Naoshi Fujikura on Universal Music Japan Strategy for Producing Global Stars & Future Goals: Interview – Billboard

Billboard‘s International Power Players annual list recognizes leaders driving the success of the music business in countries outside the United States. Universal Music Japan President and CEO Naoshi Fujikura was chosen from the music industry leaders of the world for inclusion in the list a third consecutive time, making this his fourth appearance on the list.

Billboard Japan spoke with Fujikura in recognition of his selection for the list, where he delved into Universal Music Group’s expectations for Japan and the challenges involved in creating global hits.

You were chosen for the fourth time this year in recognition of your successes, such as making King & Prince a million-seller. How has reaching a million CD sales been seen by the Universal Music Group as a whole?

Naoshi Fujikura: Here in Japan, the market is changing and digital is also a priority, but we have still been able to achieve huge success with CD sales, utilizing our unique business insights and data analysis to better understand what fans want, what the market wants and how to maximize the opportunities for each artist. For UMG as a whole, it provides renewed perspective on how dynamic the Japanese music market is, because for any artist to sell a million CDs today is a huge achievement for any project – creatively, commercially and for the company as a whole, especially when it is done in one country and in one week. 

What is UMG expecting from Universal Music Japan?

Fujikura: We’re always told, “now it’s your turn…” but that’s not something specific to Japan alone, it is a companywide goal. Our global leadership trusts us to lead and innovate here in Japan, but also encourages us to find and produce “global stars.” In the past, these were generally artists that have signed with international labels that had strong fanbases in North America, U.K. and Europe. Today, in the streaming age, there are many artists from outside the Anglosphere now claiming the top chart positions around the world – from BTS, Karol G or Bad Bunny. This is thanks to both the global reach of streaming, and the age of content sharing and discovery. Language is no longer the barrier it once was in exporting music to new markets, and that fits both with the global ambitions of the company, but also our own desire to introduce the best Japanese music and culture to new audiences worldwide. 

What is Japan’s strategy for producing a global star?

Fujikura: We’re now considering multiple different approaches. The first is to produce artists that become stars with the support of a fandom, like BTS and King & Prince. 

The second is what we call the “IP-based” approach, creating a hit linked to some form of video entertainment, whether that is Anime or another piece of Japanese culture that exposes global audiences to new sounds. For example, in recent times we had great success for RADWIMPS with Your Name, and in the last two years we’ve had Ado with One Piece Film Red and Hiromi Uehara with Blue Giant respectively. 

The third is through hits that generate a viral buzz on local, regional or even global social networks and spread further through UGC, which we have achieved with our artists Fujii Kaze and imase. Fujii Kaze’s “Shinunoga E-wa” became popular through UGC in Thailand, and from there it spread to South Asia, India, Europe, and the U.S. Imase’s “Night Dancer” was popularized by BTS’s Jungkook and Stray Kids, and now he’s well-known in Korea, rather than just in Japan.

Joe Hisashi, one of Japan’s most respected composers, is now being listened to more than ever globally, thanks to his music being featured on playlists designed to mirror audience mood and lifestyle, with themes like “Sleep” or “Focus”. These plays have helped boost awareness of his skill as a composer, and helped to drive his most recent album – A Symphonic Celebration – Music from the Studio Ghibli films of Hayao Miyazaki, (Deutsche Grammophon) to the top of the U.S. Billboard Classical Albums and Classical Crossover Albums charts in July. In this area, there is a lot of generic faceless music produced, but Joe is a prime example of where great art and music can cut through the noise and captivate new listeners. 

The number of ways that musical works can be shared with the world is steadily growing, so we expect these four approaches to evolve as fan discovery and consumption changes in the future.

The rapid penetration of global streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music must also be an extremely significant factor. Now music from Japan can be shared everywhere, and people around the world can listen to new releases at the same time. This can generate a furor of excitement worldwide, with zero time lag.

Fujikura: Yes, but while this provides Japan with opportunities, it also provides everywhere else in the world with those same opportunities. The markets of China and India have over 1.4 billion people, and in every country, people tend to love their local artists. But what makes a superstar, a true global superstar is the ability to transcend cultural, language and geographical barriers. You can’t forget where it all begins, with the strengths of individual artists, having talented artists and great music is the still the most important factor of all. 

Right, Universal Music is a global music company, so it also has the mission of making artists in parts of the Universal Group outside Japan into hit artists in Japan, too.

Fujikura: Exactly. Until about 20 or 30 years ago, international music accounted for roughly 30% of music releases in Japan, and domestic repertoire accounted for roughly 70%, but now Japanese and Korean music account for roughly 90% or more. The idea that when an artist makes it big in the U.S, they will also become a hit artist in Japan is now 30 years out of date. The global spread of UMG’s repertoire, particularly through IP-based and UGC consumption has also proven effective for bringing international artists to Japan, and I think these approaches will continue to become more defined in the future.

The rise in streaming sales is driving ongoing, positive music market growth in Japan and worldwide. However, the rate of growth of that streaming is slowing, and new market development is starting to take place. What can you share with us about Universal Music’s future moves?

Fujikura: At UMG, we’ve always had an unrelenting dedication to discovering talented artists and bringing them to the world. Each market is uniquely different, and while streaming services got off to a slow start in Japan, there is still a lot of room for growth. As the world-leader in music based entertainment, UMG is dedicated to innovating, improving the user experience and to finding ways to attract new audiences to engage with the power of music. Also, as I mentioned at the start, in Japan we can still optimize the potential of physical product sales for our artists, and overall, I think the Japanese music market still holds great potential.

The first music I bought were vinyl records. Since then, technology has advanced (to cassettes, CDs, downloads and to streaming) and the formats used to deliver music have also changed dramatically. Today, fandom for artists has also stimulated demand for physical and collectible products, and we are now at a two-decade high in global vinyl sales once again. Technology will continue to change, and we’ll see new products, services and models created. One thing that will remain constant is that there will always be talented people out there who excite listeners. Our job is to discover these artists, help polish them, and share them with the world. Even if the ways we offer music change, we’ll continue to share the value and appeal of artists.

This interview by Seiji Isozaki and Naoko Takashima first appeared on Billboard Japan

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