Interview with HIDE NAKAMURA, song pitcher and sub-publisher at Soundgraphics, Japan - Jul 29, 2013
“Be yourself and don’t get too obsessed with the idea of writing for Asia. Our A&Rs expect you to offer something different to local writers.”
Western songwriters and producers have become hot property in the top Asian music markets of Japan and South Korea and, what with Japan expected to overtake the USA as the biggest market in the world, the rewards are considerable. The man who has played a vital role in helping bridge this cultural divide is Soundgraphics CEO Hide Nakamura. His company specializes in pitching Western songs to the Asian market and he has now placed over 500 cuts, including 21 no.1 singles and 23 no.1 albums.
Nakamura speaks exclusively to HitQuarters about how pitching Western demos to Japanese A&R came out of chance and ignorance and reveals the differences between the two music cultures and what Japanese A&Rs are looking for from Western writers.
What is the background to Soundgraphics and how did you first start pitching songs by Western songwriters?
I’d been working Warner Music Japan for a decade when I founded Soundgraphics in 2003.
We started by focusing on the digital business by running a download site for club music, but it that didn't work so well. Then in 2006, my business mentor suggested I work on a new venture pitching songs. He was then working for a major publisher and supported our development in the early days.
At first our market was pretty much entirely occupied with local compositions by Japanese writers. But when I heard a song by a western writer, I loved it, and couldn't stop suggesting it to others. I didn’t think about how I was going to wrap up the business side. I had been a club DJ for over 15 years and so when I started I was motivated by the same deejaying spirit of discovery.
Before long some forward thinking A&Rs started biting my pitch and then some forward thinking Western publishers started supporting me to supply more competitive works.
Most people just didn't know how to deal with a Western demo. And this being my first experience working for a publisher, neither did I.
Its relative isolation from the rest of the world has meant that Japan’s music publishing industry has developed in its own unique way over many decades, and as a result there are still a lot of differences between Japanese and Western publishing even now.
But my ignorance about these things actually proved to be an advantage. If I had known then I would never have considered pitching Western demos as my main work.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
Starting with the first small cut intended for concert performance, we have now placed over 500 cuts, including 21 No.1 singles, 23 No.1 Albums and 23 No.1 DVDs. That all came out of my ignorance.
Each cut has its own great history, and just like a daughter married to a good guy, it's hard to say which is the best.
When one of my clients said to me, "Hide, you’re not just promoting songs, you're creating a new repertoire for us", it made me feel like I was doing something good for my country. At Warner, I hadn't been a capable A&R at all, but now I feel I’ve become a good A&R for songwriters, in the original sense of Artist and Repertoire.
Can you explain how your song promotion process works?
Having been a DJ for so long I always take my pitching work from a DJ point of view. I dig a good song without being caught up with the name, I sort it out, find the best timing to play it and blow away the crowds. The only difference is of course is that the crowds are not on the dance floor but sitting in an office at a record label.
So, I just listen, listen and listen. Every month I listen to more than 400 demos, as well as all the chart toppers in Japan, Korea, US and UK and also my favourite club music. For me, listening to a song is no different than breathing and so I've never seen it as work.
After listening to all those songs, I am able to plot a musical map using my ears and work out which songs I should pitch to who.
I don't ignore the song brief from the label, but I never take it particularly seriously. What we must deliver is not something to satisfy their immediate demands, but something that will take them to a new plateau of their musical experience. At the peak of your DJ set you might need to drop one or two well-known anthems, but you’d never want to go to a party where DJ just keeps playing those songs all way through. It's the same thing with song pitching. So, I simply trust my own musical instincts. If they ever stop working then I'd retire.
How did you start working with Fredrik Olsson and Razor Boy?
I met him in Tokyo a few years back when he was looking for his first sub-publishing partner. We had a great talk, but I couldn't take up his offer at that time because my work was totally disorganized.
Two years later, following the expiry of his deal with a sub-publisher, he kindly offered me the chance to work together again, and this time, I could take it. He's really proactive, enthusiastic, and creative, and that’s what makes me so happy working with him.
What is it about the Japanese music market that makes it so attractive to Western writers?
I assume many people in the West already know this, but our physical market is still vital and the mechanical income is relatively higher than in the West.
The core fans here are very dedicated to the artists and will buy all their different products, from downloads and CD singles to albums and concert DVDs. It doesn’t matter how many songs overlap between formats. The CD single is still a favourite format for particular idol groups, and fans will buy numerous different editions with different artwork and some bonus content.
In your territory, a radio single is quite important to earn good performance income, but here an album cut or even a B-side are still important because they will bring you a good mechanical income.
In 2012, Japan became the biggest musical market in the world for both digital and physical markets combined. In 2011, we topped the physical market, and even overtook the US in the digital market in 2012. So I believe these factors have helped attract many Western writers.
But we're not a treasure island. On the flip side, physical sales are still slowing down year on year, just not at the rapid rate of the West. Media exposure is regarded as a key factor in maximizing the mechanical income, and so the rate for performance income is comparatively smaller. It's also standard to waive the broadcasting fee and sync fee for the use of your cut in a TV commercial, and that often surprises Western writers. Our performance fee table isn't that great, and so I'm personally concerned about our business model for 10 years from now.
What are the attractions for writers on the creative side?
Our music has more harmony and structure than Western music, so I've seen many Western writers feasting on it like forbidden fruit! You find there are a lot more complicated chords and voicings with many ups and downs in the melodies.
Plus there are fewer restrictions, such as needing to wrap up a song in 3 minutes; we are not as obsessed with getting a radio hit and so sometimes songs might go on for 4 minutes plus. In one sense you could say we’re more focused on classic song structure - and for that reason a little outdated - but for some composers, especially the ones with vast musical knowledge, it's rather refreshing, as you're able to do things with your own music you wouldn't normally be able to.
Why is it a positive thing to have Western songwriters writing songs for Asian artists?
They can help diversify the artists' music style and keep up with the increasingly eclectic demands of their fans. In my opinion, recent fans know more about what's going on in the rest of the world than my generation did, and sometimes their knowledge and interest is even going further and deeper than the professionals. They still love Japanese pop, but at the same time they are very aware of the great things going on in international pop, and so they expect the professionals in Japan to be equally aware and able to integrate that into their music.
The demand was there back in the 80s and 90s, but I think the development of accessible online media platforms like YouTube has meant that it has grown considerably in recent years.
Of course, we have very talented local writers, some of which can even compete with the top global names on a creative level. But since our local music has always had a very unique style and song structures, it can be difficult for them to create something with a Western feeling. This is the area my company has been focusing on for the last seven years and it's been going well!
Is there a worry that the Japanese music market might become too “Westernized”?
Well, from a conservative point of view, you could say that it's destroying our musical culture, and some people have criticized me in that way: "Soundgraphics destroys Japanese music culture by bringing all the Westerners over to our country". Yes, that may well be true, but I personally believe music can't evolve without any demolition and rebirth.
It's not just through my company that Western writers have been getting a lot of cuts recently. I don't know their actual current market share, but it must be pretty formidable and that means that on the flip side a lot of Japanese writers will have lost their slots. While it must be quite annoying to them, especially in this shrinking market, I still see it as healthy competition.
And I'm of the firm belief that after going through this period of great competition, we will see future development of our local talent, as well as further bloom of our own musical culture. Protecting your own culture is not about getting rid of outsiders or giving them unfair restrictions, but rather it's about opening up to healthy competition and challenging yourself to develop. Initially it might weaken our own ground but in time it will revive and return stronger, just like a Samurai sword gets tougher and sharper despite being burnt and beaten thousand times. After those pains and struggles the next generation will inherit our own beauty and spirit.
What challenges or difficulties have western songwriters experienced in writing for Japanese artists?
There are a lot of differences between our music and Western music, so it's naturally it's going to be challenging and difficult for you guys to write for our artists. But writing music for any artist, whether it's from the East or West, is "difficult", as musical creation isn't easy at all. So if you then try to write for our market by trying to be someone different then it's just going to be unnecessarily difficult.
I've seen many writers throw away their own style and try to write with a different mindset in an attempt to get a cut with our artists. This never works, but rather usually leads to a miserable result. None of our clients here expect you guys to copy the Japanese style of composing, as it would be much easier for them to speak with a local writer in the native language. The reason they come to us is for something different and out-of-the-box, and so doing it your way, with your "healthy" struggle, is the best way to make it through.
You set up co-writing sessions between Western and Asian writers. How do you help encourage these sessions to try to get the best possible results?
Musically, I'm working with talented professionals. Like I said, some of our top local writers can really compete with the top Western writers in terms of creativity. But their musical background is different; they speak a different language; and their mentality is way different. So I'm always to trying to be a good mood maker, as well as a good "interpreter" for them in the studio. Not a translator of language, as regardless of their English skill, most can eventually communicate with Western writers through their music making.
But I do act as an interpreter of two different cultures. When I see a Japanese writer backing off too much then I'll push their back, and when I see Western writers pushing forward too much then I'll ask them to stay back! For each session I try to create a good balance and an amicable setting so they’ll able to drive their creative power forward 100 per cent. They’re all talented so if they’re in the right environment then they can definitely write something amazing.
I used to take care of the same role at Warner, acting as PA to the Chairman for a while. I interpreted a lot of meetings between top executives, and then discovered the most important thing for the role wasn't so much precise interpretation, but rather creating a good mood and environment to let them speak amicably but seriously. I'm still doing the same "interpreter" role, only this time not between executives, but composers!
You also promote Japanese songwriters internationally. What can Japanese writers offer international music markets?
Of course, being Japanese, giving our talent a worldwide audience is my ultimate goal. Our music has a lot of aspects that are different from Western music and so I believe there must be something that only our writers can offer the world. But then Bono comes up: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for". I take this initiative as my 10-year challenge, and it’ll probably be my last struggle before I retire – and it has only just begun.
I'm sending a couple of writers to overseas sessions, not only to work towards the Japanese market, but also worldwide, and some of them are starting to get good results. From next year, I will have a Japanese female top-liner living in Sweden exclusively signed to a Swedish publisher. So I've started all those concrete initiatives, but they’re still just baby steps.
What have Japanese writers learned from working with Western co-writers?
There are a lot of things Japanese writers have learned from Western writers but it is your simple but effective method of musical composition/production that we have found the most inspiring. Japanese writers tend to get caught up in minor details and sometimes lose focus on the overall sound. Most of my writers have realized this during international co-write sessions.
In addition, they're fascinated by your open-mindedness in collaborating with other people. Here, co-writing is a relatively new thing, and the idea of doing it across different publishers or management in particular can still feel awkward. This is different to the West where people don't care about which publisher you're signed to, and are happy to get together simply from creative standpoint. That’s seen as something really adorable by our local writers.
If a Western songwriter wanted to get involved in writing songs for the Asian markets then what should they do?
Be yourself and don’t get too obsessed with the idea of writing for Asia. We do have our own unique musical format, but at the end of the day, amazing composition always blows those things away.
Like I’ve said, our A&Rs expect you guys to offer something different to our local writers. It’s been said that J-Pop always needs a pre-chorus and that the phrasing needs to be fast for our lyrics. But the best selling single in 2012, EXILE's "Rising Sun" – which was actually co-written by one of Razor Boy's writers, Didrik Thott – didn't have a pre-chorus and its hook in the chorus was a long note – so that explains a lot.
interviewed by Barry Wheels
Read On ...
* Publisher Fredrik Olsson on finding success in Asia with Western writers
* Songwriter Lars Halvor Jensen on writing for Japanese and Korean artists
* BMG songwriter Freakchild on songwriting camps and co-writing