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Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008
The billionaire bad boys' club
Takafumi Horie, the former CEO of Internet company Livedoor whose trial for insider trading continues in the courts, recently made his first TV appearance in three years on TBS's new talk show "Terebitte Yatsu wa?" ("What the Hell is TV?").
Slimmed down slightly and still dressing like a college student, "Horiemon," as he used to be called affectionately, was as voluble and opinionated as he was when he was a daily media fixture. It was obvious he missed the spotlight, and he reacted enthusiastically when the other guests asked him personal questions.
However, when host Hiroshi Kume said that he was sure the people watching at home were curious about Horie's current financial circumstances, the former tycoon politely avoided any talk of money.
What was interesting about Horie's appearance was its premise. Apparently, he wasn't invited for the purpose of talking about himself but rather about another rich man brought low by presumed greed — music producer Tetsuya Komuro. Horie writes a blog where he comments on everything, and after Komuro's arrest for fraud two weeks ago, he posted an entry describing how he once met the composer.
Though Horie remains persona non grata in the mainstream media, according to the tabloid Sports Nippon, the producers of the TBS show read the post and thought it would be perfect to have one disgraced former billionaire talk about another disgraced former billionaire, and he was only too happy to oblige.
Of course, there is one stark difference between the two men's respective situations. Horie still maintains his innocence, while Komuro has reportedly already professed his guilt. But that makes little difference to the media. Once a celebrity draws the attention of the police, he or she is pilloried in the press and then tossed aside, especially if he's filthy rich. Nothing sells newspapers like schadenfreude.
Another difference is that while Horie's monumental self-confidence may have prevented him from realizing how desperately some people wanted to see him fail, he was nobody's victim. Komuro, on the other hand, has mostly been portrayed as a naive creative type who never bothered to learn how the world really worked.
Horie cared too much about money. Komuro didn't care enough. He only cared about songs. After dropping out of Waseda University to pursue music full-time, he found fame quickly in the early 1980s, first as a member of the proto-J-pop trio TM Network and then as a songwriter for superstars such as Misao Watanabe. But it was the post-Bubble market for disco and karaoke that made him the most significant talent in Japanese pop. When the so-called band boom of the late '80s faded, it was replaced by a dance boom that was even bigger. Young men made the band boom possible, but it was young women who supported the dance boom, and they had access to more disposable income since they lived with their parents. While Avex Records was central to the dance-music craze, it was still nominally an indie label in 1991 when it signed Komuro, who had spent time in the U.K., where he was profoundly inspired by rave culture. Almost single-handedly, he helped turn Avex into one of the biggest record companies in Japan, producing and writing music for its stable of J-pop artists, including Namie Amuro, Tetsuya Komuro Rave Factory and former girlfriend Tomomi Kahala, as well as producing his own Eurobeat group Globe.
Between 1994 and '97 he was responsible for 20 hit songs that each sold more than a million copies.
During a discussion of Komuro's travails on TBS's "Ping Pong," one music writer explained that Komuro didn't just study music when he was growing up; he studied the hit charts. Though he was often portrayed as an obsessive type always in search of the perfect sound, he was really looking for the perfect hit. His idea of what made a hit song just happened to jibe with the popular will in the '90s. But the popular will is notoriously fickle, and since 1998 Komuro has enjoyed fewer hits. The last CD by Globe has sold only about 30,000 copies.
The two personality traits blamed for his downfall were his willingness to accept any project suggested to him and his tendency to do everything himself. In other words, Komuro keeps his own counsel with regard to the work he took on, and from all reports he wasn't a very good judge of those projects. He tried to expand his empire overseas, first to Paris and Los Angeles, and more recently to Hong Kong. He lost a lot of money on these enterprises, and by the mid-'00s he was so deep in debt that in order to borrow funds to maintain his operations and lavish lifestyle he had to put up with 60 percent interest rates.
Two years ago, his second wife was threatening legal action because of his failure to pay alimony and child support. That's when he came up with the scheme to sell his catalog to an investor. He most likely knew he didn't own the songs, and no media have tried to explain how he thought he could get away with it. After the investor found out and sued, and a judge forced him to repay the ¥500 million advance the investor had given him plus an extra ¥100 million, Komuro turned around and tried to sell the catalog to another investor in order to raise cash to pay the first one.
Komuro's poor judgment could result in a lengthy jail term, but what's even more alarming is Avex's response. More than any other single artist, Komuro could be credited with the label's dominance as an entertainment powerhouse. No one expects the company to give up the rights to his songs — it's common for management to control their artists' publishing — but Avex has limited Komuro's ability to raise the money he needs by canceling the release of his upcoming CDs with Globe. It's a typical example of hansei — a public show of contrition — but is it fair for Avex to act contrite on behalf of Komuro? It's one thing for the media to damn a celebrity for getting into trouble, but it is quite something else for a company to help bury one of its own for the sake of public relations.