western artist over the Asian artist.

            Utada Hikaru, BoA and numerous other Korean and Japanese artists have been trying to crack into the Western market but the West refuses to accept them. But on the other hand, someone like Adele can just release an album and pick up sales in Japan without even trying. It’s one-sided.

            Japanese pop music did not invest in exporting their music because language and cultural barriers exists. K-pop has been trying to crack the Western music market and the only thing they can show for themselves is a one-hit wonder Psy.

            When we talk about globalisation, it’s one-sided, it primarily benefits the West. Globalisation, in theory, should be an exchange of Western and Eastern culture and ideals. But the reality is that globalisation is the spread of Western culture and Western ideals, while Eastern culture and ideals are regarded as “old fashioned” or undesirable.

    • ProllyWild

      *slow clap* bravo. Good article.

    • No9

      Great article but I wish that I had some forewarning that in order to read the full article I’d have to go to the Japan Times and then read through the article again to find all the other parts that were taken out. Regardless, still way better than the OOR and Utada reviews. :p

      • HyperMoot .

        “Regardless, still way better than the OOR and Utada reviews” amen, let it be (lol?)

    • Melvin Douglas Perry

      I thought, with the exception of a few Western actss, that today’s Western music really sucks.

      • nijiminto


    • What I would do to have Namie’s whole discography on Spotify though.

      • ae_abercrombie

        IKR. For some reason, there’s shit on there for Namie Amuro and it’s very frustrating.

    • Western music is s***t now its all bad rapping, drugs, s*x and break ups there no more good stuff.