Thursday, February 2, 2012

Do foreign fans care too much about sales?

It's been a while since I last wrote a huge essay article hasn't it? I do like writing posts like these, but they not only take the longest to write, but also to fact-check (to make sure I'm not randomly making things up). That's why I usually only make these in response to something (i.e. graduations, scandals, etc) and that is why they usually seem like rants. This post is no different. I originally started writing it sometime in mid-2011, but put it on hiatus and it just sat there... until now.

First let me set the stage by explaining why I'm even bothering to write about this topic. Whenever a new Hello! Project single is released (or even when they are first announced, in some cases), it is inevitable that fans (do note that from here on out, when I refer to "fans", I speak of the English speaking foreign community and not anyone else) argue over sales figures. How much it will sell, whether or not it deserves to sell a lot, and complaints on disappointing sales are just a few topics that are rehashed every few months. In this post, I will take a look at the ongoing question that frequents the foreign community - do idol sales (especially in the context of Hello! Project) really matter?

Before I get into the heart of that question, I think that it is important to talk about Oricon and their CD ranking charts. Every week (starting on Wednesday, as that is when new CD releases typically go on sale in Japan), Oricon updates their website to reflect that particular day's sales. The artist who sold the most each day is ranked as #1 and whoever sells the most within any given week is awarded the highly sought after weekly #1 ranking. Seems fair right? Well, not quite.

"Normal" artists (i.e. non-idols) have a bit of an advantage over Hello! Project and other idol groups because in 2009, Oricon started counting only 30% of CDs sold at events. So how does this effect idols more than other artists?

Events (where fans can go to see the new single sung live, shake the idols' hands, and possibly win a prize like a signed poster) are a very large part of an idol's routine. For Hello! Project at least, you can expect an event of some kind for just about every single that is released (and in some cases, multiple events - see Busu ni Naranai Tetsugaku for an extreme example, where the whole company traveled across Japan to hold multiple release events).

Going back to Oricon's 2009 rule change for a minute, it simply means that if an idol group sells 10,000 copies of the single at their event, only 3,000 will be counted towards the Oricon charts. I told you it wasn't very fair.

On the subject of sales not being counted, I should also quickly note that not all stores are recognized by Oricon as official vendors. What this means is that you could buy a copy (or 100 copies if you're rich/crazy/awesome) of a new release and not have any of those purchases count towards the charts. Although I do believe that this is rare (all major Japanese stores count towards the charts, as does a lot of online stores), still, it's copies not being counted. (In case you're concerned, the four major websites that sells and ships idol CDs worldwide - CDJapan, Amazon Japan, HMV Japan, and YesAsia - all count toward the Oricon charts.)

The thing is, some idol groups like AKB48 have overcame those handicaps and have gone on to break Japanese music records. So then I return to my original question - does sales really matter for idols?

As usual, I will take a stance somewhere in the middle and say both yes and no. Of course they matter. You'd be hard pressed to find a company willing to put time, money, and effort into a group that sells virtually no copies of singles. And yes of course, selling as high as AKB48 has sold puts you into the Japanese music history books and makes you relevant for almost forever (until some random new group breaks your record).

However, Hello! Project groups do not fit into either of those extreme categories (selling virtually no copies and breaking records). I often see fans complaining about low sales (and I will admit to have expressed my disappointment in the past as well), but I think that there is a skewed notion of what "low sales" really are. It really depends on who and/or what you compare them to. Compare Morning Musume to AKB48 and of course sales will seem low, but the reality is that AKB48 (and any Japanese artist - especially of the idol variety - who consistently sells hundreds of thousands of copies) are in the minority.

In 2011, only 75 singles sold 100,000 copies (or more). That's out of the thousands of singles released throughout Japan last year. On average, about 25 different singles release every week, which means that those elite artists represented less than 1% of the total singles released in Japan in 2011. (For those curious as to how I came up with those numbers, I checked CDJapan's new release calendar and did a rough count of the number of singles released per week for two months and used that data to come up with about 25 new single releases per week. It's not 100% accurate, but at least gives a general idea.)

What I'm trying to say is that only a small percentage of artists release singles that have extremely high sales while the rest of Japan can only dream of reaching that mark. There are so many more artists that sells less than 100k copies than there are those that actually does sell 100k. Because we don't live in Japan, foreign fans tend to only know about (or at least pay attention to) the popular artists because, well, they're popular. They are on TV shows, radio shows, news programs, etc a lot and thus, the average foreign fan knows them much more than a random indie artist, for example.

Yes, there are artists who sells a rather large amount of copies - I don't discount that - but I think we can all agree that popularity does not equal enjoyability. Many of the top selling songs are great, yes (that's why they are the top selling singles after all), but there are just as many songs at the top of the Oricon charts that aren't as great. Take a look at the top 100 selling singles of 2011 and you're bound to find songs that you don't care for.

To be honest, whenever I see someone complain about Hello! Project's sales being low, I can't help but laugh. C-ute selling 20,000 total copies of Sekai Ichi Happy na Onna no ko is only low if you compare it one of those 100,000+ sellers. In reality, it could be much, much worse. Take a look at Kago Ai's non-Hello! Project single, no hesitAtion. It debuted at #26 (H!P singles almost always make the top 10 and usually, the top 5 on their first day) and sold 1,700 copies not in one day, but total. And I'm not trying to pick on Kago; there are artists who don't even break the 1,000 copies mark. So, instead of complaining about low sales, I prefer to be grateful that Hello! Project has a core fanbase that supports the girls through just about anything.

Complaining aside, there is another part of the "low sales argument" that I would like to address. Instead of bashing a group for not selling a large number of copies, there are fans that aren't happy with their favorite groups' sales simply because they are scared for their longevity. The thought process often is that if their favorite group constantly sells a low amount then that group will be disbanded. I can't blame anyone for worrying about their favorite group, but again, I have to elaborate on what I consider low sales.

Let's take a look at the case of Melon Kinebi. For 5 years (2004-2009), all of their singles sold 10,000 copies or less (averaging about 2000 copies sold in 2009). Melon Kinebi was a part of Hello! Project for 9 years and even during Hello! Project's dominant years, sold basically what Berryz and C-ute are selling now and yet they were fine. I can't speak for other companies, but UFA/H!P doesn't seem to mind all that much. To explain why, you have to realize that single (and album) sales is not the only way UFA makes money from Hello! Project.

As H!P fans, we may think it is normal and even take it for granted, but all of the activities that the girls take part in and all of the random merchandise that is sold is not the normal fare for non-idol (and to an extent, non Hello! Project) groups. A standard Hello! Project group's year (let's say C-ute to keep things simple) looks like this: 4 full concert tours (H!P Winter, C-ute Spring, H!P Summer, C-ute Fall), 4 singles (and release events), multiple fanclub events, a couple photobooks (and solo DVDs), possibly an album, Single Vs, photosets, towels, and many other things.

It's true that Hello! Project acts don't sell hundreds of thousands of copies of their singles, but when you add all of the revenue generated from the things above, I doubt they are exactly hurting for cash. This doesn't mean that your favorite group is completely safe (I don't think anyone knows what goes through Tsunku and UFA's bosses heads except the guys themselves), but sales probably won't be the reason for disbanding.

When I began this long post I proposed two questions: do foreign fans care too much about sales? And if so, do idol groups' sales even matter? In my opinion, I do think that the majority of the foreign fan population cares a little too much about how well or badly whatever group they happen to favor. It can get annoying especially when the same thing happens ad nauseam, but since a lot of it stems from simply being unaware of the facts, I can't blame fans too much. On the subject of idol sales, yes they definitely matter - just not as much as some fans would lead you to believe. Idol companies are businesses and the goal of any good business is to make as high of a profit as possible and UFA is no different. However, when you combine CD sales, concert sales, events, and everything in between, the company makes a lot more more than their single sales would indicate.

tl;dr: yes


  1. great article! Then again I just can't help wondering why Akimoto's idols (akb48,ske,etc)are the rage in Japan: skimpy bikinis and weekly photoshoots for Playboy Japan seem to be the answer

  2. Hm. Thank you for the article! I never knew much about the oricon charts, thank you for explaining it!
    Somehow... I never complained about the sales. I saw them and thought: "Hello!Project sure is popular, huh?". H!P has some great singles, but whenever I see a new one, I think that it has more potential in it. Because of that, I'm still amazed that they almost always debut in the top 10.
    And I somehow think that most foreign fans don't see Idols as Idols, more as singers. I often read "Why doesn't she get any lines? She is a good singer!". Well, like you said: Like not only sales matter for the group, singing ability doesn't only matter for one member. If an idol is popular and sells well (with character, cuteness, dancing, singing or whatever), then she gets attention.
    I wish more fans could read this article, it's great!

  3. to marco: yes akb do seem to wear bikini's more and do more "darring" things but its more than that for why they're so popular. alot of the girls have sweet personalities and work just as hard as h!p members

    going to this article i really liked it. i for one dont really even look at the sales. if they do good, they do good and vice versa. just cus 1 sale wasnt their best doesnt mean it'll continue forever. i hope to see more articles like this from you more^^

  4. Wow, a lot of this stuff I didn't even know. :D
    I do still like to pay attention to sales, but I don't complain because I don't really know what amount is normal in Japan.

  5. Awesome read. Tnx. I hope you write a book called "Idol Industry: From a Foreign Point of View." This article may go beyond a chapter or more. Anyhow, I believe westerners are accustomed to sale numbers because western artists do not sell photobooks, uchiwas, towels, etc. Therefore, millions of cd sales is a success and a few thousands is considered a failure. As for AK-47's, yes I call them that way because they shoot nothing but oversexualization, sales being high, I'd rather have quality over quantity. H!P yeah!!!!

  6. Great aritcle!! I didn't know know all of that stuff about the Oricon. I've never really cared about the sales, but H!P seems to have pretty stable single sales. MM: 30,000-50,000+, BK and C-ute: 15,000-20,000+, etc. So I think that's good And like you said, not many artists reach the 1,000 mark so H!P's sales aren't that bad

  7. I don't care about sale so much as my songs are put on youtube :C

    Update: Chotto Matte Kudasai IS on iTunes. Wat.

  8. This is a great article!!!! I didn't know a lot of things that you wrote here. For me, I can say that I don't care a lot about sales, of course a can see the numbers and say "that's low" or "that's great" but, as you wrote, what means low??

  9. Nice read.
    It's funny how it varies from artist to artist and not just H!P.

    Take two examples: Gackt and Koda Kumi

    Both have been selling roughly what say Morning Musume have been selling lately (40000-60000 range give or take a few outliers). Both are far from their sales prime. Both have been around for a while now.

    Yet Gackt fans seem perfectly happy while I can't wander around a random Jpop forum without folks moaning about how Kumi's sales are horrible.

    As someone who listen to a lot more Jpop than just H!P and who listens to artists who sell far less, I completely agree that there is an overemphasis on sales numbers.

    I also never understood why Oricon implemented the event restrictions. If you're going to impose the 30% rule across the board, why even have it at all? Old artists scared of losing their records?

  10. @tommy:
    think about it like this, if H!P told fans that if you buy a single at the event in order to get an autograph or shake the idols hands, will you do it? Will you do it multiple times? Most fans would imo.

    their bulk of sales come from election ballets. Since fans care about their favourite idol's ranking, they will buy hundreds and thousands of copies. They did get popular by going on TV (having weekly shows on prime time). Once they get noticed in the public, they dropped a earthshaking song and PV (Heavy Rotation). PV was for the fans, and the song was for the public. Heavy Rotation is still top on Oricon's Karaoke Charts for who knows how long (it beat MM's LOVE Machine record already...).

    In terms of my opinion...
    H!P does do a poor job in differentiating their single versions. I'm not surprised if C-ute's 5 Limited versions have each member's solo version PV. AKB groups do a lot of a better job with different tracklists, songs, and DVD content.

    H!P only does things if they NEED to do it, not because they WANT to do it. Heck, MM can have an arena tour right now seeing how easy it is for them to get a Budokan concert for a graduation (note that having a Budokan concert is considered better than having an arena concert).

    Oricon weekly #1 is a thing a lot of companies go after. KinKi Kids are in a 30+ single streak that is in the Guinness book. Companies pick their spots, predict how much they will sell and release accordingly. That is why Hamasaki Ayumi hasn't released a single for like 2 years. Avex doesn't really have confidence if she can win out the Kpop groups and the AKBs. Note, Avex did move one of her singles back right after Fukuyama Masaharu announced his single on the same week as Ayu. Although I personally like UFA to focus more on getting #1 than making money off of other things, as long as they are happy, I guess it is fine by me.

    IMO, Tsunku really isn't focused on H!P anymore. He started A LOT of side projects (non-H!P idol groups, resturants, maid cafes, etc...).

    One last thing, I only consider artist AS artists when their album sales goes over their single sales. I mean one album vs. one single. Even hardcore fans will buy 10 copies max in comparison to the 100s and 1000s. Also, a lot of casual fans will buy it because they don't buy the singles. This means the public like them for their talent and songs, and not just their looks or personalities. There are more sales from the public than just fans. Yes, AKB groups and H!P are not on there...

  11. I love these essays of yours~. They really make you think, and in some cases, you have persuaded me to think differently on a subject or two. :)

    I must say, when I was working on my blog (I still am, it's taking forever, but anyways) and I was working on the Discography section for C-ute, every album they sold the sales got lower and lower... and for Berryz, it was even WORSE, their last album sold just over 7,000 copies TOTAL. :( I think C-ute's more popular than Berryz (in Japan, but if that counts forgein buys though online sites, that makes it worse), although I love both groups so to me it doesn't matter, but...

    While noticing this (and the same results of less and less copies being solfd for each release was for every H!P group, except for S/mileage who just gained sales) it made me a little sad to see it. Although to be honest, I'll always support EVERY group no matter what. For example, my least fav Berryz song is Shining Power - I NEVER listen to it and if it comes on on my iPod I change it - but I still bought it. Some might say it was a waste of my money, just download it off mediafire. I got it from iTunes and I know it doesn't count towards Oricon, but I know it supports them so that's why I got it. Even if it's only small, I want to support them in my own way even if it's just a little bit, you know? They do sooo much for every one of their fans even just with their music, so I'd like to pay them back. :)

    But I hate seeing people complain! If you support them, then where's the issue?? I know I'll support them even if they only sell 100 copies, for Pete's sake! :D I think every fan should think this way. :)

    Great job, please continue these posts, I enjoy them! :DDD

  12. Honestly, I think the reason people complain so much about album sales is 1) because, like you mentioned, they're scared that low enough sales -> mass graduations, and 2) a special kind of foreign fan complex.

    The first is easy to explain away (by pointing out indie idols, Melon Kinenbi, etc.), but difficult to get rid of. Sure, it's possible to survive even with sales in the 10,000's range--and yes, UFA did set a precedent in keeping Melon Kinenbi as long as they did--but MK was never a principal money-maker in Hello! Project. Arguably, there's a lot more to be scared of when the flagship group (or the second-oldest, or the second most-promoted) dips into a lower cd sales range. Is all the fear and pessimism warranted? Of course not. But being heavily invested emotionally in their idols means people will sometimes panic more than necessary.

    And, while no one doubts H!P can easily keep going for at least another decade, lower sales do mean less activity (see MK's 3-year gaps between albums), something no fan wants.

    On that special sort of foreign fan complex I mentioned, one of the best (and sometimes worst) part of the H!P fandom is that all kinds of people enter into it, for all kinds of reasons, at vastly different points of the company's growth. A lot of people became fans during H!P's golden era, back when it was "cool" to like Momusu (and, to a smaller extent, Berrikyuu), and haven't ever really adjusted to their groups' decline in popularity. For these kinds of fans, liking the girls and the music isn't enough--for a variety of reasons, which I can only speculate about:

    1) H!P has to regain a mainstream audience at all costs, because the current, intensely loyal wota fanbase makes these fans uncomfortable for some reason. By all costs, I really do mean *all* costs--these types of fans are usually the ones that clamor for removal of front-girls (or removal of less-popular members), a drastic change in style to "more like the OGs/AKB/Momoclo/TGS" (although it's usually the first two), and a hyper-aggressive marketing campaign funded by all the money that UFA clearly has stashed away. This type of fan almost seems like they have a love/hate relationship with Hello!Project, since they want to change it so much.

    2) Perhaps more innocently, they just want their idols' efforts to be recognized. Idolizing your oshimen, after all, almost by definition means rooting for their success. But even counting record sales for as well-intentioned a motive as this is pretty useless--like Mackenzie said, it does nothing to actually support the girls (doesn't fund, promote, or otherwise help), the way a purchase, blog, OPV, etc. might.

    Sorry for the long comment. ><; As other people have said, great post! It's the type of post that really does invite thought.

  13. Just like to say that being in the top 10 is already a great thing! Shows will mention that groups are in the top 10 and stuff, esp when you have a streak. So H!P are not low low.

    Also, if you are talking about Melon Kinenbi and all those lesser H!P groups... H!P never really gave them as much attention than MM in ANY era. They were pretty much the w/e group from the very beginning.

    Finally, if a group has low sales, it doesn't mean graduation. Yes, even if they sale in the 100s. If H!P wants to keep them there and if the members want to stay, they will stay. Sales is not a factor, just popularity and talent for UFA.

  14. I think a good strategy would be to create a different version of the single for each members -- so in the case of post-Gaki Momusu, eleven different versions.

    Each single would be have unique content related to that specific member -- a solo PV and/or that member singing a solo version of the single. Maybe a poster of that member and some other content. It would almost be like a kind of merchandise.

    I would then rank the members according to their respective single sales, and give the top-sellers more of a front-line position.

    I know some people hate this idea (too AKB-ish) but it's a nice way to increase sales and give fans a real voice in the group's future. And it wouldn't gouge fans, because they wouldn't have to buy all the versions.

    I know single sales aren't everything, but if Momusu sold 60-75K first week instead of 30K, it would probably have a lot more #1 singles. And that would help its image a great deal, since #1 is everything in Japan.