Do AKB’s Solo Artists Have a Future Post-AKB?

In the wake of yet another AKB-related solo artist getting a #1 single on the Oricon Ranking chart, the back-and-forth discussion between idol fans everywhere about why the release did so well has started yet again. This happens nearly every time a new solo release from the 48 camp comes out, and I feel like I keep having to make the same arguments and points to people each and every time, so I felt like making this into a sort of follow-up article to my earlier article about whether solo idols in general have a future, but this will be more specifically geared towards AKB-related solo endeavors.

So, we all know AKB is a gigantic pop powerhouse that dominates the charts with every release they’ve had since late 2009. They’ve got four years running of breaking sales and chart records in Japan with seemingly little indication of changing. As most also know, AKB’s producers have tried to further capitalize on the raging popularity of the group by creating many solo releases by the group’s members, and have been met with great success in this, on the whole.

Every time a release comes out by one of their solo artists, fans begin with celebratory online posts about how great it is that they’re successful and many times, stating what a strong artist and release it is. Some who like to be a little more analytical about it, like myself, will start to debate about whether or not the girl was successful on her own merits or the merits of the release itself, or if the solo artists’ success is really just a residual from the success and popularity of the larger group they’re a part of.

If we look at the history of solo artists from AKB, a good amount of them have also had #1 singles on the week of release, and even those few who didn’t quite reach #1 were still 2nd or 3rd place, usually not trailing behind their competition by very much, so this also shows a trend in the relative successes of these solo artists, aside from the sales alone.

I started to look at some data to try to answer the question of why these releases really are as successful as they are, and to determine a little more closely if there’s higher probability of them being successful on their own merits or whether it was because of marketing, residual popularity from being a member of AKB, or other factors.

Other information that’s useful to assess this situation is whether or not the girl was still in the main group when the release in question came out, for comparison to sales and ranking info after they left, and how many versions of each release there were. Unfortunately, not too many of them have had releases after graduating from the main group yet, so we have a limited amount of info to make that call on, but we can also use data concerning girls who have only had releases post-AKB and compare their information. Here’s the data I’ve compiled to be able to compare these all together. This is not entirely inclusive, only relevant releases, not indies or pre-2009 releases, all from Oricon ranking data and archives (http://www.oricon.co.jp)

 

Soloist:Releases: (Y = pre-grad)1st Week Sales:1st week rank:# of versions:
Maeda Atsuko1st Single (Y)176,9671st4
Maeda Atsuko2nd Single (Y)136,2122nd4
Maeda Atsuko3rd Single60,6872nd4
Itano Tomomi1st Single (Y)162,8712nd3
Itano Tomomi2nd Single (Y)90,1031st3
Itano Tomomi3rd Single (Y)72,9112nd3
Itano Tomomi4th Single (Y)44,6304th3
Sashihara Rino1st Single (Y)124,4832nd3
Sashihara Rino2nd Single (Y)68,4031st3
Watanabe Mayu1st Single (Y)123,2372nd4
Watanabe Mayu2nd Single (Y)87,9933rd4
Watanabe Mayu3rd Single (Y)91,9071st4
Watanabe Mayu4th Single (Y)67,3293rd5
Kasai Tomomi1st Single (Y)32,5823rd3
Kasai Tomomi2nd Single18,5505th3
Kuramochi Asuka1st Single (Y)31,4244th6
Takahashi Minami1st Single (Y)85,4932nd3
Kashiwagi Yuki1st Single (Y)104,7992nd6
Kashiwagi Yuki2nd Single (Y)65,3762nd6
Iwasa Misaki1st Single (Y)23,7435th2
Iwasa Misaki2nd Single (Y)18,9295th2
Iwasa Misaki3rd Single (Y)12,0001st2
Iwasa Misaki1st Album (Y)747102nd2
Matsui Sakiko1st Album (Y)10,26310th2
Ono Erena1st Single25,7403rd5
Ono Erena2nd Single10,9803rd5
Ono Erena3rd Single6,0179th4
Ono Erena4th Single5,96415th4
Ono Erena5th Single5,96721st4
Oshima Mai1st Single11,7687th3
Oshima Mai2nd Single5,51025th3
Oshima Mai3rd Single2,80444th3

Three of these artists (Maeda, Kasai, and Itano) will release more post-graduation singles in the next month or two, so it should be interesting to compare those once they’re released, and this data will just get more interesting with time as more girls graduate and especially when AKB’s popularity as a whole inevitably starts to decline.

Of course, Oricon ranking placements are also highly dependent on what other artists are having releases on that week, and many entertainment management companies strategically time their releases at a time when no other high-selling artists are releasing anything, so they get a higher ranking almost by default.

Also as of note, it is currently rumored that Iwasa Misaki’s single that was released last week (Tomonoura Bojou) may be the second-lowest selling #1 single in Oricon history, just to give a perspective on what kind of competition she had last week.

 

Iwasa-Misaki

One thing I can fairly confidently claim, which some people will argue with, is that these releases from girls who are still within the AKB marketing machine will still sell pretty large numbers just on principle, regardless of what the music sounds like or any other factors besides that the girl singing/promoting the single is an AKB member and AKB still has popularity. Some argue that Iwasa Misaki’s recent enka-style releases are mostly selling large amounts and getting high rankings because the enka audience are the ones buying the CD, but I think that’s far too naive, based on what we can see from all the other data concerning AKB soloist sales.

It seems that in general, as long as the artist promoting the release is hyped up or popular enough, it’ll still sell high in the idol market, if you take into consideration that a few of these girls have had pretty niche styles of music (Iwasa doing enka, Matsui doing instrumental piano pieces) that very likely would not sell as much as they did if not for the power of the AKB marketing machine behind them.

As mentioned earlier, most of these releases are also released with multiple versions (which collectors and wota must buy all of) and usually include tickets for handshake or meeting events with that girl, just like AKB’s releases, so this also boosts the sales numbers up much higher than for a non-idol artist without these kinds of marketing tactics.

While looking at this data can’t let us draw absolute conclusions about a lot of things, it’s interesting to see how low the sales drop for these artists once they leave AKB, or how they generally deteriorate with time. If you look closely, every single artist gets less sales with each subsequent single, even though the chart rankings will fluctuate (since that also involves the factor of competition outside of AKS’s control.) If anything, it proves that most people lose interest with these soloists with the more exposure they have and the longer they keep releasing. Or maybe the fans’ wallets just start to run dry.

You can also see by looking at sales numbers for the girls who only started releasing singles after leaving AKB, the numbers are exponentially lower than the girls who started releasing them while still in the group, and if you include the sharp drop in sales between the last single released while still in the main group and the first post-graduation singles for Maeda Atsuko and Kasai Tomomi, this point becomes even stronger. While this isn’t 100% evidence, it does give us a strong probability that sales are not as strong after the girl leaves AKB proper.

How do you guys weigh in on this issue, and what do you think? Do you really think these releases are legitimately getting high sales and rankings because of talent and artistry within these releases, or is it because of the extreme marketing and recognition of AKB? And lastly, do you think the current AKB-related solo artists will last much longer with their declining sales, and will they continue to release more soloists from within their ranks, or will it start to die down in the near future? I’d like to hear what you guys have to say, so comment here or contact me through my profile below. Thanks for reading.

 

About Steve 88 Articles
Steve is a contributor and resident music nerd for Selective Hearing, specializing in Japanese idol industry commentary and coverage. A lifetime musician, film lover, journalist, video game fanatic, philosophy enthusiast, and idol aficionado. A dweller of the idol scene since the late 1990s, he loves to discuss industry trends and ideas, past or present.