Billboard Japan has been interviewing various women who have established themselves in the Japanese music industry for its Women in Music initiative since its inception last year. In the same spirit of Billboard’s annual Women in Music event that began in 2007, Billboard Japan also aims to celebrate women who continue to break new ground in the country’s music business through various contents including interviews, live performances, and panel discussions.
YouTube’s Mai Sasaki, who oversees Artist Relations in Japan at the video sharing giant, is the next featured guest in the interview series. Sasaki helps artists in Japan expand the scope of their musical activities by providing a platform and operational support, a major example being the official Fuji Rock Festival YouTube channel that began in 2018 featuring livestreams and archives from Japan’s pioneering summer music festival. Having been involved in the music business in her home country and abroad before assuming her current post, how does Sasaki view the Japanese music scene today?
You currently work in Artists Relations at YouTube. What specifically does this section do?
Our job is to make various proposals and provide operational support for artists to utilize YouTube as a platform. The things our music team can propose to our clients are increasing in multifaceted ways on a daily basis, such as how to actively operate official channels, or hosting livestreams.
I see, so it’s not just about opening up your platform. The pandemic has changed the way music is made available online, so it feels like more and more artists are utilizing YouTube now.
It goes without saying that the shock of the pandemic has been immense for the music industry, from not being able to hold in-person events like live concerts and music festivals to having to postpone releases because the recording and promotion process became harder to carry out. In the midst of all this, YouTube has been holding online seminars for artists, record companies, and other music professionals on how to make the most of our platform. This initiative was more about wanting to work together towards a common goal rather than trying to sell our services. As a result, our platform has been used as a place for artists and fans to connect — through livestreaming shows without in-person audiences, or streaming performances from the artists’ private spaces — and even now that movement restrictions have been lifted, such developments on the platform continue to expand.
Could you tell us a bit about your career before taking up your current position?
I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, and after graduating college, I landed a job at a record company in Japan. After that, I moved to San Francisco. I didn’t have any connections; I did my own research, got connected to a company that I wanted to work for, set up an appointment for an interview, and got the job at a digital music distribution start-up.
Having experienced working in the music industry both in Japan and the U.S., have you felt any differences between the two?
After returning to Japan, I really noticed the large percentage of men in the industry as a whole. At the company I worked for in San Francisco, there were many women in key positions such as the heads of the production and marketing departments, so the fact that such key positions in Japan are usually filled by men in dark suits became glaringly apparent to me after coming back.
What do you think are some of the reasons that have led to this current situation?
This isn’t just about the music industry, but I feel that there’s still a strong sense of gender roles in Japan, that women are supposed to take care of children and do housework. Of course there are regional differences in other countries as well, but San Francisco is a very liberal-leaning city, so I think the difference I felt when I came back to Japan was significant.
What’s the current situation like at Google?
Google has a corporate philosophy that emphasizes diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. In fact, we have as many women as men. This is subjective, but my impression is that the right people are placed in the right places with more emphasis on individual careers and working styles than on gender. Working remotely was also allowed before the pandemic, and support is in place for women to continue their careers while going through childbirth and childcare. In order to promote women’s leadership, we also offer a training program called the “Women Will Leadership Program” for both management and individuals who aspire to become leaders, and it’s been very effective.
It’s encouraging to see a global company like Google leading the way in the advancement of women in society with an extensive support system. Moving on to the topic of artists, on Billboard Japan’s year-end Japan Hot 100 for 2022, only two female artists broke into the top 10 (Aimer and Ado). The result for the entire list was 58 male artists, 27 female artists, and 15 mixed acts. Men consistently outnumber women on the tally, even though there are many great female artists in Japan. Could you share your views on this result?
I’m not an artist, so I can’t speak for them, but as a listener, I sometimes feel that Japanese society isn’t ready to accept the views of female artists when they try to send out strong messages. Many female artists who are setting records globally, such as Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Lizzo, send out strong messages to society. The fact that these women have loyal followings is proof that their messages are touching people. In Japan, that aspect still seems to be a hurdle to overcome.
In Japan, there has even been a controversy about whether or not to bring politics into music, and I get the impression that there are a certain number of people who can’t tolerate women having a voice.
That might not be the only reason, but we once received feedback from the global team that they couldn’t think of any artists in Japan with outstanding individuality or assertiveness among other global artists. They said that when considering the global music market as a whole, J-pop artists don’t stand out.
In reality, though, there are outstanding artists like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who presents Japan’s unique culture to the world and has successfully performed at major events including Coachella, and Haru Nemuri, whose reputation abroad is even greater than in Japan. Boosting these and other great domestic talents further toward global audiences is one of the challenges that a global platform like YouTube should address.
That’s rather shocking to hear. What kind of artists were you into in the past?
It’s not just because she’s a woman, but Madonna has left a big impact on me. I first heard “Erotica” on a local radio station, J-WAVE when I was in junior high school and was blown away. Not only her music, but her fashion and makeup were also so exciting, and she made me feel that I didn’t have to be too concerned about what people think of me, which still influences how I think today. Her speech at the 2016 Billboard Women in Music event was also fascinating.
More than 40 years have passed since Madonna’s sensational debut in 1982, and the circumstances surrounding women have changed. Do you personally feel any of these changes?
When I started out, it was a given that we (women) had to work harder than men if we wanted to make it in the music industry. But nowadays, the concept of men working hard without regard for their families is outdated and pushing yourself too hard while ignoring the physical differences between men and women isn’t a virtue, either. We should also be aware of the potential for harassment that stems from the authority gained from advancing in one’s career, regardless of gender. I believe that having room to breathe both mentally and physically will lead to better performances for both myself and team members.
Watch the exclusive playlist curated by Mai Sasaki below.
—This interview by Rio Hirai (SOW SOWEET PUBLISHING) first appeared on Billboard Japan