Joey Carbone buzzes around his home studio, his face screwed to the eyepiece of an 8-millimeter video camera. Bobbing and weaving to get a good angle, the record producer aims the lens at three nervous young singers on his couch.
They think he can make them the Next Big Thing in Japan. Can they sing? Unimportant. Carbone needs only one quality to make money in today's pop music market in Japan: a look they call kawaii --cute.
So he films them sitting side-by-side as they laugh, fidget and finger their hair while watching videotapes of guys and girls whom this compact, fast-talking former New Yorker has previously taken to the top of Japanese charts.
First on the screen flashes doe-eyed "Terminator 2" co-star Edward Furlong, who has had two gold albums in Japan since 1992. Second comes sassy young actress Alyssa Milano of "Who's the Boss?" renown, who has had four gold albums in Japan.
And next? Maybe these women--one white, one Filipina, one black. Risky unknowns to be sure, but ones Carbone believes will fulfill a Tokyo record company's request that he create a multiethnic combo to sing Motown songs to the fast Euro-beat technopop sound, a music craze that has swept Japanese dance clubs.
If the group clicks, it would provide only the latest of 40 gold and platinum records for Carbone--a cross-cultural stereotype-buster whom even rivals call a king of Tokyo tune-making. From his base in Sherman Oaks, Carbone, 43, has composed or produced close to 100 hit singles and many more TV commercial jingles for Japan in the last decade.
"He has a real knack for creating the kind of melodies that the Japanese musical community likes," said Mark Joseph, a rival L.A. producer for the Japanese market. "His music is so well known that he has to be careful about being overexposed. That's a problem a lot of people would like to have."
Carbone is capitalizing on a recent boom in American music sales in Japan.
The country has become the second-largest music market in the world after the United States, with sales of $5.1 billion in 1993. About 30% of those sales were attributed to foreign artists, and U.S. musical acts make up three-quarters of those, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
A one-man symbol of the globalization of the music business, Carbone specializes in turning teen-age American film stars into what the Japanese recording industry calls "idols."
The three women on his couch--Millicent Ally, Holly Fields and Mylin Brooks--get a crash course in this strange, lucrative niche. In the United States, Carbone tells them, young singing sensations like Tiffany and New Kids on the Block epitomize the teen-age pop idol format. They are rare.
In Japan, however, the idol-music format is a staple--with fragile-looking boys and girls cycling in and out of the pop charts due not to their talent as singers, but to the whims of fame achieved in movies, commercials and variety shows.
Marketing matters even more in Japan than in the United States. Because few homes have cable television, videos are not the principal vehicle for selling music--TV commercials are. More than half of Japan's hit songs have their origins as ad jingles and TV show themes.
Carbone doesn't hesitate to admit that nice looks alone propel his prodigies into Japan's music stores.
"People with real talent often do nothing," he told the three new prospects in his living room. "But projects that are well-marketed and merchandised can do very, very well."
Alyssa Milano, now 22, came to the attention of Asian audiences as the 12-year-old daughter of Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Commando." That role led to jobs selling pasta and chocolate milk in TV spots in Japan. The ads' melodies and lyrics were written by Carbone and later released as pop singles.
Milano sings an ode to spaghetti, for instance, in a short pasta commercial that reads at the bottom, "Song by Alyssa Milano." The tune was released as a love song on her next compact disc, and in June, 1990, was one of three singles she had in the foreign-artists Top 20 in Japan.
Working closely with Carbone in priming the Asian pop-star machinery in L.A. are Japanese journalist Yukiko Nakajima, West Coast editor for the glossy Japanese fanzine Roadshow, and fashion photographer/music promoter Michael O'Connor.
Nakajima and O'Connor comb recent motion pictures for cute kids who aren't yet established stars. Nakajima writes about them for Roadshow, and O'Connor shoots their pictures. If the article generates a strong response from teen readers in Japan, O'Connor approaches their managers about making a record. Carbone then steps up to compose and produce the songs, and Roadshow handles their promotional tours.
"It doesn't make a difference how well they sing," said Nakajima. "It's not about singing, it's about image. It's an independent form of art. The art of celebrity."