Artimage’s Masaji Asakawa talks dance music and digital evolution in Japan


Masaji Asakawa is the founder and CEO of Japanese music management company Artimage, although he first came to prominence as a DJ and musician: a prime mover in Japan’s house music scene in the 1990s and 2000s.

At Artimage, he has worked with artists including m-flo, Double, Soul’d Out, Lecca, Cream and Fuki. Ahead of his appearance at the Tokyo Dance Music Event (TDME) conference in Tokyo, Music Ally interviewed Asakawa-san about Japan’s electronic music scene, music-streaming, social media and other topics.

:: Has there long been a strong electronic music scene in Japan?

“There wasn’t much of a club scene about 30 years ago. In the 70s clubs, black music and soul were on, and then the film Saturday Night Fever went viral, leading to a huge disco-music boom in Japan. After that, Hi-NRG and Eurobeat became popular.

At the same time as the Eurobeat, there was also a scene for house, techno, and hip hop, each being played at different venues. And as an extension of Eurobeat, a discotheque called Juliana’s Tokyo became hugely famous, making hardcore techno a big trend.

The scene of Juliana and the current scene of EDM resemble each other. The decoration and the effects of the venue was luxurious, and it also had VIP rooms. The partying-hard attitude with flashy kind of music of the Juliana’s era is coming back to the scene with EDM.

In the 90s, Juliana’s and other similar kind of scenes had ended, and there weren’t any significant venues existing in the latter half of the 90s. The club scene went down a bit due to various problems including adult-entertainment laws.

The house and techno scenes that came from cities overseas such as New York, Berlin and Amsterdam changed the attitude of people into enjoying music more purely. However, the music played in clubs or discotheques were usually music that made a hit in the charts overseas, and no Japanese music was played there.

Because I wanted to change that situation, I created the production company Artimage and started signing J-Pop artists – or I call them J-Club Music / J-Dance – whose music suited in the clubs too. And finally in the recent two decades, those kind of music which have the concept of dance / club music came to be accepted by public, becoming a trend.

However, even though that music created hits, there weren’t still clubs available for them to be played in. So I started a regular club event called ‘ageHa’ held at Studio Coast, creating the opportunity for Japanese dance music to be played there.

I got the inspiration for ‘ageHa’ from the scenes overseas, such as Ibiza, Berlin, Miami, or Amsterdam. As a concept, I wanted rock stars come and have fun in the club VIP rooms as they do in overseas, but it was impossible because there was the adult entertainment law, and it would be a catastrophe if a police comes in when a rock star was clubbing and bust them. So I started the movements towards the law’s revision later on.

Since the late 90s to 2005 or 2006, the remixes of top J-Pop songs became a thing, getting the idea from the trends overseas like Madonna. Tetsuya Komuro served a vital role in bringing four-to-the-floor rhythm to the dance music scene in Japan, him being also influenced by the electronic music overseas like Ibiza.

These days, the amount of rock music that has electronic music elements is also increasing, as can be seen from the bands like Sakanaction.”

:: Were there any practical changes for the club scene after the adult entertainment law was revised?

“The owner of the clubs were a bit nervous before, as it was illegal, and they couldn’t even promote their events properly because of the law. And before the revision, there were often people that was doing illegal activities and crimes in the clubs as they also knew that it was illegal to run a club at night and they knew that the owners could not call the police.

So the revision definitely changed the situation for club owners, and they are trying to make a safe clubbing environment. However, because the adult entertainment law enforcement had been too strict in that ten years, the flow of people is not recovering enough.”

:: Spotify launched in Japan last year, and there are so many streaming services and social networks. What is your digital strategy?

“The people in Japan tend to listen to songs according to their moods and themes. For example, if someone is going to the beach, he or she listens to the songs that has more ocean-breeze kind of tones. Or if someone wants to cry over a breakup, he or she will pick up a song that makes them want to cry. So we try to make a theme for each artists’ songs to get picked in the right opportunities.

Streaming services are not still as big as in the rest of the world, but they are gradually becoming big, and the existence of streaming services will be significant this year or maybe next year. Maybe record companies are thinking the same, but I think it is important to monetise from the things that cannot be transferred to digital such as live performances, or merchandise.

Music itself will become more of a tool for promotion, in order to make the music listened by various people in various places and environments. For YouTube, the service in Japan will be based on the subscription service soon although only YouTube Plus is available so far in Japan and not YouTube Red.

Most music listening services will be based on the subscription model, and as the payment from YouTube to music industry is currently not sufficient enough, it is great that the service would be able to give us back a higher rates of royalties. Also, although the payment from digital services is usually not enough today, it is crucial to think up of a plan or strategy to fill in the gaps.”

:: Can you talk about some specific examples of your digital strategies?

“There is a group called Cream in my company, consisting of one female vocalist who is bilingual and speaks Japanese and English, and one male who raps. They had created their account on YouTube even before their debut, and on that channel, they have been uploading videos of covers of arranged international and national songs with videos produced by themselves.

At the time they released their debut through Avex, total views of all the videos including the covers on the channel had reached 20 million.

Also, we are announcing the new songs of that group on YouTube first, trying to see which song performs the best, and once we figure it out, we make the song into a lead of the album. We are also thinking about doing a premiere on streaming platforms. For CDs, we are planning to sell them with music videos or specially filmed videos, or maybe with merchandise. For digital platforms, we are trying to make music available as premieres or even providing fans with demos.”

:: What are your strategies for social media?

“Because Facebook is not really popular in Japan, we focus more on Twitter and Instagram. We use Instagram more for content like fashions and visuals, and Twitter for information such as tour updates. The group Cream had their celebrity friend sing their song on Instagram once, and it became viral.”

:: What do you think of international marketing?

“To be able to stand out in international marketing, it is essential for a group or an artist to have some originalities. Singing in English can sometimes be an obstacle, as the level of international market is quite high. If the music is just good, not better, sounding similar to something else, people would probably just listen to the original stuff, so it might be better to keep Japanese elements to stand out.

For example, AMPM, a Japanese electro duo, achieved success on Spotify by researching what kind of sounds would be accepted worldwide, especially on Spotify. It is interesting that music produced by a Japanese artist is consumed without being known that it was made by a Japanese artist.

Also, it might be easy for dance music to go abroad as there are no language barriers. I myself was part of a DJ unit called GTS from 1995, releasing music composed by Japanese people including myself, but sung by people overseas without revealing that it was made by Japanese. GTS made it to second place in Billboard’s club-music chart once. But it would have been so much easier if I had done the activity now with streaming platforms available.

In the 90s, people were more eager to discover new music, to find one and only music for themselves. However, people nowadays tend to listen to the same thing as everyone else, and it’s not just music: the same thing is happening with fashion or food. But people have more chance now to discover new music through streaming services, they will soon start digging new music themselves. Or hopefully they will.

When I worked on a group, m-flo, in 1999, we released limited numbers of vinyls at a record shop called CISCO, which was a go-to place for a music lovers at the time. The vinyls were soon sold out and became a topic among those who were keen on new sounds, and later on we pressed additional number of vinyls.

That was a campaign back then, which we were able to do because there were people digging good music. But that kind of campaign is becoming more and more difficult. Maybe there are still some trends like that in rock music, but not in pop or dance music. Many people assume that it is good to listen to music which everyone else listens to…

That is also the reason why the club scene nowadays is boring, because music that has real originality is usually not popular and doesn’t sell well. Even if we made a club that plays only the good quality original music, it wouldn’t get accepted, and people gather only to flashy type of venues.

I’m guessing the same kind of thing is happening outside of Japan too. The EDM scene is becoming all about the Billboard hit charts, and hits are what are played in those clubs. I think listening to the same stuff as everyone else is providing the audiences with a sense of unity, empathy, or sharedness among them.

In EDM, the DJ and the hit songs are stars, and people share the togetherness admiring the stars. On the other hand, for techno or house, each audience used to face a DJ individually, paying attention to what he or she plays if it’s a good quality. The duration of a set is completely different too… a techno/house DJ plays a long set, while an EDM DJ earns much money playing only for an hour or an hour and a half.”

:: How do electronic-music fans consume recorded music? Do they buy CDs? Stream? Vinyl?

“Probably not much CDs… Mix CDs used to be big, but not anymore, at least in big cities. Maybe there are still some people listening to CDs in rural areas, where people drive cars often. I think more and more people use streaming services in the city. And I know some people use Beatport, especially those who are keen on digging core stuff.

Dance music enthusiasts also love, an internet radio specialised in dance music, which ☆Taku from m-flo produces. I think people who are into electronic music listen more digitally. There are also lots of people watching YouTube, as videos from famous EDM festivals and acts are available on the platform.

A good thing about YouTube is that it enables people to watch them play even if they are far away from the physical venues and clubs. And I guess the more they watch the Djs play in Ibiza or Miami, the more people would want to go to the actual place.”

:: Do you think there is a need for Japanese music acts abroad?

“Most Japanese music has an influence from music overseas, and it is the same with dance music. If they could become good enough to match the artists overseas, or even exceed them with some elements the others don’t have, or if it was mixed with other Japanese cultures like fashion, or anime, I think there is a possibility.

I think we should take advantage of our intuitive sense or some kind of Japanese feel as it would be new for many people around the world. Either way, half-hearted music wouldn’t make it. It is almost same as the food culture.

For example, lots of people come to Japan in order to visit French or Italian restaurants, which serve the cuisine arranged in Japanese styles, and it is often the case that those restaurants have more stars than those in the original countries. Or the case with sushi, ramen or yakitori too, which are now quite popular overseas. I think music can be accepted in the same way.”

:: Are there any electronic music producers or DJ that we should listen to?

“There isn’t much from Japan… I think we need to be more open for global markets. While Calvin Harris for example probably earns about 6.5 billion yen a year, Japan’s so-called top producer Yasutaka Nakata only earns maybe 1 billion or so.

There hasn’t long been a culture in Japan where people start out as a DJ and a creator doing some remixes for big artists, and then getting them featured on their own album, as there is abroad.

There are some artists that have great skills in Japan. For example, two Japanese DJs have won a place in the DMC World DJ Championship this year, and there have been three winners at the championship before. However, we are still lacking the communication or promotional knowledge to deliver it globally.”

This year’s Tokyo Dance Music Event takes place from 30 November to 2 December

Aira Fukushima

Read More: Analysis News
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