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AKB48 at its Tenth Anniversary Faces New Challenges

Rick Masuzawa [Profile]


2015 marks the tenth anniversary of the idol group AKB48. The group has maintained its popularity by staying ahead of trends. But the rapidly changing music industry could make the upcoming years more challenging.

AKB48’s CD Sales on the Wane

The AKB48 song “365 Days of Paper Airplanes” has served as the theme music of public broadcaster NHK’s morning TV drama Asa ga kita (Morning Has Come) since the program went on the air in fall 2015. The show has been a hit, with an average viewership of 25%. AKB48 capitalized on the extra attention the show has provided, releasing a new CD single titled “Kuchibiru ni Be My Baby” (On My Lips Be My Baby) on December 8, 2015.

With this latest hit, AKB48 has had 29 straight CD singles reach number-one on the Oricon CD chart, a weekly ranking on music information provider Oricon’s website. The group’s cumulative sales have now exceeded 36 million CDs, surpassing the previous record holders, the rock band B’z. In addition, the lyricist for the group, Akimoto Yasushi, has a track record of over 100 million CDs sold for songs he has penned for AKB48 and other groups.

The most recent CD single sold 810,000 copies on its initial release. This would be an impressive figure for any other group, but for AKB48, it is the lowest result for a single release in the past five years.

Despite the lower figures, AKB48 remains the only Japanese group capable of selling over 800,000 copies of a single. In fact, every CD single the group issued over the past five years has sold over a million copies within a week of release, which is a testament to the group’s preeminence in Japan.

Still, the inability of AKB48 to maintain its string of million-copy sellers suggests that change is emerging. Ironically, the group’s tenth anniversary coincides with a tectonic shift for Japan’s music industry, which I want to examine by considering the case of AKB48.

Decreasing Novelty of Mainstay Events

Many people think that the music itself cannot account for AKB48’s string of million-selling singles. Instead, they say that the group’s so-called “handshake events,” where fans can meet and shake hands with group members, is a major factor behind CD sales. Fans purchasing a CD with an event ticket have the opportunity to shake hands with their favorite AKB member. Typically, each ticket provides around 10 seconds of interaction, but fans looking to spend more time with their favorite member might purchase dozens of singles, extending their time by a proportional amount. This sort of “pay-to-greet” system has drawn comparison to the kyabakura bars in Japan, where people pay hefty fees for a chance to have a few drinks with a beautiful hostess.

AKB48 is not the only group to link CD sales to handshake events, however. Other idol groups hold similar events, such as where fans can pose for a photo with a favorite member or even get a hug. Still, these groups are not selling anywhere near as many singles as AKB48.

Along with its handshake events, AKB48 has captured attention and won over fans in various other ways, including its “general election” where members are ranked by popularity and assigned positions within the group accordingly, and the group’s dating ban. These have paid off with eager fans frequenting handshake events, which helps boost CD sales.

AKB48’s anniversary means that fans from the early days of the group are also 10 years older. Many expect these long-time fans to take an interest in spin-off groups, like NMB48 or HKT48, but others think their interest in idol groups will dwindle as they get older.

Moreover, the approaches that garnered attention for AKB48, like the general election or ban on dating, have lost their appeal as they become routine.

Even though the group’s recent CD includes the theme song for one of the most popular NHK morning TV dramas in recent years, it was not able to break the one-million mark in sales. Several factors seem to account for this disappointing result.

  • [2016.01.08]

Graduated in 1997 from Kyoto University’s Faculty of Agriculture. Was involved in the creation of a mobile site for Recruit Co., Ltd. in 1999. Established the company Gigaflops in 2000 and managed its mobile portal site. In 2003, sold the company to Cybird Corp. Joined Cybird and handled M&A for its Overseas Division. Created Sigel Corp. in 2006, which specializes in production of mobile content and related consulting. Joined Kamakura Shinsho, Ltd. in 2014, where he serves as a corporate officer. Member of the editorial committee.

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