We are in the era of the always-on fan, with artists making themselves ever more available to their fans. It is a transition that comes with no shortage of challenges, not least the extra workload it places on artists and the way it chips away at the magical aura that surrounds them. There is an inherent tension between increasing an artist’s appeal through increased accessibility and creating it by maintaining distance. Contrast this with YouTubers like Jenna Marbles, PewDiePie and Phil and Dan who share so much of their lives with their fans. Platforms like Kickstarter, Paetron and the ever excellent PledgeMusic have given artists the ability to balance artistic credibility with monetizing their super fans. But while such efforts are currently on the fringes there is a country where super fans are at the heart of recorded music revenue. Artistic credibility however is not exactly at the top of the menu.
Merchandise Disguised As Albums
In Japan 78% of music sales are still physical. On the surface, for such a technologically sophisticated country as Japan this looks like a resounding success story for the CD. But all is not as it may at first appear. The Japanese music business long ago mastered the skill of using the CD as a tool for driving ancillary revenue. J-Pop artists used to routinely simultaneously release multiple editions of albums. But while in Western markets special editions typically entail different tracks, artwork and packaging, J-Pop special editions often featured exactly the same tracks and artwork but a different free gift. In practice this was merchandise sales disguised as music sales. This strategy banked on the repeatedly proven theory that super fans would buy every single edition. The practice still continues but looks patently philanthropic compared to the successor strategy of Japanese idol artists.
One Fan, Many Votes
Idol artists are Japan’s reality TV pop stars. Typically tied to a TV show they build the same sort of audience relationship that contestants do on western shows like American Idol and the XFactor. But whereas the western shows most often see competing acts, these shows usually focus on just one. The most successful of these acts so far is AKB48, an all girl troupe featuring 48 members. However the crucial twist to AKB48 is that fans get to vote for their favourite members, the most popular of whom then go on to be the core focus of the band and get all the best appearances and TV slots. While in a western talent show the vote would take place via a premium phone line, votes for AKB48 can only be cast with an official voting slip, which conveniently enough comes inside the band’s latest CD. So fans flock to the shops on release day not because they desperately want to hear the latest AKB48 tunes but to vote. In fact, street bins are often full on release day with discarded CDs, with the voting slips removed.
But it doesn’t stop there. Voting follows a process Stalin and Saddam Hussein would be proud of. Instead of one-fan-one-vote, AKB48 fans can vote as many times as they like, just so long as they buy more CDs, and boy, do they do just that. As you can see from the graphic, some fans go to extreme lengths to try to influence the outcome of the vote for their favourite members of AKB48 and copycat acts like Nogizaka 46. Some fans literally bankrupt themselves in the process. The bottom left picture in the graphic shows what one fan got for spending $330,000.
The Value Of A Handshake
There are countless other tricks employed by the companies behind these idol acts, such as releasing singles by individual members and watching the fans try to outspend each other to ensure their favourites triumph. But the most intriguing of all is the handshake. Idol acts stage huge handshake events where fans queue up in their thousands to high five or shake the hands of their favourite idol stars. ‘How do you get your pass for a handshake?’ I hear you ask, yep, you go it, by buying a CD. But why stop at just one CD? Many artists will let you upgrade to a hug if you buy 5. You might be getting a little uneasy thinking about where 20 might get you but some acts pretty much do go, ahem, all the way, with actual dates for those fans who buy enough CDs. Though to be fair the dates are entirely platonic and are carefully chaperoned.
PledgeMusic’s Evil Twin
Just when you thought flagrant exploitation of super fans couldn’t get any worse, along came Deep Girl, a rock focused girl band that released their debut single at the end of their TV series. Priced at a hefty $8.38 the single included the song, a karaoke version and one of 7 different covers for each band member. But where the cynicism needle was really ratcheted up was the star system. Each CD included one star which could be redeemed against a menu of benefits, starting with the good old handshake at one star, going up through items such as an hour long phone call for 150 stars, lunch and, ahem, ear cleaning, for 300 stars, right up to a trip to a hot springs together for 2,000 stars. Bear in mind that a fan would have had to spend over $16,000 to get 2,000 stars. Oh, and just to pile the pressure on fans, the powers behind the band made it absolutely clear that if Deep Girl’s single didn’t top the charts they would be forcibly disbanded. No pressure then.
It all feels like an evil twin version of PledgeMusic. And let’s not even mention Happening Girls, the only ‘all year round swimsuit idol group in Japan’ that are all ‘available to marry’ for fans that buy marriage interview sessions.
It’s easy to be critical of this highly cynical practice that is exploitative for both the idols and their fans. (Not to mention the blatant chart rigging aspect). But there is no denying that the approach has successfully generated truly big spending in what is otherwise a rapidly declining recorded music market. Indeed, AKB48 were the first female group to sell over 30 million records. At its heart the idol approach skillfully balances the utterly mass media reach of super stars with intimate and (relatively) scarce access. The bigger the idol the more valuable the intimate access feels. The macro is simultaneously micro.
The Dark Side Of The Idol Model
There are also, not at all surprisingly, dark sides to the idol model. The most disturbing of which was a vicious attack on two AKB48 members at a handshake event with a disgruntled fan attacking them with a 50-centimeter saw. Other, thankfully less dramatic, events include the shattered dreams of super fans spurned by their idols when they try to approach them outside of the official events. One Nogizaka 46 fan had bought 3,000 CDs in support of his favourite act – going into debt in the process – but was curtly snubbed by the idol singer when he approached her after a gig. These setbacks aside though, the idol model looks like it has a lot of life in it yet and of course a host of Western pop acts such as Rihanna and Taylor Swift have long been in the paid meet and greet game.
As music sales dwindle all types of artists need to get more creative about how they generate income from their fans and with ever more passive music fans falling out of the habit of buying, it is the super fans that will matter more and more. The Japanese experience is utterly unpalatable for most artists and probably wouldn’t translate anyway in most Western countries. But the essence of understanding that the fandom itself is just as valuable to fans as the music is the essence of truth that YouTubers have already grasped and that more artists need to do. Welcome to the handshake economy.