Just last night, the female idol group 1931–one that Huanju supposedly invested ¥500 million RMB in–has announced its plan to disband on the 29th. The news not only brought disappointment to many fans but also sparked a conversation about where the “idol culture” is headed.
Granted, it’s been proven in the Chinese market that idol groups don’t necessarily succeed just because of the sheer amount of money invested. The major success of idol culture in Japan and Korea sparked a rapid increase in the number of new Chinese idol groups. However, many of these groups tend to be one-hit wonders–many of them become irrelevant just after they’ve gained some mainstream popularity, wasting energy and resources within the industry. This, however, cannot hide the fact that the impetuous online environment might not be the best soil for the growth of idol culture.
When talking about famous idol groups, we have to mention AKB48. Since 2005, AKB48 has created huge success with its unprecedented size and extremely detailed and well-executed promotion campaigns, its growth stats often surpassing those of traditional long-standing Japanese groups. For instance, its 2016 single “Don’t Need Wings (Tsubasa wa iranai),” surpassed another popular idol group, Arashi, with 1.519 million copies sold, sitting atop Japan’s Oricon chart. Three of the 48-person group’s other songs, such as “You are Melody (Kimi wa Melody),” have also sold over 1.2 million copies each, dominating the top 4 positions on the chart for the past 6 years.
Japan’s former Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yukio Edano said in an interview that AKB48’s business model isn’t just beneficial for the Japanese entertainment industry; it’s also giving a boost to the country’s economy. In his essay “Popular Songs Change with the Times; Yasushi Akimoto, the AKB strategy and the Japanese economy,” Edano also wrote that the Democratic Party of Japan Lower House member of Japan argued that AKB48’s business strategy “could be effective for the economy in general.”
A core strategy in AKB48’s success is “handshakes” attached to physical CD sales. Sales of physical CDs are relatively low even in Japan, a country where the medium is still very much valued today. However, in the past 10-and-some years, AKB48 has enjoyed staggering CD sales thanks to “handshake tickets.” The right to shake member’s hands and vote “is an added value you can’t get through pirated music, iTunes or YouTube.” “I normally listen to music on iTunes, but seriously considered buying the group’s ‘Sayonara Crawl’ CD,” Edano said, “The physical CD will give me the right to vote.”
This type of added value can reap huge benefits when it’s applied to such a huge group like AKB48. In an age where superstars are hard to “manufacture” and where fans are used to fast-paced consumption, this is especially crucial. Sure, this type of strategy will inevitably lead to large amounts of discarded CDs, therefore jeopardizing the environment, but its positive effect on the economy is hard to deny.
“In order to maintain popularity in such an environment, it makes sense to form a group whose collective popularity is large, even if each member of the group only enjoys a small amount of popularity,” he said, “even though popularity of each individual and sales of each individual product are small, collectively they are an economy of scale. This strategy is effective for the Japanese economy in general.”
AKB48’s success isn’t just a coincidence. Since the birth of idol culture in Japan, its ideals have been molded to be completely different than those of western idol culture; Japanese idol groups are more focused on the long-term and try to appeal to the “otakus.” In fact, most popular groups follow this long-term strategy, and their fans are more than willing to support them and see their growth over a long period of time.
K-Pop, on the other hand, follows closely the western way of “star-sculpting.” It’s fair to say that Japan is more focused on creating stars for its own audience, whereas South Korea tries to make their stars appealing on a global scale.
The massive “cultural invasion” mainly stems from K-Pop’s strong global streaming coverage. Statistics show that since 2013, Korean idol groups’ overseas revenues from CDs, live events, streaming, and other related activities have doubled with its 2016 annual total revenue reaching a whopping $4.8 billion USD. The top 200 Korean artists featured on YouTube have tripled their total views since 2012, reaching 24 billion, 80% of which is generated outside of South Korea. BTS’s view count has surpassed heavyweights like Lady Gaga and Drake.
Shin Hyung-Kwan, CAO of CJ E&M Corp, a company dedicated to exporting idol culture, said in an interview that they are determined to make K-Pop a global phenomenon. “We’re looking for a time to bring Asian pop music under the spotlight.” To accomplish the goal, he believes that it is crucial to enter the major global markets, start from the US.
This exporting isn’t limited to entertainment. Along with idol culture, South Korea is also exporting electronics, cosmetics, and food, generating over ₩100 billion SKW worth of GDP for the country. The South Korean government has also supported this cultural export, saying that as South Korean culture is exported to the world, overseas companies are also acknowledging Korean idol’s influence. Stars like G-Dragon, Wanna One have established endorsement deals with brands such as AT&T, McDonald’s, Amazon and Chanel, many of which also sponsored the K-Pop Music Festival held in the US this year.
Having looked at Japan’s and South Korea’s idol culture, it is evident that China still has a long way to go.
First, idols need time to cultivate fan culture. Most of the current Chinese idol groups aspired to be a carbon copy of a certain successful Japanese or K-Pop group, resulting in poor imitations of a group that is more or less the same, without gathering a loyal fan base. Even though groups like this can usually find short-term success thanks to popular otaku culture among Chinese fans, their fame usually won’t last long before the problem is exposed: a carbon copy of Japanese/K-Pop groups simply won’t work in China. This is why Studio 48, a fairly obvious copy of AKB48, is also looking to enter the mainstream TV and film industry in order to gain more relevance.
Also, the inherent difference in strategic positioning hinders the growth of idol culture in China. If Chinese idol groups were start-up companies, then Korean and Japanese idol groups would be analogous to well-structured, experienced state-backed corporations. The Chinese idol market is still in its infancy, and some even call the idol culture “the product of corporate greed as they enter into the entertainment industry.” But the success of J-Pop and K-Pop idol groups proves that people are more than willing to support them as long as they are positioned appropriately in the market. The keys to this success are a smart distribution of resources and a well-cultivated fan base.
Fortunately, even though there are still many idol groups fading away just as quickly as they gained popularity, a select few are starting to expand into various venues within the “pan-entertainment” industry, such as streaming, short videos, and MCN (multi-channel network) social media platforms. While some inevitably end up falling into a cliche path akin to the majority of other groups, their courage for exploration is to be commended.
Lastly, it’s important to mention these idols’ personal manners. Just earlier this month, SNH48 had an internal conflict fiasco: last year’s top-3 candidate, Li Yitong, was caught telling fans to kill themselves and that the money from their voting tickets can’t even get her a shirt. After these recordings surfaced, fans and concerned netizens have started to question the substantiality of these idols’ fame, as well as their professionalism, saying that they’re disappointed and losing hope in their fandom.
This type of “idol-fan” fiasco isn’t just limited to the Chinese market; Japan and Korea have both had their share of embarrassing moments of idols disrespecting fans. The difference, though, is that in the latter two countries, a mature industrial chain allows the spread of such news to be somewhat controlled and contained. China, on the other hand, doesn’t have a structured idol industry, and these idols themselves often lack training in their mannerisms, resulting in a train wreck every time a scandal happens. A great amount of attention needs to be paid to these problems, and there is still a long way to go for the Chinese idol industry.
(Translated by Kane Ge)
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