Music knows no boundaries. Still, it can be quite challenging for someone still starting their music career to get their music heard outside of their own markets. Being from Japan and coming into the music industry in the US, Justine Suzuki is well familiar with this struggle. In this episode, she shares a diverse cultural background and perspective on her journey across different countries and companies to help musicians expand their streams of income into global music markets. Justine is currently the Chief Creative Officer at SURF Music, a Tokyo-based B2B digital ecosystem and marketplace for music makers to sell their exclusive original music for opportunities across the global media and entertainment industry. Join her in today’s conversation and discover great insights on what it takes to go global!
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Developing Music Careers And Expanding Into Global Music Markets With Justine Suzuki
I’m excited to be here with Justine Suzuki from SURF Music. We are going to talk a little bit about her journey. She’s got a lot of cool experiences living in different countries, having a diverse cultural background, and how she is helping musicians to expand their streams of income. I’m excited to talk more about that. I always like to start with the story.
Justine, let them know. What is your background in music? How did you get started in music? What you have been doing, especially with the different countries that you have lived in? I know you were born in Japan. You have lived in Los Angeles. You are now in London. What a cool, diverse background. It must make for an interesting story.
Thank you so much. It’s such an honor to be here. Thank you for your platform and for giving a voice to women in various pillars of the music industry. Thank you for having me. A little bit about my background. I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. My mom is American. My dad is Japanese. My dad has also always been in the music industry. I was born into a very music-loving family. My love for music came at a very early stage and early exposure and my upbringing. My career in music originally started when I moved to the US when I was eighteen for university. I went to school in Orange County.
From there, I was set on a path of wanting to explore a career in music. A lot of the culture shock that comes with moving to a new city and entering the music industry from a young age. I was very hungry and eager to learn as much as I could. When I first graduated from college, I started at an ad agency called 72andSunny doing music supervision and cultural partnerships. I thought that I wanted to do music supervision for ad campaigns and fulfillment TV eventually one day, but very quickly, I learned that I wanted to work with the songwriters, producers, and the people who made music themselves.
Ad people are very different from music people. After that, I took on a position at SESAC, which is a performing rights organization that is client-facing, working with music publishers, songwriters, producers of every stage and, developing their careers and helping to navigate what’s very complicated publishing and royalty on space and making sure that songwriters and producers get paid and compensated fairly. It was also a great way for me to build my network and foundation from an educational standpoint.
From there, I fell in love with working with songwriters and producers. My advocacy for people who create music started there. I was there for about five years before I took on a position at Red Bull songs, which was the music publishing division of Red Bull, the energy drink we are familiar with. It was a very unconventional place to be doing music publishing, but it gave people the platform through marketing opportunities, working with legacy artists and focused on developing emerging talent within the Red Bull ecosystem, which I learned so much about music publishing in general and the concept of giving wings to people that might not have that platform.
At that stage, I was feeling like the music industry is feeling that there’s a lack of development in big infrastructures, whether you are at a record label or on the publishing side. In every aspect of my career, it’s been very important to take the time to develop because the longevity of a career starts there. I know there are a lot of virality and numbers-driven metrics these days in the music industry that the turnaround for whether a record deal or a publishing deal helps to elevate an individual’s career, especially if you are at an emerging level.
I find that it was hard for me to fit into these infrastructures where I also felt like, “I do work at these big corporations and in the publishing space, but am I a part of the problem?” With every aspect of my career, I wanted to make sure that at the end of the day, I represented myself in the way that I like to do business I always wanted to make sure that I was being a true advocate for the songwriters and producers that I was working with and develop these relationships with.
That being from Japan and coming into the music industry in the US, a part of that process for me was, “How do we also develop songwriters’ careers outside of maybe the immediate network and infrastructure?” I was a part of the top 40 radio songs. In the publishing space, it’s hard to get a hit song. The pitching process is very complex and competitive. These days, it’s very saturated. For me, it was always important, “How do I bridge my cultural background and my knowledge of my roots in Japan?”
In every job that I had, I tried to be that bridge between the US and everything that I have learned within the Music Industry in LA, but also bridging it with my relationships and my network in Japan. What we realized is that Japan and Korea are both very lucrative music markets. Whether it was SESAC, Red Bull, or any of the songwriters and producers that I was representing, I have always wanted to try to help globalize their process. Get their songs heard in other markets and pitch them for opportunities outside of what was expected of me in my position in Los Angeles as well geographically.
That was always a part of my process and what I was passionate about, but also tapping into both sides of my cultural identity and how you expand someone’s process of getting your music heard or finding opportunities in markets or networks outside of your own and ones that you might not have access to. I am a Chief Creative Officer at a music tech company called SURF Music. It is a Japan-based B2B digital marketplace and ecosystem. We are positioned between music and tech, but the platform allows songwriters and producers on any stage. Whether you are Grammy-nominated billboard charting, we represent work with the merging level producers and songwriters as well.
The goal is to be a platform that bridges and meets people with that right music with opportunities from record labels, film and TV opportunities, gaming companies, advertising agencies, and different funnels in which you can monetize your music and get your music heard in markets outside of your own as well because there is much opportunity outside of what we might be familiar with being where we are positioned, geographically located or where our networks exist.
That is where I’m positioned now, where I feel very culturally aligned on the projects that I’m working on but have found that sense of almost purpose and value with being able to also tap into both aspects of my culture and where I have been able to build my career and hopefully, bring that knowledge and experience to people, songwriters and producers especially and how they can use our platform as a tool and resource to find other opportunities to monetize their music.
I know we have that in common of wanting to be advocates for Indie musicians and getting quality music out to more people, which I love. First, I have got to ask, since I have lived in Orange County for many years, what college did go to?
I went to Chapman University.
I lived down the street from Chapman.
It’s a super small world. That’s an amazing place to go to school. I love the environment.
We used to go down to the circle, have some Cuban food, and enjoy all the antique stores and stuff. Were you going there for the music industry?
I studied PR and Advertising but at the school. I do my passion for music, which is why I thought, initially, I wanted to be a music supervisor. Those worlds were both equally of interest to me. I fell in love with the songwriter community a little more.
When you were working with Red Bull, did you find that they were open to music from indie artists or not legacy artists or well-known if it had the right feel for what they wanted for their ad campaign?
I have always admired Red Bull’s approach as a big brand and platform with a lot of influence to give back. We primarily worked with emerging and developing songwriters, producers, and artists. It wants to give a voice and a platform to people who might not have access to resources like an ecosystem like Red Bull. Everything that we did was keeping that in mind and being very aspirational in that sense in terms of giving back to songwriters, producers, and indie artists.
The deal, especially the programming and the kinds of projects we were working on, was working with a legacy artist, for example, to create content around an opportunity for an independent or emerging songwriter who hadn’t had big cuts with a big artist before we were being very intentional about how do we give opportunities to developing songwriters and artists the chance to work with with a bigger name. That was a lot of the type of content we were creating, whether musically but also from a marketing standpoint as well. We were able to create great stories and video content pieces around giving people the opportunity to write with a bigger artist.
What did you find that did for artist careers? Sometimes artists think, “Getting my song in a commercial, is that going to do anything for me getting more streams or concerts and things like that?
There is always the level of exposure that a company like Red Bull, the music departments are in addition to everything else that the company does. Red Bull is a brand that is passionate about music. It’s something that they would invest their resources, a lot of money, platform, and everything to give those without a voice or who may not traditionally have a voice that opportunity. The exposure part is important, but investing the resources into allowing songwriters, producers, and artists to achieve things that they might not have been able to.
I love their brand, “Red Bull Gives You Wiiings.” That’s what they were doing for indie artists, which that’s brand-aligned that they did.
At the time, dedicating entire teams to the record label was also something separate from the publishing division that I was working on. There was an entire sync team as well specific for how we give these songs a home, not just within this artist signed on the record label but within their advertising and commercial spaces as well. There are lots of individuals and teams dedicated to giving emerging-level artists and songwriters on that platform.
With your time at SESAC, did you find working with artists that there is a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, or not even knowing how royalties are dealt with in the music industry? I find it very confusing. I’m doing episodes about it all the time.
That was where I fell into that position, not knowing too much. It was very early on in my career, but immediately I felt like I resonated with, “What purpose in my career and what value can I bring to songwriters and producers who might not have the knowledge or the resources to navigate such a complex space?” Being at a company like SESAC was a little more boutique in terms of giving individualized attention to each individual on the roster. Every songwriter is at a different stage in their career. Any questions that they have at the very early stages but people that have had huge hits but still need to find ways to make sure that they are being paid correctly if their music is being streamed overseas.
There are many different layers to what it means to make sure that you are being compensated fairly and I do think that my time at SESAC was also very valuable and rewarding because education is also important in terms of especially as a songwriter and creator, and making sure that you are not being exploited for a lot of the work that you are doing.Education is important, especially as a songwriter and creator, to make sure that you are not being exploited for a lot of the work that you are doing. Click To Tweet
Being a part of understanding how not just publishing works but also how you get paid and track down money that is owed to you in the digital age and how technology has shifted the way that we listen to music and consume music directly affects how songwriters are getting paid or lack thereof. For me, it was important to be a part of a company that taught me so much, but how do I pay it back and provide that same knowledge, resources, and help for songwriters and producers to also help understand the space a little more?
It’s great that you are helping to open up these other markets, but then people like me, you are like, “How do I collect all those royalties?” With your company, SURF Music, do you deal with any of that publishing administration or do you recommend that the artists get a publishing administrator to make sure they are collecting everything?
Thank you for asking that question because it does get so much more complex when you are dealing with international territories with the globalization of music, how are we discovering listening to, and consuming music through technology? I will break down our business model a little bit so that we can better understand how we are helping songwriters find these opportunities through song placements.
Through these tools, we are pitching and placing unreleased demos throughout our ecosystems or unreleased music for exclusive placement opportunities with record labels. Film and TV opportunities that we facilitated and worked on are not traditional sync licensing, but we are doing exclusive things for specific projects that require music. I can’t publicly speak about this yet but it is a very well-known gaming company in Japan and an animation company that we are partnering with to create these cool collaborations through music with songwriters and producers based globally.
With that, each opportunity, whether you are published or unpublished, we will work with the songwriters. Each territory, whether it’s Japan or Korea, we have recently entered Taiwan, has different deal terms. How they are publishing works is also very specific. Behind the tech, we are a team of very real people. A lot of us are multilingual and have experience in various pillars of the music industry and our CEO, Ken Kobori, is also a big hit songwriter and producer himself. He is based in Japan.
It’s very creative for the creator mentality and for us to be able to make each song placement happen as any other song placement does. Whether you are published or unpublished, we will work with your publishers. We will help facilitate sub-publishing for you. If you are unpublished and don’t have representation in these said markets, Fujipacific is one of the biggest music publishers in Japan and is our publishing partner and early investor in our company.
We are working with the teams in our partnerships to provide resources for the songwriter producers, whether they are published or unpublished, to make sure that these deals go through seamlessly. There is a level of education that happens on both sides for a lot of the songwriters and producers based in the Western hemisphere. It’s educating them on a lot of the cultural differences of the Asian music market and the different deal terms. Budgets are also very different.
There’s that layer of education that we are providing to songwriters and producers who may not have had opportunities in markets outside of their own. I will speak to Japan because Japan is the second largest music market in the world, but they have had a very difficult time globalizing their music outside of Japan. They are a very domestic market. It’s what makes it unique and special, but at the same time, it is a sustainable future for the music industry that is ever-evolving and globalizing at a very rapid pace.
In Japan, the revenue comes from not streaming. It’s not a lot of publishing revenue that we are used to seeing outside of Japan, but a lot of it is still based on record sales, DVD sales, TV opportunities, live music, and performance. That is why the market generates much revenue, year after year. For a lot of these songwriters and producers, we are placing songs for them with major label artists in Japan. This is the type of revenue that they haven’t seen, especially if you are at an emerging level generationally. Younger producers and songwriters have not seen this type of CD or DVD revenue or even karaoke royalties.
It’s like we are going back to the ‘90s, in a way.
Japan still operates very much in that way, which is incredible. It’s also been a reason why it’s very hard for non-Japanese songwriters or producers to break into the market as well. It’s a very domestic, insular, and mysterious industry. All the things that make the Japanese music market unique and special are very important for us to recognize, but at the same time, you see a lot of the music industry in Japan wanting to also globalize. They don’t know how or haven’t had the experience thus far.Japan is a very domestic, insular, and mysterious industry. Click To Tweet
We have been able to help step in and shape those conversations from the inside out. To my point earlier about the education side as well, there is a layer of education. We are also providing Japanese record labels and publishers with how the rest of the world is used to working. I’m talking about fair production and track fees for songwriters and producers or what fair publishing splits for songwriters and producers.
Historically, in Japan, any English demo that we pitch to a Japanese artist, they will assign a Japanese lyricist to translate the lyrics for the artist, but historically, a Japanese lyricist has always been given 50% of the publishing and the writing fees are splits which the remaining, let’s say, there are four other songwriters on the song, they have to split that remaining 25%. It becomes a very unfair model. Historically, that’s the way it’s always worked.
In situations like that, we are able to have these conversations and help shape a more fair propose equal splits across the board, including the Japanese lyricist. Let’s start with every song that we have placed for these songwriters on our platform for a major label opportunity in Japan. For example, we have been able to meet halfway and in the middle and help the Japanese music industry evolve its practices and policies a little bit in terms of what is a fair deal for songwriters and producers outside of Japan. As a team, it’s very important for us to educate both sides and make sure that we are also facilitating very intentional and fair deals for both parties involved.
You are an advocate for sure, trying to get things equal and fair, especially in Japan. We might need to catch up a little bit with what we are doing. On the other hand, they may have some practices that are better. People around here would be like, “I get to make money from record sales and stuff like that.” That’s not a thing anymore here. Karaoke is a great example of something awesome for songwriters that we don’t get to tap into much anymore here. That’s very cool. I’m curious. Are there certain genres that do better in Japan than are common in the US? I’m assuming pop or maybe adult contemporary. Are there pretty Americanized genres that they don’t have any interest in? Do they listen to country music, Americana, or jazz?
It’s very easy to think about what J-pop sounds and looks like. There are a lot of girl, boy, and idol groups that have historically been the face of J-pop music, but the reality is, if you look at the top starting songs in Japan, genre-wise, it is very diverse. There’s a big range of things that would take a number-one charting song position. For example, rock as a genre is still very prominent and popular in Japan. The biggest Japanese export of culture and music outside of Japan is anime music. That’s also very specific to the visual format.
A lot of them are on anime soundtracks or theme songs for different programs. At the same time, a lot of these songs have very popular commercial success on the top-charting music charts as well, but then a lot of singer-songwriters are also super popular. It doesn’t have to have super high production value. A lot of the time, Japanese audiences love a simple, well-written melody and a real focus on Japanese lyrics. Something as simple as that can also resonate with huge audiences in Japan.
Japanese hip-hop has always been popular, especially back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, but there is a very big resurgence and also a lot of strong female rappers that are coming out of the Japanese hip-hop scene, which has been cool to see involved. It’s not just the stereotypical what we would think of as J-pop. Popular music has a very wide range. There’s a huge range.
Although I will say that country music is probably one genre that has not quite crossed over in Japan it is again a genre that is also very specific to the US. There are many people on our team who also love country music. I wonder if there is something we could do there. Otherwise, it is a very diverse, diverse popular genre in Japan for sure.
You are in London. Did you move there so you could be between those markets as far as time zones or what made you move to London?
My move to London was very personal. I want a working holiday visa. My little sister lives here. That was their initial reason. However, what I have found since being here for a few years is still very new. As we all know, London is also a very music-rich culture in ways that feel very different from the US and Japan. I’m learning a lot about what is considered popular here, but also, it does feel like a much more open-minded and progressive space to be in terms of when we are talking about diverse music and genres and what is popular here.
However, on top of that, what I have also found is that there are a lot of songwriters and producers here who are also interested in writing for J-pop and K-pop. Without me even expecting it, I have been able to find a network that I can very much specifically help and add value to working together in markets that I wasn’t expecting to find here but being geographically close to countries like Norway or Sweden.
Those countries have always been on the Forefront and even way before the K-pop crossover, a lot of these Nordic countries and their songwriters and producers have been writing for big J-pop and K-pop artists. I haven’t always been ahead of the curb in that sense. I’m finding a very valuable network here in ways that I didn’t expect. I’m continuing to build the foundation for SURF Music in Europe as well. The goal is can expand into other emerging markets as a platform and company as well.
I know that you have come out with a new initiative in SURF Music. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Thank you for asking because, historically, SURF Music has always been positioned to be a song-pitching and placement platform between the East and the West markets. We launched what is called Surf Sessions. The Surf Sessions portal allows songwriters and producers in our community to collaborate with other songwriters and producers in markets outside of their own. Still being that connector. Our community of songwriters and producers is very global and international.
We are focused on Japan and Korea. The creator community is based globally. We have people in Europe, obviously, the US, and Canada as well. We want a place and ecosystem for these creators to connect and collaborate in a very seamless way. We have built-in file-sharing components. There’s the discoverability and connectivity aspect of an entire network of international music creators and makers that you can tap into.
On top of that, there are functions within sessions that allow you to say you are based in the US and you have connected with a songwriter in Korea, but you don’t speak each other’s languages. There is a real-time language translation chat function to communicate with these people. I will write my messages to my collaborators in English, but they will see them in Korean, for example, if that is their chosen language, and vice versa. They will respond to me in Korean, but I will be able to see everything in English.
Even if it’s little tools and things like that that we are building into the tech to break down those barriers and connectivity between not the B2B side but as creators, people want to break into other markets but don’t know how this gives people the accessibility and ability to create and share ideas in real-time. You can share stem files, MP3s, and even album artwork. Everything is real-time.
Anything that you would need to fulfill the entire songwriting and collaboration cycle. Once you are done with this collaboration in the sessions portal, you can put the song on to the marketplace for discoverability for all of the A&Rs and music buyers that I spoke about prior. There’s an actual outlet for this song that you wrote and collaborated with maybe someone you found on the SURF platform as well to at least have an outlet for the song as well.
I love what you have built with the ability to communicate in your language. That’s something that I haven’t seen on any other portals. That’s very awesome. What is the vetting process? You say, “People, use your portal. They create a song together.” They put it on the marketplace, but pretty soon, there will be so much music. You know how it gets with music libraries where there are many songs and then when someone comes there to look for something that they need for a commercial, it helps to have a more specific curation of what they could look for instead of like a big vast sea of music.
We have thought about all of those things as well. First of all, when you upload songs to the marketplace or any demo in your library, everything gets tagged automatically with our AI-powered tagging technology from genre, BPM key, mood, and vocal presence and everything is built in if you want to customize it further you are more than welcome to. Through that tagging technology, we have an advanced filtering search section, which allows anybody who’s searching for music to get specific about the taxonomy of genres, what songs and moods they are looking for, and vocal presence. All of it is built in and the filters are cohesive across both the creator and the buyer side. That makes the search process much easier, but we also have an AI-powered search engine.
For example, if you are looking at hundreds of songs in a catalog or a marketplace, thousands, even at this point, for example, I’m looking for a song that sounds like Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars, I can copy the YouTube or Spotify link to that song or whatever link that you prefer. Put it into the search engine and it will pull up the closest matching songs in the catalog to that song reference.
That’s an example of ways that you can filter down the song search process, but within the portal, we have allowed songwriters and producers to also determine their fees. For these songs, for example, upfront, you can include all your cowriter’s information, their publishers, and any management contacts if you would like to include that, but upfront, for example, a buyer has a $5,000 budget for this song. They can filter out even further and match it with what the songwriters have priced their songs.
There is a layer of transparency for songwriters and producers to dictate what they find that their music is worth so that the technology matches the right songs to the right opportunities, even on the buyer side labels, music supervisors or anybody that has these specific parameters or deal terms around their projects can automatically search for those up front as well. That layer of transparency allows people to see and find the most realistic songs for their projects based on what they are looking for.
With our community, it’s very important for us to get real-time feedback from the songwriters and producers on our platform as well as the buyers on it to create real-time and incorporate their feedback into a dream tool that is meant to help every pillar of the music industry and help be an extension of every creative process no matter what stage they are in and what pillar of the industry that they work in. These are the kinds of tools, for example, that we have built into to help expedite that process a little bit and make your process a little more efficient.
The marketplace sounds awesome. Do you also have opportunities on the other side where there may be companies that are looking for a specific thing and you put out an opportunity to the people in the community, “Can you write something for this? Do you have something that fits?”
That is one of our core features within the platform. As a songwriter and producer, if you log into your portal, there is a brief portal that is creative briefs from major labels. All of our partnerships in every brand and company that is looking for music will provide very detailed descriptions and references for specific songs that they are looking for depending on the projects. We get those on a very weekly basis.
Songwriters can write from scratch and submit ideas directly into the portal or if they have songs that match in their catalog, they can also submit those directly as well. We have a constant flow of creative opportunities for people to engage with and submit for. On top of that, we also have a very internal pitching and curating process in terms of what songs are being shared with our direct partners.
Does it cost the artist at all to be involved with SURF Music?
One thing I want to make sure that this is clear is SURF IS based purely on a subscription model. We do not take any publishing, royalties, or any cut of any songs that are placed within our platform, which I think is very important for us for songwriters and producers to maintain their ownership of their music. The subscription is two-tiered. Songwriters can either choose between a $19.99 plan for what we were calling SURFPlus monthly or $49.99 for SURFPro.
There are some limitations in terms of accessibility to maybe the number of songs you are submitting to, creative opportunities, and things like that, but the actual tech and the functionalities of utilizing the library and song tagging functions, all of that is available at the lower cost as well, but it’s a subscription model for those that are interested and the on the buyer side as well, we do have corporate pricing and packages for all of the companies and buyers that are on our platform as well. It’s subscription-based and we want to make sure that writers maintain their publishing on any opportunities placed through the platform.
That’s fantastic. Is there an app, it’s just on desktop or do they manage their catalog on phones?
It’s on desktop and browser. You could do it on your mobile, but it’s all through a browser but we are developing a native app at the moment as well. That is a goal of ours.
This is all awesome and I think that it’s going to open people’s minds to places where they can make money from their music that they haven’t thought of. There are services like this in the US taxi and things like that. The cool thing about this is that it’s opening up new markets that you are taking the trouble to go out and make connections in those markets that, generally, people in the US and Canada don’t have access to. I love that you are not just another marketplace. That’s your niche of trying to help globalize the music industry, which is very cool. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you want to make sure that people know about SURF Music?
Thank you so much for letting us share a little bit more about what we are building. Most importantly, a big core of our mission and our value proposition is giving that power back to songwriters and music makers, whether it is finding opportunities for your music, expanding those opportunities as we have mentioned in other markets, but also through other avenues that aren’t just the traditional major label systems, but again wanting to make sure that people making the music have that the decision-making power, because there’s so much in this industry in the way that it has evolved that, demands much of the music creator these days, whether it’s managing your socials, having TikTok virality and being your manager.
There are a lot of hats that songwriters and producers have to wear now. Our goal is, with these tools and resources, to give back that time for you to be creative and to make music that you love. Hopefully, find ways to monetize that through avenues that you may not have had access to before. I wanted to share those final thoughts.
Thank you for being such an advocate for singer-songwriters, artists, and producers. We need more advocates like you. Thank you for what you put together, the way you are expanding markets for artists, and for sharing all of your knowledge and expertise.
Thank you so much. I appreciate your kind words. Thank you for having me.
About Justine Suzuki
Justine, a music industry professional from Tokyo with roots in Japan and the U.S., holds a PR & Ad degree from Chapman University. She worked with the music and cultural partnerships teams at ad agency 72andSunny and later joined SESAC, providing creative services for songwriters and publishers. She was most recently the Creative Director at Red Bull Songs.