Japan’s Fujipacific Chairman Ichiro Asatsuma Talks 55-Year Career, Future of J-Pop & More

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Billboard unveiled its 2021 International Power Players list earlier this year, recognizing some of the world’s top industry leaders who power the success of the music business outside the U.S. Japan’s Fujipacific Music chairman Ichiro Asatsuma was named in the Publishing category for his contributions to the country’s music industry for over 50 years, his most recent involvement in a major deal being Concord’s acquisition of Fujipacific’s global stake in Pulse Music Group, the publisher of hits written by Starrah, Ty Dolla $ign and more, in 2020.

Asatsuma was chairman of Japan’s Music Publishers Association from 2004 to 2010 and has been chairman of Fujipacific Music since 2005. Billboard Japan celebrated the industry veteran’s recognition on the honored list with an in-depth interview delving into his illustrious career spanning five decades, asking him for his thoughts on the differences between the way business is done in Japan and the U.S. and what he expects from the music scene in the future.

What have you placed the most importance on during these past 50 years?

To be quick in finding good songs, whether they be Japanese or Western, and obtaining the rights to them.

I originally used to work part-time as a music critic while working full-time at a company that had nothing to do with music. So when I got the job at my current company, I read M. William Krasilovsky’s This Business of Music [first published in 1964] and came away with a vague understanding that “OK, so the challenge is to be quick in finding good songs, writers of good songs, and artists suited to sing those good songs.” Fifty-five years have passed since I began working at this company, but that thinking hasn’t changed.

Compared to the year 1960, sales of Western music in Japan have been declining. What do you think is the reason?

This isn’t just about Japan. It’s the same everywhere around the world. When the local music market is growing, it’s greatly influenced by music from the U.S. and U.K. In Japan, modern American folk music resulted in the birth of folk music featuring Japanese lyrics, and music by acts like The Ventures and The Astronauts led to the so-called “group sounds” J-pop genre. Western music influences the local scene and new music bubbles up by adding original elements of that country to those influences. This tendency is the same everywhere, so it’s not a uniquely Japanese trend.

The Billboard International Power Players list appraised your “long-term vision and financial savvy.”

I think they acknowledged [Fujipacific’s] venture with Check Your Pulse Music Publishing LLC, which started in 2014 and continued until 2020. Check Your Pulse Music Publishing LLC published Katy Perry’s hits, so they had offers from major record labels to work together. But the members of Pulse said, “We want to be like Windswept Pacific Music [the publisher jointly established by Fuji TV and Fujipacific Music] that succeeded in business without support from major companies,” and reached out to us.

For a long time, I’ve had great respect for a company called Aldon Music that published music by the likes of Carole King and Neil Sedaka. In a time when every publisher thought that the popularity of rock ’n’ roll was transient and wouldn’t last, Don Kirshner partnered with Al Nevins and invested in rock to find huge success.

Scott Cutler, the founding member of Check Your Pulse Music Publishing LLC, had composed Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” and Josh Abrams is also a musician and producer. I saw these remarkable people and thought, “This is the same situation as Aldon Music.” So I said to them, “I’ll be Al Nevins so you be Don Kirshner,” and decided to invest in their company. After that, we were able to work with some brilliant writers and producers such as Starrah, who wrote Maroon 5’s hit “Girls Like You,” and Rick Rubin. This is because Pulse, whose members had named Windswept as a goal, became an attractive destination for writers and artists who wanted to work with an independent company with a certain level of clout. So we were able to quickly expand our business.

You’ve probably had to make various significant decisions over the years. When you make those decisions, do you take into consideration the music that the person has made, or do you focus on other things?

Of course I consider working with a particular talent when their music is extremely interesting or new, but I also think the people themselves are important. Chuck Kaye, who I asked to join me in establishing Windswept, is one such business partner. We first met when he was the general manager of the publishing companies for A&M, and I’d sensed that he was a brilliant man from then.

Sub-publishing was our company’s main business in those days, but sub-publishing deals with original publishers usually only lasted about three years. No matter how much effort we put in, they would terminate the agreement after three years if things didn’t work out, and even when they did, we’d end up being terminated because that company was taken over by another company. So in order to expand our business further, I felt the need to be an original publisher in the U.S. that signed writers directly.

So I consulted with Chuck, who suggested we create a record production company together, saying that by signing contracts with singer-songwriters, we’d be able to manage the copyrights as a direct result. We went ahead with preparations and had our artists lined up and the name of the new company ready, but the project fell through at the last minute. Chuck felt responsible for this and left A&M. He went on to work for Geffen/Kaye Music and then became chairman of Warner/Chappell Music. But when I saw him again at MIDEM one day, he seemed a bit down. So I said, “Let’s start a publishing company together,” and we were able to make that company into one of the largest independent publishers in the world.

So you started off your career as a connoisseur of music, and went on to expand it through your connections with people.

When I was working part-time as a music critic at Nippon Broadcasting System Inc., the songs that were charting on Billboard would be sent to the record room every week. I was fortunate in being able to listen to all of those songs. By doing so, I learned to discern which ones would sell well in Japan and which ones would be difficult.

Also, when I do business, I have to be sure that I can work with that person for a long time. You can’t work with them if you can’t feel those vibes. So I’m happy to say that I’ve maintained long relationships with the people I’ve worked with.

What do you expect from Japan’s music scene in the future?

I think it’ll be even more important to find ways to increase income outside of Japan.

Looking at the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S., K-pop acts led by BTS have been able to chart, but J-pop hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success since Kyu Sakamoto (in 1963).

One major factor is language. Since South Korea’s music market was small, it had to expand to places like Japan and the U.S. So all the artists are extremely well trained in communicating in Japanese and English, and they’re able to say what they want directly when they appear on local radio and television programs. Luckily or unluckily for Japan, the music market is fairly large, so there’s no need to expand sales channels overseas.

But the situation has changed greatly in Japan as well due to the pandemic. Artists, management companies, record labels and publishers all have to consider development outside of the country in order to expand the Japanese music market as a whole. I think ONE OK ROCK is one such act that is prepared to do this, so I’m hoping they’re close to scoring a hit in the U.S.

The U.S. music market is always bursting with energy to create something new. So I feel it’s necessary to learn more to find out what’s lacking in Japan’s market. I can’t say what exactly that may be at this point, but there has to be something that the U.S. does that Japan doesn’t. And if we all direct our efforts towards that end, I’m sure it’s possible to expand Japan’s market.

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