BAMM In-Depth: Big In Japan

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The phrase ‘Big in Japan’ has always been a bit condescending. Being successful there is supposed to be easy, because of the island’s famed love for anything different and western. The stock description has also been used to imply the artist in question just isn’t very good. But we hear it less and less, as the so-called borderless internet makes it impossible for stars to moonlight as rubber duck pedlars and credible musicians (check the two shameful examples below).

Are the musicians who only become successful abroad actually less cool? Is it just harder to get a successful career off the ground in the diminished pop markets of the US and the UK? And does it even matter anymore where you’re successful, when the music industry is in such a fragile state?

A report on global music markets by the IFPI last year found that the global recorded music sales had increased for the first time since 1999, by 0.2 per cent on 2011. Emerging markets were behind this trend, with Brazil, India and Mexico seeing sales grow by double figures.

Artists from the UK and the US have always looked abroad to foreign audiences, when home markets have been less appreciative. Many musicians and bands who have come to be seen as quintessentially British and American had their first breaks far away from home. Queen and Bon Jovi (below) were known abroad well before they were recognised, rightly or wrongly, as two of the most anthemic bands in the history of hair rock.

In some instances, artists have done their most exemplary, and representative work elsewhere. For example, Cheap Trick recorded their iconic album Live at the Budokan, playing to huge Japanese audiences, the greatness of which propelled them to fame in their native US.

Sometimes a country and an artist just click. Morrissey, who saw global fame with The Smiths, has an adoring foreign Latin American fanbase who prop up his otherwise less successful solo career. Despite his recent health troubles and tour cancellations in North America, the artist has still found time to tour Mexico, Chile and Peru.

He’s even written a song about his love for Mexico (called ‘Mexico’) and disdain for US environmental policy: “In Mexico/ I went for a walk to inhale/The tranquil, cool, lover’s air/I could taste a trace/Of American chemical waste/And the small voice said/”What can we do?” For his slightly dodgy solo anthem ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’, he appeared in full Chivas costume at the Hollywood Palladium (below).

The relationship between western markets and global music is more complicated. The occasional break-out success happens globally, such as Psy’s k-pop appetizer Gangam Style. But there’s much more success to be found closer to home for most Latin American and East Asian artists.

The popularity of Western pop music in Japan has instead been displaced by music (and other pop culture) from neighbours such as South Korea and China. The term ‘hallyu’ which translates to ‘Korean fever’ refers to the region-wide obsession with South Korean music, and television.


The internet might be a borderless place, but that doesn’t mean much when it comes to the serious business of touring and racking up a loyal fanbase, willing to pay for singles and tour souvenirs.
You’d think the arrival of the interweb would have dramatically increased the chances of artists and bands breaking new audiences in far-away places.

But it’s harder than it sounds to set up online, even when you don’t have to distribute material goods. Subscription streaming service Spotify is launching in Mexico later this year, after having already conquered 28 other countries around the globe. But its progress outside of Europe has been halting because of wrangles over music rights.

In addition, low rates of internet take-up in some countries (for example, under 40 per cent of home in Mexico have internet access) mean that bands and artists can’t depend on the internet to make their name global.

The biggest obstacle might be that so much activity in emerging music markets happens offline. Music scenes are far richer and complex, partly because of their size and cultural mix. Famously, the Latin American market has always been huge, and jam-packed with different genres and regional variations in style. The first ever Central American Music Market was inaugurated in 2012, in a bid to harness the joint power of local music promoters and private companies.

Prior to the event, the market in the region was mainly propelled by fans, bands, and small outfits of venues and agents. In addition to the Music Market, the Circuita Fora do Eixco was established in order to consolidate existing music industry information networks.

The presence of a large Hispanic population in the US, keen to buy Spanish language music, makes the picture even more complicated – and potentially lucrative.

Music fans are often the most powerful factor in making their favourite bands and artists succeed in unexpected places. Sonia from BAMM explains how Latin American salsa travelled back – and forth to Japan: “Historically Japanese people have appreciated jazz very much. Through jazz they have found many Latin genres, one in particular they seem to really enjoy is Cuban popular music Timba/Salsa. It’s incredible how much they know about the music, study it and dance it.

“An interesting twist to that, is the migration of Peruvian Japanese people back to Japan. There aren’t many, but some folks from Perú with Japanese ancestry are back in Japan. Peruvian people are extremely infatuated with Timba/Salsa. So there is this weird circle on how the music, through different sources, has presence in a whole culture far away.”

And as we noted in an earlier BAMM feature, more acts are finding their way east and south, especially on the festival circuit. While it might seem like there’s simply more of the same everywhere, international festivals give local acts a chance to shine next to bigger well-known names.

It would be wrong and frankly uninformative not to end with the best comeback-in-Japan story ever – and a testament to the power of fans everywhere. The documentary Anvil (below), centered around the Canadian hair-metal band of the same name, depicts the band’s battle with obscurity, and the indifference of the music-buying public. However, by the end of the film, their fortunes are restored by a large, and unexpectedly packed concert in Japan.

In an interview with Japan Today, the band described the country with great affection. “Japanese do not forget. The movie depicts Japan as the hero – they are! We’re [going back to Japan], and are going to be playing for the people who love us most.”


1. Alyssa Milano

Yes, that Alyssa Milano who played the requisite sulky teen in the 1980s gender-swapping comedy Who’s The Boss? The actor struck a five album deal on the back of her television success, three of which went platinum in Japan. Check out the example below …

2. Scorpions

They always seemed the most quintessentially European band – mordant lyrics, mournful ballads, despite their initial success in the US. They even soundtracked one of the most symbolic and significant events in the history of Europe, with their lighter-waving ‘Wind of Change’ (below) – the fall of the Berlin Wall.

3.Naomi Campbell

The 1980s supermodel had a less well-known but shorter-lived career in Japan. She paired up with the Japanese soul superstar Toshinobu Kubota (sample single title: ‘Body-Cation’) for the what-it-says-on-the-tin song ‘La La La Love Song’. It sold a million copies abroad. Surprisingly, you might never have heard of it before – along with the ‘undiscovered’ classic ‘Love And Tears’ below.

4. Ireen Sheer

The Essex-born musician started her career in England, but decided to decamp to Germany. She’s even represented Germany and Luxembourg in the Eurovision Song Contest. During her time abroad, she’s released over 20 best-selling albums. For premium early 90s Euro TV kitsch, watch the terrifying video below.

5. Charlie Winston

He’s France’s answer to David Gray, except he’s from Cornwall. Unlikely to get a free pie at his local pub, he nevertheless has sold upwards of 55,000 records in France (which is where he lives). He even sings in English, suggesting that we just weren’t that into him over here. His biggest hit over the Channel so far has been ‘Like a Hobo’ (below), off his first album.

6. Chris de Burgh

Best known for the 1980s wedding favourite ‘Lady in Red’, he is huge in Iran for unfathomable reasons (as evidenced in the video below). In fact, the Irish singer was the first Western performer permitted to play in the capital Tehran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

What are your thoughts on the ‘Big In Japan’ phenomenon? Share ‘em in the comments section below!


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