Feature

Grading the J-Pop Agencies 2021: JOHNNY & ASSOCIATES

I’m sure many Bias List readers are like, “Johnny what?!?”, but I’ve decided to branch out this year and offer my thoughts on one of J-pop’s biggest agencies. I mostly want to do this because I think they’ve had a great year worth writing about.

As usual, the thoughts are my own and aren’t privy to any insider information. I’m not taking into account things like profits and stock value. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well agencies are serving their artists and fans.

Johnny & Associates


The Good

It feels like we’ve entered a new era for Johnny’s. 2020’s double debut of Snow Man and SixTONES continues to pay off, with both groups releasing incredible (and incredibly popular) albums. That Snow Man album in particular is 20+ tracks of all killer, no filler. As usual, the agency has done a fantastic job promoting these acts with plenty of variety appearances and drama roles. Though it’s hard to quantify depending on the metrics used, Snow Man have quickly vaulted to the absolute top of Japan’s idol industry. There’s such buzz around them. SixTONES feel slightly more niche, but in a really great way.

I was curious to see how another new debut would fare so soon after Snow Man / SixTONES, but I think we can safely say Naniwa Danshi’s first single is a total smash. 700,000+ copies in the first four days is no joke – especially when you consider these groups are accomplishing this without the huge global audience enjoyed by K-pop acts.

Though they debuted years earlier, King & Prince are also part of this new generation. The agency is doing a great job balancing their output between classic J-pop sounds and more modern, global genres. The group pulled off both extremes incredibly well this year, making songs like Magic Touch stand out just as much as the more traditional On The Moonlit Night, When You Fall In Love (恋降る月夜に君想ふ). If fans were worried how Johnny’s would fare without Arashi, this new generation of talent seems poised to carry on tradition while blazing forward with new ideas.

In fact, the agency’s music has been solid across the board this year. They have such an identifiable sound, yet work with so many different producers/composers and experiment with many genres. They pull off the tricky balance of agency cohesion vs. individual color, and their current roster seems to have a little something for every taste.

Of course, Johnny’s real appeal comes in the form of its history. Both Kis-My-Ft2 and Sexy Zone celebrated their tenth debut anniversary this year – a testament to the longevity of the agency’s acts. And although V6 ended 2021 with disbandment, their 26th (!) anniversary was well-celebrated. Hey! Say! JUMP explored new sounds and genres – a luxury afforded to a group in their fourteenth year. KAT-TUN were more active musically than they have been in years. News, Kanjani8, A.B.C-Z, Johnny’s WEST and KinKi Kids also released solid music, playing to their strengths.

The agency’s junior groups seem especially popular at the moment. HiHi Jets and Bishounen each scored their own dramas, while Travis Japan feels ready to debut now (held back by the huge number of acts already on Johnny’s roster, I’m sure). New unit Impactors are already making a splash, and the agency was smart to release a music video on youtube to promote them right out of the gate. HiHi Jets and Travis Japan also scored mvs – a welcome change for junior groups whose music often goes unreleased for years. The Johnny’s Junior youtube page continues to pay dividends, finally allowing international fans to enjoy the groups’ variety.

The road to digital access has been very slow for Johnny’s, but they’re slowly embracing this new era. An English-language twitter account has been a very welcome addition, alongside other SNS accounts for individual acts. The Ride Of Time docu-series has been a wonderful way for international fans to learn about the agency’s groups, and more dramas are being picked up globally (with the fantastic Kieta Hatsukoi just around the corner). I’m so happy to see official music videos make their way onto online platforms (though I still have a complaint in this regard), and the agency has even experimented with digital music releases via KAT-TUN’s past two singles. This would have been unheard of even a year or two ago. I’m not sure I want them to completely embrace streaming since I like the niche feeling of their music, but more access is always appreciated.


The Bad

Speaking of access, this remains Johnny’s biggest hurdle. They have completely conquered Japan, but global fans still have to jump through a lot of hoops to experience their music.

It seems like the agency’s biggest concession to international fans is an English-language song here and there. This is totally fine, but the single best investment they could make is a team of translators to subtitle their youtube content and perhaps even include subs as part of their artists’ dvd releases. Right now, the agency’s youtube channels rely on fans to submit subtitles. This can be a rather slow process and feels a little unethical given the fact these fansubbers are not paid for their work. If K-pop companies can employ a subber and make content available quickly, there’s no reason an enormous agency like Johnny’s can’t do so as well. This is my single greatest wish for their 2022. Johnny’s music is amazing, but their variety is just as important when it comes to gaining interest in a group.

I’d also like to see the agency start to upload their full music videos rather than edited versions that remove the second verse. This is especially true for acts who still release dvd singles rather than blu-ray. Youtube becomes the only way to watch these music videos in HD, and they deserve to be seen that way in their entirety. As K-pop agencies like SM remaster classic videos, there’s no reason Johnny’s can’t upload HD versions of old KinKi Kids or News or KAT-TUN videos — many of which don’t exist anywhere else.

And while we’re on the topic of distribution, I wish there was a way that junior groups could release their pre-debut tracks before they make their official debut. This is starting to occur as special mvs are released from the juniors, but there are so many great tracks I’m dying to hear in studio version. It’s frustrating to wait years for the group to debut and eventually get around to tacking these old songs on an album.

2021 Grade: A-

27 thoughts on “Grading the J-Pop Agencies 2021: JOHNNY & ASSOCIATES

  1. I can understand wanting to stay out of streaming, but if I can’t even give them money for a digital release that’s a deal breaker for me. I don’t want physical copies of the vast majority of the music that I listen to – my CDs are gathering dust in a row of binders I can’t bring myself to throw away but haven’t touched since the last time I moved, and the very few k-pop albums I’ve bought are on display. I just don’t want a lot of *stuff* anymore. But hey, not everything has to be global and they seem to be doing great as is, so there we go.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I will be the nth commentator here about my favorite Sexy Zone being essentially unobtanium. Not on US itunes, only occasionally on youtube. Its like Japanese music is still in the Edo era, all cooped up on their own little island, only accessible by their own choosing through one little port. I just don’t love them that much to be bothered to try to figure out how to get their music.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I remember when someone linked a two-minute clip of Sexy Zone being so bummed out that I couldn’t get a digital copy. I don’t buy digital music when I can possibly avoid it (unsolicited legal tip: you’re only ever renting digital content unless you put that shiz on a CD), but I’d have paid for that.

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      • I’m old enough to have lived through enough format changes to understand the reality: I will buy another copy of Journey’s Greatest in the current easily playable format every 10 years until I die.

        Liked by 3 people

        • Hah, I think the format changes will slow down significantly now that media is detached from specific physical devices, but point made. If it’s not one thing, it’s another, nothing lasts except Journey.

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          • Sure, that’s what we thought when our laptops all had cd players, until they didn’t. Next all the plugs and file.ext will change. Some iDevices don’t even have plugs anymore. The will resurrect Suzanne Vega again so that the mp3 will become the qz4 (or something). Suzanne Vega, whom I only own on vinyl, which still works and sounds great.

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            • We’ve inherited records older than us that still sound great, but ultimately I mostly care about convenience and cost effectiveness. I pay $15 a month to listen to almost all the music I want on devices I’d own and upgrade reasonably often for non-music reasons anyhow. When I got my first Kindle I used to worry about what would haven to my digital files when Amazon went out of business but I’ve become increasingly convinced that it will take a literal revolution for that to happen and my media collection probably won’t be the first thing on my mind at that point.

              Gaho’s album is pretty good though! The first half is a little on the chill side but it’s about the time of day I want to listen to something with a bit of bite anyhow.

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        • Sorta off topic but I am now nostalgic for when I used to go Woolworths and buy cassette tapes. When everything turned to CD it was mind blowing for me. I still have them all cos I got a tape-CD-vinyl player still. Pry my Japan/David Sylvian vinyl from me at your peril.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. “It seems like the agency’s biggest concession to international fans is an English-language song here and there. This is totally fine, but the single best investment they could make is a team of translators to subtitle their youtube content and perhaps even include subs as part of their artists’ dvd releases.”

    Bursting even my own bubble here, but as I understood it, having Japanese idol content in YT had more to do with the fact that Niconico’s on the way out than any attempt to reach out to any foreign market. In typical Japanese fashion, the content’s aimed squarely at the domestic market. Ditto with songs in English and the fact that English is “cool.”

    However, I didn’t know about the Twitter account… 🤔

    Is this the beginning of the long-awaited second opening of Japan? Will Johnny’s Jimusho venture across unknown waters in search of the mythical realm of Gaikoku? And more importantly, will I finally be able to make all my friends feel lightheaded and queasy on the daily commute with kissin’ my lips, kissin’ my heaaaart, can’t get enough 🎶

    there is no need to be afraid 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • Talking entirely out of my butt, it seems like if Japan wanted to make its media available digitally it would have started doing it 20 years ago. I was in college right around the tipping point between physical and digital media and knew a lot of people who were really into Japanese stuff, and very little seems to have changed between then and now in terms of accessibility. If you were serious about Japanese whatever, your best bet was to learn Japanese, make friends who live in Japan and are willing to ship you things, and save up for trips to Japan with an empty suitcase or two. Japanese pop culture has been popular in the United States at least since monster movies were invented, so it’s not like they don’t know there’s a market if they wanted it.

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      • I thought the same, but, to be fair, it’s undeniable that Japanese media companies seem to be taking baby steps towards opening up to new markets. Witness the case of Shueisha, who a few years ago made their Jump comics free to read on an app in English, and some time later in Spanish. Besides, if Japanese companies want to sell their content overseas, the work is mostly done *for them* by eager Westerners (I’ve always wondered why is it we think everything Japanese is intrinsically worthwhile), like Netflix and Crunchyroll. If Japanese idol music isn’t widely available, I think, then it’s more due to the fact that Japanese idol music is not nearly as popular as anime/manga or movies and dramas, even among otakus. (In fact, Japanophiles I see, IRL and online, always seem to be more interested in things like J-rock, city pop and visual kei than any kind of idol music.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good points, and you definitely know more about the current state of things than I do – I remember what Otaku means when but I could feel the puff of dust in my brain when I did. If I had to hazard a guess as to why people in the US are so in love with Japanese culture, I’d guess it’s a blend of exoticism + global presence + capitalism, all factors that South Korea has been building on since the 90s. I wouldn’t be surprised they’ve surpassed Japan in cultural exports over the last couple of years, but the googles isn’t helping me on that one.

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      • Avex and LDH come to mind, though LDH is actually part of Avex. But overall, it feels pretty different than the K-pop industry — especially how J-pop agencies tend to specialize in one area (ie: Johnny’s being all male, AKS being all female).

        Liked by 2 people

        • As far as I can tell, the only way to listen to that Snow Man album is finding someone who already has it and begging them to make you a copy.

          Side note – a friend of mine is really into j-pop and j-rock, which other friends have mistaken for k-pop several times, to her annoyed tolerance. Having gotten a sense of how much more challenging it is to access Japanese music, I can see how the mistake is especially frustrating: being into k-pop is like collecting pretty rocks – you can spend a lot of money if you want, or you can enjoy to your heart’s content basically for free. I’m trying to figure out what j-pop would be in this analogy – something much more time and energy and money consuming.

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          • Going on a trek in the wilderness and collecting those damn rocks yourself, with a super-technical unreadable field guide to rocks and anti-venom you paid five hundred bucks for.

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  4. I have already said this on twitter but here I am: If I were to grade Johnny’s & Associates I would still give them a B+. Because they still have not fix their perpetuating human rights abuses… Please don’t forget this.

    If you really care about your artists please give them access, creative freedom and less restrictions.

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  5. Pingback: Grading the J-Pop Agencies 2021: JOHNNY & ASSOCIATES | Beatsway

  6. I always am amused when the big jpop labels still block content cos the smaller jpop groups have everything digitally. Like right now I am listening to one of my fave jpop groups (zenbukiminoseida) newest album day of release on Spotify. But I guess the style of jpop I listen to is way more niche and relies on international streams as well as local.

    I guess big groups don’t feel the need to be accessible if they are already so popular domestically.

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  7. While I also want digital streaming, I can understand why J&A is hesitant. This wasn’t mentioned, but there have been a few attempts from J&A groups this year!

    Kis-My-Ft2’s Fear/So Blue was released on Line Music (a streaming service that’s decently popular in Japan). However, their first week sales for this single (despite it being a double-title track) also dropped to 130k for the first week (a 30k-70k drop depending on which of their previous singles as frame of reference). Granted, there was a dating scandal from the group before the release and it did not look good, but I can imagine part of it may also be because of the digital release.

    KAT-TUN’s Road and We Just Go Hard singles are on streaming platforms! (You can find both of them on spotify). To maintain their CD sales, they definitely tried to compensate by releasing a stupid number of versions. I don’t think this is a sustainable strategy, but you can tell J&A is definitely testing the waters with their older groups on the digital streaming front.

    Ultimately, it is their younger groups’ fanbase who would want digital streaming the most, but I can see why they wouldn’t want to go all-in on digital streaming for them just yet.

    For most kpop groups, a huge part of what drives physical sales (in addition to their music) are music show wins, records, the different accessories that come with the albums (e.g., random photocards, photobooks), and fansign/fancalls. Unless J&A can better incorporate some of these into their sales strategy, a drop in physical sales may be unavoidable if they start digital streaming, and I don’t know if the company can afford them when they still can’t do concert tours the same way because of COVID.

    But long story short, I definitely think digital streaming will happen for J&A, just how and when.

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    • Sorry, you definitely mentioned KAT-TUN’s streaming!! I missed that part…But anyways, I am so glad you included J&A in this! I love reading people’s reviews on the company haha.

      Like

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