Producer Nick Wood charts a decade of change in the Tokyo
"They wanted to connect with the youth culture, to
reinvent themselves," explains the slightly ruffled
but intense Englishman. Sitting across the conference table
in Metropolis' office, music producer Nick Wood is
talking about ber-trendy eyeglass designer Alain Mikli,
for whom he has just produced the new compilation CD, Méli-Mélo.
In addition to providing the designer with a hook for a young
demographic, the spirited collection of rock covers, released
this week, offered Wood's Syn Entertainment label and
studio an alternative avenue for distribution at a time of
historic change in the way music is created and marketed.
"To get shelf space in Tower or HMV that stands out
without paying millions of yen in promotion money-it's
become a real problem," Wood explains. "So from
my point of view, the association with a fashion brand like
Mikli that has 200 outlets is a really nice way to market
Méli-Mélo is not just another forgettable trendy
DJ compilation for fashionistas. The album boasts A-list contributors
in the form of '80s rock sharpman Robert Palmer, Madonna
producer Mirwais, recently deceased punk legend Joey Ramone,
and Syn partner and Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon. There
are also edgy tracks by emerging acts such as Japanese grrl
punkers Lolita No.18 and UK electroclash duo Robots In Disguise.
The raw feel of the CD and the selection of trashy '60s
and '70s classics such as T-Rex's "20th
Century Boy" reflects the album title, which Woods
explains means "all mixed up" in French. "It's
not an ultra-cool, serious thing," he says. "It's
done with humor-more of a rock 'n' roll
wild feeling, as opposed to something sophisticated and smooth,
which fashion brands have a tendency to be attracted to."
The CD is just the latest project in over a decade of music
in Tokyo that has taken Wood from in-house music writer for
a Japanese television company to owner, along with Le Bon,
of Syn Entertainment. First signed to Virgin with '80s
pop act Appassionata at age 19, Wood got to know Le Bon when
the two collaborated on the soundtrack for the documentary
When Wood scored a surprise hit in Japan in the late '80s
and subsequently moved to Tokyo and decided to launch his
own studio, Le Bon came on board. "Simon is the chairman
of Syn," he explains. "He is very active. The
best way to describe him is as our ambassador. He loves being
associated with Syn, and it has allowed him to try new things
away from Duran Duran."
Wood's first hit was actually a song he composed for
a commercial for Japanese telecom firm KDD. While the symbiotic
relationship between music for commercials and commercial
music is now well-established worldwide, at the time Japan
was the trendsetter. "It was unheard of in England,
but of course it happens all the time now," Woods says.
"Back then Japan was way ahead of everyone else, and
I thought 'Wow, that was really interesting.'
I saw I had something to offer the Japanese advertising community
that was different, because I'm Western and had a more
global perspective on music."
The intervening decade has seen Woods compose music for Japanese
corporate heavyweights like Sony and Subaru, as well as scoring
soundtracks for such films as Wim Wenders' 1998 Love
Kills. His latest coup was his hit "Passion,"
a theme song originally written for Kirin Beer's sponsorship
of the Japanese national soccer team, which went to No. 1
at the time of last year's World Cup.
In the '90s Woods has watched the Japanese music scene
become ever more Westernized, something he laments. "I
wish there were a few more Japanese artists that sounded Japanese.
When you listen to YMO ['80s electro-pop group Yellow
Magic Orchestra], they definitely had some interesting sounds
that captured the Japanese spirit."
Woods cites as one example of a contemporary Japanese pop
act that "sounds Japanese": pop chameleon Cornelius.
"A lot of Japanese artists are trying to export their
music," he says, "But you'll find that
the ones doing it successfully are the ones that are doing
something different from what people in the West do. People
like Cornelius have something quite unique."
Woods scoffs at attempts by J-pop acts such as Hikaru Utada
to sell their music in the US. "Japanese singers singing
in English doing hip-hop or R&B? I don't think
so-not yet," he says. "I think with those
big stars it's an ego trip. But it could also be quite
clever as a marketing strategy, to make them look international
to their Japanese fans."
The only blip in Syn's upward trajectory came a few
years ago when Woods and Le Bon caught the millennium dotcom
fever, which turned more than a few sensible heads at the
time. "The biggest challenge I faced was when we tried
to diversify in year 2000 and hired a new CEO who tried to
take us away from our DNA of music and entertainment into
a more dotcom thing. It nearly killed us," he recalls.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time... Selling
music online? That looked really possible, but it was a bad
2003 finds Syn in a good position, with business rebounding
and a new office in LA. "Ten years ago or less, if
you told people you wrote music for commercials, it was kind
of like a B-grade job," he says. "Japan has
always known about its power, but now the US and Europe have
woken up. It has now become a really important part of making
hit records, and as record sales decline and more people download,
one aspect of the business that is growing is licensing and
using music in movies and commercials. I feel so fortunate
that we went that direction-we could have been out
of a job otherwise!"
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