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  • Writer's pictureEric Doades

Cruising from Creation to A&R with Ken Kobori and SURF Music

This week Dmitri sits down with Kenneth Kobori, CEO of SURF Music and a songwriter and producer known in Japan as 2SOUL.

A Tokyo-based platform for music dealmaking, SURF brings the power back to creators by linking them with A&Rs and buyers across the global music industry.

Find out how A&Rs and music buyers filter and discover songs using SURF’s fine-tuned AI-powered search. What happens when they discover unreleased demos by hundreds of songwriters, producers, and music creators from across the planet?

Get Ken’s insights on the impact for creators when they access creative briefs from labels, ad agencies, and film/tv production companies, manage their catalog via AI song tagging, organize playlists, and submit songs that fit the brief.

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A full transcript of Ken Kobori's Interview below:

Breaking into the Industry

Dmitri: I'm excited to have this conversation. I know you were born in Hong Kong and raised in Japan. I would love to dive in with the music story. Just tell us how you started your career or tell us about your career as a songwriter and producer.

Ken: Yeah, so after graduating college, I entered Sony Music in New York as a general assistant.

And being in sessions and watching the music-making process, I felt like I could do it too. And, you know, I've been playing music all my life, started piano, when I was seven, guitar when I was eight, saxophone when I was ten, and just love music never thought of doing it as a profession until, you know, really got to experience it in the studio.

So basically what we would do is we would use the studios at night when no one was in there. We'd get a couple of the assistants together and we'd do jam sessions and start making our beats. And like a lot of great songs, I think, were, you know, it was free studio time and we were just being creative.

The work we're doing as the overnight crew, I picked up a friend of mine that I thought we made music very well together and we did three songs. We made three songs in a month. And I actually asked Sony to give me time off.

I could do this. And they said, you know, it's fine. They said we could use the studios. I said I want to break into the Japanese music industry. And they were like this is great. You know, try it out. You could use the studio for free. So we made three songs and flew to Tokyo, not knowing anybody in the industry, really.

We had maybe one connection and then we went shopping, shopping for demos as a producer cause we wanted to write for Japanese artists, but well, as funny as, you know, The first meeting we went to, we actually got offered a record deal and they came to our hotel that night and they were like, can you please sign with us?

And we were like, we need to meet the other labels first. So, you know, could you hold off for a week? Let us think about it. And we did all the majors, Sony, Universal, this and that. But, I eventually signed with Universal Music as an artist. And as I was making my album, one of the directors, the director of our project at Universal, who later became the chairman of Universal, and then he retired and now he's an advisor on our board for some music.

But yeah, he was like, would you like to write for another artist while you're while you're working on your project? I said, sure. And I went to see this artist called AI in Shibuya and she was singing and I thought she had a great voice. And, you know, they asked me to produce her and the first song I did with her before I even released any of my stuff was a song called IO, and that actually won the MTV Music Awards.

I think it was for Best Video or something like that. And really the second song I did with her was Story, which was the ballad song that you know, initially there was questions about it.

You know, her staff was torn between, is it too Japanese for her? Cause she's more of an R&B act so forth and so forth. But, I feel like the best songs, the songs that do the best are the ones where the opinions are split, you know, people love it. People hate it. And those are the ones that actually do well is the way I think of it.

Cause like a lot of times the whole, like all the staff is like, Oh, this is a great song. It's a great song, you know, it didn't do as well as they think about, but people that have strong opinions about a song and that they're using the opposite. From my experience, you just do better.

So from there, like I ended up never releasing my own music because, I don't know, I just couldn't figure out what kind of music I wanted to do as an artist. Because I'm like a melting pot of sound, basically. And my roots is jazz, but I love R& B, hip hop. I love pop also.

And since I could do it all, I was like, why don't I just write for a bunch of different artists? And that way I can keep making music. I don't have to go on tours. And don't have to do any of the PR things. And I could just make music. And that was kind of the goal. So you know, formed two soul music in 2003.

And from there, assigned to a big management company for many years. And it's really when I left my management company that I felt you know, having difficulty connecting to new creators and new record label people, so forth and so on, because I was locked in a studio making music all day, like most producers are.

And like most producers, I mean, I let me speak for myself, but I really sucked at self promotion and I didn't do social media back then. So, you know, the whole simple concept is why can't I have a page online where I could just upload all the new music that I make for exclusive placements for record labels and publishers to be able to look at my catalog and pick songs at any time.

What does the Modern Day Songwriter Need?

[00:04:46] Dmitri: That's super cool. So having had your own success in music, what do you think songwriters need today?

Ken: Songwriters today, I mean, they need a laptop.

Dmitri: They don't have to sneak into the studio at night, huh, Ken?

Ken: No, I mean, you can be anywhere now. Before, it was endless nights, because , you needed a big tower to put all those, you know, ProTool HD cards into, and you were not mobile. But now, as long as you have a laptop and you have Wi Fi, anybody can make music. I'd say even a guitar and vocals is fine too,

Dmitri: So the next part from there is promotion and getting deals.

Ken: Yeah. So, really our solution, you know, it really made me start thinking too, because a lot of younger kids, like middle schoolers or whatnot, they make a lot of music and they have been exploited, especially in the States.

A lot of these kids, you know, sell their beats for five, 600 as a complete buyout, meaning that they're not entitled to royalties. But to a middle schooler getting $600 is like, wow, that's a lot of money. But that's just because they don't know the industry. They don't know what's the norm.

And that's part of our mission is to educate them on this business too, so that we can protect the younger generation also. And you know, my son, he's six years old and he's already made three songs. And Sony music was actually interested in one of the songs that he wrote. And when I told him a six year old made it, they wouldn't believe me.

So when a six year old finishes a song, what do they do with it right now? Maybe put it up on YouTube. Maybe SoundCloud, share it with family and friends, send it to grandma, you know, but there really isn't, like your parents aren't going to go to a publisher or a record label to shop your six year old's song to them.

So what do they do, they open a page with SURF. And everything else is taken care of our AI handles it and behind that there's 11 people around the world based in London, New York, California, Japan and Korea, that can help you if you need any help and you know, we are technically a 24 hour shop because we were laid so far, far away in the world.

So yeah, so that's kind of where SURF was born, just that simple idea. And now we've developed it into a B2B platform that connects anybody that makes music from around the world to record labels, publishers, and artists for exclusive placements.

And this platform was created because of the problems that I was facing as a creator, as as a producer and also, on the other hand, on the buyer's side, for example, the record label A&Rs and whatnot, I used to work for Universal Music for about 2 years as an A&R, so I saw a lot of the inefficiencies on that side.

So kind of, you know, our 11 person team on SURF, we've all worked in the music industry and different pillars of the industry. And we've kind of put our brains together to really think of the problems that exist. And our solution to these problems is SURF music.

The Different Roles at SURF Music

[00:07:48] Dmitri: Got it. Well, let's go through each type of user and what SURF solves for each of them in a little bit more detail. Cause I understand songwriters are there. Like you said, you were in the studio a lot and you didn't have time to promote your own music. So that's one piece of it. And then you were also on the A&R side.

And so you probably are solving problems on that side of the equation, which is pretty cool. And I think also music supervisors can also use SURF to find unsigned music as well. Unsigned songs and things like that. So for the songwriter, what does the experience look like? I mean, we can all imagine, sure, upload your songs, but where does it go from there?

Ken: So the whole idea of our creators login, which is completely different from the buyer's login by the way, is going to be focused on community building. As a music producer, you know, I was having a really hard time until SURF was made, actually. I really didn't know many, you know, any music producers because they weren't in my circle and it was just, I mean, it's always one producer in the room usually when I was working.

So yeah, so basically for a creator, once they sign up for an account, they would upload their entire catalog onto their page and they could select the songs that they want on the marketplace.

Or they could just have it up on the cloud so that it's all tagged and organized and stored for them. The next step is if they go to their homepage, their top page of the creator page, there's a whole bunch of briefs song requests from around the world for K pop artists, for some American artists, for a lot of Japanese artists.

And, you just click onto the briefs and then you read what they're looking for. There's usually a reference URLs in there that could give you the gist of what they're looking for. And if you think that there's something in your catalog that you'd like to submit you just click Submit Track, it goes into your entire catalog. Click, click, click on the songs that you want to submit and enter, and that's it. It goes directly into the A&Rs box. Whoever in our playlist, whoever created that brief.

But in addition to that, our AI technology will actually scan our entire marketplace once a brief is given. It'll scan the entire marketplace to find the closest matching song to the URL references that are provided. And this is done by our AI search engine, which basically detects 120 different data points to identify what this song, what this waveform, what this song is. If it's say, for example, like a Bruno Mars Uptown Funk kind of song they're looking for, the system will figure out what makes Bruno Mars Uptown Funk, Uptown Funk.

And from there, it'll search the library and search through your catalog automatically pulling songs that sound like it. And for the A&R, when they see their playlist and people submitting songs, the closest match to that URL reference will be up on top. So it saves them a lot of time. So right now I suggest once you open your account, just upload your entire catalog and fill out as much of the metadata as possible to the songs.

Our AI will automatically tag all your songs for you, but you can always go in and change the tags to it. Even the album covers you can search through our database of millions of photos that relate to that song or that you want to put as your album cover and whatnot.

And from there, submit your briefs. And we are working on the connectivity part of the creators section this year, and that's our primary focus. And this is where our system will be able to recommend other creators on the platform that have similar tastes in music or making similar kinds of songs to recommend you to work together.

And once both sides accept the friend request, now they will be able to chat. And just so that we know that, you know, we are a global platform and everyone speaks different languages. But we've incorporated a simultaneous AI translation chat into our platform. So if you want us to speak with another Japanese creator, for example, they only speak Japanese, you just set your language to English.

He'll set his Japanese. And as he types Japanese, all you see is English. And as you type English, all the other person will see is Japanese. So it's kind of like the first breaking down that first barrier, which is language in most places, but we will be working on, you know, community creator focused tools moving along.

And like a lot of exciting things where, you know, producers can post tracks that they made that they need top lines for, and top liners can add and collaborate to add on to these songs. So essentially, one song can have four different versions of it. And the A&Rs can pick and choose and have your songs you know, probability of your songs being placed having different variations of it can be higher.

So all these collaborative elements, community building elements is what we will be focusing on. The creator side.

Kpop's Influence

[00:12:40] Dmitri: Gotcha. Yeah. It's interesting to not only hear about the platform for connecting these unsigned songs from songwriters with and our reps as the buyers, but you're also kind of talking about another value proposition of SURF, which I'd love to dig into a little bit more, which is this bridge building between the east and the west.

And your career and your life story, I think is a metaphor for that bridge building having you know, having lived in multiple countries and carried on a musical career, both in the industry and as a creator yourself. I'm curious, like you mentioned K pop is one of the things I'm curious, how has the success of K pop influenced the music industry in Japan and in America?

Ken: Oh, it's huge. I mean, it's like after BTS came out and and got number one, then Blackpink went on the charts. A lot of Asian acts right now that were only thinking about success in their own regions are thinking more on a global scale right now. Which means that the song selections that I've seen, especially in the Japanese market, from being very Japanese pop, like J pop oriented, is they're starting to choose more of the Western sounding songs, which is very refreshing for us.

And I think it's a perfect time for SURF because essentially we're giving them access to all these songs that can make it on the global stage, and connecting them and making sure that these deals can go through and they have access to it. So, a lot of comments that we've gotten from record labels that we've onboarded was literally, it's like a candy store for them.

It's like a kid walking into a candy store and they're like, Oh my God, Oh my God, all this, all this great music, it would have taken me months and months to source even a handful for a playlist to present it to the artists, but now it can be done with our search engine in a matter of seconds.

[00:14:26] Dmitri: Are you imagining, and I don't know if this is how it works today or how it's going to unfold, but are you imagining that American songwriters can now connect with Japanese and Korean and other Asian A&R folks and, or are you imagining that Japanese, Korean and other Asian songwriters and creators can connect with American A&Rs?

Is there one direction that works more one way than the other?

Ken: I think it's both, but primarily right now it's been more of the western writers placing in Asia. Cause you know, our three launch regions are Korea, Japan, and the US for this first phase. And we've been getting a lot of creators.

I'd say about 90, over 90% of our creators are from the US state side and we have others from like Israel, Sweden, France anywhere you name it, they're there, but I think our goal is to obviously take Asian producers to the world, which it's slowly, but surely it is happening. And we want to encourage both sides, but at the same time the need of, of Western music is, very high right now in each of the regions.

[00:15:38] Dmitri: Interesting. So the songwriters that are from, say, the United States, what kind of music are they making? Are they writing songs for K pop and J pop, or are they just writing straight up pop songs? Are they expecting these songs to be used in English, or what's sort of happening there?

Ken: So it's really interesting to see, but a lot of Western writers are studying K pop and making and learning to write K pop songs. Cause as you know, K pop songs, it's about like four or five songs smashed into one. Like the verse sounds completely different, the pre chorus sounds different, the chorus sounds different, you know?

So there's definitely creators that make K pop very intentionally, but others are making what they make normally and like Asian artists finding that new and they want to try it out. But then we do get a lot of Western producers even interested in doing Japanese girl idol music, like you know those teenage girls like AKB48 and all those, that cutesy kind of anime kind of vibe.

There's some producers that are making pretty hard beats and they're like, actually, I really love the idol culture. Like I want to make idol music, which is like, wow, but we're here. That's exactly the reason why we're here to facilitate these opportunities. And you know, if If some of these briefs or these opportunities are there, obviously our creators are welcome to contact us at any time.

And we can try to find opportunities, specific opportunities for songs also. But, as we said, you know, like we are an 11 person team. So if everyone calls us at once, it's going to take time to get back, but we will get back to you. But the whole idea is getting this platform to be able to do most of the work for you and inform you and giving you analytics to help you base your decisions on which regions that you should be trying to aim for to and to play songs if you wanted to.

[00:17:37] Dmitri: It's interesting to hear you talk about just the sort of the aesthetic of K pop and its influence on the way that Western songwriters are kind of being approached from the east. And it just sounds like, I mean, it reminds me a little bit about kind of like how producers in hip hop have used samples for a really long time.

The way you make it sound like it's not like it's samples cause it's original music. That's that producers are working with, but the mashup feel to the aesthetic is allowing for some more interesting cross cultural opportunities or just creativity.

It's super interesting to hear you talk about that. I mean, you had this recent Billboard article where you talked about how Japan and South Korea used to just not bother crossing over to American Western audiences, or if they did, they felt a need to sing in English or change their style.

I'm curious what you think changed in the world that led to this cross national cross cultural approach within the K-pop world.

Ken: Well, K-pop has a long history of, really trying to push the borders of music. And this started a long, a long time before even BTS got their heads. But essentially, you know, the Korean government also supports the entertainment industry. And they literally bring in foreign producers, the top foreign producers and give seminars to Korean producers to teach them how to make this sound. And this has been going on for years and years and now some of the top Korean producers, they're at par at the world's top creators because they've learned from them.

They've really owned their craft and spread it to the next generation. So, you know, we've seen a lot of Korean producers come on board onto SURF and their stuff is, very strong and very catchy, I must say.

The Importance of Exclusive Placements

[00:19:25] Dmitri: I've heard you talk about the importance of exclusive placements. What are we talking about there? And why is that so important? How did you kind of address that in creating SURF music?

Ken: So obviously, any kind of opportunity for a song I believe is important.

But the reason why we chose exclusive placements and to focus on that was because there's a lot of sites right now that do a very good job with licensing and sync and whatnot, but there hasn't been anything that we know of that does what we do is through exclusive placements.

And I think exclusive placements is really important, especially like even in Asia, because when you release a song and it's an exclusive to that artist, which means that you get to collect royalties wherever it's used. And in Japan, basically, you know, karaoke is like the hugest thing, right?

Like everyone goes to karaoke, clubbing is a very neat, niche pastime here, but karaoke from kids to grandmas. There's so many karaoke booths. And just to give you perspective, like, for an exclusive placement once your song gets sung at karaoke, you get from five to nine cents per time it's sung.

That's about a hundred X more than what you will receive from a stream on Spotify. So that is a very, very lucrative market and I could speak, like as you mentioned earlier, the song story became the seventh most sang karaoke song in Japanese present history. And the royalties that generates, you'll be able to survive for the rest of your life basically, if you write a song like that.

And it is because it's an exclusive placement that these royalties continue and will continue 50, 60 years after I pass away. And for licensed music, I mean, they pay to play per time to use on their videos and whatnot. And yes, of course, I'm not saying that that's a bad way to release music.

I think every opportunity for music to be heard and released out to an audience is very valuable. But exclusive placements is something that will never go away either because as long as there's new artists that want exclusive music and original music to release by their own, this will exist.

And it's kind of like the way that songs, I guess the old school way of songs on being placed was exclusive placements through the history of you know the music industry but you know we want to find different ways obviously different opportunities within the exclusive placements that we do.

That's different from traditional let's just place your song with an artist signed to a record, a record deal. But we're looking for opportunities such as you know, we were able to do a placement in the gaming industry. That was pretty big. Also going into TV.

The idea that, for like Netflix and Disney, they're looking mostly for sync and licensing songs, but, we did two original songs for Disney plus for a series coming out and they wanted exclusive placements and songs that, have not been heard anywhere else.

So different projects require different things. Different artists, you know have different preferences on, say, for example, Japan. If a song was on YouTube or on SoundCloud, an A& R will go there to try and pick it and get their artists to sing on it. They want something that nobody's heard before.

But in the States, it's different. You know, people go and they go and look for beats on SoundCloud, on YouTube and whatnot. Even though it's been streamed, the artists are like, it's cool. I want to do this song and it's fine. So different cultures, different artists, different management, you know, different practices.

[00:23:02] Dmitri: So it sounds like on the one hand, there's just kind of like a different cultural approach where it's important to think about sort of creating scarcity of a song by making an exclusive placement versus having it all over the place. And just in general on a business practice, not just from a cultural sense, but just from a business practice that if you're able to provide an exclusive placement, you can just have more dollar value put into the payment for that use. Is that what you're saying?

Ken: Yeah. I mean, there's no right or wrong in this, but, you know, every opportunity is a good opportunity to have at least.

Bridge Building in the Music Biz

[00:23:34] Dmitri: Right. So with the launch of SURF you guys have had a great presence at recent US music industry conferences at South by Southwest, at Music Biz.

And obviously you have a history of working in the United States in the music business. I'm just curious if there's anything that you've learned along the way, most recently in this new round with SURF, with your own business, about doing business in America versus Japan or Korea this time around, what are some of the newest lessons learned in this bridge building that you're doing?

Ken: Well, I think patience is definitely a big one. Japanese labels too, they've been using us for over two years now. They started beta testing with us on our beta version, which is this version that everyone's seeing now. It's completely rebuilt. So it's just being very persistent and also making sure that our mission statement Is ironclad, and it is the exact, it's consistent in the narrative that we state is exactly what we believe in and our actions show that.

It's a more open conversation, I think, in the States, because it's the creators that are really like roaring right now and on the state side, but on the Japanese side, Japanese people are a little more like contained. They keep to themselves a little more in general.

You know what I'm saying? So they won't tell you straight up. Then there's a filter whenever you talk to them. They don't give it to you like straight up sometimes. So it's a little bit frustrating, but , it's something that culturally, we have to get used to. Onboarding labels in Korea was completely different, you know you just see, when you're in Rome, do as the Romans do, as they say, but it's been very interesting, you know, like there's , a lot of drinking in both the Asian cultures in order to get on the good sides of it. It's been a fun process.

What Does the Future Look Like?

[00:25:22] Dmitri: All right. So Ken, this is our chance to ask you what crazy transformations do you think we'll see in the music business, say 10 to 20 years from today?

What are those future facing things that you can imagine coming true?

Ken: Well, with the way AI is going now and how fast it's being developed, it can go in many ways, I think. There will be a time where and there is already a time where you can just type what kind of song you want to listen to or create in what style with whose voice and it should be able to create music for you.

I think there's going to be questions on what does original music mean? You know, just even now where we're using Splice, Loop Clouds, all these sample libraries that we can, pay a monthly subscription fee and use these in our songs and still call it original, but we didn't play those samples.

We didn't come up with some of those chord progressions. You know, until what point will we call original music? I think that's going to be the debate and even as SURF, what's our position in, whether accepting these AI generated songs, banning it, I don't know what the future leads, but there's going to be some interesting conversations.

And also, with the whole The Weeknd and Drake, that song coming out and people being completely fooled by it. I mean, what's next? Are we going to even have real artists? Are we just going to make up, you know, like a Natsune, like Hatsune Miku, kind of like anime character or human like characters and make them?

You know, like a virtual artist that could tour in the web three space and doing all these virtual concerts with collaborations with other huge acts that don't exist, but only is created by humans and creating idol groups like that too. And the more real graphic is getting, there's even technology to scan your body so you could actually be dancing in the metaverse somewhere when you're sitting at home, but your body is actually doing moves and this and that because they scanned you and they have all that data.

I mean all this, like the entertainment industry, it is what it is, it's entertainment, right. But then there's still I think needs to be a level of where we need to be responsible with technology and our goal at SURF is really to utilize technology to make lives of creators and the buyers easier, more efficient, more creative, and just cut down and bridge the whole world so that the world will need no bridge anymore.

So all is one, music as one it's a very, very exciting time, I think.

Other Music Tech People to Check Out

[00:27:52] Dmitri: Nice. You're clearly taking in everything that's happening in the music space right now and asking a lot of the hard questions as well. But it's interesting, you go back to really, you know, the two roles that you've played in the industry yourself as a songwriter and as an A& R rep and trying to solve some interesting problems.

I mean, that's the thing I think about the industry. We can get super sci fi as, as you did a great job at. But also, you know, there's some basic problems that can be solved, especially as we have more global connections, the way SURF is doing, that may not be as space age, but really do solve human problems.

So it's cool to see what you're building with SURF Music. And as you walk around in the industry and make moves with your newer company, one thing we love to do at Music Tectonics is expand our network. I'm curious if you want to shout out, are there any music tech or innovation companies that you think our listeners should know about on your journey these days?

Ken: I mean, one site that we would one platform we came past by was a company called Bandlab. And basically it gives it provides creators to make music on their mobile devices and it has a social media aspect to it also. There's new features that you can mix and master your songs and whatnot but there's 50 million users that are on this platform, which shows great promise to us into the demographics of which SURF Music can help.

So, you know, I think they're doing a great job and we want to keep our eye out on them and hopefully we can work with you guys someday.

[00:29:20] Dmitri: Awesome. We're big fans of Bandlab as well. What about, maybe before we sign off, are there any cool Japanese creators we should know about just to shout out some music we should check out or up and coming folks?

Ken: I mean, there's a lot of producers, but one producer that's been doing exceptionally well is TRILL DYNASTY ' He's a Japanese kid from Japan. And basically in order to get his music out he was DMing like little Dirk for ages until he got a response and he got his track listened to, and he has multiple placements with them and with a lot of other acts in the States right now.

And I think he's gotten multi platinum already, but his story is just so beautiful. And the fact that he was able to do that. And us being able to support and moving forward is really an honor. And these are the kinds of success stories you like to see, and we like to support.


Music Tectonics at NAMM 2023

Let us know what you think! Tweet @MusicTectonics, find us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram, or connect with podcast host Dmitri Vietze on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

The Music Tectonics podcast goes beneath the surface of the music industry to explore how technology is changing the way business gets done. Weekly episodes include interviews with music tech movers & shakers, deep dives into seismic shifts, and more.


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