The future of music? The AKB48 phenomenon

And now for something completely different! (yes, I love Monty Python) In between all those haiku and short stories and TV reviews, why not also write about Japanese pop music? I originally wrote this article (well, a slightly different version) for the Austrian students’ magazine “Todós” in 2014. Sadly, it ceased publication last year and I fear not many people got the chance to read it. So I’m reposting it here with a little bit more up-to-date information. Cauton: long read ahead (ca. 2300 words).

What exactly is AKB48?

You’re probably a little like me: you look at the titles of the songs that are in the weekly top ten and realize you don’t even know half of the artists. In good weeks. Sure enough, Japan isn’t any different. But Japan has AKB48 – and it’s pretty much impossible to not encounter them when you’re in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Basically, AKB48 is a girl group with – no, not 48 members. But currently more than 138 (yes, one hundred-and-thirty-eight!) members (my count, based on the Japanese Wikipedia entry). Those numbers change, by the way – in 2012, I counted more than 90 members. Unsurprisingly, they’re holding the Guinness World Record for the largest pop band in the world.

Of course, not all of these girls appear on stage (or screen) at the same time. Instead, there are five teams: Team A, Team K, Team B, Team 4 and – surprise! – Team 8. In the past, there was also a group of “students” or “interns” (kenkyuusei) who were background singers and dancers for the main groups. The team structure changes every year or so – Team 8 was for example formed this spring for a Toyota advertising campaign.

Essentially, AKB48 works like a company, only that the employees are between 13 and 26 years of age: if you’re good, you get promoted to the A, K or B team and can even become team captain. If you mess up, you get downgraded and eventually fired – or retire yourself. For the big names, this is called “graduation”.

You wonder who came up with the genius (?) idea to increase the marketing potential of a girl group by factor 138? It was producers Akimoto Yasushi (in this article, last names come first). In 2005, he cast the first 24 members. His concept: an up close and personal girl group, named after the Tokyo ward where their theater is located – Akihabara, also known as the mecca of manga, anime, video games and electronic gadgets (although I should warn you: these sectors are beginning to move to other wards).

AKB48 was succesful, so of course their success had to be multiplied. The solution? Sister projects, also managed by Akimoto! These are: SKE48 (since 2008, named after Nagoya district Sakae), SDN48 (2009-2012, performed on Saturday Nights at the AKB48 theater), NMB48 (since 2010, named after Osaka district Namba) and HKT48 (since 2011, named after Hakata in Fukuoka). Each of these has around 60 members (in different teams) who generally come from the region where the group is based.

How do you become a member of these groups? Well, as you probably guessed already, the magical word is “casting”. These take place all over Japan and at least in theory the contestants have a higher chance to succeed. I mean, 138 members? There has to be a spot for everyone! (I say in theory – I couldn’t find numbers as to how many girls try out for how many places)

Of course the question for every hopeful (and especially their parents) should be: is it really worth it? And the answer should probably be: at least think about it very carefully. According to insider information, the girls spend most of their time with training instead of going to school or seeing their families. And remember, most of these are teenagers.

On top of that, no matter how successful and popular you are, one day you will have to leave (officially of course always by choice). Don’t expect to be a girl group heroine until you’re 30. But what happens then? Your education is – well, let’s hope that you at least graduated from high school. Problem is: a high school diploma gets you pretty much nowhere in Japan today. Not even a university degree will, but at least with that you will have slightly better chances. But starting to study late in life? You might think that’s not a problem, but in Japan it can be. Japanese undergrad students are rarely older than 23 (personal experience, might be biased).

So: a “real” job is probably not your future. So what do you do, ex-AKB48 girl? If you were very popular like Itano Tomomi (aka “Tomomin”), you will have advertising contracts and will be able to start a solo career. Or you enter another girl group. If you continue singing and dancing, expect to keep your manager Akimoto. If that’s not an option, but you’re still good looking (which, let’s be honest, will be the case because you wouldn’t have been chosen otherwise), you can become a model. In a bikini or underwear – there are quite a lot of magazine pages to fill in Japan. And then there’s the story about that ex-member who became a porn actress. Like I said: you might wanna reconsider.

In fact, you might really want to take a close look at the numbers: In 2013, the top five of AKB48 earned between 470,000$ and 240,000$ (see this ranking). It is however safe to assume that most of the members can only dream of such figures as they pretty much earn the same as normal Japanese employees. Unless they are “interns” (which still exist in the sister projects), because these get maybe 40$ per performance and their travel expenses reimbursed (although training and clothes are free).

But what about the music?

Music? Oh yes, right, they are a music group after all. Well, as we all know, in Europe and the US, you no longer make money by making music. Not even when you’re U2. You make money by playing concerts and selling merchandising. Of course, this is also true for Japan, although the Japanese still love CDs a little bit more than we do – we’ll get to part of the reason in a moment.

You are probably familiar with Japan’s virtual idol, Hatsune Miku – she’s been on Letterman, after all! So of course it needs more than dozens of cute girls to win against such an opponent. And when I say “more”, I really mean “more”. Because there’s one thing the AKB48 machine (which includes the sister projects) is particularly good at: appealing to the human need of collecting.

Actually, there are several stragies at work. Strategy one is based on a simple thought: why not produce several different versions of a song at once? Sure, we have that over here as well – remix version, anyone? But AKB48 has perfected it: every single is avaialble in (at least) three different versions (Type A, B, C – or K). What’s the difference, you ask? Each version features different members or teams as singers, and each version further contains a song that has specially been recorded just for this version. Conclusion: if you are a die-hard fan, you have to buy each single three times to hear all the new songs. And we’re talking about physical CDs here!

Did I say three times? Well, if you’re really really die-hard, you might actually want to buy it six times. Because there will also be a limited edition of every version. These usually have a slightly different cover design, but what counts is the content, or rather the limited edition’s extra item. Mostly, this is a ticket for a “AKB48 handshaking event” where the fans can literally shake the members’ hands. Sometimes there are even several events which all need separate tickets, so good luck… Missed the limited edition? Don’t cry, you can still find collector’s cards or a photo in the normal version. Well, one of 40 different ones.

A limited edition of SKE48's single "Kataomoi finally" (Type A) with trading card and ticket for a "handshaking event".

A limited edition of SKE48’s single “Kataomoi finally” (Type A) with trading card and ticket for a “handshaking event”.

Did I mention CD sales are still pretty strong in Japan? No wonder. Let’s do the maths here with this year’s single “Labrador Retriever” as an example: Type A + Type K + Type B + Type 4 + Theater version = 5 CDs. If you buy just the limited edition. If you buy every single at least 40 times because you want every trading card, that’s a total of 205 CDs (assuming you get differnt cards each time). Sure, quite a few will get resold after being stripped of the card by their initial buyer (second hand stores are also thriving in Japan), but that’s still quite a mountain. Oh, and by the way, there may even be more limited versions since some store chains for example get their own limited edition with their own limited extra. Are you crying already?

Sure, you can go to the Internet and optimize your buying strategy and/or find people who will exchange/sell the pictures you really want. Nevertheless, this strategy is more or less a money printer. And sure enough, it’s criticized, because it manipulates the sales figures on which the chart positions are based. Although it has to be said that pretty much every Japanese music company is issuing limited editions and throwing out extra items on the market. The only difference is that their music groups don’t have 138 members who each have to be put on a picture card.

Let’s print even more money!

Music – okay, CDs – and merchandising (cookies, key chains, fans, folders…) are very nice and all, but why stop there? There is a second strategy and it ensures that you cannot escape AKB48 when you are in Japan – even if you don’t like or don’t know their music.

Look at us! AKB48 (well, some of them) advertising their latest trading card collection at Akihabara station, Tokyo (winter 2011).

Look at us! AKB48 (well, some of them) advertising their latest trading card collection at Akihabara station, Tokyo (winter 2011).

They have their own newspaper – not that the “normal” press isn’t constantly reporting on them and their sister projects. They are on TV and on the radio, as part of regular shows and also their own ones. They smile on billboards and trading cards. They are advertising testimonials for (among others) karaoke bar chains, drinks, mobile phone and internet contracts. They are ambassadors for the Japanese Red Cross and for the anti-suicide campaign of the Cabinet Office. They are the stars of numerous books, movies, mobile games, manga and anime. Oh, and did I mention their theater in Tokyo, two cafés with shops (Tokyo, too) and the additional 30+ shops all over Japan?

Catch them all! Or rather: buy stuff at 7-11 and get a free AKB48 trading card. Shown here are cards from Christmas 2011.

Catch them all! Or rather: buy stuff at 7-11 and get a free AKB48 trading card. Shown here are cards from Christmas 2011.

In sum, AKB48 is a gigantic marketing machine – but marketing doesn’t automatically equal success. I mean, someone has to buy all those things. So, who are those people who keep them alive and singing? Surprisingly, AKB48 manages the (almost) impossible and appeals to two completely different target groups: girls and young women as well as young men.

You are supposed to come up close and personal with AKB48 and as the “handshaking events” prove, this is not just a hollow promise. They are probably the Japanese stars you can get closest to (if you are quick enough with buying their CDs). But the fan involvement doesn’t end there: several times a year, the production company lets the fans vote on who will become the next representative of the band as a whole. This further forges the bond with between the girls and their fans. But outside of such events, the girls live in a hermetically sealed world. If they are not buyers, boys and men are superfluous in this world: whether on stage or in their videos, the girls keep to themselves (or rather, are kept there).

By the way, you probably noticed that the girls look kind of – similar. You might think that the reason are our “Western” eyes (there are actually studies that show that we have problems telling apart people with skin colors other than our own). However, I asked several of my Japanese friends – and pretty much all of them told me that they as well often could not tell the girls apart. As so often in life, the size (of a band) is not all that matters.


Is there something else that could stop AKB48? Maybe their competitors – from their own camp and from South Korea. In 2011, producer Akimoto founded the girl group Nogizaka46 (after the building of Sony Music Entertainment, where the group is under contract). They are doing well, but they aren’t yet beating AKB48 – maybe because they have “only” around 30 members? Meanwhile, the K-pop wave continues to swash on Japanese soil. This includes a number of girl groups who record their Korean songs again in Japanese. Popular examples are KARA and Girls’ Generation (known in Japan as Shoujo jidai). They may have fewer members (five and nine, respectively), but compared to the pop songs by AKB48 (or Nogizaka46), their music has more elements of dance, hip hop and soul.

So wait, AKB48’s producers might have thought, if South Korea can export their music to Japan – why can’t we export our concept to other countries as well? And so they did. I mean, exporting CDs and merchandising is kind of meaningless if the fan is supposed to get up close and personal, right? So in 2012, Indonesia got its own giant girl group: JKT48 (from Jakarta) – which is immensely successful, by the way. They were followed by TPE48 (Taipeh) in Taiwan and SNH48 (Shanghai) in China. Of course, they sing in the local language. And if you go to Hong Kong or Singapore, you can also find an AKB48 shop there.

So is it only a matter of time until we see BRL48 (Berlin) or NYC48? The star of TV casting shows is slowly fading, but maybe an up close and personal experience can turn the tide? Record companies would probably cherish that.


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