The relationships between artists and music fans are growing more diverse, involving streaming and social networks. Universal Music Japan has a team dedicated to exporting music overseas: the Export Marketing Team.
The team’s objective is to provide more strategic support to Japanese artists being listened to outside Japan. Ever since its formation, it has constantly updated the company’s strategies for supplying the increasingly competitive global market with music from Japan. It is truly an organization for the streaming era.
Billboard Japan spoke with Hajime Isogai, General Manager of Export Marketing, about Universal Music Japan’s overseas strategy.
Jay Kogami (JK): What is the role of the Export Marketing Team in Universal Music (UMJ)?
Isogai: We rapidly identify and analyze how Japanese music and Japanese artists are being listened to outside Japan, and we discover signs of changes and opportunities for increasing plays. As the leader of the team, I guess my role is to systematically build an approach for thinking about potential measures. Every day, we’re thinking about how we can respond to daily trend movements.
JK: Could you share an example of a specific Japanese artist that you’ve performed export marketing analysis for?
Isogai: Some interesting movement we saw in 2022 involved Fujii Kaze’s “Shinunoga E-Wa” and SEKAI NO OWARI’s “Habit.” Of course, they’re both excellent songs, but they’ve also become well-recognized around the world through social media. “Habit” first started buzzing in Latin America, in countries like Peru and Mexico, and view numbers started climbing. It spread from there around the world. Seeing a song take off from Latin America and spread worldwide from there was something new for us. Fujii Kaze’s “Shinunoga E-wa” spread through use in Thailand in sped-up UGC on TikTok, anime MADs, and K-drama highlight videos. From there, it hit the Spotify viral charts, and in a flash it had spread around the world.
JK: Do you think that Japanese music owes its worldwide acceptance to the overall high number of young social media users overseas? Or is it limited to specific countries or regions?
Isogai: Rather than compartmentalizing along the lines of age or region, I think it’s essential to look at the cultural backgrounds of music fans. For example, Japanese anime is well-established and accepted worldwide. However, that doesn’t mean that anime tie-up songs always take high places on Billboard’s global charts. There are foundational cultures of accepting music that vary by region and age range. When looking for ways to approach overseas markets, it’s important to investigate and examine their underlying cultures.
JK: Have you made any new discoveries that could overturn past stereotypes or conventional wisdom with respect to the kinds of cultures or environments that welcome Japanese artists and Japanese music?
Isogai: I think we need to reexamine our assumption that lyrics have to be in English. When one particular Japanese song became a viral hit in Southeast Asia, local staff carried out a study and found that one of the reasons for the rise in the number of videos using the song was that “the lyrics are good.” It was a deep love song with lyrics in Japanese, so we were surprised to find out that one of the reasons it resonated with locals was the lyrical content. It really brought home the fact that language barriers and national borders don’t prevent artists based in Japan from reaching listeners and users worldwide.
JK: How do you feel that the Universal Music Group’s strengths have changed with respect not only to Japanese music, but also to capturing overseas market share?
Isogai: I think that, as a global music company, our teams around the world are better than ever at directly working with each other when we discover potential hits, wonderful talent, and creative people. In the past, when aiming to create an overseas hit, you’d have to sign a contract with the local label and ship and sell products. Now, with digital services, we can deliver music across borders, without being concerned with language barriers. That’s making it more important than ever to share information, so that we can understand the pioneering cultures in each country. Having marketing teams in each region is an even greater strength for us in terms of creating paths for international success.
JK: Is there any overseas marketing or any key trends that you would like to work with?
Isogai: With TikTok, Spotify, YouTube, and the like, you can see the numbers change in real time, so you can see data on the number of fans, listeners, and the like. I always keep in mind the process by which these things happen: things take off on social media, get played and shared on streaming services, and then spread around the world, attracting more and more fans. Specifically, physical products like CDs start selling outside Japan, and we start providing fans with tangible ways of expressing their appreciation of their favorite artists. I think one of the missions of a music company is to provide fans with ways of supporting the artists and music they love. I don’t think this trend is limited to Japanese artists, but can also occur overseas as well.
JK: So you’re creating different physical products from zero in different regions?
Isogai: Well, for example, the VTuber Mori Calliope already had a lot of fans in the U.S., so she consulted with a team in our head office and we’ve started selling her merchandise through an American e-commerce site (the U.S. Universal Music store). The number of fans that bought her titles with additional included merch was even higher than we expected. I think that we’ll be seeing lots of similar approaches being developed in the future.
JK: Are there any fields you’d like to take on, or any that you see as challenges?
Isogai: A lot of successful songs are anime tie-ups, so I’d like to increase the number of artists who become popular without any anime tie-ups. That poses a major challenge, but, in that sense, I feel like Fujii Kaze has opened a new door for artists from Japan. His success on TikTok and other social platforms led to a rise in the number of monthly listeners on services like Spotify and created an environment in which it was possible to pitch him for major editorial playlists like Spotify’s “New Music Friday.” It’s still not an easy process, but it’s started to prove effective.
JK: What are the Export Marketing Team’s targets for 2023?
Isogai: We have a few. One is our approach to cultures like the utaite (cover vocalist) and VTuber culture. I think there are a lot of latent or potential fans around the world for Japanese cultures like these. Mori Calliope, who I mentioned earlier, was looking at expanding into the overseas market from the very start, and she signed with EMI Records. I feel like in 2023 we’re going to see even more of these kinds of overseas connections that span label lines. The value of our Export Marketing Team lies in the fact that we can spring to action and provide flexible support and proposals when artists or staff have even a little bit of interest in working on the global stage.
–This interview by Jay Kogami first appeared on Billboard Japan.