Building on decades of success as a songwriter and producer both in the US and Japan, Kenneth Kobori created SURF Music in 2020 as a digital marketplace for musicians to pitch and sell original music to the Asian market. Three years later, it’s onboarded several major labels in Japan and South Korea, as well as hundreds of paying musicians and producers. In a desire to learn more about the platform, I sat down for a Zoom call with Kenneth, who shared about his background, the Japanese music industry and the solutions SURF aims to provide.
Hi Kenneth. Thanks for taking the time to speak. Prior to your involvement in the music industry, what was your background like?
I grew up in Kobe until the age of seventeen, a Japanese city famous for its beef. During that time, I attended international school where everyone spoke English, and I later studied Economics and Music Performance at Bates College in Maine. Thereafter I worked as the general assistant at Sony Music’s studio in New York. One of my Bates friends got me the interview for the position, but once at the office, I found out that I was thirteenth on the hiring list. They said they’d call if they ever got to me, but I said that I had a one-year visa and needed the job now. I’d do whatever they needed, from taking out the trash to mopping the floor, so they changed their mind and hired me on the spot.
– How did you go from being the general assistant to making music for the Japanese market?
Brian McKenna was the studio Director, and I went into his office one day and told him I wanted a change. I wanted to make my own music and he was very supportive of my wishes, so I set up my company, 2SOUL Music, in 2003 and would spend alternating months between Tokyo and the US for the next ten years as a songwriter and producer.
– Whilst meeting with labels in Japan, I’ve heard that some wanted to sign you immediately, even before you’d met with their competitors.
Yes, that’s true. The first label I met with was Dream Music, and they offered me an artist deal. They even approached me later that night at the hotel and asked me to sign with them, but I had to take other label meetings first and couldn’t commit yet. Universal also offered me an artist deal and I ended up going with them, partly due to the Head A&R, Kazuhiko Koike, who later became the President and Chairman of Universal Music Japan. He’s currently retired and runs a winebar restaurant, and he’s also an advisor for SURF, so we visit him from time to time for advice and to catch up.
– You’re famous for having written the seventh most popular Japanese karaoke song, “Story”. How did you meet the artist, Ai, and how long did it take “Story” to achieve karaoke success?
The introduction came through Koike-san; he took me to a show in Shibuya where Ai was performing and asked if I was interested in producing for her, which I agreed to do.
It took a long time for the track to become successful, and it didn’t even hit the charts when it was released. Everyone at the label was worried and skeptical, but the track was eventually used in a Fuji Flower Center midnight commercial about sending flowers to your loved ones. No-one at the label thought it would make a difference, but flowers started selling and the song resonated with people. Before we knew it, Ai was singing on Kōhaku, the biggest New Year show in Japan, and from there it took off commercially. After that, everyone was asking me for ballads, so I ended up writing one each week for the next year.
– You’ve spoken previously about the relevance of karaoke bars to the Japanese music economy. Can you expand on that?
Karaoke is Japan’s favorite pastime, so there’s a booth on every block in Tokyo and tens of thousands of singing rooms in the city. The great thing is that every time your song is sung, you get paid 1 – 6 cents, so karaoke is a great royalty generator, and hit songs can easily produce a six-figure income per year for a songwriter. Since “Story” is in a key that’s pretty low, it’s very singable for both men and women, which probably contributed to its success. Karaoke tracks also have longevity, and a song like “Story” gets used a lot in weddings, which leads to an uptick in payments when that season arrives.
– Other than “Story”, what have been your most notable writing credits in the last 20 years?
Little Glee Monsters is one of the biggest girl groups in Japan and I did their debut single as well as many songs after that. They were in middle school when I started with them and now they’re doing stadium tours. We even collaborated with Earth, Wind & Fire, and I had the honor of working with Philip Bailey in LA to write the song.
– Following your writing success in the 2000s, it seems you took on various Director positions with companies like Breakers Inc and Universal. Can you talk about that?
Sure. I became the Artistic Director for Breakers Inc in 2014, and we signed some artists to major labels and worked on projects for them. We also signed YouTubers like Simon and Martina to our network. It was my first experience working at a start-up and it helped me gain the knowledge needed to run my own start-up years later.
I was also a Director at Universal Music Japan for about a year and a half, and was in charge of finding new music. The label handed me a pile of CDs and said to find the good songs, as well as determine who should be signed. It was a very painstaking process to insert 300 discs into the CD player and listen to each track for 15 – 30 seconds, and it took several hours. That inefficiency led me to the idea of SURF Music, as well as utilizing AI to find relevant songs instantly.
– During the 2010s, we saw the rise of different Korean music phenomena from PSY to G-Dragon and eventually BTS and Blackpink. What insights did you get during that period for how the Korean and Japanese music markets were growing?
Korea was one of the first countries to really take off – they were the first to arrange seminars where American producers would teach their Korean counterparts how to make the kind of cross-over sound that could chart globally. Japan arranged international writing sessions prior to that, but it was nothing similar to the Korean seminars. Also, the Korean government invests in music and supports the growth of the industry, which helped it become global. With Japan being the second largest music industry in the world, you’d think we’d be more global, but we’ve remained an island nation that mostly serves its local market. The industry was largely happy with local success since it’s lucrative enough, but once Korean artists started charting on Billboard, it made people here think broader, so we’re playing a game of catch up now.
– When you say Japan is the second biggest music industry in the world, what is that measured by?
It’s measured by the amount of generated revenue; we still sell CDs and also have a superfan culture. Idol groups will create five different versions of the same CD with different cover-art and superfans want every one. They even include handshake tickets in the CDs that allow fans to shake the artist’s hands at the next concert. Some people buy ten CDs just for that, and since a group like AKB48 has 48 members, some people will buy 48 CDs just to shake each member’s hand.
– From your two decades of working in the country, what would you say are some unique features of the Japanese music industry?
One of the unique features is something called the Lead Publishing System, where each song has one main publisher that’s typically attached to the artist’s management. They take 50% of the publishing and all the songwriters sign with them per track. As a result, Japanese producers don’t have publishing deals – they work with multiple companies who each act as a Lead Publisher that collects all the money and pays out the writers share. When we started SURF, we had to introduce the global standard of how things operate, where several publishers can be involved in a track. Many indie Japanese writers go along with the existing system because they don’t have a publisher and the placement is for a big artist that can boost their career, but most of the top Western producers already have publishing deals, and they can’t bypass their publishers just to place music in Japan. It’s one of the reasons why Japan has had a hard time getting the biggest producers to write for our artists, but in order to achieve a global sound that can chart in the US, you need music that translates in the West. With SURF, we’ve slowly been able to make Japanese labels and A&Rs more open-minded about this – if they want to purchase a song through our platform, there might be three publishers attached, and they’ll have to convince their management to not keep all the royalties on the publisher’s side.
– Has this created any issues for SURF with facilitating placements?
We’ve had over 20 placements and six of them have become number one songs, so the results have been promising thus far. It’s why all the majors in Japan are signed up with us as paid subscribers, so we’ve been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I think SURF will help change the Japanese industry in a positive way.
– On the subject of producers getting paid, what are track fees like in Japan?
Track fees in Japan range from $2000 to $8000, which is a bit lower than the US, though it could be higher for placements with bigger artists. That said, we’re competitive for our region of the world and we have good infrastructure for royalty collection, be it music streamed in cafés or sung in karaoke bars. So you do get paid your royalties every three months, unlike certain other regions where you have to chase after your money.
– Are there any things concerning the Japanese music industry that SURF sometimes has to educate its Western users about?
It tends to be the Lead Publishing System, and some companies are still very firm with adhering to that. In order to get a placement on TV and film, the song typically has to be under the Lead Publisher System because if the production company has to contact multiple foreign publishers who don’t speak Japanese, it’s going to be a lot of work for them. They’d rather just call the Lead Publisher and get approval from one person.
Another thing could be that sync fees tend to get waived for the first year of a track’s release, so if a commercial picks up your song, they view it as free promotion for you, hence you don’t make any upfront money from it. Japan is the only country with these customs, and foreign producers are slowly starting to understand them.
– Could it not be said that practices like the Lead Publishing System and the waiving of sync fees are a bit exploitative?
Yes, of course. I don’t personally agree with them, but it’s how people have done business in Japan for over 50 years and you can’t change it overnight. That said, SURF Music is aiming to change how business is done and we’re having slow success with that.
– Over the last decade, have there been any notable turning points for foreign producers getting more work in Japan?
I’m not really sure. I never had relationships with other producers, and even though I’m half-Japanese, I was treated as a foreign producer myself when I first started, simply because I was based in New York and flew in to work with local artists. I still get that treatment occasionally, though it has its upsides when you’re exempted from abiding by certain systems.
In terms of recent changes though, I think SURF has introduced foreign producers to local A&Rs who would’ve never discovered them otherwise. They’ll stream a song and won’t know where the creator is from until they check their profile and see “Israel” or “France”. Also, a lot of labels and A&Rs don’t speak English, which has been one of the biggest barriers of entry for foreign producers, so we’ve built a real-time AI translation chat into our platform so Japanese A&Rs can contact producers directly and negotiate deals.
– Have you ever run into issues with the real-time translation?
I was actually surprised when we first implemented it. We tested it with a lot of industry lingo and it was very accurate, so we haven’t had any hiccups yet, but there are probably some words that it won’t translate accurately. We encourage labels and A&Rs to use the chat as their main contact point for negotiating, as it works better than having multiple email threads, and it lets you consolidate things in one place.
– Is it true that most Japanese labels and A&Rs mostly want exclusive placements?
Yes. Labels in the West will use a beat even if it was previously uploaded to Soundcloud or Beatstars, whereas in Japan they’d usually want music that hasn’t been released anywhere and was specifically made for their artist. If the song has been released or streamed anywhere, then a new release would be considered a cover, and the labels prefer 100% original material.
– 2023 marks your 20th year as a songwriter. Are you still musically active despite being a CEO of your own start-up?
Yes, I’m still making music, and I’ve been collaborating with some great writers who are signed up on SURF. Prior to creating the company, I didn’t really know of any other songwriters; I knew of studio musicians, but it was SURF that opened my world to other writers and changed my style of music-making. I used to try to do everything myself, and it would take a week to finish a song. Things go much faster now, and being around younger producers has allowed me to learn new ways of doing things. I’ll work on a track before bedtime, then make it available to collaborators on SURF. When I wake up the next day, I might have a couple versions to choose from, and the song is typically done in two days.
– Can you talk about how SURF got off the ground and what some developments have been since you launched?
After starting the company in 2020, we finally launched this year following our success at SXSW, where we were chosen as finalists for the Innovation Awards. Our primary focus at the start of the year was to onboard labels and A&Rs to the buyer side. Following that, we opened the platform to music makers in May, and we’ve finally launched the collaborative aspect called “SURF Sessions” where anyone in need of collabs for their instrumental track can request that. People will see your profile and can apply to work on the track after you post it, and they can also share snippets of their past work to show that they’re a fit. By accepting them, SURF creates a team for that one session, along with a Dashboard and Drive where you can save stems and write comments that get auto-translated in the group chat. It’s like a Dropbox for musicians, and you get up to 500 GB of memory. Once a collab is done, you can upload it to the marketplace.
Sessions are also available for A&Rs now, so if they have a singer but need arrangers to complete a song for them, they can create a session and request for that to be done. So even though our initial pitch was to use SURF to find new music, the opportunities have increased thanks to Sessions.
I recently finished my first song using Sessions. It was a collaboration with J Lauryn, a Grammy-winning producer who’s in Post Malone’s team, and I have other sessions that are still open which creators have applied to.
– SURF also has something called the “Intelligent Song Search”. Can you talk about that?
Sure. We have an advanced search feature where an AI tags all your tracks so they can be searched by genre or tempo. It also lets you take a song like “Uptown Funk” from YouTube and paste the link into the search. The system will then take a 3D print of the waveform, put 100 data points through it and identify the characteristics that make “Uptown Funk” unique. It’ll then find the closest song to it from our marketplace.
We’ve also enabled A&Rs to upload their song libraries to their SURF page, which allows them to tag and organize the music collections they’ve built up over the years.
– Is your primary business model exclusively based on subscriptions?
Yes, it’s all subscription-based for now, and we take no cut of your royalties. There’s SURF Plus, which is a $20 tier, and SURF Pro, which costs $50 a month. On the buyer side, we offer a corporate contract that’s $100 per month per account.
– To what extent do creators on SURF have access to placement opportunities in the film and anime world?
We recently had our first placement in a movie for Disney+, and we’ve also worked with gaming companies to achieve similar things. We do have connections to the anime industry, and there’s a project coming out in February which will be big heavily connected to that. Labels like Sony request a lot of songs for anime, so if producers sift through our briefs, they’ll find such requests. Certain creators on SURF have ties to anime already and might have uploaded projects tied to that. We’ll also be signing up animation companies in Japan to use SURF to both handcraft their music and search for placements.
– Thanks for talking to me Kenneth. What’s next for SURF Music in the coming year?
We’re currently launched in Korea, Japan, US and Taiwan, so our goal for next year is to enter the European and South American markets, as well as to have a presence in China. We also want to sign up new buyers from the gaming, movie, advertising industries, which will give creators more opportunities to secure placements for their music. We’ve also been looking for the right staff in different regions, and we currently have fourteen staff members across Korea, LA, New York, Japan, etc.