Japan’s Strange $200 Million Girl Band

Billfold pal Jon Custer alerted us about Japanese pop phenomenon AKB48, which is less a girl group and more a $200 million annual business. AKB48 has about 100 girls in the group who rotate in and out of performances based on how popular they are with fans, who vote for them by buying multiple copies of the same single, often spending thousands in the process:

CD releases come complete with lottery tickets for a chance to attend a “handshake event” to meet members, or with ballots for popularity contests for members, with the top vote-getters performing on coming singles or appearing in music videos. Many of AKB48’s hard-core otaku, or geek, fans buy dozens, or even hundreds of copies of the same CD to give their favorite girl a boost in rankings, or to win a chance to meet her in person.

At a recent AKB48 concert, 21-year-old factory worker Tomoyuki Yamada showed up in a elaborately embroidered black gown bearing tribute to favorite band member Tomomi Kasai. “With AKB48, you have each member making her own efforts, and as a whole you can see that everyone in the group is trying her best. That’s what I like about them,” he says. Mr. Yamada says he bought 210 copies of a recent single—at 1,600 yen apiece, that’s a total of 336,000 yen, more than $4,300—to give 210 votes for Ms. Kasai in the most recent election. She finished 16th.

The music industry is obviously a business, but it’s interesting how blatant AKB48 is about how it cashes in on popular girls and demotes the ones less likely to sell. The girls are even asked to abstain from dating so that they “never disabuse their legions of male fans that they might one day stand a chance with their fantasy woman.” One recent band member shaved her head out of contrition after she was caught dating a boy from another band, which, WOW.



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