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The Other Half: Yagi Kazutaka unravels the inner workings of Japan’s music scene

Japan is the second-largest music market in the world. Otto Clubman talks to the man who has had a front-row seat in its development.

  • Otto Clubman
  • 5 November 2020

This month, The Other Half heads north (and east) to Tokyo, to speak with Japanese music executive Yagi Kazutaka. A senior dance music manager at Avex Group, Japan’s largest domestic record label, Kzutaka has over twenty years of experience managing Japanese DJs and producers. As head of one of Avex’s dedicated dance labels, he has had a front-row seat in the development of the industry, witnessing the growth and changes in Japan’s dance business over the last two decades. In addition to his dance duties, he has also managed pop-superstar Kumi Koda. We spoke with Kazutaka about regional differences in dance in Japan, Japan’s special place in the overall Asian scene, as well as domestic DJ and producers’ quest to place on DJ Mag's Top 100 DJs list.

Otto Clubman: Thanks for speaking with us today. You’ve been with Avex Group, the leading Japanese record label, for almost two decades. How did you get into the business?

Yagi Kazutaka: I grew up listening to all kinds of music, but always had a special love of dance music — I was even a DJ myself. After college, I was lucky to get a job as a junior manager at Avex, which was a dream come true. At the time, Avex Trax was the leading dance music label in Japan; it was really a pioneer in the genre. So, to be a part of the team during its formative years was an amazing experience for me. I was lucky to have a hand in some of the earliest hit records in Japanese dance.

Over the last 18 years, I’ve worked in a number of divisions at Avex, but almost always focusing on dance music. In particular, I’ve found the artist management division to be the most exciting and challenging. I’ve worked with some great up and coming talent like Future Boyz. Recently, I had the chance to co-manage Kumi Koda, who is one of Japan’s biggest stars — a little like Madonna, in the West. Given the trend towards dance music these days, it was a great opportunity to help inject some modern dance sounds into this pop superstar’s songs, helping her connect with a new generation of fans.

Who were some of the early Japanese DJ pioneers that inspired you when you were growing up?

Definitely DJ Emma! In the mid-1990s, he was coming up in Japan. He played parties all over Tokyo, and really helped push forward the house scene. In my opinion, he was a key figure in helping spread house throughout Tokyo and beyond.

Who are some of the most promising Japanese DJs and producers these days?

There’s a lot of great talent on the scene today. Some examples that I really like include Seamo, Dky-Hi, mihimaru GT, Megaryu and iamSHUM. It’s great to see the market expanding and deepening. EDM was really big for a while — and remains strong with certain groups and at festivals. But the underground scene — at least before COVID — was alive, well and growing in Tokyo. There are so many clubs around the city that support a wide range of music. So, DJs in lots of sub-genres can find an audience in Tokyo. That’s one of the best things about the dance scene in Tokyo — there are venues and fans for so many different sub-genres. It’s a pretty diverse and healthy scene.

"The Japanese market is huge — still the second-largest music market in the world. As a result, most domestic artists didn’t have to think beyond Japan. This market was large enough to support a very successful career."

As you mention, Tokyo has an amazing dance music scene. What other cities around the country have a strong dance music culture?

While Tokyo is still the epicentre of dance in Japan, some other cities have really vibrant scenes. Osaka has a great scene, with some very strong local talent. Nagoya and Sapporo also have really good dance music communities — great DJs and extremely dedicated fans. It’s encouraging to see the dance culture spreading out from Tokyo to these other places around the country. The sound of the DJs and feel of the clubs is a little different in each place, which is really interesting and great for diversity. It keeps things exciting. Also, it is always great to see a DJ from a “smaller” city come to Tokyo and just crush it here, and win over fans. It’s kind of like New York; if you can “make it in Tokyo, you can make it anywhere in Japan’ — at least, that’s what we think. So, it’s always thrilling to see these DJs from around the country find an audience here.

Do you think there is a “Japanese sound” in dance music? What makes Japanese Dance unique?

This is a complicated question. Our domestic music scene, in general, was heavily influenced by Western music, beginning as far back as the 1950s. Most Japanese artists actually mix Japanese and English lyrics in their songs — there is a sort of blending of East and West. Japan is almost, in a way, a “bridge”, musically, between the West and the rest of Asia. We’ve had decades of exposure to Western music, and our music essentially is a blend between “Asian” and “Western”, at least as compared to other countries in the region. So, our sound is sort of unique, I think — a blend.

That said, the Japanese scene keeps evolving, and we are definitely developing a more “domestic” sound, free from direct Western influence. So, it’s pretty interesting now; there is a lot of push and pull. But I do think our speciality– in all music, including dance – is serving as a sort of bridge between East and West. Our sound is somewhat accessible to both audiences.

How did COVID affect the dance business in Japan? What have DJs and clubs done to adjust to the situation?

COVID has had a huge impact on the Japanese dance music market. While Japan was spared the worst of the virus — there wasn’t a strict lockdown or quarantine — people have still, understandably, been reluctant to go to the clubs. The worst of the situation was from March until June, when things then began to improve. The clubs have now all implemented pandemic measures, hoping to entice customers to come back. The number of guests has been increasing recently, but slowly. It will take some time for everyone to be comfortable partying in these crowded spaces again. It may take another six or seven months before we see a full recovery, I think.

Why have Japanese DJs not really hit the DJ Mag Top 100 DJ list, so far? Do you think it will change?

This is a very interesting question. The Japanese market is huge — still the second-largest music market in the world. As a result, most domestic artists didn’t have to think beyond Japan. This market was large enough to support a very successful career. Historically, they didn’t need to look at breaking outside of Japan to have a huge fan base and make a lot of money. So, most artists didn’t have an “international game plan”. This applied to the dance music scene, as well as the rest of the industry.

But recently, the market has been changing quite dramatically. As the Japanese music market has levelled off and growth has slowed, other Asian countries have grown quickly. We’ve had to look outward and figure out how to compete on an international stage. Local DJs have begun exploring how to break into China and Southeast Asia, in particular. These emerging markets are growing too fast to ignore now. So, now the top Japanese DJs are actively look outward for the first time. I hope their talent will be recognized more and more on the world stage over time.

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