New horizons: K-Pop & J-Pop

John Saunderson, Notting Hill's head of A&R, gives us the lowdown on the lucrative Japanese and South Korean pop markets

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 25 Oct 2013
  • min read

We speak to John Saunderson, head of A&R at Notting Hill Music, to discover how his songwriters are gaining a foothold in the lucrative Japanese and South Korean pop markets.

It comes as no surprise that the K-Pop and J-Pop genres are multi-million dollar industries in their respective homelands, but many in Europe won't be familiar with the massive super-acts they've spawned, such as Girls’ Generation, KARA, Psy and Big Bang.

And, unlike their US and European counterparts, most music fans over there are still buying CDs and vinyl.

In a study earlier this year, the IFPI found that some Asian markets – including Japan and South Korea - actually bucked the declining global trend in revenues from physical formats.

The report noted that CDs and DVD music video sales have increased strongly in Japan, despite a weak digital sector, while in South Korea the IFPI is expecting sales to have increased during 2013 for the third consecutive year, underpinned by K-Pop acts whose fans want high quality physical formats.

The IFPI also reported that South Korea’s music sector has attracted heavy investment since its government overhauled its copyright laws in 2007, a move which helped the country soar from the 23rd largest recorded music market worldwide in 2007 to the 11th largest in 2012.

Against this backdrop, UK hitmakers are keen to learn the tricks of the trade, explains John from Notting Hill.

His London-based independent publishing company has already scored two number ones and a number three in South East Asia, with two massive cuts on a Japanese boy band’s album due to drop.  So we were keen to find out more about his experiences...

What first attracted you to the K-Pop and J-Pop markets?
About three years ago when the domestic decline was biting, Andy McQueen, my chairman, said, ‘Let’s go over and do a fact-finding mission with the BPI.’

So we went over there for a 10-day visit. We were at the British Embassy and they brought in the bosses of Sony and Universal – it was great. There were only about 30 of us so we could ask lots of questions.

We came back and realised that it was the way forward for us. We have amazing sub-publishers across the whole of South East Asia – Sony ATV and Sony Music – so have cemented relationships there.

When we returned to Tokyo and Seoul with three of our writers we really did a lot of work on the relationship side and now we’re literally pitching for the biggest bands in the world.

How does the pitching process actually work?
We get a brief in, say from Sony Music in Japan, for acts you probably won't have heard of but are as big as One Direction. We then send it to our writers and generally get about 30 or 40 songs back. I'll listen to them to make sure they’re on brief and, if the artist likes one, it will be translated from English.

How does the translation process work?
One of my songwriters, Claire Rodrigues, never had a cut in Japan until recently and she wanted to know about all of that.

She had written a song about love and how it consumes you and breaks your heart. When we got the finished Japanese version back we got translated into English again and they’d written about trees blowing in the wind and butterflies. It’s weird, but the songwriters get used to it.

You get to realise that they don’t actually translate the song, they re-write the lyrics pretty much. The record companies are basically buying the melody and the structure of the song.

How big a cut would the Japanese lyricist get?
It varies - it's all by negotiation on a case by case basis.

Do you have to approach songwriting differently in South East Asia?
Yes, it was a real eye opener, especially for the writers we took out to South East Asia because the A&R guys actually sat in on the sessions, which they very rarely do over here.

It helped because if the A&R guy from SM Entertainment is in the room with you, he’ll listen very intently and A&R it as it goes along. The beautiful thing about that is they will then feel part of the songwriting process so you’re more likely to get the cut.

What percentage of your business is done in South East Asia these days?
I don’t really get involved in the figures but I will say it’s really grown since we went out there two years ago. Purely because they’re shifting such huge numbers at such a huge selling price is certainly better than here!

It’s still great to have a hit in the UK and it gives you great credibility, but I don’t understand how people make their money back these days unless you have a top three hit that hangs around the top 10 for a few weeks.

Considering the language barriers and translation process, why do they bother working with British songwriters in the region?
They are basically buying in outside influences from the West. Their song structures are very different from our traditionally, so they like elements of our pop to be incorporated into that.

How do you keep abreast of what’s happening over there?
Once a month I get our sub-publishers in each of those territories to send me their top 10 national records so I can send that to the writers. That way they can get a feel for the structure of the songs, where the verses need to be, how the choruses work.

Notting Hill’s publishing arm represents more than 25,000 copyright works, including hits recorded by Rihanna, Beyonce, Dizzee Rascal, Ian Brown, Madonna, Paul Weller and New Order, numbering around 300 Top 40 hit singles and 18 number ones.