Call it the end of an era. Last week, AKB48’s 49th single “#Sukinanda” sold over 1 million copies to take the top spot on the Oricon singles chart. Besides being the first song in the No. 1 position to feature a hashtag in its title, it also propelled the idol group over J-pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki to become the highest-selling female act in Japanese music history.
AKB fans rejoiced. Hamasaki supporters went through a Kubler-Ross-esque online cycle touching on anger (“AKB48 isn’t real art!”), bargaining (“AKB is a group, Ayumi is just one person”) and semi-acceptance (“Hamasaki was still more impressive”). Everyone else initially seemed confused by Oricon’s decision to hold solo artists and groups as equals in this ranking, before also making peace with the change.
This swap was inevitable. As has been highlighted frequently since AKB48 first began topping charts in 2009, the group has long inflated sales by releasing multiple versions of the same single, or by including bonus goodies with albums such as tickets to meet-and-greets or ballots for the group’s annual election. Hard-core fans scoop up multiple copies to either support the group or to procure items. AKB48’s success has been fueled by a passionate set of supporters rather than the general public.
Yet this strategy ended up becoming the norm for pop music worldwide in the 2010s. AKB48 was simply ahead of the curve, so harping too much on the gimmick aspect feels unnecessary (but you do what you need to do, Hamasaki fans). Beyond other J-pop acts, this practice is common in K-pop and has become practiced more in the United States, where groups such as Metallica climbed up the charts thanks to its album sales being bundled with concert tickets. Taylor Swift, meanwhile, recently offered up an evolved take on this strategy by allowing fans who do various activities — say buying merchandise or tweeting about her music — to move up in line for her forthcoming tour.
This story, however, really signals the end of an era where traditional charts hold any value whatsoever. Despite their fans’ squabbling, neither Hamasaki or AKB48 have been particularly relevant in recent years, save for scandals involving the performers. While “#Sukinanda” went to the top of the Oricon charts in its first week, it fell down just as quickly afterward.
In the space that AKB48’s latest single came out, peaked and then dropped, a different song showed where an act could actually get a sense of what music reaches the general masses. Daoko and Kenshi Yonezu have been at the top of various streaming sites and YouTube music charts for weeks with “Uchiage Hanabi,” racking up more than 32 million views on the latter in just a month. The song appears on TV, radio and has even landed the emerging Daoko on billboards overlooking Shibuya Crossing. It peaked at ninth place on Oricon, but in the new Japanese music landscape, that might be among the least telling signs of success of all.