Girl-group fans help push Japan music sales past U.S.

by Mariko Yasu

Bloomberg

Ritsuhiko Tajima has about 100 CDs by his favorite band, girl group AKB48, many of them copies of the same disc.

The attraction?

The CDs often include tickets to events where he can briefly meet his idols.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of them,” the 28-year-old nursing assistant said as he waited in line at the group’s Tokyo theater for a monthly sale of limited-edition photos. “They’re pop stars I can come visit.”

Fans like Tajima helped consumer music revenue in Japan grow 3 percent last year to ¥430 billion, topping the U.S. to become the world’s largest market, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan.

Music sales here rose for the first time in five years, led by tunes delivered on CDs and other physical media, bucking the trend in developed markets as cheaper downloads gain ground.

Physical media made up 82 percent of Japanese music sales last year, versus 37 percent in the U.S., the recording industry group said.

Much of Japan’s strength can be attributed to acts like AKB48, which boosts sales of its music in physical formats through innovative marketing such as CDs packaged with tickets to the handshake events and ballots that let fans vote online for their favorite singers.

AKB48′s miniskirted members perform in three groups of about 20 each at the 250-seat theater in Akihabara. Formed in 2005, AKB48 is the nation’s top-selling girl band, spawning three sister acts in Japan and two abroad.

Sony Corp., which has the second-largest share of Japan’s music market, started a rival group called Nogizaka 46 last year to compete with AKB48, a Sony act before leaving in 2008 for closely held King Record Co.

“Sony Music is betting its future to grow this idol group,” Yasushi Akimoto, the lyricist and producer for Nogizaka 46 — and producer of AKB48 — says on the Nogizaka website.

Behind the success of girl groups is “a drastic change in the relationship with fans by involving them in the star-making process,” said Hideki Take, a music commentator and disc jockey in Tokyo.

After being chosen in amateur auditions, prospective new members perform in small theaters where fans vote on which members will be featured.

“Unlike most stars selected by executives at recording companies, it’s a fan-centered system,” Take said. “The fans feel they are part of the success.”

AKB48′s singing and dancing teens are divided into three teams — A, K and B — that rotate performances every evening in their Akihabara theater above a discount store. Several times a year, they also hold events at convention halls across Japan where tens of thousands of followers gather for a chance to briefly meet their idols.

Nogizaka 46 is following a similar script, part of an effort by Sony to shore up domestic sales that have fallen in spite of the industry’s strength. Sony says its Japan music sales dropped to ¥167 billion in the year that ended in March from ¥174 billion a year earlier.

That decline helped bump Sony from the lead in Japanese music sales. The company had a 14.4 percent share of the country’s music market last year, 0.5 points behind Avex Group Holdings Inc., according to researcher Oricon Inc. Sony’s troubles in entertainment have prompted investor Daniel Loeb to propose selling as much as 20 percent of its music and movie business.

Analysts say the strength of Japan’s music market could be short-lived. Sales of CDs and other physical media to consumers dropped 6 percent in the first five months of 2013 from a year earlier, according to the recording industry association. And the U.S. still accounts for more total music-related revenue when including subscription and streaming service fees and licensing for films and ads.

“We may appear to be in better shape than other markets, but music companies here aren’t feeling optimistic,” said Yusuke Nakagawa, president of Asobisystem Co., a talent agency.

The challenge for Japan’s music industry is creating similarly intense fan loyalty outside Japan, said Damian Thong, an analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in Tokyo. AKB48′s backers have launched groups in Shanghai (SNH48) and Jakarta (JKT48) to extend the franchise.

“AKB48′s innovation was not, in a sense, making new music, but in creating a new kind of immediacy and new kind of connection to the fan base,” Thong said.

Nogizaka 46 still has a long way to go before catching AKB48. Sony’s group sold 303,474 CD singles of its biggest hit, “Seifuku no Mannequin” (“Mannequin in Uniform”), in the first half of this year. That was dwarfed by AKB48′s “Sayonara Crawl,” the No. 1 release, which sold 1.9 million copies.

Sony auditioned 38,934 girls to select 33 members for the group. The company is adding 13 new members this year after a second round of auditions in May. Among the members fans can meet is 16-year-old Erika Ikuta, who says she enjoys shaking thousands of hands a day.

“At these events, I learn my fans are paying so much more attention to me than I could ever imagine,” Ikuta said before the group’s dance practice at Sony Music’s headquarters. “It gives me a supportive push.”

Fans like Yuka Kimura love it too. Kimura traveled more than an hour from Tokyo for an AKB48 handshake event in Chiba Prefecture with 10 tickets, which she got by purchasing 10 identical CDs at ¥1,000 each. Those allowed her to line up multiple times to meet her favorite singers — though each encounter lasts less than five seconds and no photos or autographs are allowed.

“It’s worth paying the price,” Kimura said. “Even just for a few seconds, I get to meet my favorite member, and that’s fun.”

  • kyushuphil

    I have lots of girl students who love AKB-48 and HKT-48.

    But their passion for this electric scene doesn’t inform any other parts of their lives. None ever quote any of it for light on anything else in their lives or their schoolwork. Maybe it gives them the energy to go out and be among crowds of similarly impassioned — maybe they feel the energy to decorate their rooms with lots of the regalia the corporate sponsors also push.

    But is this a closed world, even with all the color, energy, and passion inside it?

    The corporate person behind pushing this scene admits there’s nothing musically innovative in it. So I make comparisons to the great periods of music — in the last century, and before that — where many forms of music greatly touched on and effected many other areas of life. Nobody wants that with these girl groups? They just want to be positioned in an artifically-created but apparently safe, secure, and colorful world?

    I say “apparently” for all these adjectives. If it’s just a consumer demographic, totally scripted, in which people can hide, and by no inner effort get mechanicaly jacked-up, I’d like to see some of it give these fans some perspectives some might actually use for seeing other parts of their lives. Or is it enough for everyone to drown in the apparently happy gravity that the corporate agencies manipulate to their very clever profit?

    • Masa Chekov

      Man, Phil – it’s just pop entertainment. There’s always been meaningless pop entertainment. There will always be meaningless pop entertainment. Just the names change generation to generation.

      • kyushuphil

        I lost, we at our school lost, two kids to suicide in a fifteen month period.

        Japan loses tens of thousands of kids this way every year — loses them to structured, organized, for-profit, meaningless activity.

        It hurts, Masa.

      • Masa Chekov

        That sucks, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Nogizaka 46, AKB48, PDQ17, or any other girl group you can name.

        Teen suicide isn’t just a Japan thing either – I lost a friend to it back in my Jr High days many years ago.

      • kyushuphil

        Japan’s rate of teen suicide nearly triples that of the U.S.

        It’s much worse here in Japan than in every industrialized country of the world other than Russia.

        If the schools took kids seriously as individuals, and taught skills like essay writing — to see all in larger contexts — and if they quit the robotiicized cramming — so many youth wouldn’t be drawn so helplessly as they are into the mechanized cults manipulated for them.

      • Jennifer

        I don’t understand. You said it yourself “If the schools took kids seriously as individuals,” The problem here is the school or more or less society itself.
        Teens commit suicide because it’s the fault of society for imposing pressures on them and making it seem like their lives would end if they fail some standardized test or fail getting into some big name college.

        There’re are no correlation between some idol groups and suicide rate and if you’re actually making that connection then you’re just reaching.

  • jmanngod

    how ridiculous – (and not just this drivel music) paid-for-music content is dead as a concept. I’m surprised people in Japan even bother to pay for recorded music…

  • Renato Cannavacciuolo

    There are so many killer bands and musicians of all sorts in Japan that aren’t marketed abroad and virtually never tour outside Japan that I think could not only make a decent number of international fans but also would show much more of a “cool Japan” to the world than this stuff. Instead they are worrying about creating “similarly intense fan loyalty outside Japan” for a handful of acts dancing to tv ad jingles.

    • kyushuphil

      Remember Ryū Sakamoto, and his hit song “Ue o muite arukō”?

      It’s now 50 years since June, 1963, when he, singing that in Japanese (with the U.S. title “Sukiyaki”!) held that song at #1 for three weeks across America. No Japanese song has come close since.