According to the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ), revenue from music sales rose for the first time in 5 years, growing 3% over the previous year. Japan, who generated $4.3 billion in music sales in 2012, surpassed the domestic US market for the first time ever.

With a 30% share of global music sales, the US still sells the most total music worldwide. Japan is close behind with the second largest share, garnering 19% as of 2010. However, due to Japan’s smaller population (roughly 1/3rd the size of the United States), its music industry is more valuable per capita.

CDs and other physical media formats in Japan are being snatched up by consumers at unprecedented levels. While physical media made up 37% of U.S. sales, Japan’s topped out at a whopping 82% according to the latest RIAJ report.

All It Takes Is A Smile And A Handshake

Despite a large global shift towards digital downloads and streaming services, Japan has managed to retain a robust presence in physical media. Much of this can be attributed to its unique idol culture and some very clever marketing.

An idol is a female talent who becomes popular by being extremely attractive and cute. One of the defining characteristics of an idol is her purity. While a Japanese pop star or an actress may have husbands or boyfriends, an idol earns the moniker by pledging to devote 100% of her “love” to her fans. When idols decide it’s time to move on, or is looking for a change of pace, they will “graduate” (leave) her group or agency. It’s not uncommon for a successful idol to graduate and seek out solo projects as an actress or singer once a certain level of success has been achieved. Once they leave, they are no longer bound by the purity pledge.

An Idol Handshake EventSince an idol’s job is to devote herself to her fans, most of her time is spent appeasing & pandering to them. One way this is achieved is through meet & greets. The largest and most successful idol group in Japan, AKB48, has perfected this concept with their “handshake events”.

Handshake events are events where fans can line up to meet and shake the hand of their favorite idol members. Tickets for these events can only be acquired through the purchase of the group’s latest CD single. Many fans purchase multiple copies of a CD to get more tickets so they can meet multiple members during a single event.

Depending on an idol or idol group’s rules, the purchase of multiple tickets may also allow more access to an idol. 5 tickets may get you a hug and an autograph, while 10 tickets get you 5 minutes to talk to your favorite and autographed pictures of you with the idol. If you have enough tickets, one fringe group will whisper whatever you want into your ear.

For popular groups like AKB48, these handshake events are huge affairs and can see upwards of 100,000 fans. Events of this scale often require stadiums or giant expo centers to accommodate the expected crowd. They are also big money makers, allowing the idols to hawk their music, posters, shirts and other products.

Profitable Popularity Contests

Another gimmick used to get fans to purchase CDs are the idol “elections“. AKB48 holds elections annually to help to determine the popularity and rank of the members within the group, as well as determine who gets to participate in the next song. Fans show their support by voting for their favorite members.Japanese Idol The catch is that the ballots required to vote (a code printed on the CD sleeve) are included in the group’s latest CD single.

AKB48’s most recent election, which was held in June, included its ballots in the CD single titled “Sayonara Crawl“. The single was a monster success and broke Japanese sales records by selling over 1.7 million copies in its first week of release. It also earned AKB48 the title of “the most singles sold by a female artist in Japan” after achieving nearly 22 million total CD singles sold.

Girls who are elected to higher positions get more exposure which helps to advance their careers. Being a higher ranked member also increases the chances for commercial sponsorship outside of the group. Companies often use the young idols to help promote their products – from coffee to bubble gum, to laptop computers. Many of AKB48’s top members have gone on to become successful actresses and solo singers. It has led some in the media to refer to AKB48 as the ‘minor leagues’ of future Japanese talent. With over $215 million USD in music sales alone in 2012, AKB48 and its sister groups are quickly becoming their own industry.

It’s About The Fans

They key behind the success of idols in Japan is the fans themselves. The fans are a vital part of idol culture and they can make or break careers. Where the west elevates its pop stars and celebrities to an almost mythical status (giving rise to paparazzi), Japan’s idols strive hard to be down to earth and approachable – they want to be the girls next door. It has led AKB48 to adopt the slogan, “あなたは会うことができるアイドル” or translated, “Idols You Can Meet“.

The fan-centered music concept isn’t just seeing success in Japan, however. Within the last 2 years, sister groups (JKT48 and SHN48) have sprung up in Jakarta and China where they are beginning to thrive. Akimoto Yasushi, the song writer and creator of AKB48, has said that while he’d absolutely love to have a group based in the US, he thinks the culture is just too different presently. However, he’s staying optimistic and said he wouldn’t completely rule it out. Who knows, maybe one day in the future we’ll all be listening to the latest single by USA48.

Reference: RIAJ market report for 2012