Is There a Future for Idol Solo Artists?

Recently, a friend from the site International Wota posted an article called “The Death of the Solo Idol?” questioning whether or not solo idol artists really have a future in our currently gigantic idol market, and in trying to formulate a small response to it, I realized I had way too much to say about this. I had been considering writing an article about this subject myself for a while, so I seized the chance to realize that idea, and here’s some of my own thoughts and responses to the article or the general sentiment that solo idols are on their way out.

As far as competing in the idol market today, in sales and popularity, I think soloists don’t even stand a chance, and the sales numbers and happenstance of the last few years seem to support this. The AKB trend in the idol market for the last five or more years has all but destroyed the interest in true solo artists that don’t have any backing or origin from a big group that already established their popularity. And even if they do have that backing, I feel most of the sales and attention they get is moreso just a residual from people’s interest in the bigger group they came from, not a true or genuine interest in the output and activities of that solo artist themselves. (For instance, if that girl had debuted as a solo artist without being part of the group, they probably wouldn’t be around very long and wouldn’t have much success.)

This trend of bigger idol groups has given idol fans something to follow that, in a way, gives them literally hundreds of potential “solo artists” to choose from, in their mind, especially given how much importance the average idol fans puts on exclusivity to a certain member in his/her own mind with the whole “oshimen” phenomenon of modern idols, where even the management and effectively, the idols themselves encourage fans to ignore all other idols besides the one they choose and only spend all their hard-earned money and effort for support on that one person.

The only solo artists that really seem to get much attention are some of those that sing for popular anime or drama shows, and they really only sell or get attention because of the show, not because of the music itself, so we arrive at this same kind of situation, where they already have a previous backing based on something other than themselves.

Even with the majority of idol groups out there right now, the various management teams of idol groups seem more reluctant to even debut their girls as solo for a variety of reasons, with the exception being AKB, since they’ve already got the popularity and momentum behind them that they could release a song of African tribal drum music with air raid sirens and people screaming over it and AKB fans would still buy ten copies if it had a girl’s picture on the cover or got them a ticket to meet one of them at a handshake event.

Goto Maki & Matsuura Aya

Hello!Project was at the forefront of idol soloists for quite a while in the early to mid 2000s, with artists like Matsuura Aya and Goto Maki leading the pack and having huge success across the board, but this seems to have died out by the late 2000s when a lot of people started moving over towards the AKB camp in favor of having a literal buffet of idols to choose from within the same group. Tsunku even tried to create some more true solo artists of his own in the late 2000s, with artists like Tokito Ami and some of his other TNX acts, but none of them lasted past a few years before leaving the agency or being fused into a group.

Tokito Ami

It is of note that Hello!Project literally has zero solo artists currently active after their last one, Mano Erina, stopped her activities earlier this year. Even of their previous members who have left the H!P umbrella and are still active, only one of them even has any kind of popularity above local idol levels at this point, that being Kikkawa You, and even she has a much smaller following than their flagship groups like C-ute and Morning Musume.

Mano Erina

Despite having previous huge success with solo idols, Hello!Project, and really any other mainstream idol groups out there probably feel like they shouldn’t really waste their time auditioning for new solo acts or even releasing solos from their current rosters right now because they will likely flop like a fish out there in this huge idol market we’re currently seeing. Aside from probably seeing it as fairly futile based on the current preferences of idol fans, most of the girls these groups have at their disposal generally don’t have the features and strengths needed to go solo (solo singing talent, commanding stage presence without having other members to feed from, etc.)

Endo Mai

Idoling!!! seems like quite a unique factor in this market as they debuted two solo artists in 2013 (Yokoyama Rurika and Endo Mai,) even against these odds, to the point where it almost seems like a fluke that anyone besides AKB is making the effort, but I’ll be damned if these aren’t two of the most exciting and well-produced flukes I’ve seen in recent times.

Then again, when I think about it, Idoling!!! management is very different from a lot of the other groups out there and seem to take more risks despite not really having a huge amount of popularity to fall back upon if a venture fails, and they often have a general feel to the group that reminds me of idols from eras past, where, oddly enough, solo artists were more popular. Their management seems to focus a lot less on ridiculous sure-shot profitable marketing junk like collectible goods and expensive FC events (like H!P and AKB) and more on actual media output like music, live performances (with live singing and live bands,) and their TV show.

NIshi Erika

AeLL’s Nishi Erika also released a solo effort recently, but isn’t taking on full solo duties like the Idoling!!! members, as it was really just meant as a small aside to her group activities. I figure this is probably to get some more attention on Erika’s strong presence, personality, and singing talent and to give her some more attention that is often taken away from her by being in a group with Shinozaki Ai.

I personally would love to see a return of more solo idols, but it seems most idol fans out there today don’t really appreciate soloists, and especially newer idol fans who weren’t around for or don’t know much about the older eras of idols when original soloists were popular. I feel this decline of the solo idol is one of the only negative aspects of the Idol Sengoku Jidai that I’ve really come across in recent years, since solo idols can provide another aspect of variety to what kind of activities we see from our idols and if handled correctly, gives a unique opportunity to put a big focus on crafting music and activities around that one person’s strengths.

The idol market tends to come in waves or trends, so I think idol soloists could become big again in the future when idol fans get tired of the current overload and over-exposure of big idol groups, but who knows when that’ll be. For all we know at this point, we could soon see another meltdown of the idol industry and a growth in the general dislike or distaste of idol groups in the mainstream like we did in the early 1990s. From there, maybe interest in solo artists could start again and bring some more true idol soloists back to the public interest.

Do any of you out there have an opinion on this? Would you like to see more solo artists in the idol market or do you prefer having groups? I’d like to hear what other fans think on this, so comment here or shoot me a response on Twitter if you’ve got something to say.

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.