AKB48: The Million Seller Obsession?

In case you somehow haven’t heard, AKB48’s latest single “Eien Pressure” managed to sell over a million copies in its first week on sale and perhaps rather obviously ranked #1 on Oricon’s weekly singles chart. This marks the groups tenth consecutive single to sell over a million copies in a single week, quite the feat considering how the sale of physical music is starting to drop off drastically, even in Japan.

 

I have a few things that I want to address in this article so please bear with me here as I try to put my thoughts into words the best I can. If you can’t stand hearing someone raise what in their opinion are very valid concerns and criticisms about the almighty AKB then don’t let the door hit your delusional ass on the way out. Now that I’ve played up to my “AKB hater” character and got the controversial bit out of the way, let’s get to the meat of the issue.

Like I said, any kind of physical music release selling over a million copies in any given week in this day and age is an impressive thing. With digital downloads and illegal file sharing being very prominent these days, you just don’t see those numbers anymore. It doesn’t even matter how good or bad you perceive the content to be, shifting that kind of volume is a sign of very good PR and marketing from the company responsible for it.

However, in this case I can’t help but find myself asking “But, how much is too much to maintain this million seller streak?” It’s a pretty complex answer really because while I have absolutely zero problem with a company trying to make money, it gets a bit muddier when you actually think about how much went into making sure that “Eien Pressure” cracked that magic number. Maybe you didn’t even realise how much went into it but I for one can’t think of any other AKB single that got so much help from what I’m going to refer to as “outside sources”.

Now to be fair, this was the janken single and they’re notorious for being on the lower end of the year’s single sales for AKB48. That’s purely down to the “random” (going to avoid jumping on that grenade) nature of who makes it into senbatsu and Aki-P seemingly being unwilling to take any real risk with the song that they end up singing. It’s not unreasonable that management thought that this single needed a bit of a boost to ensure sales didn’t dip too much. I’d have thought that choosing a less vanilla sounding song would have done a pretty good job of that in and of itself but hey, I’m not the one running a successful female idol group.

Okay so I’ve alluded to all of this “outside help” that “Eien Pressure” got so I suppose I better start explaining it. First of all, the single shipped with 4 different versions, 5 if you’re also counting the theater edition. It’s not an incredibly big deal because the janken single usually comes in 3 main versions plus the theater edition but it still made me raise an eyebrow. I mean, this is getting awfully close to Hello!Project levels of single types and can’t really be seen as anything other than an attempt to get people to part with more money. Let’s face it, there are people out there who will buy every version of an AKB single so adding another is only going to add to your sales total at the end of the week.

The main reason for all of these different versions of “Eien Pressure” (besides more sales)? Well, they gave SKE48, NMB48 and HKT48 a b-side each on three of the versions. It is unprecedented for an AKB release to feature b-sides from each of its sister groups and it has both its pros and cons. The pros are of course a sales bump of some amount because if you’re a hardcore SKE or NMB wota then chances are you’re buying the version that comes with their b-side, even if “Eien Pressure” is of no interest to you. Then you have HKT48 who just so happen to be releasing their first original song on this single. That’s going to be a significant factor for quite a few people when they’re deciding whether to buy the single or not.

On a more positive note, the sister groups also get a significant amount of exposure from this venture. Although perhaps not as much as we’d all like because the non-theater editions only make up around a third of the total sales but still, it’s at least a positive thing in that regard. Your opinion of how good the b-sides actually are non-withstanding.

The other reason for there being so many versions is that Type D features a special collaboration between AKB48 and Okamura Takashi. The unit is called “OKL48” and while the concept is a little weird, the song is actually pretty decent. For those who don’t know, Okamura is a comedian who is a pretty big deal in the entertainment industry so for him to collaborate on an AKB release is significant. However, you have to ask how this even came about in the place. It’s certainly interesting timing, that much is for sure and again you would have a very compelling argument for him only being there to boost sales. AKB are certainly getting more out of this collaboration than Okamura is at any rate. It’s not like he needs the promotion at this point although I’m sure he was compensated handsomely for his name and time.

This last point is pretty weak but I feel like it deserves to be mentioned at least. “Eien Pressure”, like every AKB single for the past eternity comes with a bonus in the form of random photocards. However, this time around they decided to put not one but two random photos in the “Eien Pressure” CD cases. Like I said, this is pretty whatever but there’s people out there that are hardcore into collecting photos so there’s probably some number that bought more because of this. It’s nice to get a little something extra with your purchase I suppose.

So there you have it, everything different that AKB did with “Eien Pressure” all laid out and explained in a way that’s hopefully easy to understand. However, the question still remains “Why did they go to such lengths?”

If it’s to maintain the million seller streak then I can’t see it holding up in the long run. You can’t just keep tapping up your sister group’s wota every time there is a non-election single. People are going to get burnt out and just not have any money to continue buying your product if their wallets keep getting slammed month in and month out. I’d like to also take this opportunity to point out that the next AKB single is shipping with 3 version plus a theater edition so good luck with that. It looks like 3 might have just become the magic number as far as different versions of singles go.

Everything that I’ve mentioned above is also potentially (Read: ABSOLUTELY 100% SURE, WOULD BET THE HOUSE ON IT) causing sales numbers to be artificially inflated and that’s perhaps the crux of the issue. Look, I get that management is probably still having a nervous breakdown over Maeda Atsuko leaving but you HAVE to let sales level off so you know where you stand in the market now. Not doing so can lead to some disastrous consequences in the not too distant future. Stop obsessing over keeping this million seller streak alive and going after more records. Instead start adapting to the fact that single sales will probably continue to fall no matter how much bonus stuff or guest b-sides you throw at the consumer. It’s just the times we live in now.

Alternatively, perhaps management just didn’t have enough confidence that Shimazaki Haruka could carry the entire single on her tiny shoulders. I can’t say that I blame them if that is the case. Although if the person that you’re pushing hard to be the new center of your group needs so many outside factors to help her sell singles then perhaps you’re barking up the wrong tree entirely.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this. Perhaps we could get a discussion going in the comment section below. Feedback on the article’s content in general is also greatly appreciated and received with an open mind.

About NSK

New School Kaidan is a community-focused website for the Japanese idol industry international fan base. Between podcasts, broadcasts, events, and analytic articles, New School Kaidan aims to bring an understanding of idol culture to the masses.

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21 comments

  1. Well, everything you said is completely valid. After having done all the bonus stuff they’ve been doing so far with this single, I’m more interested in what they will do with the next single. AKB has been following its usual release pattern and the next one will undoubtedly be a sakura song, I think this is already confirmed.

    I think at this rate, AKS will have to pull one of its big surprises again or release something similar to Iiwake Maybe and Oogoe Diamond to keep this thing alive. Next year looks like it will be a repeat of 2009, in the sense that it will the year where it either makes or breaks AKB.

  2. For sure this single was a huge marketing push from all angles and something like this can’t be used again… or can it? I guess it really depends on where you’d draw the line and when one would say, “enough is enough.”

    I like how missingno15 puts it, 2013 may actually be the make it or break it year.

    I’d like you to elaborate more on the consequences of focusing too hard on the million seller. I’m sure management sees it as a, “gotta maintain the status quo” type of deal. They know they’re in trouble and they know it’s going to be tough, but maybe they can’t see things any other way.

    Also, 3 versions now instead of 2? UGH.

    Enjoyed the read. Thanks Garry.

    • I guess I could have summed up the consequences at the end but I tried to mention a couple of things throughout the article. Stuff like SKE/NMB fans getting burnt out if they have to buy more AKB singles because there’s a b-side, which might mean that those groups end up tanking a bit too. Also, not knowing your true position in the market meaning that you can’t adjust to sales that ultimately will fall no matter what you try to do about it. People have to be paid at the end of the day and it’d be interesting to see what the net gain/loss on this single was.

      It’s a pretty complex lesson in economics that I felt might have been a bit heavy for an article on an idol website so I didn’t want to get too deep into it. I mean, I could possibly do a follow up article with my thoughts on that side of things but I don’t know if people would be that interested in it.

  3. The absolute biggest inflation factor of sales is tickets to handshake events, bar none. They aren’t selling music, they’re selling handshake tickets that happen to come with a CD. People who absolutely HATE the songs are going to buy multiple copies just so they can construct a piecemeal conversation of 5-second snippets of dialogue cycling through the handshake line.

    How I know that it’s handshakes outranking the different B-sides and photocards? MM sales have significantly risen once they also began doing handshake tickets.

    But yeah, there was definitely additional sister-groups inflation happening with Eien Pressure as well.

    • Yeah, that’s totally a factor too and I probably should have at least mentioned it briefly. The main focus of the article was to point out how far above and beyond they went when compared with a “typical” AKB single and I guess I didn’t want the whole “They’re only selling handshake tickets that make up 70-80% of the sales” angle to overshadow the other points that I was trying to make.

      I’m thinking a follow up article is in order, so I can address the points that you guys are bringing up because they’re all very valid and deserve to be talked about.

      • The other issue about handshake events, not including the theatre edition ones mentioned, is that the CD+DVD Types of AKB singles generally get released in limited editions which include national handshake event tickets (which are quite different in nature to the theatre ed individual member handshake events). The Janken singles do not have limited editions so lose sales for the people who buy the singles to go to those events. With UZA for example, the ltd eds sold twice as much as the reg eds, but for other singles its been more even.

  4. or it is because AKB is doing this next gen thing and they kicked out a couple 18/18 members to make rooms for girls to push?

    I feel people is taking this next gen transition thing too easy. No female groups have done it successfully. They are gonna become the female version of Johnny’s if it can be done. However, they will most likely fail and then may be people will start realizing that they probably shouldn’t take AKB for granted.

    • I’m not quite sure that I understand what you’re trying to say with the first part of your comment.

      • A couple members how would have sold 18/18 for handshakes have either graduated or transfered, which would have negatively affected the sales.
        The graduation and transfer is part of the transition that AKB is going through. Everyone is talking about the transition to the next gen but they tend to overlook it while analyzing specific scenarios. IMO, this is definitely one of the biggest factor. Female idols are not supposed to switch members and keep their popularity, even for AKB. Isn’t it kind of expected that they may need some extra help during this transition?
        I agree that the sales are inflated but I can totally understand why management is not having enough confident.

        • Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying that. Yeah, I suppose extra help would be needed during a period of transition. However, I guess you could argue from a purely non-business standpoint that it would be better to take the “sink or swim” approach instead of prolonging things and dying a slow (albeit lucrative) painful death.

          Better to go out on a high than fading into obscurity, no?

  5. I never myself thought the million sellers could last forever but with this release it seems as though AKS is trying to see if it can.

    I do worry a bit about how they called on the sister groups to boost things up though, it’s not good for them as it’s flooding the market with their stuff as really each song from each sister group is like an extra release for them this year at a time when fans seems to be burning out from content release and really they need to I think pull further away from AKB not closer to it because I feel that it is heading to a situation where AKB itself will not be able to function without sub-group help.

    We also have to remember that these subgroups are groups in their own right too and for them it cannot be good to have them do material for the main group without any of those sales numbers coming there way….

    As for AKB itself I wonder if it is becoming a victim of it’s own success, it would be an explanation for the attempts to see if they can keep sales high (no-doubt with thoughts of Morning Musumes’ fall in their minds) because they fear what might happen if the do only sell say 7 to 800,000 (which is still an amazing sales figure) perhaps they think it will be the pebble that will start the avalanche and so are trying to hold off this moment. It might even just be a vanity thing, they enjoy selling a milllion and don’t want to give that up just yet…

    another reason, that the NSK team mentioned on a podcast recently is that perhaps they need those sales to keep up with their running costs at the moment, it cannot be cheap running AKB and the money they have spent has only gone up I’m sure and you wonder if some part of this sales push is that they, oddly enough, need the money all these sales bring to keep going the way they are.

    I feel as though we have to mention poor Paruru as well, now as most people here know I do like Paruru but I don’t know, trying to make her a canter just seems like a case of “backing the wrong horse” in a lot of regards and I feel as though maybe AKS threw all this at us to make sure that it was not Paruru who lost the million sales record, rather ironically though by having to do so much doubts have been raised anyway about her ability to become a center in the next few years because of all this extra content .

    So what needs to be done, well I think that really AKB needs to find more of a “true” position sales wise for a longer term stability (if that of course is the aim) lets not forget they can sell hundreds of thousands of singles less and still have market dominance, sure there would be doom-mongering but there is anyway so deal with that for a single then get on with it, and yes maybe there would have to be adjustments, and even some cuts but, well, that’s business for you.

    • I don’t know what to say apart from that I agree with pretty much everything you said. Excellent assessment of the situation and I’m glad that someone else is thinking about this stuff too.

  6. I’ve seen it as AKS’s attempt at sustaining high sales also.. unnatural sales. Guess they’re going for another Guinness world record. I think because of the current sales plan there’s going to be a release hit hard by this as a backlash and it’ll probably through everyone off. A single that’s going to have incredibly low sales lol.

    That’s until they start packaging snippets of used underwear into each version of a release. Mhm, can’t wait.

    • I don’t know about a backlash but I could see people starting to be a lot more selective over which singles they decide to buy. I mean, handshake events are going to keep the numbers up for as long as the girls are able to captivate their wota but still, it’s not like people have a bottomless pit of money that they can just keep plowing into the groups month in and month out.

      I think we hit market saturation a while back and now things are starting to level off to what one would hope are still impressive but sustainable numbers.

  7. You didn’t even mention they included fan’s election video’s — Team B Oshi / First Rabbit / Sakura no Hanabiratachi-Acchan solo. Team B Oshi pushed me over the edge to buy. Watched it today — my review:

    かわいい !!!

  8. There’s a lot to comment on here, but I’ll try to just bring up some of my own points, since I agree with most of what everyone else says here.

    The one thing I did want to mention, as it relates to what a few people said here is on the subject of money. Studies have shown that as for the idol industry at large, CD sales are the smallest amount of profit that they make, compared to all their other activities. It has been shown that only about 6% of all the money from CD sales actually goes back to AKS (or any management for artists outside AKB) and while some may argue that even at 6%, they’re still making a lot of money when they sell that much, but take it this way: if the average sale price of an AKB single is 1500 yen, then they get about 90 yen in profit from each sale, and if they sell a million, then AKS earns 90 million yen (about 1 million US dollars,) but you have to compare that to how much it cost to do all the licensing, all the advertising, the tie-ins with other artists or sponsorships, recording, filming, physical CD production, all the girls and management salaries, etc. It probably doesn’t amount to all that much in the grand scheme.

    It has been shown that their promotional work for corporate partners earns the agency more than any of their other kinds of activities as idols. It does make you wonder what their goal really is with keeping the sales numbers so high when it makes them much less money than all their other business ventures. One theory I have is that it just gets them public attention and press for being so high on the charts and “breaking records” so that they have this assumed validity and marketability for other advertising which will, in turn, make them more money later on.

    We’ve been having a ton of economical discussion about the idol industry on NHGG after I was able to get and distribute some copies of the Idols and Celebrity book on there, and though a lot of what really goes on behind the scenes is somewhat unknown (and may always be,) if we put together knowledge that IS known about the idol industry’s practices and compare them to how most other known corporations are known to operate in Japan, we may be able to infer a ton about the industry, even if we’ll ever know for sure.

  9. Hm but I think H!P have a lot to benefit from inflating there sales numbers, just look how much more air time they’ve gotten this year after 123 went over 100,000. AKB48 on the other hand will still have reasonable good sales without all this extra stuff and if it is to try and stop sales dropping it’s not working. What any group should aim for is for sales to plateau you can’t raise for ever.

  10. I’m just someone who surfed across this site, and I just want to say that this entry has some of the most constructive and rational discussions I’ve read about AKB’s sales and records without all the usual glorification it entails. Kudos to OP and everyone here.

  11. I can’t agree with you more than this. This is rational. I am myself a fan of AKB, and a lot of fans keep denying this. They always say that AKB’s sales are high because the song is always good. Yeah…I mean,you can be a fan without going so much till you’re blind of reality/fact. Anyway, I really apreciate you post! Keep it up!

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