Feature

Translating Love Dream Happiness: the entertainment empire helping brands crack Japan

Love Dream Happiness is unlike any entertainment brand in the west. So how is it going to work outside of an exclusive Japanese culture?

Is Love Dream Happiness a record label? Yes, but one that manages its talent too, and produces its artists’ shows. In fact, its artists probably developed their talent through one of its schools. It will manage their fan base and sell their music. It will sort their sponsorship deals too. And when they’re done with performing? Well, it will help them launch their next career.

Japan’s LDH, as it’s commonly known, is unlike anything borne out of Hollywood or Abbey Road. It’s a huge, networked system of artists – usually dancers – who have themselves spawned the company’s labyrinth of diversified verticals. For instance, one member of boyband Exile (the original generation of LDH) was interested in cooking. So, the company created a restaurants and catering division for him to run.

This form of artist-led expansion – which has bred a coffee company, a fashion line, a movie studio and more – does not sit comfortably with western sensibilities. When asked which business imperatives guide its diversification strategy the company’s founder and president, Hiroyuki ‘Hiro’ Igarashi, replies through a translator: “The very basic foundation of this business is that we grow the business around people. When I say that we build a business around people, I don’t look at it as an investment. I look at it as working together. It’s really expanding a circle of friends.”

There’s no market research or sector analysis. There’s just love for a project or sector, dreams of a new vision and happiness for performers and their fans. And it’s the expertise of the elusive former Exile member Igarashi, the man described as “the Michael Jackson of Japan”, “a moral compass” and “a combination of Bob Iger, Willie Wonka and Fred Astaire”, that’s providing the latter.

What of cashflow? Verbal, a sharply dressed Japanese hip-hop artist and producer, explains his country’s music industry has managed to avoid the piracy pitfalls that western countries continue to experience.

“Japan, to this day, sells millions of copies of physical CDs,” he says from behind his sunglasses. “We still have record stores in Tokyo where they sell ... cassettes and vinyl. And this culture enjoys the fruits of its own industry. Korea [which has struggled with privacy] had to venture out and sound more western [to survive], while Japan created its own sound. In a sense it's very exclusive and very catered towards a Japanese audience but doesn't necessarily work outside of Japan.”

The tight knit audience, alongside the rise of mobile, has led LDH to establish a fully operational fan club – now an anachronistic concept in the west. The company counts 1.5 million paying subscribers in this group, 500,000 of which pay approximately $40 a year for exclusive content.

“But the biggest motivation to join and pay for the fan club system is live production,” says Hiro. “Priority tickets to live shows are the biggest [draw]."

This element cannot be underestimated: the company sold 2m tickets across 200 shows in 2017. And live production is a cornerstone of the LDH business model – the ‘spiral’ – which heavily relies on audience feedback to create bigger and better shows.

It’s only recently that the company has begun to eye the west as its next frontier. It's plotting a geographical expansion led by Afrojack, the Dutch DJ who has recently been named chief executive of LDH Europe. His first priority is to launch Vocal Battle Auditions, an international search for new vocalists.

“We have a very high step up on our competitors,” he says. “Everyone’s really busy maintaining the whole [western record label] structure and no-one’s paying attention to this new way of working, which is all about hard work and discipline."

But aware that the bulk of its output is thoroughly Japanese in nature, LDH has also begun to work its cultural relevence to its advantage by consulting for western brands looking to break into the market.

“Usually [if a brand goes] through an agency to promote something in Japan with a campaign that’s localised, they might transliterate a certain character – let’s say like a rapper in the States,” Verbal explains. “That might work in Korea where there’s a hip-hop scene, and maybe in China, but in Japan that would never work.

"You need to localise the content. That’s where someone like Hiro really knows how to translate and not transliterate.”

A 2016 campaign with Beats was one of LDH’s first forays into this space. The audio brand was persuaded to launch its ‘Show Your Colour’ campaign in partnership with J-pop group E-girls, rather than seek out an act associated with the Californian hip-hop lifestyle of founder Dr Dre.

“We had a headphone coming out that was about colour, expression and identity – and all these young women had really specific identities,” recalls Luke Wood, the president of Beats Electronics. “Not only was everyone [extremely] professional, their enthusiasm and enjoyment for what they were doing was really different. They were excited and engaged and I think that came across in the work.”

Does this mean LDH’s next vertical expansion will involve the marketing industry? Not exactly.

“In Japan we’re an artist management and live production company,” says Verbal. “But when we work with international entities, we end up being, like, a Japanese entertainment business coordinator. We help people translate what their needs are, bring solutions and – it goes without saying – have fun.

“It’s not so obvious, and I think that’s what people who work with us enjoy.”