The Next Big Thing in Music: A 60-Member Band Chosen By Its Fans

Japan's hit girl pop group, AKB48, is about to go global

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Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

Members of Japan's girl pop group AKB48 perform ahead of an annual popularity "election" event at Tokyo's Budokan gymnasium June 6, 2012. In a three-hour show broadcast live from Tokyo's hallowed Budokan, 23-year-old Yuko Oshima was selected as leader and face of the group, which has been recognized by Guinness as the world's biggest girl pop group.

Japan’s latest musical craze isn’t so much about star power, but rather creating a tangible event that melds almost every aspect of pop culture: reality show-style voting, daily performances, members-only privileges, a focus on the brand and, oh yeah, a bit of catchy pop music tossed in.

Technically one of the world’s largest bands, Japan’s AKB48 has created a new model for pop entertainment that has the Japanese ready to export. Instead of focusing on one individual or even a small ensemble, AKB48 has grown into a 64-girl group that splits up into 16-member acts that sing daily at a home theater in Tokyo, perform travel shows and do appearances, all simultaneously.

Originally created in 2005 by producer Yasushi Akimoto, the social movement has only grown since. Girls and young women ages 14 to 26 join the group through auditions and reality television-style “election” votes, where only those who have purchased a CD or joined a fan club can participate. But don’t fret, 1.4 million folks still managed to participate in the selection process to determine which 16 members would create the band’s next single (album sales topped $200 million last year—more than Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry combined). The highest vote getter earns the center position on stage. Throughout the year, older group members retire and new ones enter the fray, joining either the “A,” “K,” “B” or “4” group of 16.

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Named for the Akiba theater in Tokyo (hence the AKB) where one of the four groups plays daily—tickets are only obtained via lottery since they have proven so popular—the group originally had just three groups and 48 members (so enters the 48 in the name). AKB48 has grown steadily in Japan and has branched out to create similarly named groups in Indonesia, Taiwan and China.

Akimoto called the group “idols whom you can go and meet in person,” according to the Associated Press, and producers covet fan interaction to keep that accessibility attainable. Each girl has a blog, the daily shows offer chances to shake hands and exchange a few words with each performer and the group constantly provides behind-the-scenes video access to its fans, even showing the drama-like struggles of the youthful members.

Of course, all this attention has its drawbacks. While young girls and older women are the latest demographic to go wild over the group, men have thus far been the biggest supporters. The sometimes-skimpy outfits and photo shoots certainly play to that crowd.

AKB48 isn’t about an individual, though, which perpetuates the popularity, no matter the demographic. No former member has made it big and the girls themselves don’t claim to be superstars, instead playing to the hard-working, girl-next-door image that helps extend the accessibility mantra. Plus, fans may be more willing to forgive musical mix-ups and spend additional money on someone they view as a friend instead of a pop sensation.

To keep with culture, AKB48 plays to a crowd more in love with regiment than individuality. Experts tell the AP that picking “cute” girls that aren’t “outstanding beauties” makes them likable and falls in line with the “geek” culture popular in Japan. In that vein, the shows are highly formulaic and fans know when to interact and chant.

It all works in tandem to create a new Japanese pop culture reality—one where you can be part of the show—that may be ready for an international stage.

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