Spotlight on... Tom Smith, founder of JPU Records

JPU Records is a British independent record company established by Japanese music fan and entrepreneur Tom Smith in response to the lack of availability of Japanese alternative music in the UK. Although still considered a niche market, the popularity of both alternative and pop music from Japan is steadily growing in the UK, despite the relative lack of Japanese artists who tour and release material here. We spoke to Tom to find out more about his activities and his thoughts on the promotion of Japanese music in the UK.

How did you become interested in Japanese music?

It happened by accident! I typed “Japan rock music” into an internet search engine and found a band called GLAY. I remember being blown away with their sound, combining elements of pop while heavily focusing on the guitar. I hadn’t heard anything like that before. I started importing their CDs and DVDs (YouTube hadn’t been invented yet), and I was blown away again when I saw them live on DVD. The guitarist dresses in a certain type of fashion from Japan known as ‘visual kei’, and his hair was like something from another universe! At one moment his guitar even fired lasers! I was in love and I wanted to find out more and more.

Why did you decide to start JPU Records?

This also happened by accident. I was running a club night called Japan Underground, which hosted many live shows featuring bands from Japan, while I DJed music from the country. It had a strong following, and online it had expanded into a popular news website too for fans of Japanese music in the UK. JETRO asked me to conduct some research for them regarding the view of Japanese music from UK-based distributors, labels and promoters. JETRO wanted to meet with some of the more positive companies that responded, and when asked “What would encourage you to work with more Japanese artists?” one distribution company said “Having someone like Tom. If he made a label, we’d be happy to distribute it”. So I held them to their word!



Why do you think there are so few Japanese artist who target overseas audiences?

I think they want to, but there are a lot of things holding Japanese artists back. The language barrier can be one, the logistical costs of getting them to this country are huge, and then marketing and promotion is another. Also, they don’t have many options for releases here, and it takes a lot of time and effort to promote a release, as well as financial risk and I think a lot of local companies here aren’t keen to take that risk.

The Japanese "kawaii-metal" pop group BABYMETAL gained much global success last year, selling out shows in Europe. Would you consider them as an example of how a Japanese band can successfully target overseas audiences?

BABYMETAL are fantastic. Do you know which country outside of Japan has their most fans in last year? It was the UK. I think one reason for this is that although BABYMETAL’s fandom spread almost entirely by word-of-mouth and social media at first, the music media from the UK were quick to expose the band too. Both of the biggest names in rock media, Kerrang! and Metal Hammer, featured the band and pushed them even further. Meanwhile, most other bands from Japan struggle to get media coverage. But I think it’s a bit unfair to use BABYMETAL as an example because they are quite special.

The next artist from JPU Records to come to the UK is an all girl rock group called SCANDAL. They’ll play at the O2 Islington Academy on 26 April, and it’s almost sold out already. They’ve had some support from Japan-related media all over Europe, but not so much from music media here like BABYMETAL. SCANDAL have been a band for quite some time though, and they’ve built a solid following amongst anime fans as several of their songs featuring in popular anime shows (Including Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist and the latest Pokemon film). The fact that they’re women who all play and write their own music is also appealing. They’ve shocked me too, I was curious what kind of fans they have here, but according to the data from our Facebook and our website views, 70 per cent of people looking at SCANDAL-related contents from us are female. I was expecting more of the male population to be interested – I really hope SCANDAL can encourage more women to get involved with rock music.

What do you think about the future of Japanese music in the UK?

I see the means to accessing music becoming easier than ever before. When I first heard music from Japan, my only options were imports, illegal downloads or the odd band that had a 30 second sample on MySpace. Now there are so many new methods to access music. I just hope Japanese companies will adopt these more, or allow labels like myself to adopt them locally on their behalf.

What can we look forward to from JPU in 2015?

As mentioned, we have SCANDAL’s world tour, with a date in London on 26 April to look forward to. We’ll also have a very special ‘best of’ album from the bands, available exclusively from JPU Records, which will contain many songs that haven’t been released here before. I just finished compiling the track list before doing this interview, and I’m buzzing! It’s sounds so good! We also recently released a ‘best of’ from another band called SPYAIR, who play very positive, upbeat rock. Hopefully they’ll come to the UK next. Plus, I’m coordinating the JAPAN RISING showcase gig at The Great Escape Festival this May, which features three fantastic Japanese artists; moumoon, PASSEPIED and Yosi Horikawa.