Asian Pop Stars Struggle To Find Cross-Cultural Groove

CHRISTOPHER LAWTON – THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Copyright THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 31, 2005
TOKYO — Lights flashed wildly as young fans crowded a department-store entrance in this city’s neon-lit Shibuya district to see Thai singing sensation Tata Young perform. “What’s up, Japan?” Ms. Young shouted, in English, to the Japanese crowd.
Then, the long-haired diva, crammed into a shiny purple dress, let loose with “Sexy, Naughty, Bitchy,” the lead track of her new English-language album, belting out: “Can’t change the way I am, sexy, naughty, bitchy me.”
Moriya Wataru, a stylish 23-year-old hairdresser, was in the crowd, sporting white loafers, two belts and sunglasses. Clutching a copy of Ms. Young’s new CD, he pronounced the music “cool,” saying that he’d already seen her in TV commercials. “I thought she could make it here in Japan.”
Record companies are grooming a growing number of multilingual Asian pop artists for global stardom. The 24-year-old Ms. Young has been signed by Sony BMG, a joint venture of Sony Corp. and Bertelsmann AG. Other acts vying for the spotlight include an Asian-styled version of the Spice Girls called Baby Vox, Japanese star Hikaru Utada and the Britney Spears-esque BoA of South Korea.
Tata Young, one of Thailand’s leading pop singers, is hoping to find success beyond Asian countries.
Some are trying to build a following across Asia, and especially in China. But the dream for most is to break into the U.S. and other Western markets.
Yet conquering the U.S. pop charts won’t be easy. British and Canadian acts have crossed over by the dozen, but few if any Asians have made their mark with Western audiences. One reason: There often hasn’t been much to differentiate Asian artists from their non-Asian pop competitors, aside from ethnicity.
Hong Kong-born diva CoCo Lee’s first effort to bust onto the American scene with the English-language album “Just No Other Way,” for example, fizzled in 2000, despite a serious marketing push by Sony BMG. “Maybe the songs weren’t strong enough,” says Richard Denekamp, president of Sony BMG’s Asia operations.
In 2003, Asia’s music market was valued at $5.8 billion, behind Europe at $11.8 billion and North America at $12.5 billion, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents the recording industry world-wide. The vast majority of Asia’s music sales are in Japan. Excluding that country, Asian sales totaled just $900 million (many CDs are pirated in Asia, particularly in China). As a result, artists like Baby Vox hedge their cross-cultural bets. The five Korean performers are studying Mandarin and Japanese in addition to English.
But music promoters insist it is only a matter of time before an Asian artist or band will break big in the West. For one thing, their music is getting better and the stars more sophisticated, as the international producers, video directors and others who help create pop acts in the West direct their talents to the East. Asian culture also is gaining more influence globally. And marketers are getting savvier about cutting unusual cross-cultural deals.
The South Korean promoter of Baby Vox, for instance, says it is close to signing a deal with California-based Bungalo Records to help push the group’s new album, which comes in both Korean- and English-language versions.
Under the plan, Bungalo, which is distributed by Vivendi Universal SA, would agree to promote Baby Vox in the U.S. DR International, Baby Vox’s label, in turn would push Bungalo’s Western artists in Asian markets such as China, where it has more experience.
Real success, of course, first relies on having the right beats. To give her music more of a Western style, Ms. Young, Thailand’s reigning queen of pop, has spent the past two years working with producers in Sweden — long a hotbed of pop music production. After arriving in the country with just one song, producers there experimented with drums, synthesizers and guitars to create a new style for her.
She released her first English-language album, “I Believe,” in Southeast Asia in February 2004. Since then, in addition to Japan, she has toured Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and China, where she recently wrapped shooting on a soft-drink commercial for PepsiCo Inc. In India, Ms. Young’s music is featured in the soundtrack of a Bollywood action movie.
Now, Ms. Young is looking beyond Asia. Mr. Denekamp of Sony BMG Asia says his company’s Australian and German units expressed interest in “I Believe” when he pitched it around the company’s global operations. Ms. Young’s international manager, Doug Banker of McGhee Entertainment in Los Angeles, says Australia would be a “big win” for the pop diva, since it would mark her entry to the Western market. But even he admits it is a tentative first step.
Mr. Denekamp has given the U.S. market a go, too. “I have to convince my bosses and my colleagues in the U.S. that she is worth giving a try,” he says. But after his pitch — he showed off the artist’s music, videos and photos — the American executives are still “wavering,” he says. “Getting a chance and breaking in the U.S. is everybody’s dream. It is probably at the same time the most difficult thing to achieve, because the competition is enormous,” Mr. Denekamp says.
And the challenges are growing, in part because more and more music sales are coming from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other middle-of-the-road mass retailers whose customers tend to prefer music that is made in the U.S.A. “It’s been very rare that anything that isn’t American, Canadian or from the U.K. sells a lot of records, or has any sort of lasting career,” says Ron Shapiro, president of Ron Shapiro Management & Consulting LLC and a former co-president of Atlantic Records.
On top of that, Asian stars lack something that has helped a growing number of Latin acts cross over: a large and supportive ethnic fan base. The U.S. Asian-American community, while large and growing, still isn’t big enough to propel Asian artists to mass appeal.
One Asian record label is trying to buck the conventional wisdom that cracking the U.S. market is essential to achieving global fame. Lee Soo Man, president of South Korea’s S.M. Entertainment, says his goal is to see his superstar teen idol BoA compete with U.S. music stars. But the music executive says he can achieve that goal if BoA conquers Japan and China. BoA has already scored a chart-topping hit in Japan, a first for any Korean pop star.
“Eventually the Asian market will get bigger than the world-dominating Hollywood market,” Mr. Lee says. He predicts that following the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese music market will grow to be one of the top-five markets.
But data from the IFPI indicate that China has a long way to go. The Chinese music market ranked seventh in volume at 115.7 million units in 2003 and 19th in value at $198 million. By comparison, the United States ranked first, selling 789.5 million units for a total value of $11.85 billion.
Even Mr. Denekamp is skeptical. “I hope it is going to happen, but 2008 seems a little early,” he says.

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