Thursday, May 19, 2011

[EVERGREEN IDOL?] What's in a name?

Today's J-Pop industry is as fierce in competition as it always has been, with veterans vying for the title of J-Pop Queen while upstarts battle it out in a fierce battle of strategy and popularity for the public's attention. Even idols at the peak of their popularity have the specter of a fall from grace looming in the back of their minds, as the AKB48 member Sashihara Riho revealed this week, much to the outrage of fans and shock of the public.

According to Tokyohive, Sashihara stated on NTV's "Odoru! Sanma Goten!!" that she believed AKB48's popularity would die down within a couple of years, and that everyone in the entertainment industry needed a special skill to survive with (going the Rina Nakanishi route, perhaps...? I kid, I kid.) And despite the controversy this stirred amongst the studio audience and netizens, one look at the cyclical nature of the J-Pop industry shows that Sashihara's pessimism is not unwarranted, if a little overboard.

After all, what artist or idol has managed to sustain their popularity for more than five years, tops? The typical go-to example of decline in popularity in idoldom is Morning Musume. Despite holding the record of highest overall sales for any female group on the Oricon charts, recent single sales hovered at no more than 40K. Meanwhile, in their Golden Era, the group pulled sales figures of over 100K regularly, quite parallel to AKB48's current success in dominating both the niche idol market and the mainstream Japanese consciousness. Now, the question of why Morning Musume simply fails to attract the public eye is a question that the idol blogosphere has ruminated over plenty of times, with the main theories falling under one of the following under the following categories.

1) People associate the idea of 'Morning Musume' with older, more iconic members
2) More competition
-See AKB48, Passpo, Momoiro Clover, Tokyo Girls Style, not to mention all the slick and polished Korean idols- SNSD, KARA, After School, 4Minute-- the list goes on.
3) The umbrella of 'It's Tsunku/UFA's Fault (TM)'
- He picks too many 'project girls' who don't hit the ground running in terms of singing/dancing/personality
-His songs and  lyrics are getting pretty stale
4)The Snowball Effect of waning popularity
-lack of promotion
-lack of money invested into PVs/other promotional activities

All of these arguments hold water. After all, why else would UFA pull out Dream Musume, a subgroup of graduated Morning Musume members, but for the pure nostalgia factor? And indeed, the idol market is far more saturated with doe-eyed girls than it was in 1997, when the group first formed. In fact, Morning Musume symbolized a kind of idol-revival back in the mid-90's when veteran acts such as Onyanko Club and Pink Lady had reached their expiration date. Meanwhile, today's market is being dominated by at least a dozen groups, from Korean imports to younger, fresher upstarts all vying for the same audience. And of course, UFA's seemingly nonexistent relations with popular music programs aren't helping things much either, as popularity is often directly correlated with exposure.

See for instance, this very unscientific study:

Compare the following songs- very similar, synthy songs that arguably would appeal to the same audience-- all B-list material for both groups. Except that the first was barely promoted at all (with an appearance on Music Japan) while the other was amped up not only by AKB48's inherent popularity, but by multiple TV appearances leading up on popular programs such as Music Station.

Now, here are the sales figures for each:
AKB48- Almost 600K
Morning Musume- barely breaking 30K

Add these factors together and surely, you have a recipe for failure.

The Momusu of yesteryear
No amount of quality music, exposure, or even new, attractive members is going to save Morning Musume. The reason is simple: they are still called Morning Musume. No matter what they do, even if UFA rekindles its relationship with Music Station or creates the most legendary song, when people announce that Morning Musume is going to be back in the public eye, you can't erase their decade long history. What Morning Musume desperately needs right now is casual fans to be interested in them again-- and honestly, who wants to associate themselves with a group who seems old enough to have been your parents' favorite artist? Of course, you can be a fan in spirit-- being a fan of the Morning Musume everyone knew and loved is something akin to being in love with J-Pop-- they were once the spirit of J-Pop and idol music back in their hey day. With such heavy weight attached to a name, it's hard to push any kind of fresh ideas into it for a newer audience without at once alienating older fans (see the cries for Genki Musume and 90's style J-Pop that is rampant in fandom) and putting the girls into competition that they simply aren't trained to fight against (see the onslaught of girlgroups in recent years).

 As we have already seen with elder member graduations, Morning Musume doesn't feel like Morning Musume anymore without its icons. It's not only a tired brand, but an empty one as well. After the recent 9th generation auditions, I feel like my theory is more accurate than ever. The new additions are fresh and cute enough, albeit a tad on the talentless side in terms of vocals. But throw them in with the vets and you're back to square one-- that tired image of the Morning Musume everyone knew and loved-- but not anymore.

I think that they've reached that point in Japan when they can pump out memorial best-of albums every once in a while to acknowledge their legacy, but as long as they keep pushing their tired brand, no one is going to pay attention to them.
The unrecognizable faces of today's
 What Morning Musume needs to do, if UFA was it to continue being its flagship group, is completely, and utterly reinvent it self-- become Morning Musume 2.0-- anything to disassociate itself with its dead corpse of a predecessor and grab hold of a new generation of fans. Yes, that does include, most importantly, changing their name.

That said, Morning Musume is one of the few idol groups that seem to hang on tight despite being well past their prime, and I do applaud them for that. As a late fan of theirs, I've been thinking a lot about the longevity of idol groups and what formulas work and which do not. So, as a part of a series of articles, starting, obviously, with this one, I will be examining the idol industry in search of what I would like to call 'The Evergreen Idol formula'-- How to make a given group of idols stay relevant and popular as long as possible and avoid declines such as the ones we see with Momusu.

Let me know what you think in this age old debate-- what is the issue with Morning Musume? What will become of popular groups such as AK48 in the future? Is there such thing as an evergreen idol formula?


  1. I doubt a name change will make much difference.

    If the problem is with the Momusu name, then why isn't C-ute or Berryz Kobo or S/mileage only selling about 20,000-25,000 singles? By comparison, Maji Desu Ka Ska sold over 40,000.

    I think the major problem is with the UFA. They simply don't know how to promote their groups anymore. Momusu rarely appears on TV, and C-ute and Berryz almost never do. So they just sell music to their fan base, which is maybe about 20,000-30,000 people.

  2. Well, Momusu is still by far the most established group, no? So they have a larger fanbase in general. What I'm basically insinuating here is that Momusu can't be 'Momusu' anymore because again, their name carries so much history that no casual fan will be invested enough to care about. The thing is that they have already had their golden era, so if they want to start up again, they need to create a completely new image for themselves, and while you're right, simply changing their name would not magically bring sales shooting up, anything to disassociate themselves with what they once were in their glory days would help.

    I agree that UFA doesn't know how to promote their groups anymore/aren't willing to put in the money to do so properly. I mean, I guess it's kept them going for now, which is why their not willing to take risks. I wonder how much they make in concert sales, because I think that a lot of their income may come from there, especially since sales can be a little unpredictable.

  3. First of, very interesting article.

    I highly doubt, however, that there's a formula for "the Everygreen Idol." Most greats, with some exceptions like Namie Amuro, Ayumi (i know they're not idols but still popular figures) do one hit wonders or stay for a very short amount of time and not long enough to ruin their name. As for MM I do agree that the weight of the name is what is dragging them down but at the same time, it is keeping them known. If new idol groups were to come up under UFA or most other companies, they wouldn't have even had a chance to be heard considering the industry is inflated and dominated by talented/talentless idols whose companies have thick money to back them up regardless of their abilities/charisma etc.

    I believe all idol groups are sinking ships but I'm utterly impressed at how well MM has corked its holes and prevent the ship from exponential failure. They don't make good sales but they kept it for a good 14 years and that's more than any real idol group can say. Despite lack of popularity, keeping the name was a wise decision. If not for the name, I myself wouldn't have become a fan of the current MM.

    But yeah, being a fan for almost 4 years has already made me numb to the fact that they're not popular any more. Since I used to hate idols (the term being loosely associated with talentless looks-selling kids) I'm just happy I got to know MM and that it's still continuing despite being labeled 'idol' (the never-lasting artists)

  4. I think that the problem with the newer morning musume is the lack of personality associated with the girls...with older generations of MM you could look at a music vid and go "oh she's the serious one" or "she's the cute one" you were able to get to know the it seems they graduate a member after a year and grab another and you barely know the person who is graduating...All the members now seem to have the same look and personality to them with the exeption of one or two of the main girls who are distinguishable. Even Berryz and C-ute...the girls have become less distinguishable and more of one personality...that's just my thoughts on the matter

  5. Yeah, what you wrote makes sense,, When they anounced all the new members I got very mad and at first kinda of had like a grudge at them, but now I like them (for some unkown reason) but 3 of the girls I just hate, theyre not cute, they cant sing, they cant dance, they have no personaity and their faces are the same,, i mean really??

    I am not an AKB48 fan, I find them as normal and normal and their songs are so boring and their singing is not good, and they are just boring and all look the same,,, of course even then i have a couple members i am attached to out of the whole 48 thing,,,

    but for some unexplainable reason i like idols,

    let me try too explain: i like idols becuase of the image becuase of the name "aidoru" becuase they are girls that have a blast at events together and practice songs, dances, and routines, and appear on talk and comedy shows,, and they have fantastic photos,,

    one sad thing though,, is idols cant always stay at their best time right? at some time they have to quit becuase you dont see any 60 yearolds right? everyday new 3year olds become idols,, would you rather watch an adorable 4 yearold dance and sing or some 26 old holding a concert,, for me i want to see a cute little girl, (I am a girl that aspires to be an idol one day) and I am a bit mad at time.


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