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Hamasaki arrives at the MTV awards in Singapore and is mobbed by fans

Empress of Pop
Like no J-pop star you've ever seen or heard, Ayumi Hamasaki rose to the top by controlling every aspect of her career and persona. Now she wants the world

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Ayumi Hamasaki
An exclusive interview with TIME

Empress of Pop

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The responsibilities that came with her ascension as a recording star were a fair trade-off for the joyous release of writing. "The 'Hi, this is Ayu' person on TV," she says, slipping for a moment into her alter ego's nasal, anime-character voice, "is the person I know they want to see. I understand it's my role to realize people's dreams. I'm O.K. with that so long as my songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me."

She is complicit in the brutal arithmetic of fame: trading the freedom she cherished for the right to tell her story through songs. Indeed, she has transcended mere songstress status and become something even more venerated in our consumer driven society. "It is necessary that I am viewed as a product," she says. "I am a product."

Avex, her record label, is all too aware of Hamasaki's extraordinary power over the company's fortunes. Her record sales account for a stunning 42.6% of Avex's overall revenues, according to Oricon Global Entertainment, Japan's version of Billboard. That makes her largely responsible for its Japan-leading 14.8% market share. Its reliance on one monster star leaves the company vulnerable: last summer, Avex stock tumbled on the news that the release of Hamasaki's latest album would be delayed until this January. "Right now, Ayu equals Avex," says Katsuya Taruishi, chief analyst for Oricon. "If Ayu goes, so does Avex."

And if she goes on, so too might the Japanese music industry as a whole. Hamasaki's next career move—her attempt to conquer foreign shores—will also have enormous implications for the industry, which faces a slowing market at home. Still, Japan's music business is considered lucrative by global standards; after all, consumers pay $23 for an album, compared to $13 in the U.S. Record labels also see quicker, fatter returns on their investments in artists: the homogeneity of tastes and blanket marketing here can make for huge hits and instant stars. But a rapidly aging population means the proportion of record-buying youth is dwindling dramatically from year to year. There's also the problem of CD piracy. Though Japan never caught the Napster craze for downloading music free from the Internet, the hot trend now is to burn copies of CDs, which in Japan can be rented cheaply. It doesn't help that young people's allowances are also being drained by cell-phone bills—an average $63 a month. Record sales sagged to $2.9 billion last year, from $3 billion in 2000—and the industry expects another dip this year.

Avex's fortunes mirror that of the industry: analysts expect the company's earnings to fall 6% for the fiscal year ending March 31. With the outlook in Japan unlikely to improve anytime soon, Avex has set its sights abroad. Avex Asia, a subsidiary based in Hong Kong, is set to go public this summer. Though current laws forbid Japanese records being sold in Korea, Avex is establishing ties in Asia's second largest music market by linking up with S.M. Entertainment, a Korean label, and launching BoA, a Korean teen, in Japan.

But Avex's best bet abroad, as at home, is Ayumi Hamasaki. Her image appears prominently in record stores from Singapore to Taiwan, and her videos run repeatedly on MTV Asia. When the music network presented its first Asian awards show in February, fans begged for Ayu, even though MTV Japan is a separate network with its own awards. To everyone's surprise, she accepted. For all her popularity abroad, Hamasaki had never once set foot in any Asian country outside of Japan. Avex had long exhorted her to look abroad, says Yugo Tsuzuki of the international marketing division. "But she makes her own choices. Many Japanese artists include English lyrics in songs, for instance, but she says she can best express herself in Japanese."


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