Subtitle: Virgin Campaign Aims To Help Japanese Pop Trio Overcome Odds
by Chuck Taylor
August 1, 1998
NEW YORK — When Japanese superstar pop act Dreams Come True releases its first English-language album in the U.S. Tuesday (28), its band name will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Positioned as a long term worldwide priority for Virgin Records, the project, “Sing Or Die,” opens a new chapter in the decade-long career of the act, which has long has a goal of spreading its brand of joyous musical romance and hope far from its own home turn.
Since forming in 1988, Dreams Come True — comprising thirtysomethings Masato “King Masa” Nakamura as the musical mastermind, lead vocalist/lyricist Miwa Yoshida, and keyboardist Takahiro Nishikawa — has released nine albums in Japan, with sales exceeding 35 million, according to label sources. In addition to being one of the all-time best-selling artists in Japan, the group has garnered 13 hit singles that have sold some 13 million copies.
It has also toured in support of each project, reaching an audience high of 500,000 fans over the course of 10 dates in 1995. In addition, the act has been active in TV and film soundtracks, video game soundtracks, and producing other artists. In short, Dreams Come True is a household word in Japan
The band’s attempt to crack the U.S. market isn’t its first foray overseas. In recent years, the act has broken through in Hong Kong and Taiwan, selling more than 100,000 copies of its 1996 album, “Love Unlimited,” in the latter territory, according to Sony Music Entertainment Japan, its former label.
Until now, the act’s presence in the American market has been limited to a 1994 collaboration with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White on the single “Wherever You Are” and on “Eternity,” the ending theme for U.S.-made animated feature “The Swan Princess.” Neither track was released in America, however.
This current venture comes on the heels of the band’s signing last August with Virgin, after nine years with Sony. Of its move from Sony to Virgin, which was billed in Japan as the first time a major Japanese act had signed with an American label, the group says that the decision was keyed to its concern over a lack of international exposure.
“For nine years, we have wanted to do something in America, which believed they could make happen,” says Masa from a rehearsal studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. “But Japanese Sony was not interested in sending us to the U.S. Their logic was, ‘What’s wrong with being a huge act in Japan?’ We knew what we wanted to do here, but first we had to get the opportunity to sell our record in America.”
All involved in the project admit that achieving success will come only through tenacity and an approach that puts the quality of the music — in particular Miwa’s rich and colorful vocals — above all other elements.
“From everyone’s perspective at Virgin, we’ve always liked the idea and the challenge of presenting music from different countries to America,” says Virgin Records America co-president Ray Cooper. “The company has done very well with the Chemical Brothers, Spice Girls, and the Verve. We feel very positive about the development of this act, and we’ll take advantage of that with all guns blazing.”
“There are no guarantees of success. We know this, so does the band.” says EMI Recorded Music president Ken Berry. “But one day a Japanese band is going to break in the United States, and we hope it will be Dreams Come True. We’re going to do our bit to find out right now.”
Shuichi “Shuji” Kodaka, the band’s Tokyo-based promoter and GM of MS Artist Products, believes that if there’s anyone who can make the dramatic transition, it’s this act. “I had been working for a Japanese promoter to introduce American and Western music to Japanese fans, from jazz to classical, you name it,” he says. “About two years ago, I met Dreams Come True and realized that they’re the one that could be introduced to another market, to Western culture, and succeed.”
U.S. retailers, meanwhile, seem cautious. “We’re curious and we’re watching it, but we’ve ordered very lightly. My feeling is, just because it’s big in Japan doesn’t mean it will be huge in the U.S.,” says Allison Ward, spokeswoman for Miami-based Spec’s Music. “We’ll wait to see some marketing strategy behind it and continue to monitor how it’s doing. If they’re lucky, they could be the next Vanessa-Mae.”
But in contrast to Virtuoso Mae is the string of Japanese pop acts, like Seiko Matsuda, Toshinobu Kubota, and Nokko, who have tried and failed to break big in the U.S.
Japanese acts who have achieved cult-level success outside of Asia are traditionally alternative/indie-rooted artists like Pizzicato Five, Shonen Knife, Audio Active, Cibo Matto, Hi-Standard, Buffalo Daughter, and Cornelius. Pizzicato Five’s three U.S. albums, for example, have sold some 300,000 units in total, according to its management, Chibari Inc.
The ability of left-field Japanese acts to successfully target specific fan bases in the U.S. and other overseas territories, say observers of the Japanese music scene, calls into question the idea of trying to achieve a mainstream breakthrough in the American market.
But since Virgin has invested so much money in the group — the deal is said to have cost the label $25 million — it would appear to have no choice but to opt for a top-down, pull-out-all-the-stops promotional strategy instead of taking the grass-roots approach favored by Japanese indies and alternative acts.
Ronald Fierstein, president of New York-based AGF Entertainment and the group’s manager outside of Japan, stresses that the music of Dreams Come True is universal.
“Their kind of pop music is based upon real talent, as opposed to a confection. Miwa is the real deal, a world-class vocalist, and Masa is a world-class musician,” he says. “Their message is very positive and feel-good. I think they can ultimately appeal to a very wide demographic. When you see them perform, it’s undeniable that they’re real. The trick is going to be to expose them to the American audience.”
One important variable that the band took on itself was to absorb U.S. culture, to live it in order to take it on musically. Miwa has lived in New York for three years, Masa for a year and half, though they still travel frequently to Japan for commitments at home. Both have a sizable command of English, down to playful street slang, and are convincingly acclimated to life in the States.
In addition, many of the group’s musical influences are based on English-speaking singer/songwriters. Masa drums out of list that includes Marvin Gaye, Earth, Wind ” Fire, Barry White, Chaka Khan, and, with a playful smile, disco. “I also love the Carpenters, Simon & Garfunkel, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. I really just love all music. I like to mix up all of these artists for our music, but we also want to create our own sound.”
Among the 14 tracks on “Sing Or Die,” is first single “Song Of Joy,” which, due to the band’s schedule in Japan, will not be released to radio and retail in the U.S. until late August or September.
Other songs translated into English from the Japanese version of “Sing Or Die,” released there last November, include the soaring “Will To Love” and the soulful, horns-enhanced “Marry Me,” along with the pop ditty “Ahaha,” the thumpy funk groove “Peace!,” and the giddy “Dandelion Hill.” The act’s music is published by Stay Gold Music Publishing Inc.
U.S. audiences will soon have their chance to weigh in on the group. DCT has already scheduled — and sold out — six introductory showcases in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver that run through Aug. 7. The act traditionally tours with a 10-piece band.
The group’s live shows in Japan are renowned high-spirited spectacles, complete with festive costumes, elaborate staging, and the fervent antics of the highly personable Miwa.
To prepare for “Song Of Joy’s” imminent release, Virgin has ordered remixes by Tony Moran, with another coming from Masa, which will also be serviced to clubs. A video is also slated, according to Fierstein. A second single will hit in January.
“We have Virgin’s long-term commitment,” Fierstein says. “We’re just starting the process off with a big bang with these six showcases.” He adds that other “selective promotional avenues of the highest caliber” are due, though he is unable to discuss them at this point.
The worldwide version of the album was released in Japan July 16, entering the album chart there at No. 3. Around the rest of the world, it is slated for released in the U.K., Germany, and Sweden after the new year, with plans also in development for Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, and other nations. A Japanese tour is planned for summer 1999.
Both Masa and Miwa understand that it may take time to break in the U.S. and beyond and that radio could resist. But they remain, as ever, positive.
“There are so many great musicians here right now. If we can have just a small place in that, it would make us very happy,” says Masa.