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How to Become a Singer in Japan

Hikaru Utada, the trend-setting songstress who helped to get the J-pop ball rolling.

Although many Westerners do not realize it, Japan boasts the world's second-largest pop music market--right after the United States. Driven by the success of icons like Hikaru Utada, Japan's growing music scene has even inspired a new term to describe its offerings--"J-Pop," which is short for "Japanese pop." But talent is only half the story. Trying to crack this market requires boatloads of luck, as well as making the connections and effort to market yourself properly to a new audience that expects its heroes to speak its language. To make it as a singer in one of the world's most crowded, expensive nations, nothing less will suffice.

Develop reasonable fluency in Japanese, which is a must for any J-pop singer hoping to succeed. Trying to sing phonetically, the favored stopgap tactic of many top league artists will not make an emotional connection with audiences used to hearing songs in their own language. You may also lose out on other big opportunities--such as auditioning with homegrown record labels, whose requirements will invariably not be written in English.

Study the market carefully before attempting to conquer it. Novelty and freshness are seen as crucial ingredients to succeeding in Japan, as the success of quirky acts like Shonen Knife should demonstrate. If at all possible, talk with peers who have performed in Japan, to get feedback about record labels, promoters and venues. Set up a Japanese website and electronic press-kit to show that you mean business.

Invest some time and effort in a studio recording that can serve as a calling card to labels and promoters, or the first step in a carefully coordinated publicity campaign to build the appropriate "buzz" around your release. As with any homegrown scene, audiences and promoters are reluctant to gamble on unheard, untried artists. With more foreign artists visiting Japan, it is critical to find ways of standing out among the pack.

Once you have created an acceptable studio recording, and begun to build yourself some publicity momentum, begin contacting the roughly two dozen companies that specialize in planning Japanese tours. Live shows are still considered the best way of reaching audiences and building fan bases, particularly if you focus on major cities like Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.

Assuming there is some interest from the companies, start working up a touring budget. A four-month lead time is considered best, especially if you plan on visiting during the spring and summer tourist seasons. Seek estimates from local travel agencies on all the basics, from airfare, to food, lodging and accommodations. How much money you take home depends on how well you grasp these factors.

Tip

Ensure that all customs and immigration requirements are squared away before you go. At a bare minimum, most touring markets require visas and work permits as a condition of entry--ignoring these rules may get you sent back on the same plane that you just departed.

Warning

Expect, at some point, to become a full- or part-time resident once you establish a commercial foothold. Discuss those pros and cons with your family, partner or wife, who may not be so enthusiastic if they are not part of those arrangements.

Stay committed to your success, but recognize that royalties take 12 to 18 months to come through--and even then, may not be sufficient to make a full- or part-time job redundant until the dream pays off.

About the Author

Ralph Heibutzki's articles have appeared in the "All Music Guide," "Goldmine," "Guitar Player" and "Vintage Guitar." He is also the author of "Unfinished Business: The Life & Times Of Danny Gatton," and holds a journalism degree from Michigan State University.