One of our recent visitors to Limpi is one of very few Westerners to score a succession of big hits within Japan’s J-Pop scene. Mats Lie Skåre, aka Slipmats, has worked on ten number one albums - and counting - for some of J-Pop’s most notable artists. At Limpi, he delivered some fascinating insights into how to write and produce for one of the world’s most significant, if often misunderstood, music markets. In our latest Limpi blog, we bring you just a few of the things we learned from his visit…
How does the Japanese music industry differ to other markets?
While the US and Europe have seen physical formats largely overtaken by streaming, CD sales remain dominant in Japan while Spotify is still very small. The higher revenues from CD sales has helped Japan remain a very lucrative market for producers and songwriters; in fact, Japan is the second largest music market in the world after the USA.
J-Pop artists don’t have to be successful overseas in order to thrive. This is in contrast to South Korean K-Pop, which partially relies on exporting music to other countries in order to maximise revenue.
This, combined with a very healthy live music industry and a large population of 127 million, is why J-Pop artists don’t have to be successful overseas in order to thrive. This is in contrast to South Korean K-Pop, which partially relies on exporting music to other countries in order to maximise revenue.
Where J-Pop and K-Pop are similar, is in their very manufactured nature. There isn’t the same singer-songwriter culture as in the West; instead there is a greater amount of Pop Idol-style auditions and camps (in South Korea many hopeful young stars will attend ‘pop star school’ for up to five years before they officially debut as an artist). While there are of course artists with their own individual styles and self-written material, the industry is very much geared towards the manufactured model, while the biggest hits are often those that have appeared in commercials or in major cinema/television productions.
What makes J-Pop different musically?
In general, fans are invested in the artist themselves rather than specific styles of music, and not so locked into stylistic trends.
Mats described J-Pop as a ‘very musical’ genre, contrasting it to the typical four bar loop we are familiar with in the West and noting a strong cultural appreciation for good musicianship. The language itself also affects the form; Japanese contains a lot more syllables, so songs tend to be longer as a result.
The output of J-Pop stars is diverse in terms of genre – a single album might see a ‘70s disco track followed by ‘80s synth pop, a classic ‘90s ballad and so on, all the way up to more current EDM. In general, fans are invested in the artist themselves rather than specific styles of music, and not so locked into stylistic trends. However, while genres may vary wildly, the structure of the compositions often remains largely the same, with a typical J-Pop song running as follows:
- Bridge / dance break
- Broken-down chorus
- Final chorus
How does Mats make a J-Pop track?
Mats also revealed how the production process differs when writing J-Pop. The first step is to get the track approved by Japanese A&Rs. They will then send it to two or three top-liners, who will prepare different melody sketches over the track. Then in the studio they will listen to each other’s parts, look for the best melodies, then patch them together.
Of course, while doing this it’s hugely important to bear in mind the specific artist or band that the music is being written for – Mats makes sure he always by a piano in order to make sure they’re always keeping within the vocal range of whoever will be singing the track.
Once the melody is finalised, it’s time to produce a demo recording. They will write some ‘gibberish’ lyrics and record the track in both English and Japanese before pitching them both to labels and starting pre-production. Sometimes they will end up keeping the lyrics for the finished songs, other times completely new songwriters will come in to finish them off.
With Mats working with significant groups and artists such as Exile and Kana Nishino, those tracks can go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. In fact, by being released in various limited edition versions, live albums and best-ofs, the same track can keep selling for three years in different formats!
What else did we learn from Mats?
In the assignment set by Mats, our young talents at Limpi were tasked to create a J-Pop track following the same songwriting process Mats outlined. Top-liners worked separately to the producers before coming back together to decide which parts worked best and recording a demo (complete with gibberish lyrics).
“It's not how I usually work,” one of our artist/producer’s Carl revealed, “as we [normally] start with the top line and song, and after that make a track using those chords and harmonies... it’s only then that the producer gets to work. It’s a good experience and takes us all out of our comfort zone.”
Others spoke of Mats’ obvious dedication to the industry, and were deeply interested in the different approaches needed to write J-Pop – including the need to avoid sexual references or angry lyrics, which are a big no-no in the J-Pop world. Having to be conscious while writing of how songs would be performed, with space for dance breaks, etc., also provided an interesting challenge.
Many came away from meeting Mats with a newfound appreciation of how the music industry works in Japan, from the ‘food chain’ hierarchy of artists and popularity of boy/girl-groups, to the way sales of the same CD could be boosted simply by being released in different colours.
All in all, Mats’ visit was a real eye-opener about a hugely important musical culture that still remains something of a mystery to many outside of Japan. We look forward to bringing you more of our mentors’ intriguing insights very soon, so stay tuned!