Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In the Age of Piracy, Why Fans Still Buy Official Merchandise

Some people think that most people buy singles and albums because people like the songs in that single or album. Then again, if you just wanted the songs, you could easily download those essentially for free on the net. So there is some flaw in that concept. Why is it that in this day and age where it’s so much easier to download pirated material off the net that AKB48 can still sell half a million copies of their singles?

It’s no news that these days, much of what artists release can be downloaded off the net essentially for free, from MP3 to videos, to scans, software and games. If we can download everything, why buy?

Fans have different reasons why they buy official or licensed merchandise. Some like the thought of true ownership of a copy of that song. Some like the idea of owning an impressive collection. Some want something tangible they can touch and see in person. But I just wanted to focus on one reason.

We can easily presume that every one of us own some pirated material. (I mean, if you have the means to read this, then what are the odds that you don’t.) I’m not here to bash on that. There are a lot of sites available where you can download AKB48 material, for example. Is AKB48 Management not aware of these sites, which is why these sites are still around? I hardly believe that. It wouldn’t be that hard for AKB Management to find these sites. But what would happen if these sites didn’t exist? Then it would be very hard for their fandom to spread. If it weren’t for pirated material, I most likely wouldn’t have had any material to win me over and become an AKB fan. And from using pirated material, I now also purchase official AKB merchandise. AKB needs these piracy avenues to let themselves be known to more people, and hopefully, these people will become buyers of their stuff. AKB didn’t get popular in an instant, it took months and years of material to sell from 20,000 copies per single to half a million a single, and it cannot be denied that these piracy avenues help spread the appeal of AKB. (If you’ll notice though, some of these avenues, like forums, have threads where members can show off the stuff they buy, to show anyone, including AKB Management, that hey, we’re doing a good thing here, we’re buying your stuff, and we’re encouraging people to buy your stuff, not just download everything for free.)

Now, if you can download everything, why buy? If every one of us just downloaded everything, the artists wouldn’t get money from what they do. What they do is many things, but let’s not forget it’s also work, and for many artists, if they don’t have money coming their way, some of them may have to get other jobs! More importantly though, material don’t get published on their own, if nobody buys AKB products because everyone is just downloading them, AKB’s record label will no longer produce and distribute their material. Meaning if no one buys their stuff, there eventually will be no more new stuff to come. So some of us need to buy their stuff if we continuously want more stuff. Someone has to buy their songs if we want more songs, some of us will have to buy their DVD’s if we want more videos, some of us will have to buy their mooks if we want more mooks, etc.

I actually have a theory that when AKB’s first major record label, Defstar, dropped them (I guess around 20,000 copies sold per single wasn’t great enough for a big record company like Defstar, so they felt that it was ok to drop artists they felt wasn’t going to go anywhere), AKB’s fans may have panicked. They may have thought, “oh no, this could be the end of AKB! We better start buying their stuff or else AKB will disappear.” So when AKB was picked up by their second label, King Records, sales became more than double on their first single at King Records (Oogoe Diamond) and after that (10nen Zakura), 100,000 copies became a minimum, with sales steadily increasing up to half a million copies sold each by the last two singles at the time of this writing (Ponytail to Shushu and Heavy Rotation).

Going back to my opening paragraph, some people think all fans buy AKB singles because the songs are good, knowing full well they could download them for free. Why do we buy? To support the artists. To give money to them in an acceptable way. It is specifically instructed that AKB members cannot accept monetarial gifts from fans. Can you imagine the conversation? “Hey, I love your work, here’s thousands of dollars cash for you.” “Uh, why?” “Because I love you! Isn’t money one reason why you’re working? Here’s cash right here!” “Uh, what do you expect from it?” “Nothing at all!” “Uh, yeah, I think I’ll pass.” Besides, if the girls get money directly, it means their agencies and publishing labels aren’t getting a portion of it, which means more money for the girls, but also means the girls won’t have any more published material for us 'cause the publishing companies et al. aren’t getting any money from publishing it. And would the girls prefer that? I really doubt the girls are just doing this for the money. OK, I’m also just fanboing now. Well, there are things like popularity, fame, living your dream, etc.

It’s not just about the money, the number of items sold also matters. From Oricon to Billboard charts to whathaveyou, copies sold is a very important indicator to the industry; it’s a tangible measure of success and popularity which can be used as barometer for further exposure activities (like being invited again to Kouhaku). Thus, fans want their beloved artists to be #1 for the whole world to see, and since the artists would be happy for such achievements, their fans do what they can to bring some happiness back to the artists that brought them such happiness. I, for one, was happy that when AKB hit #1 for the first time in their career with River, that I was one of thousands who helped them do it, by being one of those who bought the single. I’m happy that coincidentally, I have preordered all the singles they have released that have hit #1 up to the time of this writing, including those by AKB subunits. Yes, preordered, meaning I am one of those thousands listed under first day sales. Yes, first day sales, meaning the very first day the single was released. Meaning I even preorder the singles without knowing a single thing about the single. I don’t know what the songs will be are. I don’t know who the Senbatsus will be. I don’t know what the cover looks like. I don’t even know what the title is, as AKB frequently doesn’t announce the title on the first day the single is announced these days. I buy it because I support the artists and I am basically telling them, produce more stuff, and I will buy them. Now, AKB isn’t the first one I’ve done this for. Without talking about local or English artists, I used to buy Utada Hikaru albums without knowing anything about the album. I just wanted to tell the publishers, if you make more available, someone will buy them, specifically me, so produce more. Of course, I only do this if I really like the artist, or much of the material the artists come up with, so one-hit-wonders are out of the question. But with what I do, what happens if the artists start releasing stuff I really don’t like, even though I already preordered them? If it’s to the point that I lose my interest, then I stop buying their stuff in the future. So it can also be said that the current releases dictate future sales.

I mentioned in another post that I was disappointed to learn that my second favorite AKB song, Iiwake Maybe sold less than its predecessor, Namida Surprise; I thought people didn’t like it. But when it was voted as the #1 song in the Best 100 2010, I started to think, maybe it’s because Namida Surprise didn’t have a great reception. River’s sales was around double that of its predecessor, Iiwake Maybe, does it mean people like River more? As I said, it was Iiwake Maybe that ranked #1 in the Best 100 2010, River was #5. Also, former releases like fanfavorites Bingo! and Boku no Taiyou sold about a measly five percent of the sales of either Ponytail to Shushu or Heavy Rotation, does it mean Ponytail to Shushu and Heavy Rotation are twenty times better than Bingo! or Boku no Taiyou? I really doubt that, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the Best 100 2011 to find out. But few can deny, past and current releases dictate sales of future releases. It’s not just about how good the current release is, it’s how good the previous releases were that can affect current releases sales a lot. “Hey, AKB is good, they have another single coming up? I think I’ll buy that.” Not a whole lot of, “hey I like that old AKB song, I wonder where I can still buy that old single.” Well, not unless you’re a collector, that is.

Of course, I encourage fans to purchase official and licensed goods, as I do so as well, but I’m not bashing on pirated material or those of us who are very dependent on piracy (which is in all probability all of us). Unless the price of licensed material drop to a few cents per item, I really don’t think a hardcore fan, unless he’s a bazillionaire, can afford to buy all releases of his favorite artist. We will download stuff, because we can’t afford to keep our fandom solely on buying stuff. And pirated material can eventually encourage us to purchase at least the licensed material we can afford to buy. I certainly won’t encourage someone not to eat just so he can buy more AKB stuff. But in Business, we have the term “disposable income,” a part of a person’s income that the person would, under typical conditions, spend on non-essential items. If the question now became, do you buy cigarettes and booze, do you spend all your money on a bar or some vice that won’t be great for you, or do you spend the money on AKB instead, then I would encourage you to save your money and support the artists that bring you so much of whatever you enjoy and get from them. If you don’t have a lot of money to buy AKB stuff now because you don’t have disposable income now, like say, you’re a typical student, then that’s fine. Once the time comes that you do have disposable income, your heart will have to decide as to where it goes. And if AKB has made such a great impact on you, then by all means, send some of your money their way by buying their stuff, so they can produce more great stuff for us fans and future fans.