On this episode Nick sits down with Ken Kobori, founder and CEO of SURF Music, a digital marketplace where music creators can sell their unreleased music directly to buyers worldwide.

One of today’s most celebrated J-Pop songwriters and producers – best known as 2SOUL – Ken first found success in 2005 as the producer of “Story” by Japanese-American artist AI. The record-smashing hit single has led to numerous partnerships with artists from Japan, Korea and the US, including the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire and Little Glee Monsters. Success in his career as 2SOUL saw him create his own label 2SOUL MUSIC and later become an executive of Japanese media company Breaker Inc.

Ken’s experience as both a creator and music business entrepreneur led him to develop SURF Music as a platform that simplifies the business of selling music for both producers and buyers. SURF Music uses artificial intelligence to auto-tag creators’ songs and optimize the buyers’ experience of searching for the right song, while keeping transactions efficient and transparent for creators.

Join us for an hour-long discussion on the Japanese music industry, the difference between North America and East Asia’s music markets, sync deals, artificial intelligence in music and much more!

The Divide Between the East and the West (when it comes to the music business)

Music transcends culture, language, postal codes and so on – but what about the business side of music?

As Ken points out in this episode, there is still a huge divide between the Western and Eastern music industry, especially between North America and Japan. “The hard part with Japan is that a lot of label people do not speak English,” Ken explains, “and business culture – the way royalties are handled, the publishing system – is completely different, and Japan has its own unique system that has been going on for over sixty years now.”

While the music business in the West is in constant mutation, the Japanese market remains loyal to its unique identity and long-standing principles, making ventures from one side of the industry to the other outstandingly difficult for most artists and labels.

But there are good news too, as Ken’s company SURF Music focuses on becoming a bridge between music creators from both ends of the world: “We have been able to make successful placements, we’ve done over sixteen placements now, we have six No. 1’s in Japan… just being able to bring these creators that Japanese labels wanted but couldn’t really get… that’s a huge step. And I’m not saying that it never happens, but you do need to have an English speaker to communicate with producers abroad.”

Ken reveals how SURF Music makes this connection possible: “I believe half of our value comes from our staff and the people behind it. We’re all musicians and we’re multicultural, all of us are pretty much bilingual, in London, New York, Tokyo, LA and Korea as well, we have staff there and basically we’re a 24-hour shop, somebody will get back to you that knows what they’re talking about.”

Of course, there are certain unique features of the music business in Japan that are harder to overcome due to the long-standing traditions in place. Selling beats is a great example, as Ken explains: “In the States, a lot of artists go to YouTube to find beats that they like, and even though it’s on YouTube or BeatStars, they’ll be like ‘I want this!’”

“But Japan, from my experience anything that has been heard before or streamed online, to them it’s like, “oh, it’s been released.” And especially if it’s on SoundCloud, and if it’s generating revenue, whether it’s AdSense or whatnot, that technically is a release… What the record labels especially in Japan are looking for is exclusivity.”

This means that for many producers who openly promote their creations to the general public on the internet, they won’t be finding a whole lot of sales coming from the Japanese market, as labels prioritize tracks that have never been shared to an audience before.

What else is covered on this episode?

One of the most significant topics of this new episode is the role of artificial intelligence in the music industry. As an example, Ken introduces how the AI behind SURF Music uses URL references to find similar songs based on the buyers’ briefs, optimizing the buyers process of finding the exact track they’re looking for.

Ken also shares how sync fees work in Japan, the biggest source of royalties in the “Land of the Rising Sun” and the number one rookie mistake new artists and producers make when starting out, drawing from his own personal experience as a fledgling producer and songwriter in Japan in the early 00’s.


If you’re someone who wants to learn more about how to thrive in Japan and East Asia as an independent artist or label, then this is the episode for you. I’m deeply grateful to Ken for discussing with me what makes the Japanese market so unique and all the work SURF Music is doing to connect both sides of the music world.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this episode. See you on the next one!

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