Can J-Pop replicate success of K-Pop?
Though South Korea has developed a reputation for high-quality electronics and competitively-branded cars on a par with their Japanese rivals, the meteoric rise of Korean pop has pushed the East Asian country into the limelight in recent years. Boy bands like Super Junior, FT Island, MBLAQ and B2ST have captured the hearts of millions of girls worldwide. SNSD, Kara, 4minute and other South Korean girl groups have experienced similar levels of success with their male fan bases.
It’s little wonder Korean music and culture “has the potential to become a new economic growth engine by fueling exports and improving the country’s overall image abroad,” according to a report by the Hyundai Research Institute (HRI).
Across the Sea of Japan, the Japanese music industry is struggling to keep its head above the water. The 2010 figures from The Recording Industry Association of Japan indicate declines of 6% (volume) and 5% (value) in Japan’s digital music market compared with the same figures from 2009. Internet downloads also experienced a 1% decline, falling to 10.1 billion yen in total revenue. Total market size fell by 8.3% in 2010. Though it remains the second largest market for music in the world, Japanese pop could certainly use some of the vigor and enthusiasm so closely associated with the meteoric rise of its Korean counterpart.
The J-music industry cannot simply stop at stemming stagnation. With the world’s focus shifting to Asia-Pacific to power worldwide economic growth, Japan is now faced with an opportunity to renew global interest in its cultural exports and begin a cultural phenomenon rivaling that of Hallyu in scale.
Despite the efforts of the Cool Japan initiative established by the Japanese government, Japan’s music industry is failing to achieve penetration rates rivaling those of its South Korean equivalents. But why?
Like Japan’s anime industry (which is also in decline), the Japanese music industry has become so focused on catering to niches, it becomes impossible for anyone outside of the niche market to appreciate the products it creates. That presents a major problem to the industry as a whole. One prime example of such a concern can be seen through AKB48 – a group that has come to dominate airwaves and advertisements across the Land of the Rising Sun. Targeting otakus across Japan since 2005, AKB48 has grown to become very successful in its domestic operations, and has expanded into a media franchise encompassing movies, manga, games, drama and radio.
“So what’s wrong with that?” you may be wondering. “They’re successful, they’re popular and they’re everything a company could want from a girl group. Why should they change their approach?”
The fact of the matter is this: With Japan’s population in chronic decline, the size of its domestic market is bound to shrink – a fact acknowledged and recognized by the RIAJ itself. Groups like AKB48 may work domestically, but their appeal is limited by cultural factors—13-year-old girls jumping around in miniskirts may not necessarily fly with consumers outside of Japan. Catering to broader audiences both domestically and internationally will be key to the revival of the Japanese music industry.
Products, however, do not market themselves. Unlike their Korean pop equivalents, most Japanese labels are allergic to promoting their artists’ work abroad. Some, like Johnny’s Entertainment, have even gone so far as to actively delete every promotional video of new and old releases from YouTube. How can Japanese artists pick up new fans if promotional videos are only available to people who already know about the artist in question?
By contrast, the success of Korean pop internationally can largely be attributed to the aforementioned. Through music with global appeal and a heavy marketing presence worldwide, Korean pop has become a major driving force behind the success of the South Korean economy and has cultivated a positive image of the country abroad. It’s working. Sales of Korean music were up 11% in 2010, with major labels like SM, JYP and YG hitting record highs in total revenue. Girls Generation, a popular South Korean girls’ group, generated an excess of 32 billion yen in total revenue from concerts and album sales in Japan alone. In 50 days.
There’s nothing barring the Japanese music industry from experiencing similar levels of success. It’s about time that Japan gets in on the action.