I would like to spend a few minutes writing about timing international album releases in Japan and the significance of releasing licensed music prior to releasing in your home country, this coming from a label’s perspective in Japan.

For any label in Japan who decides to exclusively license music from an international artist, the issue of territory and distribution rights are very import issues, with more emphasis on “territory.” As you know, when labels license music there is a large investment that goes into manufacturing physical CDs, and sales and promotion. So naturally the label would want to benefit from those investments and at the same time, make the right decisions so that the artist can grow a fan base and benefit from their work.

For both the label and artist to benefit, territorial rights to promote and sell their music should be respected. Protecting exclusive rights to a territory is a very difficult task because of the sheer number of distribution networks around the world and how they crisscross on so many levels. Even if a label has an exclusive agreement in place for a territory, then still there is no guarantee that the same album won’t find itself on the shelves in that (exclusive) territory. In most cases exclusive rights to a territory are violated unintentionally due to that vast distribution network out there, and of course there are a few cases where the cause is the sole desire for profit.

The more well-known an artist is, the larger the distribution network he has access to and the more chance the music will end up in a territory where the artist is not aware, or has no control over. This causes some conflict around the exclusive license agreement if an import version of the album shows up in the territory.

Personally I feel that it’s near impossible to prevent import CDs showing up in the territory after a license agreement has been reached between the label or distributor and the artist management if the artist has a large distributor in their home country capable of distributing internationally. Even if the large distributor is not directly responsible for exporting albums to the exclusive territory, the album still has a chance of reaching that territory through a complex network of distributors worldwide.

Exclusively licensing music is defeated if the label must compete with import versions of the same album. Unlike in Europe, with Japan imported CDs are usually traded at lower prices than domestic and licensed albums. The label must compete with the lower prices of the import and at the same time, imports are able to benefit from the promotional efforts of the label given the licensed album. This is hardly fair for the label, but as they say, “that’s business.” The label must incorporate a process that would hinder or eliminate violation of their exclusive rights in that territory.

For future license agreements, Sweet Soul will focus on working with artist who are willing to release their albums in Japan ahead of the release in their home country. By releasing albums in Japan first, we can near eliminate the chances of the album showing up on the shelves in Japan after a license agreement has been reached and for that agreed term. Once the album is released in Japan, the stores will not search out import CDs to fill their shelves if they are partnered with Sweet Soul for the licensed album.

By releasing the CDs in Japan first, both the artist and Sweet Soul will stand to benefit in the long run. The artist will receive proper promotion of their music in Japn and be able to build up anticipation for the release in their own country. Making use of available social networks, international internet radio and blogging sites, press releases, and word of mouth, will help ensure that music lovers will know of the pending release in the artist’s own country. For Sweet Soul, we lessen the chances of competing against an imported version of the album so we can focus on spreading real music and building fan bases in Japan for the artist.

If you are an artist and would like to discuss further about distributing your music in Japan, then you can contact me at: harris@sweetsoulrecords.com

Michael Harris
Senior Manager at SWEET SOUL RECORDS