How a YouTube Channel Is Bridging the Physical-Digital Divide in Japan

TOKYO — For non-Japanese music artists, Japan’s decades-long obsession with physical media has meant they must grapple with legacy strategies for getting attention in the world’s second-largest market — such as landing on a major Japanese TV show or getting CDs into a large brick-and-mortar retailer. 

Now, new digital opportunities are emerging that could make it easier. A three-year-old YouTube channel, The First Take, is at the forefront of breaking new artists in Japan and nudging a market long allergic to the internet toward digital music consumption. The channel has featured a handful of big Western artists in 2022, including Harry Styleswho appeared in June to sing “Daughters” from this year’s Harry’s House, and Avril Lavigne, who in September offered up a stripped-down version of “Complicated.” 

Launched in late 2019, The First Take now boasts more than 7 million subscribers. It landed its first viral videos with five episodes featuring singer-songwriter LiSA, who performed the opening theme to the anime series Demon Slayer. But it was in the early months of the pandemic when the channel — like other digital entertainment in Japan — surged in popularity. 


Digital music sales, which have grown for eight straight years in Japan, jumped 13% to 89.54 billion yen ($660.3 million) in 2021 over 2020, while physical music consumption, which has fallen over the past three years, dipped slightly by 0.4% to 193.64 billion yen ($1.43 billion), according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. (Physical sales still comprised 68.4% of total sales, easily the highest level of any major music market.)

Fresh-faced artists stepping up to the mic on The First Take to show off their skills — such as YoasobiYuuri and DISH//— have gone on to top the Billboard Japan Hot 100 and produced videos with over 100 million views. They’ve done so primarily through digital and streaming channels, reflecting a shift in how listeners receive J-pop domestically.

When the team started work on the channel in 2019, “what we wanted to create was something you couldn’t see on TV, or more detailed than what you would see on a weekly music show,” says channel producer Makoto Uchida. They drew inspiration from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts series and Germany’s Colors. “We decided to shoot it from the side, rather than the front, so that it felt like you were in the studio, getting a peek of the artist at work.” 

They leaned into this sense of intimacy by positioning The First Take as, well, a first take, capturing whatever the artist sings into the microphone, with errors and emotion on full display. Channel director Naoko Furukawa says that early on, driving this point across to participating artists proved most challenging, as many came in assuming they would have the chance to redo performances.

Soshi Sakayama
Soshi Sakayama from The First Take

The First Take saw a substantial increase in views, with uploads featuring young creators like DISH// and Yoasobi, who went from fledgling J-pop names to chart toppers, particularly on subscription services such as Spotify. 

The First Take is among the first major music efforts in Japan to use streaming data to target the show’s main demographic of 20- and 30-year-olds, and to determine when artists should perform, says team member Kazuto Fushimi

“The data shows that Japanese people listen to music by seasons,” Fushimi says. “I used that to cast songs that would fit well for this project at certain times of the year.”

Even after Japan loosened COVID-19 restrictions later in 2020, The First Take morphed into an internet-era version of weekly TV shows like Music Station, a music program featuring live performances that started airing in Japan in 1986. It has added a news platform, podcast and live concerts, and has also tried to bring in artists from other markets, initially from China and other Southeast Asian countries.

“We used anime and anime songs to get attention from those markets,” says Fushimi. “They weren’t made explicitly for foreign audiences, but we always made sure to put subtitles and other things so that everyone could follow along too.”

K-pop group Stray Kids was the first non-Japanese artist to appear on The First Take, in the spring of 2020. Fushimi says many new viewers came to the clip via Twitter, where fan communities were sharing it and explaining what The First Take was. The Korean act has appeared on the channel two more times since, which has further boosted their video views on YouTube. “The more that they’ve appeared, the more likely they are to appear on the ‘related’ videos list, which leads to more fan engagement,” Fushimi says.

Other K-pop acts have appeared on the channel since — most recently, burgeoning girl group Kep1er — as have acts from other parts of the continent, including a recent turn by Taiwanese artist WeiBird. 

The team’s focus didn’t move beyond the region until this past summer when they landed Styles in June and started looking outside Asia to the West. The team put together English-language promotional materials for Twitter, knowing that it would get them new looks from abroad. Fushimi says Styles’ appearance generated the most tweets about any artist on The First Take to date. (The First Take’s producers declined to share how the Styles collaboration specifically came together.)

“Compared with Japanese artists, foreign artists really are quick about recording – they don’t take much time for rehearsals, they just jump right in,” Furukawa says. “Harry Styles only took 10 minutes after he showed up to the studio to do the actual recording.” 

Lavigne’s video followed several months later, attracting over 7 million viewers (boosted by a domestic love for her music that has endured for decades), and offering The First Take another opportunity to tip-toe toward Western attention.

“It’s hard to export J-pop to the world,” Fushimi says, “but we want to use The First Take as a bridge to introduce great Japanese artists to the world.”

ReoNa from The First Take

Alexei Barrionuevo