Made in the U.S.A. : Joey Carbone Packages Acts the Japanese Love. His Secret? Think Cute.
Joey Carbone buzzes around his home studio, his face screwed to the eyepiece of an 8-millimeter video camera. Bobbing and weaving to get a good angle, the record producer aims the lens at three nervous young singers on his couch.
They think he can make them the Next Big Thing in Japan. Can they sing? Unimportant. Carbone needs only one quality to make money in today’s pop music market in Japan: a look they call kawaii --cute.
So he films them sitting side-by-side as they laugh, fidget and finger their hair while watching videotapes of guys and girls whom this compact, fast-talking former New Yorker has previously taken to the top of Japanese charts.
First on the screen flashes doe-eyed “Terminator 2" co-star Edward Furlong, who has had two gold albums in Japan since 1992. Second comes sassy young actress Alyssa Milano of “Who’s the Boss?” renown, who has had four gold albums in Japan.
And next? Maybe these women--one white, one Filipina, one black. Risky unknowns to be sure, but ones Carbone believes will fulfill a Tokyo record company’s request that he create a multiethnic combo to sing Motown songs to the fast Euro-beat technopop sound, a music craze that has swept Japanese dance clubs.
If the group clicks, it would provide only the latest of 40 gold and platinum records for Carbone--a cross-cultural stereotype-buster whom even rivals call a king of Tokyo tune-making. From his base in Sherman Oaks, Carbone, 43, has composed or produced close to 100 hit singles and many more TV commercial jingles for Japan in the last decade.
“He has a real knack for creating the kind of melodies that the Japanese musical community likes,” said Mark Joseph, a rival L.A. producer for the Japanese market. “His music is so well known that he has to be careful about being overexposed. That’s a problem a lot of people would like to have.”
Carbone is capitalizing on a recent boom in American music sales in Japan.
The country has become the second-largest music market in the world after the United States, with sales of $5.1 billion in 1993. About 30% of those sales were attributed to foreign artists, and U.S. musical acts make up three-quarters of those, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
A one-man symbol of the globalization of the music business, Carbone specializes in turning teen-age American film stars into what the Japanese recording industry calls “idols.”
The three women on his couch--Millicent Ally, Holly Fields and Mylin Brooks--get a crash course in this strange, lucrative niche. In the United States, Carbone tells them, young singing sensations like Tiffany and New Kids on the Block epitomize the teen-age pop idol format. They are rare.
In Japan, however, the idol-music format is a staple--with fragile-looking boys and girls cycling in and out of the pop charts due not to their talent as singers, but to the whims of fame achieved in movies, commercials and variety shows.
Marketing matters even more in Japan than in the United States. Because few homes have cable television, videos are not the principal vehicle for selling music--TV commercials are. More than half of Japan’s hit songs have their origins as ad jingles and TV show themes.
Carbone doesn’t hesitate to admit that nice looks alone propel his prodigies into Japan’s music stores.
“People with real talent often do nothing,” he told the three new prospects in his living room. “But projects that are well-marketed and merchandised can do very, very well.”
Alyssa Milano, now 22, came to the attention of Asian audiences as the 12-year-old daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Commando.” That role led to jobs selling pasta and chocolate milk in TV spots in Japan. The ads’ melodies and lyrics were written by Carbone and later released as pop singles.
Milano sings an ode to spaghetti, for instance, in a short pasta commercial that reads at the bottom, “Song by Alyssa Milano.” The tune was released as a love song on her next compact disc, and in June, 1990, was one of three singles she had in the foreign-artists Top 20 in Japan.
Working closely with Carbone in priming the Asian pop-star machinery in L.A. are Japanese journalist Yukiko Nakajima, West Coast editor for the glossy Japanese fanzine Roadshow, and fashion photographer/music promoter Michael O’Connor.
Nakajima and O’Connor comb recent motion pictures for cute kids who aren’t yet established stars. Nakajima writes about them for Roadshow, and O’Connor shoots their pictures. If the article generates a strong response from teen readers in Japan, O’Connor approaches their managers about making a record. Carbone then steps up to compose and produce the songs, and Roadshow handles their promotional tours.
“It doesn’t make a difference how well they sing,” said Nakajima. “It’s not about singing, it’s about image. It’s an independent form of art. The art of celebrity.”
Publicists for the actors and actresses normally hush up their recording work in Japan, presuming it could hinder their pursuit of a serious acting career here.
Eddie Furlong found this out the hard way with his album “Hold on Tight.” He worked with Carbone to create an album whose lead single was No. 1 in Japan among foreign artists for 12 weeks in 1992.
“When I put his album on here, my 10-year-old son said, ‘Who is that? He can’t sing!’ ” said Nakajima, laughing. “But the girls in Japan (were) just happy to hear his voice.”
Apparently, even Furlong knew it fell short.
“Eddie is rather sensitive about the fact that he did that,” said his attorney, William J. Skrzyniarz of Beverly Hills. “He doesn’t want to offend Joey or the people at the record label, but it was his guardians who were gung-ho about his singing career. He’s embarrassed. He thinks his voice is awful.”
Ariana Richards, the Agoura 14-year-old who co-starred in “Jurassic Park,” had better luck with songs. She jumped at O’Connor’s offer to send a demo tape to Carbone, and he made it easy for her to leverage her film achievement into a Japanese record deal.
Carbone created melodies for Ariana and her mother to hear, then went on to produce the album in one month. The disc was released two months later.
Each such experience is sweet but short for Carbone, who made his mark earlier in Los Angeles as music director and theme-song composer of the syndicated television show “Star Search,” such sitcoms as “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and several Jane Fonda workout videos.
While an established rock band like Aerosmith can spend a month in a studio laying down tracks for a single song, Carbone normally records one to three songs a day and finishes an album in three weeks.
Veteran recording engineer Stan Katayama, a native of Japan who has worked in Los Angeles for 15 years, marvels at Carbone’s ability to mesh with Japanese clients.
“He understands how the Japanese mind works,” Katayama said. “He never steps outside the rules and never causes a record executive to lose face. I don’t know how he figures it out! So all the Japanese executives like and respect him.”
Carbone maintains an extensive collection of Japanese pop music. He writes and produces music across the spectrum--jazz, hip-hop, idols and heavy metal--but favors artists with a strong melodic flavor, like the pop group Lindberg, which is very popular in Japan.
“I’ve been lucky, and I just keep plugging away,” he says. “I had songs recorded last year that I composed 20 years ago.”
It will take all of Carbone’s persistence to make his latest project work. Each of the three women in the prospective multiethnic technopop group represents the age-old L.A. story: They came from Texas, Georgia and Florida in search of fame.
Each already has a page-long resume listing credits in feature films and television. None has sung professionally. Each worries about her fading youth as she keeps attending auditions.
“I know I’m young, but I don’t want to be 30 and still kicking around,” said Millicent Ally, 21, who drove out from from Stone Mountain, Ga., four years ago.
Time is indeed critical. Interest in signing an oddball concept group like this one might last only as long as the attention span of the record exec who conceived it. In early March, Carbone worried that perhaps the trio wasn’t quite right, but decided to go with them anyway.
“Maybe if we looked for a year we could find the Supremes, but we haven’t got that kind of time,” he said.
In a few days, the producer would package up their audition tapes, his 8mm home video and a list of Motown tunes for the newly christened L.A. Girlz to sing, and mail them all to a record company executive in Tokyo.
The answer came back three weeks later: No thanks, nice try, but why don’t you shop it around?
So while Carbone and O’Connor have submitted the concept to 18 other Japanese labels, the process of finding the Next Big Thing begins anew.
Carbone was already dreaming up new projects.
“You see that Kato Kaelin on television?” he said, laughing. “Nice-looking kid. We could do a spoken word album or something. I could get him a recording deal in Japan in two minutes.”