Rethinking the UTADA Conspiracy


I like conspiracy theories, and so I was happy to explain Utada Hikaru‘s attempt to release an album in America as a convoluted way to sell records in Japan. As a commenter noted:

“This effectively was a massive label swindle, where universal music/island records was able to steal away toshiba-EMI’s biggest artist, simply by having her drop her first name and sing in english.”

True enough. But the one thing that I have ignored is the fact that Utada only getting to #160th on the Billboard has a detrimental effect on her image in Japan. Someone Japanese asked me out of the blue today, “Is 160th high or not? Because that’s where Utada’s CD was.” I said, no, it’s not particularly high. And he kind of smiled and said “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

So they make all this fuss about Utada selling in America, which initially sells a lot of copies in Japan. But then when she didn’t actually sell in America, that information boomeranged back into Japan and now everyone sees the effort as a failure. In the past, they only did this U.S.-debut gambit with washed up stars who no longer make headlines, and I am sure the free flow of information on the Internet isn’t helping with the cover-up work. Utada also has the disadvantage that a lot of the press doesn’t particularly like her and want to see her fail.

So, in the end, Universal made out with a lot of money, and everyone else lost. Not really a conspiracy as much as a ingenious power play by a Western label working on the Japanese turf.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
October 16, 2004

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

2 Responses

  1. keith Says:

    there is a way for this to work…but it won’t be thought up by some suit in marketing. In the US, there are a ton of teens, boys and girls, playing video games and watching anime and listening to japanese music – in japanese!

    Utada, in japanese, from the Kingdom Hearts video game, has been in heavy rotation in my son’s room; he and his friends trade this stuff online. And Puffy’s Teen Titans theme is a big deal, especially when the Cartoon Network airs the japanese version.

    The marketing person who figures out that we don’t need to make the Japanese into Americans for the teen (soon to be adult) consumer may actually make some inroads and some money.

  2. marxy Says:

    well, i think the most success they’re having with jpop is selling it to anime fans. the only problem is that the anime market is well-defined, but small, so million-sellers in Japan can only sell about 10,000 records in America to these kids. profitwise, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what they make in Japan. and when you sell things to anime kids, you are branding Jpop as “nerdy” for the next decade.

    i believe that bringing over pizzicato five, minekawa takako, and other slightly hipper acts branded “Japanese Music” as a cool product and was leading to a possible future of more mainstream crossover. then Sony etc just started throwing Puffy etc to the wolves to recover some money, and they reversed the entire brand direction. also, the quality of Japanese music in Japan is declining so there are few bands who are on major labels that are worth even bringing over.

    Americans generally think Jpop is bad, so if you are going to bring Japanese acts over, they have to be better than expectations.