Japanese fans couldn't get enough of Lady Gaga.
During the American superstar's "Born This Way" tour of Japan, Gaga played the Saitama Super Arena in May and sold out one show. Then another. Then another.
In all, Gaga moved 96,550 tickets for the three-night Saitama stand, grossing $18.3 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. The shows were promoted by Live Nation Japan, a new entity combining the clout of Japan's Creativeman Productions and Live Nation, whose global touring arm is working with Gaga worldwide.
In recent years, recorded-music sales for international artists in Japan have slipped. The Recording Industry Assn. of Japan reports that in 2009 international repertoire accounted for just a 22% market share of recorded-music shipments, and in 2010 that figure slipped to 18% and remained there in 2011. For the first half of 2012, the market share slipped further to 16%, according to the RIAJ.
But here in the world's second-largest music market, touring is a solid source of revenue for international acts. And that doesn't just mean Western superstars. Fans are also eager to see their favorite K-pop stars onstage in Japan.
Ticket PIA, operating since 1984 and moving approximately 62 million tickets per year, is the largest ticket agency in Japan with about a 50% share of the market.
According to the agency, revenue from ticketing for overall entertainment totaled Â¥1.1 trillion ($13.9 billion) in 2011.
Of this amount, major Japanese ticket agencies accounted for sales of ¥230 billion-¥250 billion ($2.9 billion-$3.1 billion), and of that amount, ¥167 billion ($1.5 billion) was specifically for live musical performances. Ticket PIA sold approximately half of those tickets.
Motoharu Murakami, who is Ticket PIA's corporate officer/GM of its live entertainment division, noted that some 20% of the revenue for live music tickets sold by Ticket PIA was generated by international acts.
Billboard estimates that sales through major ticket agencies generated by international acts performing in Japan total approximately $290 million, though this doesn't include tickets sold directly from the box office or venue.
PIA doesn't have year-on-year data for non-Japanese acts, but Murakami says, "The share of international bands' box-office revenue may have risen slightly over the past few years. This would be due to the great success of Korean acts recently."
For this year Murakami points specifically to Korean boy band Tohoshinki's tour of Japan from January through April, which concluded with three dates at the Tokyo Dome and drew a reported 550,000 fans in total for the tour.
Among Western acts, Aerosmith also made an impact live, playing two shows at the Tokyo Dome last November, as part of its eight-date Back on the Road tour of Japan.
Murakami also notes that huge summer events like Fuji Rock Festival and Summer Sonic have sold well. But he cautions that the festivals may have harmed the overall ability of some Western acts to tour Japan, as fans spend significant amounts of money on those events, leaving them little resources for other shows.
The Fuji Rock Festival, held July 27-29, included a performance by Radiohead and the Stone Roses, while Summer Sonic (Aug. 18-19) will feature Rihanna, Green Day and Ke$ha.
Summer Sonic promoter Creativeman shook up the touring scene in Japan in February when it established a joint venture with Live Nation called Live Nation Japan to help acts from around the world tour the country and the region.
In describing the multinational's partnership structure in Japan and Asia, Alan Ridgeway, president of international and emerging markets at Live Nation Entertainment, says, "Live Nation has the majority share in the joint venture with Creativeman. Our businesses in Hong Kong and Seoul are wholly owned, and our business in China is a 50/50 joint venture with [state-owned cultural organization the Beijing Gehua Cultural Development Group]."
Creativeman executive GM Frank Takeshita spearheaded the joint venture and became the managing director of Live Nation Japan.
Gaga's May shows at Saitama Super Arena were a sign of what Live Nation Japan could accomplish in the market. In addition to using Live Nation's clout in the West to bring international acts to Japan, both Ridgeway and Takeshita see Live Nation Japan's strategic advantage in its ability to set up all-Asia tours. "The possible growth for international repertoire in touring in Japan is partnering with other territories close by," Takeshita says. "In that way the band can increase their reach and intake. This is what Live Nation Japan can offer and what we're trying to do."
He adds that Live Nation Japan also wants to tour domestic acts around Asia, and the world, something that has been difficult for Japanese bands until now.
Smash is Creativeman's competitor for hot international acts as well as major summer festivals. It's the founder of Fuji Rock Festival, the event started in 1997 that re-established the viability of the huge summer festival in Japan. Fuji Rock has been leading the way in terms of festival experience ever since.
Set in the lush mountains of Niigata Prefecture (and, ironically, not near Mount Fuji), Fuji Rock, which is held the last weekend in July, regularly draws between 110,000 and 130,000 attendees. The fest has such loyal patrons it's almost guaranteed to sell most, if not all, of its tickets. Billboard estimates it creates ¥1.5 billion ($18.7 million) in ticket revenue every year.
Yet the three-day bash hasn't rested on its laurels. Shinichi "Chris" Kurisawa, a producer at Smash, says that "while Fuji Rock has been a success, both in attracting fans and building a solid reputation throughout the country, we're always thinking of ways to improve it."
Creativeman and Smash have been successful in touring international repertoire in Japan for decades. One of the most exciting new developments in live music opportunities for international acts in the country comes from Hostess Entertainment, a rights management company that has grown to notable size and influence in Japan for an indie.
Its worldwide label partners include Beggars Group, Domino Recording, Secretly Canadian and PIAS Entertainment Group in the United Kingdom, and it works closely with leading management firms for artist-direct relationships.
Hostess provides representation in Japan for such well-known names as Radiohead, Adele, Arctic Monkeys, Sigur Ros, Bon Iver and Gotye, and has engineered one of the few growth areas for international repertoire in the country.
Sales of the indie-oriented repertoire released by Hostess has countered Japan's overall sales slide, according to Billboard estimates.
In 2010, Hostess launched Ynos to develop platforms for live performance, direct-to-fan merchandising, publishing and other revenue streams. Hostess has also partnered with Dentsu, the industry-leading advertising agency, and telecommunications giant NTT Docomo. Those two companies together founded Boardwalk, an e-ticketing system.
It's clear that live promotion lies at the core of the new partnership.
With traditional business models in a permanent state of flux, it's particularly essential to establish "a tight connection between the live and recording businesses," Hostess and Ynos founder Andrew Lazonby says.
Early this year, Hostess and Ynos initiated the Hostess Club Weekender, two days of performances by artists released through Hostess. On Feb. 18 and 19, Spiritualized, the Horrors and Anna Calvi, among others, took to the stage at the seldom used 1,500-capacity Ebisu Garden Hall in Tokyo for the first event.
Sellouts on both days paved the way for Hostess/Ynos to stage the Weekender June 23-24 with the Cribs, Bloc Party, ex-Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, Here We Go Magic and Hot Chip. The results were equally successful, as the event sold out.
"Japan has traditionally had excellent production and organization with the establishment promoters. We needed to ensure we had the right production, operations and coordination team in place," Lazonby says. "Judging by the responses from artists and fans alike -- particularly with the unique Weekender events -- we have the team and approach right, for now."
The approach Lazonby refers to involves booking well-established acts like Spiritualized or Bloc Party together with high-quality, lesser-known or new acts. Yet the promoters assure that the majority of artists are at the very top of -- or touring in advance of -- their respective album-release cycles, thus creating a buzz platform for new music.
While this idea seems simple, the major fests featuring international acts, Fuji Rock Fest and Summer Sonic, are so broad and diverse that it's hard to connect the headliners to those playing lower on the bill.
Although the demographics of Japan suggest the live music market may shrink (the country is aging at a fast pace), Lazonby sees big opportunities in live promotion.
"Ynos is bring upwards of 40 international artists a year into the market," he says. "However, Hostess is still represented this year by some 20 or so artists between Fuji and Summer Sonic, so I'd say the opportunities are increasing."
Hostess' efforts are feeding into what's becoming more the norm for international acts. Ticket PIA's Murakami notes that while fewer mega-shows by international superstars are being held at the Tokyo Dome or other 40,000- to 50,000-seat venues, medium-scale performance spaces are hosting more international acts.
"The new model is Western artists playing at club-like or other intermediate-sized venues," he says. While 2,000- to 5,000-seat shows may be a step down for the artists that Ticket PIA generally services, a circuit for smaller-sized shows for international acts has been growing during the past few years, fueled by indie labels.
Among the newer venues for international acts is the Billboard Live chain, with venues in Tokyo and Osaka, run by Hanshin Contents Link under an agreement with Billboard parent Prometheus Global Media. Acts booked in recent months include Bobby Womack, James Morrison, Sergio Mendes and Bootsy Collins. "We are one of the only venues in Japan where you can see such a wide variety of international and domestic artists," Billboard Live Tokyo marketing manager Seiji Isozaki says.
Doug Allsopp, president of Kamakura-based Buffalo Records, a blues and American roots music label, notes that the downturn in CD sales has increased the importance of touring.
"While I'm going to continue to selectively release CDs," he says, "I'm only going to do so with bands that I have a good chance of bringing to Japan, either at a festival or on tour."
Allsopp notes that Keiji Matsumoto, owner of Cafe Goatee, a smaller cafe venue in Kamakura, is one of many who have started their own network to bring over bands from abroad. "Matsumoto started contacting other cafes and small venues throughout the country," Allsopp says, "and now there is a loose network of smaller venues that helps get blues, roots and similar-type artists to tour Japan."
Many indie labels are trying similar approaches. Taichi Inoue is president of Fujisawa-based Surf Rock International, an imprint dedicated to that American brand of laid-back guitar rock.
Inoue explains that previously, promoters touring international acts would only focus on metropolises in Japan, but when he was recently promoting Donavon Frankenreiter he took a different approach.
"Because of [Frankenreiter's] strong star presence in the surf industry and communities in Japan, I booked gigs where there is surf culture, such as Miyazaki, Okinawa, Wakayama and the like," Inoue says, adding that the change in approach paid off. "We sold out all six shows, and he asked me why he has never come to these places in his eight years of career in Japan. My strategy was, instead of having people travel to big cities for concerts, we go to them. The same methods have been applied with other artists of ours and they seem to work well."
Shin Fukuzumi, an A&R rep at the influential and high-profile Tokyo-based indie P-Vine Records, offers more insight into this strategy: "Japan is a market that is divided into genres and styles that people like. If you can tap into that, you can take advantage of people's enthusiasm."
P-Vine would have a perfect view of this, as the catalog of the 36-year-old label encompasses blues, jazz, Latin, alternative, J-pop, funk and punk. Fukuzumi also believes that the live market for international acts is on the upswing. "Opportunities to put our resources into touring have increased over the last five to six years."