Akihabara based idol syndicate takes on the world20 November, 2009 by Chad
I came across AKB48 (Akihabara48) when they were featured in the documentary, Japanorama during the height of our Morning Musume addiction. While initially skeptical about this new competition, I was gradually won over by their catchy pop tunes and professional music videos. By the time the AKB48 released their 4th single Bingo!, I had already been totally converted. This is an introduction to the group that had displaced Morning Musume’s place in my heart.
The name AKB48 is a combination of the birthplace, Akihabara and the fact that they have exactly 48 members. While they spend most of the time in 3 separate teams of 16, they occasionally gather in full force to intimidating result. The sheer number of members often comes as a shock to first time viewers of AKB48.
AKB48 was envisioned by founder Akimoto Yasushi in 2005. In the 1980s, Akimoto was the creator of (what would become the inspiration for Morning Musume) the first all female Japanese pop idol group, Onyanko Club. Self declared Otaku Akimoto has had only success in his career as a producer. As a famous lyricist, he is also partially responsible for the popular duo Kinki Kids’ Guinness record of 28th consecutive #1 singles.
After a series of auditions from July, the 20 strong AKB48 was formed in December 2005. They debuted with their first indie single “Sakura no Hanabiratachi” early the following year, but it was only in October 2006 that they manage to sign with a record label. Their first official single “Aitakatta” sold 17,000 copies and reached #12 on the Oricon charts.
In a nod to Manhattan Broadway theaters of yesteryear, AKB48 performs their shows from their own personal theater on the 8th floor of the Don Quijote building in Akihabara. One of the reasons why AKB48 has found such a following, is due to founder Yasushi Akimoto’s concept of creating a group of “idols you can meet”. Performances were initially held daily at the small theatre and fans could get to meet AKB48’s members before and after shows. Otaku loved the idea.
A unique formula was taken when choosing it’s many members. Instead of choosing idols of celebrity caliber, a wide assortment of girls from all walks of life were chosen to join AKB48. The management then nurtures its members to fit into various different roles based on their inherant talents. Vocally strong members lead the group in their musical performances, coordinated members provide the dancing, the wittier girls provide comedic entertainment during breaks, some members appear in popular tv programs and other members double as gravure or fashion models. This strategy works well for both members and business. The girls get to pursue a career in their interests and the company benefits from the extra attention. In this aspect, the group operates much like a school, with members graduating to move into more specialized fields.
Great lengths are taken to maintain the down to earth feeling of AKB48. The public is constantly reminded about how just very normal the girls are. The many novel marketing schemes the group has employed have not gone unnoticed and they often take the “girl next door” concept to new heights. AKB48 have previously held such events such as: have a field trip with AKB48, go to the pool with AKB48, visit the AKB48 school festival and even the outrageous private holiday with AKB48. Each of these events usually coincide with the release of their new singles, with participants chosen randomly from a lottery of purchased CDs.
AKB48 also continues to collaborate with monthly magazine BLT to create custom AKB cover versions of the magazine. Each month, the magazine holds an exclusive photoshoot of all of AKB48’s members. Purchasing a copy of the AKB48 BLT, rewards fans with a random photo of the group or one of its members. A whole market has evolved around the trading of these monthly photos, with popular members’ photos fetching higher prices.There’s more! Each copy of the magazine purchased, also entitles the purchaser to meet and shake hands with any one of the members of choice. Purchasers have to wait in line to meet their idols though. Queues have been known to stretch (and loop) around the blocks of Akihabara as hundreds of fan turn up for these events. It is not a uncommon practice for fans to purchase multiple copies of BLT to exploit this promotion. The unfortunate outcome, lots of discarded BLTs littering the district’s streets.
The formula chosen for the group has been so far successful. And AKB48 has since evolved from an indie pop group, into a sugary sweet horde bent on taking over the Japanese media. The group now holds multiple concerts at major halls each year and its regular theatre performances still sell out completely. Even as the market for music continues to shrink, sales of their new singles exceed 200,000. An admirable fact when compared to the sales that Morning Musume has been getting in recent years. AKB48’s success has even triggered the creation of the new sister group SKE48 at Sunshine Sakae, Nagoya some 160 miles away.
AKB48 have even appeared during 2007 on the annual Kouhaku Uta Gassen (Kouhaku is Japan’s most watched musical event, synonymous with the New Year’s festivities). Invitations to Kouhaku is a prestige reserved for only the most popular or successful artists. While it is not unheard of for new artists to appear on the show due to their currently hyped popularity, only a handful of artists manage to return in subsequent years. AKB48 accomplished an unimaginable feat by appearing again during the 2009 Kouhaku.
Having accomplished so much within the few years since its formation, the future definitely looks bright for the group. Just like the rest of its fans, I intend to support the group wholeheartedly…at least until the next new AKB48 comes along.
After outrages regarding the marketing tactics used by Sony Music Entertainment label DefStar Records, AKB48 moved to Kondansha’s King Records in August 2008. Photos from this post are courtesy of the now defunct DefSTAR Records staff blog.