Universal Music Japan has become the market leader ahead of Avex Group Holdings according to new figures from the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ).

The market share for UMJ in 2008 was 16.8%, up from 15.9% in 2007, compared to 15.9% for Avex, down from 16.5% in 2007. Sony Music Entertainment Japan, historically the market leader in Japan, was in third place in 2008 with a 14.2% market share, down slightly from 14.5% the prior year.

The RIAJ's figures are for overall physical music production on audio and video formats. They do not include digital sales data.

The real transformation in the Japanese companies' market performance becomes clear when comparing these figures to the RIAJ's market performance data from 2005: Sony was then at 18.9% of market share, compared with Avex on 12.9% and Universal in third with 12.5%.

"Four years ago when I assumed responsibility for south-east Asia and Japan, it seemed almost impossible - Sony I think had been No. 1 for 30 years," says Max Hole, president, Universal Music Asia Pacific region, and EVP Universal Music Group International. "It's great because it's something that we've done organically, not through acquisition, which makes it even better."

UMJ also had some strong digital sellers, although they did not contribute directly to the RIAJ results. Major domestic artists for Universal in Japan include pop acts GReeeeN and Thelma Aoyama. Thelma's hit "Sobaniirune" (Universal J) and GReeeeN's hit "Kiseki" (Nayutawave) both scored huge sales, each selling between 7 and 8 million downloads each according to Universal. The sales figures include full-track downloads, master ringtones and ringback tones in a market where mobile dominates download sales.

"Our Japanese company had two of the top ten top-selling digital tracks of 2008 in the world," says Hole. "Thelma and GReeeeN have had these huge, huge hit singles."

He adds, "The reason we've grown market share from 12.5% to 16.8% to be No. 1 is our improvement in domestic repertoire."

GReeeeN is also a million-selling album act, along with Hideaki Tokunaga who released his "Vocalist 3" (Universal Sigma) album of covers in 2008. The 47-year-old singer has experienced a career revival with the "Vocalist" series, which is aimed at Japan's ageing population, including the 4.3 million-strong 40 to 64-year-old demographic.

Universal Music Japan had five main labels in 2008 - Universal J, Universal Sigma, Nayutawave and the smaller Far Eastern Tribe (FET) and Milestone Crowds labels - and it recently launched Delicious Deli Records.

"Even the smaller labels have had new artist breakthrough successes, so it's a good story of creativity and dynamic A&R," says Hole.

He also credits the work of Universal Music Japan chairman/CEO Kei Ishizaka and president/COO Kazu Koike in transforming the company.

"We used to have a very monolithic A&R set-up, very typical of Japan, and they were open to my suggestion that we should actually grow to what we now have, which is six labels, three large ones and three small ones, that compete with each other as A&R sources," says Hole. "It's what we do in the U.K. and France, but in Japan it was quite unusual. It's really paid off."

Staffing at the company has also seen a change in recent years. "Four years ago we had a company that was quite old fashioned and most of the A&R people were in their 50s," says Hole. "The revolution that we've undertaken is a move to six labels and a western style product management set-up and empowering younger people in A&R."

However, he notes that "experience counts for a great deal in Japan" and the major will continue to have a "blend of senior staff with younger staff."

The total recorded music market in Japan in 2008 was 368.1 billion yen ($3.71 billion), according to the RIAJ, which was down 8% on 2007.

Universal Music Group is now market leader in the world's top five territories for recorded music - U.S., Japan, U.K., Germany and France.