They say it's hard for foreign artists to break into the American music industry. You need luck or unique talent to convince a record label to invest in you. But Japanese boyband BE:FIRST dispelled these myths and misconceptions.
A seven-member dance-cum-vocal group including Sota, Shunto, Manato, Ryuhei, Junon, Ryoki and Leo, their debut single “Gifted” released in November 2021 not only topped the Billboard Japan Hot 100 but also reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot Trending Songs 24-hour chart.
Their second single, “Bye-Good-Bye,” also reached the top of the Billboard Japan Hot 100, with its music video garnering over 25 million views on YouTube. Within a year, BE:FIRST's official YouTube account surpassed 300 million views.
BE:FIRST is under the helm of BMSG, a management and label company established in 2020 by Sky-Hi, a Japanese rapper-singer-songwriter also known as Hidaka Mitsuhiro. BMSG stands for “Be Myself Group,” where artists can be true to themselves. It is also an acronym for “Brave, Massive, Survive and Groove.” BE:FIRST was formed through BMSG's audition programs.
“Some of the members worked hard for many years to become part of a boyband. However, they didn't fit well into a typical boyband due to their uniqueness or musical style. In contrast, those were encouraged and valued elements in the 'first audition' they participated in.
As a result, each of them could be the most standout character in another group. In that regard, BE:FIRST is unique in how seven distinctive characters came together to form one group. It's hard to find another group like that in Japan or the world,” said Sky-Hi.
But what is BE: FIRST's secret to viral popularity? “[It is all] thanks to the heartfelt love and support from our fans, 'Betsy,' allowing us to focus on achieving our goals. We cannot be thankful enough,” said Shunto.
Betsy is how BE:FIRST members refer to their fans. Sota attributes BE:FIRST's success on the US Billboard Hot Trending 24-hour chart to the worldwide popularity of South Korean pop music. “More people are listening to Asian music [now], like P-pop (Pinoy pop music) and J-pop (Japanese pop music), which is a bit different from K-pop — it sounds 'something new' to someone's ears.”
Manato revealed that their specific roles in the group change to make things work. “But we try to let each person's skill or strength shine. We don't have a designated leader. We engage in extensive discussions to consider and gather ideas. Someone with more experience or skill may share tips and guidance.”
BE:FIRST members also contribute to writing their songs. “Yes, we have participated in the songwriting process for a few songs, such as 'Lick Start,' 'Grateful Pain,' and 'BF is….' I believe that aspect is one of our strengths as artists, and we want to be more involved in music production moving forward,” said Junon.
How would BE:FIRST explain J-pop to a first-time listener of their songs who happens to be a K-pop fan? Ryoki said, “I would explain that our music is all about 'live performance.' Every performance is unique and spontaneous, and that is our strength. I want K-pop fans [and fans worldwide] to check out our live performances.”
“Everyone has their own preferences, and musical tastes can be selective. Even if someone doesn't currently enjoy our music, I hope they get to see our live performance in person one day and hopefully enjoy watching and listening to our live music. We work hard every day in the hopes of performing live overseas in the future,” added Shunto.
Having a good motto is crucial to keeping BE:FIRST focused on their goals, and theirs is “Japan to the world.”
As Ryhei stated, “At this moment, we are in the process of preparing to 'appeal' to the world, not to 'conquer' the world. When the time comes, we want to be able to showcase everything we have developed within ourselves and share it with people around the world.”
BE:FIRST members also dream, as Sota revealed, “to perform at the Super Bowl Halftime Show! Just imagining us performing together with great artists is thrilling.”
Manato added, “I want us to perform at the Apollo Theater and Madison Square Garden in New York, Rolling Loud (an international hip-hop music festival), and the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles.”
Given the opportunity, BE:FIRST wants to collaborate with American singer-songwriter Charlie Puth, whose initial exposure came through the viral success of his song videos uploaded on YouTube.
“He is so popular all over Asia right now. Listening to his music, I admire his original arrangement while capturing and enjoying trendy sounds. It would be great if we could collaborate with him one day!” said Ryuhei.
While comparisons can be a catalyst for self-improvement, BE:FIRST members avoid falling into this dangerous trap that can lead to negative thoughts and frustrations about not being good enough. “Instead of comparing ourselves to others, I believe we should work hard to bridge the gap between our ideal selves and our current identities step by step. It is also essential to give our best in every performance,” concluded Leo.
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