Notes on the AKB48 “election” 2012

So apparently Japanese idol pop centipede AKB48 held their annual “election” (please imagine me pausing slightly, making big, wide air quotes and saying that word in a sneering, sarcastic voice) this Wednesday. Now my Japan Times colleagues Patrick St. Michel and Daisuke Kikuchi already covered a lot of it in their piece the other week so I shan’t go into the whole thing, and notorious J-pop hater that I am, I chose to spend that particular evening with my wife celebrating our wedding anniversary rather than submit to actually watching it, but I gather there were a few interesting things to come out of the whole charade.

Little Sister is Watching You

Firstly, there is the fact that Fuji TV’s blow-by-blow coverage was briefly suspended thanks to the inconsiderately timed death of Prince Tomohito. It’s a shame that it took the death of the emperor’s cousin to shift this graceless, vapid, money-grubbing pantomime even temporarily from centre stage, but there was an undeniably bittersweet taste of schadenfreude at seeing Yasushi Akimoto’s painstakingly constructed monument to the debasement of Japanese popular culture suffer even the smallest of setbacks thanks to, you know, news, so I must confess to having allowed myself a discreet, Nelson-style “Ha-ha!

Second, with the win of Yuko Oshima again, that makes it four years running that a girl from Ohta production has won (she’s traded places with Atsuko Maeda since the “elections” first began). It’s fun to imagine a conspiracy to promote girls from a single talent agency just because one can imagine the riots that would ensue among all the duped fans. In fact, if that did happen, I think I might have to concede a grudging admiration for Akimoto. I mean, seriously, the old adage about a fool and his money was never more appropriate than in the case of these legions of fans and by buying into the whole charmless parade in the first place, they are practically tattooing “Take my stupid money” on their foreheads.

“Thanks for your money, you big, dumb fucks!”

That said, I very much doubt there is any scam involved, simply because there doesn’t need to be. The whole process hinges on the girls’ utter interchangeability. Whoever wins, the fans are clambering over each other in a desperate scramble to give Akimoto their money, sweaty hand over trembling fist, so why risk it?

Next, there’s the more general observation that what Akimoto has done here is harness the mindset of the indie music fan and successfully synthesise it into a pop format. The process of finding a performer you like but who few other people know, supporting them at close-up, small venues and maybe even speaking to and meeting one-on-one at those little gigs, and then following their development through to mainstream success has all been recreated synthetically within the confines of the group. AKB48 and their sister projects aren’t just pop groups, they’re an entire music ecosystem.

The ecosystem they most closely resemble, however, is the Galapagos Islands. As the whole of the rest of the music scene, even in net-fearing Japan, moves inexorably towards the abandonment of physical media in favour of downloads, AKB48’s entire business model and the whole election fiasco hangs off the sale of CDs. As Japanese subculture and tech journalist Toshimi Yotsumoto wondered on Twitter this Wednesday, “What’s going to happen to AKB48 once there are no more physical media?” On iTunes, you only need to pay for a song once and unless you set up multiple accounts, it won’t allow you to pay again. Perhaps they might decide to set up some kind of direct debit or credit card system that allows fans to bypass the hollow ritual of actually buying the CDs by simply wiring the money directly into Akimoto’s bank account, but more likely what we will see happen is everyone else in Japan moving more and more towards digital sales, leaving AKB48 a curious, disconnected island way up at the top of the Oricon charts, floating far above all the rest, artificially buoyed on a cushion of hot air. In fact perhaps less Galapagos than Swift’s Laputa.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Notes on the AKB48 “election” 2012

  1. miffy

    Egad, youtube was promoting the live stream every day for a week. They still are actually…. When I went in around towards the end, around 20,000 was tuning in? Not killer numbers

    The digital sales is very prescient because that is actually reducing on a year by year basis. (I blame lack of support from major labels, price and bad music)

    http://www.riaj.or.jp/e/data/download/2012.html

    I do have a question though. The Japanese do know that Girls Generation is the biggest girl group in the world in terms of market penetration and identification right?

  2. Major labels are gradually getting on the digital thing now, probably following the example of the Koreans. What seems to be happening with those stats you link to there is a shift from the major label monopoly-led mobile download system, which was always going to be a stopgap thing, towards an iTunes style download system more closely resembling the rest of the world. Most of the drop seems to be in video sales, which may have a lot to do with the fact that everyone’s smartphone can view music videos via the YouTube app. Seriously, who pays to download music videos? It’s like downloading a TV commercial. Also, how do iTunes sales show up on those stats? I can download a tune from my iPhone or my Mac using the same account. Do they show up separately in the mobile and Internet download sections, or are they all Internet (I guess smartphones basically all fall under “Internet”).

    Lack of support and promotion is surely a large part of Japan’s slowness to go digital. Quality… well, have my doubts as to the degree to which sales and quality are correlated, but that’s possible. It stands to reason that if people aren’t getting excited about music, they won’t buy it.

    Girls Generation’s new single, Paparazzi seems to be getting big guns promotion. At least they’re currently sitting on the big billboard opposite the platform of Koenji Station that’s usually reserved for Arashi or Koda Kumi. I expect once the actual song drops, it’ll be inescapable. I think the industry sort of realises that their way is a more realistic way forward for music generally and there’s a growing understanding that AKB48 is a dead end. Whether that translates into a more general understanding, I don’t know. The media here seems to make it its duty to ensure Japanese people in general don’t have a clue what’s happening outside their own shores beyond the broadest stereotypes. The media still treats Pink Lady as if they were a success in America.

  3. miffy

    Well, I said lack of quality because the number 1 selling group in Japan are not selling because of their music.

    I find it amazing that Japanese will spend 1000/1500 yen for a single. Or 2500/3500 yen for album. 3500 yen is what i spend in a day as a slacker tourist! Good to see they are slowly but surely abandoning this overpriced system.

    So it all depends on Perfume.. Who still hasn’t uploaded any of their official vids to Youtube…….. Days are still dark……….

  4. I’m not sure they are abandoning this system exactly. A song on Japanese iTunes still costs 150-200 yen, which translates to 2000-2500 yen for a full album.

    I think there’s an interesting experiment that’s been happening with K-pop in Japan this past year and I’m not sure on the result exactly. I might write more on this later or maybe make a column out of it, but it’s basically the Girls’ Generation versus Kara approach to the Japanese market. GG just carried on basically doing K-pop (with all the U.S./Euro pop influences that entails), while Kara went full-on J-pop with Japanese producers, songwriters etc. Kara probably sold a bit more, but with an extra year in the market behind them, I don’t think it was enough more to make their approach seem worth it. I think what K-pop producers are starting to conclude is that Japanese people will buy any kind of music as long as the girls performing it wear cute clothes in the video. I suspect that the idea that there’s some kind of “Japanese taste” that needs to be pandered to is just a bullshit excuse for their own rubbishness that the music business here has dreamed up after the fact.

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