Tom Smith’s JPU Records Is the Independent Label Bridging Gaps & Celebrating Kick Ass Music from Japan

In a little less than a decade, Tom Smith started JPU Records in London and has watched it grow from the label with the single release of a single album of Japanese hard rock band the GazettE, into the multi-artist monolith that represents iconic and legendary bands like SCANDAL and BAND-MAID.

SCANDAL’s “Tonight” video, the most recent video from their new album Kiss from the Darkness available now outside of Japan via JPU Records.

This London based label is a true testament to DIY spirit, how far a love of music, and as Smith himself says “being nice and polite”, can get you in the world.

The GazettE album JPU Records in 2012 was their first but since then have come to acquire and distribute all of the band’s discography. In a world and time where borders seem to be being drawn harder into the ground and more clearly, JPU is building a bridge.

Their embrace and celebration of Japanese musicians and bands shows the positives and bright side of bringing the world together.

The JPU releases of these artists’ music come in products that include booklets with lyrics and transliterations; it follows the spirit of what has made vinyl so popular again: they provide a tactile item that listeners and fans can interact with.

Language becomes moot with JPU. You don’t need to understand the words to a LOVEBITES song, or one of SCANDAL, or BAND-MAID, or Ena Fujita to know that music is great. But if you get their CD’s or EP’s through JPU, you’ll have some help with the lyrics too.

In this interview, Tom Smith talks about starting the label, how the distribution has worked for the music, and supporting your local label. This interview was done via email.

JPU Records emblem, courtesy of JPU Records.

My first question is about how and why you had the idea to start JPU Records. Are you originally from London/the UK? And how did you find Japanese artists/music, at least at such a level to start a label to distribute their music outside of Japan?

Yep, in North London born and raised, in a local venue is where I spent most of my days. While I was still at school I was working part-time at what was the UK’s biggest independent film and music distributor. I helped out in almost every department and later got a full-time job in marketing and production there once I left school. I was about to lead a new venture for them, which was their Asian film division, but the company closed just as the project was about to start. By chance at the same time I was looking for a new career and thinking about being a writer for magazines, so I applied to work for an anime magazine, and noticed their music page didn’t really cover what was happening in the UK in terms of music from Asia, so I volunteered to take it over. The first band I went to see for the magazine was Dir en grey on their first ever UK show and it was intense! The show sold out, people were queueing outside for days, and I proved to the editor people here cared for Japanese music. It grew from there, and kept growing. I used to run clubnights and gigs for bands from Japan too. We’d tour all over the UK, a lot of the people and bands I worked with have become famous now in Japan and in the UK, but at the time it was hard work trying to fill a room for artists nobody had heard of at the time. Anyway, I had to do some market research for the Japanese government about how music from Japan is accepted by businesses in the UK, and while doing this one of the distributors I was talking to said “Why don’t you make a label? You already have the knowledge, contact and audience…” so I did.

June of this year marks 8 years since the establishing of the label and the release of the Division by The GazettE. What were the first obstacles in starting JPU Records and how, if at all, has your day to day changed for you? 

You’ve done your research! The biggest obstacle was to get labels to believe in you. Why should they trust their bands with you? Lucky for me I already had a long relationship with Sony Japan before the label started, so their staff trusted me and it was they who suggested that GazettE join JPU, which was amazing, as they were the band I was hoping to sign one day in the distant, distant, distant future. Dream come true style.

What was the initial reaction to the opening of this label in London? 

Great, HMV greatly supported the label and helped bring lots of attention the GazettE’s album in store. Online was a different story. Hardcore gatekeepers (I won’t call them fans) didn’t like that we released GazettE’s music at the same price as any other CD in the UK. They seemed to think we were a pirate label or some nonsense. They even managed to get the JPU’s website blocked from even being mentioned on Facebook. But that leads to a funny story, I couldn’t get the page unblocked, no matter how many times I appealed it. So I sent a polite message to Zuckerberg directly and the page was unblocked that same day. The notification shows he read it, too. I think this shows how far just being nice and polite can get you.

You have a unique perspective of dealing entirely with artists from one part of the world and distributing those artists’ music in another part of the world. When I was first exposed to music outside of the U.S., I started seeing some very real divisions or obstacles that even something like music struggled overcoming, with problems like distribution. How do you see the connection or lack thereof between music across the globe?

It’s great for me. If there were no problems / hurdles, there would be no need for JPU Records because Sony Japan, Warner Brothers Japan would be doing things by themselves. But that’s not how it works. It doesn’t work that way with movies or TV shows either. Money talks, but so does have a specific set of skills. For example, one of our bands went to a big label, and then came back to JPU. I think that says a lot.

Some of the biggest brags, as I’ve seen in press releases/newsletters from JPU Records is getting a plug-in in an anime. So, first, do you yourself watch anime? And second, do you or JPU ever have anything to do with this? Do you ever get to push these artists in the direction of these shows?

I don’t really think that’s a brag. We don’t have anything to do with that. That’s called sync licensing and the label /publisher in Japan handles that kind of placement. Of course, it helps make the bands known amongst the anime fandom and that’s great! And I used to watch anime, the magazine I used to work for is essentially an anime magazine. The last series I got really into was POP TEAM EPIC, and now the singer of the opening song is signed to JPU too; Sumire Uesaka. 

It seems like vinyl is well passed the period of trepidation and is concrete after its comeback. How much does the physical distribution of music play into JPU Records or mean to you in general? Would you like to have more artists selling records? Why or why not? 

I think people who are buying vinyl are buying it for the same reasons fans of music from Japan have always been buying CDs for; it’s something special, it’s a piece of the band the same way merch is. The last CDs I bought (both happen to be from American bands) didn’t have any booklets, I felt like “Why did you buy this when you have an Apple Music subscription?”, owning the CD didn’t feel like it had any actual benefit over the digital album. The CDs JPU release follow the style in Japan (and how it used to be here when I was a kid) where the CD usually have massive booklets full of artwork, photos and / or lyrics. Then we add extra pages too for lyric translations and transliterations. This is why I feel physical media isn’t dead. We sell more CDs than we do downloads for certain bands!

JPU Records covers artists in vastly different genres. Though there’s a clear focus on metal/punk like with BAND-MAID and SCANDAL, you also have acts like KARI BAND and Sumire Uesaka. Have you always had diverse taste in music or has it grown since you’ve started JPU Records? Or do you have others help with scouting artists?

Yeah! Why stick to one genre? What are Prodigy? Are they punk? Electronic? Metal? They’ve got part of all three and more. They’d fit in at a metal festival as well as they would at an electronic event. Look at Bring Me The Horizon, they’ve changed so much and show no fear of changing entirely. It’s brave but people change, they change, but music is music. Either you like it or you don’t. Even Sumire Uesaka has her punk moments and that’s why I love her music, unafraid to stay in a clear pigeonhole. Check out her video to “Parallax View”, she’s chasing enemies with an AK47! And later she does it again in the “POP TEAM EPIC” video.

A lot of acts you represent, it seems, are pretty prominent when you start working with them. For instance, that first album of the GazettE’s was their sixth studio album. Is this often the case? And how’s it like to do that, starting to represent them so far into their careers?

That was purely because of timing. We’ve now released all of their major label catalogue but it took effort as the first three studio albums and singles belonged to King Records, and the rest were with Sony. So I had to figure out how to find the right person at King to sort out releasing the older material. Some bands we get right at the beginning, like LOVEBITES. We got them noticed and winning awards in the UK before they became big in Japan. Everything is about timing, and I feel several other acts could be so much bigger if things had only aligned in a different way, but you have to keep moving.

Circling back to the format of the music you release: digital streaming is a really big deal for you to reach larger or more distant markets maybe? But streaming as in purchasing has gone down and lost out to streaming monthly services. But of course, like in the U.S., a lot of these artists’ music isn’t available on those platforms or takes much longer. How have you combatted this? Is it a struggle at all?

Streaming platforms are still new in Japan, and because of that it’s taking some time to convince those that control the music to either release on those platforms, or find a business relationship / deal that’s fair. My biggest struggle is politely telling labels where they can shove their deal when they want to control streaming themselves.  

Lastly, aside from the SCANDAL album, I want to ask what else you’re excited for, listening to at the moment? Anything we should look out for?

I’m listening to the new album from Loathe (“I Let It In and It Took Everything”) while I write these answers to you (“Two-Way Mirror is a tune!”), and I’m seeing Polyphia in London this Saturday again and I can’t wait! So far I’ve been to every show of theirs in London. Their first time was as the opening band at O2 Islington Academy and on Saturday they’re headlining it. A British band called Gender Roles were also one of the most fun shows I went to last year.

That’s it for my questions for now. Do you have any other comments, concerns, last second remarks, anything I missed? About the label, London, the artists, life in general?

Support your local label. You like what they’re doing and the attention, shows they’re getting bands you like? Support them otherwise they die. People like to badmouth labels online, but in a lot of cases it seems like they’re just trying to justify why they feel it’s ok to steal someone’s work.

By Antonio Villaseñor-Baca

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