Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Girl-Group Meetings with Fans Help Push Japanese Music Sales to No. 1

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Girl-Group Meetings with Fans Help Push Japanese Music Sales to No. 1

Article excerpt

TOKYO --

Ritsuhiko Tajima has about 100 CDs by his favorite artist, Japanese girl-group AKB48, many of them copies of the same disk. The attraction? The CDs often include tickets to events where he can briefly meet his idols.

"I don't think I'll ever get tired of them," the 28-year-old nursing assistant said as he waited in line at the group's Tokyo theater for a monthly sale of limited-edition photos of its members. "They're pop stars I can come visit."

Fans like Mr. Tajima helped consumer music revenue in Japan grow 3 percent last year to $4.3 billion, topping the United States to become the world's largest market, according to the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Music sales in the country rose for the first time in five years, led by tunes delivered on CDs and other physical media, bucking the trend in developed markets as cheaper downloads gain ground. Physical media made up 82 percent of Japanese music sales last year, versus 37 percent in the U.S., the recording industry group says.

Much of Japan's strength can be attributed to acts like AKB48, which has boosted sales of music in physical formats through innovative marketing such as CDs packaged with tickets to the handshake events and ballots that let fans vote online for their favorite singers.

AKB48's miniskirted members perform in three groups of about 20 each at the 250-seat theater. Formed in 2005, AKB48 is the nation's top-selling girl band, spawning three sister acts in Japan and two abroad. Sony Corp., which has the second-largest share of Japan's music market, started a rival group called Nogizaka 46 last year to compete with AKB48, a Sony artist before leaving in 2008 for closely held King Record Co.

"Sony Music is betting its future to grow this idol group," Yasushi Akimoto, the lyricist and producer for Nogizaka 46 -- and producer of AKB48 -- says on the Nogizaka website.

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

"Unlike most stars selected by executives at recording companies, it's a fan-centered system," Mr. Take said. "The fans feel they are part of the success."

AKB48's singing and dancing teens are divided into three teams -- A, K and B -- that rotate performances every evening in a theater above a discount store in Tokyo's Akihabara district. Several times a year, they also hold events where tens of thousands of followers gather at convention halls across Japan for a chance to briefly meet their girl-band idols.

Nogizaka 46 is following a similar script, part of an effort by Sony to shore up domestic sales that have fallen in spite of the industry's strength. …

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