Japan CGM: Is it the system rather than the individual?

Reading this New York Times article about the potential “big time” success of “Chad Vader” creators — Wisconsin-based improvisational actors Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda I couldn’t help but think their success was not just contingent upon this new piece of technology called “the Internet” but the fundamental organization of the labor market in the American entertainment industry. As we saw in the original Clast piece on Japanese consumer generated media (CGM), there is no bona fide “Chad Vader phenomenon” in Japan, nor a notable number of Net content creators jumping out of the online to make sizable waves in the off-line world. While the lack of high-quality CGM with a broad appeal is one issue, there remains a fundamental question about entertainment industry reception even if Japanese individuals manage to create “break-through” content.

Here is the key quote from the NYT piece:

“[Sloan and Yonda are] an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s
interested in that,” said their agent, Dan Shear of the William Morris talent agency, which has represented them for about two years.

There are two underlying assumptions in this sentence which illuminate why the transition from CGM to MSM (mainstream media) is much easier in the United States than Japan.

Assumption Number One: these two “nobodies” from Madison, Wisconsin have representation through the William Morris agency — probably the most well-known agent organization in the U.S. These agents make their money by finding new individuals with promise and helping them connect to possible employers. They are literally “agents” of the individual — hired by an actor/writer/performer and paid a percentage of the employment deals they are able to negotiate. Since they are “agents” of the up-and-coming artist, the artist employs the agent and not the other way around.

In Japan, there are essentially no agents in this mold. The primary organizational intermediaries between talent and the media are management companies — jimusho in local lingo. In reverse of the U.S. model, they hire young talent, whom they treat as employees with steady salaries unrelated to actual gross income. While there are literally thousands of these jimusho in Tokyo alone, only a handful have any sort of access to the top echelons of Japanese television — specifically: Burning Production and its dozens of semi-open subsidiaries (in charge of Fujiwara Norika, Amuro Namie, etc.), Amuse (Southern All Stars), Yoshimoto Kogyo (Downtown), Tanabe Agency (Tamori, Rip Slyme), Up Front Agency (Morning Musume), and a few others. In the traditional model, management companies use financial and human resources to “raise” young talents.  The jimushos then levy access to their current hit starts to force media companies to use new talents in first-rate ad campaigns and television shows. As a result, TV show producers rarely audition in open casting calls: they politely ask which star the management company would like them to use and generally comply with the instructions.

Management companies, however, are so small and specified in their activities that they cannot easily absorb “new talent” that may have come to attention without their help. In fact, I think it is fair to say that jimushos generally see anyone who grew to prominence without passing through the management company system as a threat to their institutional position of supplying new talent.

This leads us to Assumption Number Two taken from the earlier quote: “They’re an original comedic voice coming off the Web, and everybody’s interested in that.” Precisely due to the very oligopolistic jimusho system in Japan, no one (in the industry, at least) is interested in “original comedic voices.” The sources for comedy on Japanese TV have already been established: Yoshimoto Kogyo’s manzai cabal and a few knock-offs in different jimusho. CAA and William Morris may hold a certain level of oligopolistic power in the United States in terms of getting their clients’ feet in the door, but they wield it as agents, not semi-content producers like in the case of management companies. In Japan, new kinds of content cannot be easily absorbed because management companies protect their system in which they control the creation and tone of content and single-handedly groom the pool of celebrity talent. Essentially, the jimushos want to keep tastes stable (or, at the very least, manage the rate of change) in order to preserve the value of the talent they already control.

In the case of Team Chad Vader in the United States, the medium may have changed from TV to YouTube, but the talent scouting system is essentially the same. In fact, the Internet only makes William Morris’ job easier by giving agents a gauge of popular support to measure the future possibilities of potential clients. Selling Yonda and Sloan as “hot” comics is easy when they’ve got six zeros in their YouTube view count rather than a “pretty good” spec script of Scrubs.

CGM is prospering in Japan to a certain degree, mostly where the participants are able to stay anonymous (NicoNico Douga or countless Hatsune Miku videos, for example), but the question is: If someone is willing to put themselves out there as a traceable individual and “break,” will there be anyone to catch them?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

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One Response to “Japan CGM: Is it the system rather than the individual?”

  1. ale/pepino Says:

    I’d love to see an answer for your last question, as I’m looking for work as a “talent” or “personality”, but I don’t like jimusho contracts. Guess I’ll have your answer in some months.