Handshakes of a group of girls rock Japanese music

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Ritsuhiko Tajima owns around 100 CDs of his favorite artist, Japanese girl group AKB48, many of which are copies of the same record. The attraction? CDs often include tickets to events where he can briefly meet his idols.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it,” the 28-year-old nursing assistant said as he lined up at the group’s theater in Tokyo for a monthly sale of limited-edition photos of its members. “They are pop stars that I can visit.”

Fans like Tajima helped mainstream music revenue in Japan rise 3% last year to US $ 4.3 billion (NZ $ 5.5 billion), overtaking the United States to become the world’s largest market, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan.

Music sales in the country increased for the first time in five years, driven by tracks delivered on CDs and other physical media, countering the trend in developed markets as cheaper downloads gain traction. Physical media accounted for 82% of music sales in Japan last year, compared to 37% in the United States, according to the recording industry group.

Much of Japan’s strength can be attributed to bands like AKB48, which have boosted sales of music in physical formats through innovative marketing such as CDs packed with handshake event tickets and concerts. ballots that allow fans to vote online for their favorite singers.

AKB48’s miniskirt members perform in three groups of about 20 each in the 250-seat theater. Formed in 2005, AKB48 is the country’s best-selling girl group, spawning three sister groups in Japan and two overseas. Sony Corp., which holds the second-largest share of the music market in Japan, launched a rival group called Nogizaka 46 last year to compete with AKB48, a Sony artist before leaving in 2008 for King Record Co.

“Sony Music is betting on its future to develop this idol group,” Yasushi Akimoto, lyricist and producer of Nogizaka 46 – and producer of AKB48 – tells Nogizaka’s website.

Behind the success of Japanese girl groups is “a radical change in the relationship with fans by involving them in the star-making process,” said Hideki Take, music commentator and disc jockey in Tokyo. After being chosen in amateur auditions, potential new members of the group perform in small theaters where fans vote on which members will be featured.

“Unlike most of the stars picked by record label executives, it’s a fan-centric system,” Take said. “The fans feel like they are part of the success.”

AKB48’s singing and dancing teens are split into three teams – A, K and B – who alternate performances every night in a theater above a discount store in Tokyo’s Akihabara district.

Several times a year, they also host events where tens of thousands of followers gather in convention halls across Japan for the chance to briefly meet their girl group idols.

Nogizaka 46 follows a similar scenario, as part of Sony’s effort to consolidate domestic sales which have fallen despite the strength of the industry. Sony says its music sales in Japan fell to 167 billion yen in the year ended March, from 174 billion yen a year earlier.

This drop allowed Sony to lose the lead in Japanese music sales. The company held a 14.4% share of the country’s music market last year, 0.5 points behind Avex Group Holdings Inc., according to researcher Oricon Inc. Sony’s entertainment woes prompted investor Daniel Loeb to offer to sell up to 20% of his music. and cinema.

Analysts believe the strength of the Japanese music market may be short-lived. Sales of CDs and other physical media to consumers fell 6% in the first five months of 2013 from a year earlier, according to the recording industry association.

And the United States still accounts for more total music-related revenue by including subscription and streaming service fees and licenses for movies and commercials.

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

The challenge for the Japanese music industry is to create an equally intense loyalty from fans outside of Japan, said Damian Thong, analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in Tokyo. AKB48’s backers have launched groups in Shanghai (SNH48) and Jakarta (JKT48) to expand the franchise.

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

Nogizaka 46 still has a long way to go before catching up with AKB48. The Sony group sold 303,474 single CDs of their biggest hit, “Seifuku no Mannequin”, or “Mannequin in Uniform”, during the first half of this year. This was overshadowed by AKB48’s “Sayonara Crawl”, the # 1 release, which sold 1.9 million copies.

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

“At these events, I learn that my fans pay me a lot more attention than I could ever imagine,” Ikuta said before the group’s dance practice at Sony Music headquarters in Japan. “It gives me a surge of support.”

Fans like Yuka Kimura love it too. Kimura traveled over an hour from Tokyo for an AKB48 handshake event in Chiba Prefecture with 10 tickets, which she obtained by purchasing 10 identical CDs at 1,000 yen each. These have allowed him to queue multiple times to meet his favorite singers – although each encounter lasts less than five seconds and no photos or autographs are allowed.

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

– With the help of Masahiro Watanabe, Naoko Fujimura and Kyoji Iwai in Tokyo.


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