Tetsuya Komuro: The Phenomenon of the J-pop Mega-Hit Writer/Producer/Composer
-- by James Kao, 4/23/98
In the world of J-pop (the genre of Japanese popular music) there are many successful producers and many successful high-profile stars. However, few to none have combined the two roles as well as 39 year old Tetsuya Komuro, considered to be the number one producer in Japan. Unlike many other producers, Komuro has not allowed himself to fade into the background as other producers do once they achieve fame and fortune for the groups they produce. Komuro has applied his talents to composing and producing mega-hit after mega-hit, and has also been able to identify these hits not only with the groups that performed them, but also with himself, personally, thereby developing a powerful image that other producers do not have and usually do not cultivate.
Tetsuya Komuro was born in 1958 in Tokyo. He cultivated an interest in Western rock music throughout his high school and college career. He attended Waseda University ostensibly to study social sciences, but his interests ended up taking him on a different path. In 1983, along with Takashi Utsunomiya and Naoto Kine, he formed the band "TM Network" which over the next 11 years, would bring him fame and fortune as a performer. Komuro began his brief career as a solo artist in 1989 (he made and performed two number one singles, "Running to Horizon" and "Gravity of Love," during his solo career, but overall his solo stage presence and singing ability lacked the qualities necessary for long-term success). Deciding to use found talent (Yuki) instead of singing himself, he produced the group "trf" in 1992, often considered Japan's first techno-rave/dance group. The success of trf is where Komuro's career as a producer was truly launched. He continued on, producing the group Globe and solo artists Tomomi Kahala and Namie Amuro, as well as working on many smaller projects and albums with other famous groups and artists such as H. Jungle with T (actually a 2 song project with the comic group "Downtown"), hitomi, Ryoko Shinohara, dos, H.A.N.D., and many others.
Komuro's first hit band "TM Network" achieved its first number one hit in 1987 with the song "Get Wild", with music composed by him. In the course of the band's 11 year life, Komuro wrote (music and lyrics) most of their songs and top hits. It is here where he established himself as a skilled songwriter and a talented performer. Because of TM Network's great success, Komuro was able to make a name for himself and build a popularity base for his later endeavors. For the wildly successful trf, Komuro basically did everything but actually perform. In promoting trf as a Euro-styled techno/dance group and writing songs that were well suited for karaoke, Komuro found a huge new market that was previously unknown. This was no chance discovery either. Komuro took care of every aspect of trf's act, starting with all the writing, synthesizer programming, and stage details down to all the minor aspects of the group's performance. Steve McClure wrote, "His control over the group is said to be so strong that he chooses the trf wardrobe, even down to their hairstyles."
The continuing success of trf moved Komuro into his current position as number one producer. He signed on Okinawan Namie Amuro from the band "Super Monkeys" as a solo singer under his production, adding her to the "TK Family". After joining up with Komuro, Amuro became a mega-pop star and fashion symbol in comparison to her "bubblegum sweet" image with the Super Monkeys. He also discovered a failed second-rank idol singer named Arisa Tomine, changed her name to Tomomi Kahala (to match his own romanized initials "TK") and made her into another mega-hit pop star with a different audience than Amuro. Most interestingly, he formed the group "Globe," comprising of singer Keiko, rapper Marc Panther, and himself at keyboard. Globe marks Komuro's re-emergence in the performance arena, with all his might as a producer/composer/writer behind him. However, while building up his empire of mega-hit singers and projects, he has also been building up his own image. He often provides backing vocals for his solo singers and appears, sometimes subtly and sometimes strongly, in the posters, CD booklets, and music videos of those whom he produces. While promoting his artists, he has promoted himself in a very visible way, demonstrated by his winning the 1996 Best Dresser Award in the Best Dresser Awards Entertainment Category.
Many performers take the leap from writing their own songs and producing their own acts to becoming full-time producers writing and managing the acts for other groups and soloists. However, few are ever so visibly successful as Tetsuya Komuro. In 1996, Komuro ranked fourth in total income for Japanese taxpayers and wrote seven of the top ten songs in that year. For the first half of 1997, songs he produced held the top three positions in the top ten list, and he continues to hold at least one position on every chart at any given time. Even the producers who are successful typically fade into the background, allowing their groups to dominate the limelight. Komuro, however, maintains a powerful image along with his groups, or rather, over all his groups, as a binding force that launches everything he touches into super stardom. He is personally identified with each of his groups and commands a considerable media presence to the extent that his groups are often classified simply as "Komuro."
Komuro has a strong sense of the Japanese music market and of what people in his demographic target group (junior-high and high school girls) find cool and want. During 1988, Komuro spent time in England to study that country's pop music, and picked up a feel for what is often called "Eurobeat" and "rave" music. When he returned to Japan and started trf three years afterwards, the idea of introducing a brand of Eurobeat music tailored to his Japanese target audience was a strong influence in the direction of his work. He recognized that girls in his target group enjoyed discos and karaoke, and felt that he had a market for techno/dance (Eurobeat) songs of the type which would be played in dance clubs, but also had clear, memorable melodies and simple lyrics which would be fun and easy for them to karaoke to. Thus was born the group trf. As is implied by their name "tetsuya komuro rave factory," Komuro took great care to optimally position the group. He frequented a disco called Velfarre and often called women over to his VIP room and asked them to write down "keywords," short sequences of words that were "cool" or summed up important dreams and concepts to them. He then took these keywords and used them in his songs and song titles as catch-phrases and as the basis for longer lyrics, all to match his target audience.
The success of trf can also be linked to the success of the distribution label "Avex Trax" which distributes trf titles. Avex really created the market for dance/Eurobeat-style music in Japan, and dominates this segment of the market. Through a combination of intense promotion (commercials, free concerts/parties), development of related enterprises (dance clubs), and simply being there first, Avex has created not only a new Japanese music style and culture, but has brought it to the forefront of popular culture. Avex targeted a female segment which Steve McClure described as: "Young, rich, and defiantly sexual, they were girls who didn't want boyfriends, had no thoughts of marriage, lived at home with their parents and spent their money on themselves. In the early 1990's, the hedonistic single-girl became one of the nation's biggest media phenomena." This is the same group Komuro targets with trf and a subset of the teenage female group that he aims all his works at. Both Avex and Komuro recognized these new cultural developments and were quick to catch on to them, springboarding the label and Komuro to incredible success.
trf was not a singular occurrence for Komuro. Rather, it paved the way for an increasing number of Komuro mega-hits by different new performers, each targeted at slightly different audiences. Komuro uses many methods to achieve his success. Often (as with Namie Amuro), he will spot an existing performer with a certain style and sign him or her (usually her) on, merging her existing style with his own. This process might better be described as his bridging the gap between the performer's existing style, and that which is necessary for mega-success. Each of his performers retains a significant amount of his or her own style separate from Komuro's influence, adding diversity between them. Komuro also "collects sound" from all over, keeping them for future use. He is known to have stored, in his synthesizer, thousands of catchy melody snippets and short musical themes picked up over the years from a diverse range of sources. It is this combination of diverse sources packaged into a form aimed at a specific target audience that is probably the most important aspect of the successful acceptance of his work by a mass audience beyond the target group.
In addition to the popularity of his artists, Komuro himself commands a significant amount of personal popularity. People often talk of "Komuro" music as topping the charts and recognize him personally as someone who has his "finger on the pulse of J-pop." This is not an accident or some characteristic of his fans. Komuro deliberately wants himself to be known and to be famous, but in a positive and popular way, which requires some interesting tact given that he is a composer and producer, not a front-line performer. For instance, an album titled "TK Million Works" was released in 1996--the entire album consisting of million-selling singles all produced by Komuro. Not primarily a performer, and in a position that is usually viewed in the background, how has Tetsuya Komuro built such uncommon popularity? The answer lies in a kind of subtle self-promotion, existing name recognition, and his re-emergence as a performer.
Komuro is well known by his audience much because of the way he appears along with his performers, making a subtle yet definite presence wherever they go. For instance, on the track listings of his albums, each track is credited like, "Produced by Tetsuya Komuro / Vocals by Tomomi Kahala & Tetsuya Komuro / Composed & Written by Tetsuya Komuro," displaying his name repeatedly. At concerts and special events, he will often play backing piano in a "special appearance" on stage. The best way to describe this is with a personal anecdote. At the 1996 Japanese Music Awards, before I knew who Tetsuya Komuro was, Globe, Namie Amuro, and the Ulfuls were finalists for best album of the year. Globe (which Komuro performs in) gave a performance of their song "Can't Stop Fallin' in Love" and "Departures" before the winner, Namie Amuro, was announced. When Amuro was called on stage to receive her award, the announcers heralded Tetsuya Komuro with her. During her victory performance, Komuro played piano accompaniment. When I saw this, I was struck by the fact that the person who played piano for Globe would, after losing, come onstage to play accompaniment with the performer who beat them. This performer had a striking stage presence despite being a background instrumentalist, and was somehow important enough to be introduced by the host. The mystery was solved several months later when a friend who had recently returned from Japan identified this mystery as Tetsuya Komuro, the number one producer/writer/composer in Japan.
For a Japanese audience, recognition of Komuro's personal presence is even more pronounced because of his association with his first band, TM Network. I asked a Japanese friend why Tetsuya Komuro had so much personal popularity in Japan, besides the association with his successful groups. He said that in his opinion, it was because of Komuro's association with TM Network which was extremely well-known and popular during its 11 year existence, and recent enough to be recognized by most current music listeners since they disbanded as recently as 1994. Another factor he said contributed to Komuro's popularity is the common opinion that profit is positive and doesn't detract from artistic integrity. In order to produce a top ten hit, it is almost a necessity to have the song co-featured as an opening or closing theme for a television program or movie, or for the song to play as background music in a television commercial. These songs are often contracted by the producers of the commercial programs, although the artists generally retain full rights to the song.
Another important distinction between Komuro and other background producers is that Komuro participates in a wide variety of non-producing/composing/writing/talent-scouting activities. Komuro hosts a weekly radio show called "kom sat radio" where he talks about his recent projects, and has a weekly TV show called "TK Music Clamp" where he invites various artists onto the show and chats with them for half an hour. He is also the keyboardist in the group Globe that he produces, writes, and composes for. One important aspect of his performance is that although he truly runs the show from behind the scenes, he shares the stage when he performs. As is usual, the vocalist is the star of the show and the keyboardist is generally in the background. Komuro maintains this balance and never steals the show from his performers. He appears as "one of the group" even in the backstage and pre-show concert footage where he is seen casually associating and fraternizing with Keiko and Marc (the other members of Globe). This is important as he does not portray himself as a lofty or detached individual, but as a very down-to-earth performer.
Overall, Komuro is an interesting phenomenon, playing a jack-of-all-trades role and involving himself with almost every endeavor related to the music industry. In addition, his ability to produce hit after hit and his uncommon personal popularity combine to form an intriguing package that is completely contained in a single individual, but with far reaching mass audience effects. In any single market (from a business perspective) or any single culture, there is not much room for more than one such dominant figure, who usually wanes in influence over time. Komuro has held this dominant position for over five years and is still going strong, although admits that his power is starting to wane in Japan. Komuro has started looking to broaden his interests in other Asian markets, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong in order to re-achieve his peak. In an interview with Sawako Agawa, he said: "In Japan, the Komuro boom has passed its peak so I'm looking for something else and wondering if I can reach the peak again." In April of 1998, Komuro debuted a soloist "Ring" whom he discovered in Taiwan, and completed the theme song for World Cup Soccer '98 in collaboration with French artist Jean Michel Jarre. It will be interesting to see if Komuro will be able to apply his talents internationally and be as successful as he is in Japan.
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