Universal Music Japan President/CEO Naoshi Fujikura was listed again among Billboard‘s International Power Players roster for the second year in a row. The list unveiled earlier this year honors leaders driving the success of the music business outside the U.S., and Fujikura becomes the first Japanese executive to make the list three times including his recognition in 2019.
Fujikura was named this year for BTS’ overwhelming presence on the Japan charts — the K-pop supergroup was named Billboard Japan’s Top Artist on its year-end chart while the septet’s BTS, The Best ruled the Top Albums list — and the breakthrough success of a number of local acts including King & Prince, back number and Mrs. GREEN APPLE.
Billboard Japan spoke with Fujikura about UMJ’s efforts to tailor BTS’ output in Japan to further its popularity in the local market, what he keeps in mind when leading his employees, and the company’s strategy for post-COVID times.
BTS’ presence on the Japan charts last year was one of the reasons why you were recognized on Billboard’s International Power Players list for the second year in a row. Could you share your company’s involvement in BTS’ success in Japan?
BTS has already reached No. 1 in South Korea and the U.S. Generally speaking, the more an artist becomes a star, the more we have to compete for their time, but we were able to release a greatest hits album of the group’s Japanese-language works. Japan is currently the only country in the world where such a best-of collection can be released. Our company and HYBE, BTS’ management, spent a lot of time discussing what the ARMY want and what we can do for them.
This may sound a bit rough, but a best-of album contains many songs that have already been released, and BTS’ ARMY listen to the songs on a daily basis through streaming and other means. We spent time considering what kind of additional value we could provide to the greatest hits collection so that people who already enjoy the songs would consider picking up a copy. “Film out,” written by Iyori Shimizu of back number in collaboration with the group, was released before the album arrived, and the set also included the English-language “Dynamite,” which was a worldwide hit in 2020-21. So the collection appealed to people outside the fandom as an introductory edition, leading to results that exceeded our initial expectations.
Could you elaborate on that?
The Japan-specific album caused a buzz overseas and we received more inquiries about exporting it. International shipments increased on top of the domestic and as a result, the collection became a big hit that sold over a million copies.
We also worked out the album’s specifications through trial and error, and considered a product lineup that would make the ARMY happy. We included previously unreleased footage and photos, as well as booklets that conveyed the members’ thoughts and feelings. The album ended up being released in seven different formats after placing priority on producing a product that would please the fans.
Do you sense any differences between the ARMY in Japan and elsewhere?
We’re not particularly aware of any differences, but since BTS have released Japanese-language works and have had many opportunities to visit our country, we do think Japan’s ARMY feel a special affinity for them. So to meet the expectations of such fans, we made a conscious effort to continuously offer information (in Japanese). 2021 was a busy year for BTS — they performed “Dynamite” at the Grammy Awards in March, released “Butter” in May, their Japanese greatest hits album in June, “Permission To Dance” in July, spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in September, and headlined in-person shows in Los Angeles from November to December. Although their only activity in Japan was the release of their best-of album, we continued to consciously communicate in Japanese to the ARMY here about BTS’ activities and efforts in South Korea and other countries in real time.
You were recognized as one of this year’s International Power Players for putting out numerous hits by J-pop acts as well. Did you make any enhanced efforts in that area last year?
I don’t think we started anything new or changed anything in particular. Our role as a music company is to work with artists to cultivate new talent and deliver it to the world, regardless of the existence of a pandemic. While CD sales usually slow down about three months after release, with streaming the music is consumed for a long time after its release and in some cases, becomes a hit several years later. To produce hits from this standpoint, the team that supports the artists need to be able to think from a medium- to long-term perspective. Our strategy for many years has been to adapt proactively and pre-emptively to the evolving market in Japan, planning for the future and streaming, which has made it easier to create hits, and the number of digital hits has increased. I think this is the result of our accumulated efforts to date.
What do you keep in mind when leading your employees?
We encourage healthy competition internally. For example, we have many labels within our company just counting J-pop, such as Universal J, Universal Sigma, EMI Records, and Virgin Music. Seeing hits being produced by labels next door boosts motivation. By competing within the organization and sharing success stories, we aim to be the company of choice for artists.
Could you tell us about your post-pandemic strategies, including your approach to overseas markets?
We always tell our employees to “Be Ahead.” So we have no intention of returning to pre-pandemic times. Our first step is to connect with customers. In May of this year, we hosted the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in Japan. The atmosphere at the venue was great and we rediscovered the beauty of artists and audience sharing the same space. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue focusing on connecting with our customers both online and in person.
The second step is creating new marketplaces in Japan. Sales of domestic pop music (J-pop) are far bigger than Western pop music in Japan’s music market today. Meanwhile, when I speak to artists, they’re listening to International pop music, classical, and jazz. Access to music has become easier with the expansion of social media and streaming services, and I believe one of our missions is to communicate the appeal of genres such as International music and classical to people outside the existing fan base and to a new generation.
The third is developing marketplaces outside of Japan. The number of streams from outside Japan has been increasing every year. In particular, streams of Joe Hisaishi’s works can be considered among the highest in the world in the field of classical music. When speaking of expanding overseas, the first region that comes to mind is the U.S. But since the market there is so large, the competition is fierce, making it an extremely difficult challenge. When we analyze the audience for each of our acts in detail, we find that their music is being consumed more in certain regions depending on the work, such as in Asia and South America. So rather than aiming for a “global hit” in the abstract, we intend to develop individual measures for each country, which will hopefully lead to actual results.
And the last one would be dealing with new economic spheres such as the Metaverse and NFTs. We don’t consider Web 3.0 to be an extension of the current music market and view it and the opportunities it will bring for artists and labels from a completely different and fresh perspective. We should think beyond simply bringing successful artists into the Metaverse and contemplate what can be done with music and related content, and how best to engage fans and bring those ideas to fruition. If this matter can be successfully dealt with by the Japanese music industry as a whole, the domestic music market would become even more promising.
Another thing is that Japan is now the world’s largest market for CDs. It’s not uncommon for International artists such as Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to release CDs specially designed for the Japanese market. As a result, more and more fans based outside Japan are paying attention to Japanese CDs and purchasing them. You never know where opportunities lie. Renewed interest in vinyl releases is causing a scramble for production lines in many countries around the world.