Translation: The Rise of Local Idol Culture (Part 1)
2010's Idol Scene Vol.5
The Rise of Local Idol Culture (Part 1)
The rise of community-based idols and their major label transformations
Welcome to another installment of our series of articles digging into different sides of the idol scene of the 2010s. This time, we're focusing on local idols that focus their activities in specific regions.
As the curtain opened on the "Warring Idols Period," a large number of locally-based idols emerged around the country, operating alongside local municipalities and organizations and producing music overflowing with creativity and unique concepts, which created different idol cultures not found in the mainstream. There were, however, both pros and cons to working so locally. In this two-part article, we focus on the stories of music writer Namba Kazumi, who personally went out to many regional idol shows and collected tons of idol music, and we combine it with the testimony of idols and managers to understand the reality of local idol culture.
Interview, Article/Onoda Mamoru
The birth of "our own town idols" was tied to the fallout of the earthquake
Local idols-- known by names such as, "hometown idols," "provincial idols," "locadols," these community-based groups are said to number over 2000 around the country, according to one count. Groups that focused their activities in prefectures outside of Tokyo have existed since the 2000s, starting with acts like Perfume and Negicco, but they increased in number rapidly in the 2010s with the Warring Idols Period in full swing, sped on by the 2013 NHK morning serial "Ama-chan" about a hometown idol. The groups in large part did not belong to big entertainment companies; instead, they were on the indie side of things. As a result, they generally had little media exposure, so it would be idol fans who spread the appeal of these groups by word of mouth.
Namba Kazumi is one such individual who witnessed the local idol phenomenon at point-blank range. Originally working as a musician, he currently works as a music writer in addition to running an idol-centric record label, PENGUIN DISC.
Namba took an interest an idols during the rise of Momoiro Clover Z (formerly Momoiro Clover). At the time, Momoclo had many opportunities to perform competitively with alternative acts like Shinsei Kamattechan, leaving a strong impression that they were open to an audience outside of the idol scene. As a result, pure music magazines magazines like CD Journal and Music Magazine would increasingly feature these girls. Namba himself had been been writing for a few years, but he happened to be just the right person for the job when editors needed to find someone, anyone, who did not know who Momoclo was.
"What I became keenly aware of when I started writing about idols was that if I didn't watch multiple groups, I couldn't talk about any of them. After all, when you talk about something, you can't grasp what the scene is like without looking at it as a whole, right? I figured I couldn't keep pursuing things for work that were just handed down to me, and also I didn't want these zealous idol fans to shit on me, like, "he has no idea what he's talking about" (laughs). So it was necessary to get to know different idols to be able to write like an expert" (Namba).
The time he speaks of is spring of 2011, when idol groups were just starting to pop up one after another. Passpo☆ who achieved a major debut with incredible intensity; Sakura Gakuin, which would go on to produce the globally popular spinoff unit BABYMETAL; Tokyo Girls Style featuring young members belting out cool, mature numbers... There were countless groups that demanded attention. Among them all, the one group that caught Namba's attention was a Sendai-based unit, Dorothy Little Happy.
Dorothy Little Happy in 2011
"Right when they were releasing their CD with major label avex, it was completely ruined by the Tohoku Earthquake. It affected the release because the CDs weren't available for a while in their hometown stores, and the postponed release events then also came with the tag of 'charity concerts.' Like, 'You can do this, Tohoku!'" (Namba)
On May 28, 2011, Dorothy Little Happy appeared at an event called, "Tohoku Earthquake Reconstruction Assistance Event WORDS OF HOPE FOR TOHOKU vol.1," alongside fellow avex acts Tokyo Girls Style and Dream5. The venue was Rensa in Sendai. Namba made the trek to Miyagi, "because I liked TGS originall, and I wondered what sort of show DLH would do in their hometown."
"DLH's performance was shocking. There were 5 members, but they had a huge number of members of B♭ and schoolgirls as back-up dancers. The sheer number was overwhelming at first. Then, I was also overwhelmed by their singing and performance level. I spontaneously went up to their management in excitement and asked them where they got off being this incredible.
Thinking about it now, though, the earthquake might have been the biggest thing. In May of 2011, the Japanese people really couldn't tell what the future held, considering what was happening with the nuclear plant. There were also rumors about the radiation throughout Tohoku, so to drive up to Sendai in the middle of all that had a considerable effect on me. I wonder if it's because I saw them under those circumstances that I was affected so emotionally" (Namba).
Dorothy Little Happy in 2011
Namba points out an important factor in looking back at the rise of local idols. As a result of the unprecedented damage brought about by the Tohoku Earthquake, the collective mood of the Japanese people had fallen so deep into sadness that it seemed like nothing could save it. However, at the same time, a momentum began to emerge, a desire to build up local communities. This provided a tailwind for the birth of so many "our own town idols."
The possibilities as part of local revitalization
Of course, there are other reasons why local idols began to multiply, outside of the earthquake. The breakthrough of the AKB48 groups is one such irremovable component. You went to a concert and then immediately after got to shake the idols' hands or enjoy other such perks. This method allowed for those without much know-how to establish an idol enterprise, and it was well-known that this was how the idol business worked. Additionally, SKE48 as a part of the AKB48 group was an aggressive push into prefectural development, the effects of which were unmistakably huge.
"The push for uplifting communities after March 11, AKB48's big break and their derived provincial groups... If I were to add one more thing, it would be that local governments and businesses had their eye on idols. I think it's like the mascot boom: governments were aggressively coming out with these characters, and then random individuals would also make characters and name them for their hometown, right? My impression was that gradually new provincial idols were being created from that same framework. For local governments and businesses, idols might have been the ideal PR for their hometowns" (Namba).
Cute, energetic girls promoting the charms of their hometowns or local industries. Idols were full of potential as a part of local revitalization. At that moment the idol boom was taking off, so new groups popped up all around the country. The expectations for these girls were decidedly large.
"Even from the perspective of cost-effectiveness, idols were attractive. The initial investment is so low. If you've got a song, costumes, and a dance, you can manage. Although I do think now that the pay side of things was awful. AKB exploded in popularity, and so all around the country people wanted to make AKB in their own towns, you know? So it wasn't just governments and businesses, it was local dance schools and modeling agencies, private operations, lots of people that you can see starting their own idol groups" (Namba).
Even on the music side, it was fertile soil to develop new talent from the prefectures. For example, Sakamoto Satoru, who handled Dorothy Little Happy's music, is a musician with a firm track record with the rock band JIGGER'S SON. The man who started Ehime's Hime Kyun Fruit Can, Iga Chiaki, is the former producer of rock band japaharinet. These men had worked in the field of the majors, then returned to their hometowns to undertake a new challenge, and the end result was a product of naturally high quality. There was also development coming in through the popularity of DTM and the internet. The world was changing so that talent could be recognized even without trying to make it in Tokyo.
Hime Kyun Fruit Can in 2012
As idol mega events like TOKYO IDOL FESTIVAL and @JAM came to repeat year after year, so did the transformation of local idols into major acts.
"t.c.princess is supposed to be amazing"
"Seems like Caramel☆Robbin is something incredible"
"I heard Shizukaze&~KIZUNA~ are insane live"
...Many fans developed a hunger for this sort of information, simply because these groups were different from the major acts focusing on Tokyo. Local idols would be featured on TV, mooks focused on local idols would be published, all starting around 2013. Idol fans were becoming aware that the outside prefectures were where it was at.
T-Palette Records was started in 2011 as an idol-centric label under Tower Records, but their primary role was that of aggressively support local idols. Then, seeing they had the same goals, Namba worked under Tower Records on the streaming show, "Namba Kazumi's 36th Chamber of Idols." Namba came into contact with increasingly more local idols through this program, but the most exciting group of all was LinQ of Fukuoka.
LinQ in 2011
"LinQ had just incredible songs. Their music producer, H (eichi) was the person who discovered Nakashima Mika, and together with SHiNTA they made music of the highest quality. That music quality plus the sparkling, rustic air of the countryside, they made something magnificent.
LinQ also had so many members; at one point, over 30. That's also amazing. Having that many people is expensive. The management side must have had it rough, thinking of their running costs. I'm just impressed at how solid they were despite not being with a big Tokyo agency. And then include the dances done by SO, their organization was solid enough to compete with the majors, and the more I got to know them through their interviews, the more I was shocked by it all" (Namba).
Founding member of LinQ Takagi Yuumi, who has been with the group since 2011, also added her explanation of the Kyuushuu idol scene.
"The city with the highest number of idols after Tokyo is actually Fukuoka. At the time, any cute girl you passed by in the city of Fukuoka was working as an idol somewhere. LinQ and HKT48 had rehearsals on different floors of the same building, so we'd run into different members on the elevators. Idols are that familiar to Fukuoka. We have an event stage for idol use only; Mayor Takashima (Soichiro, of Fukuoka) also set up a special stage "for hometown idols" at the plaza in city hall. Without a doubt, idol culture has fully taken root in this town" (Takagi).
The trend of idols working steadily in their hometowns being "discovered" and then becoming popular nationally was not the case for many local idols back then. As LinQ gained a greater audience, the number of shows on their tours increased, but this meant that many things changed from what they used to be when they only worked in their hometown, and it seems that this also caused confusion for the members themselves.
"I guess it's what you'd call regionality. My impression was that Tokyo audiences and Kyuushuu audiences were completely different. To put it simply, Kyuushuu has a lot of people who go to concerts to 'appreciate.' Kanto lives, conversely, are full of people shouting loudly in support, like they're very quick to raise their voices. The same song feels different depending on where you perform it, so then it's necessary to change how you perform. That's where things got difficult" (Takagi).
They're not necessarily doing this to turn a profit
It isn't just Takagi's LinQ, but many local idols that needed to keep acquiring fans while polishing their skills, because they couldn't afford to promote themselves as strongly as a group tied to a major label. However, to put it the other way, it is possible that they do not have to not have to conform to the limits of a major. Many creators used the idol pretext to start experimentation of new things, and they gathered talent from other genres to create for idols. If AKB48's explosive popularity in mass media was the first wave of the idol boom, you could certainly say that the outburst of a D.I.Y. type of movement in the prefectures was the second.
"I definitely got the impression from the indie idol scene that it was people doing interesting things one after another. Like paying homage to Western music, for me, that was just so fascinating. That's why I made it my life's work to go around the country to seek out local idol music. It was always in my nature to dig up underground music. Even with idols, I ended up searching for it even when I was only taking it half-seriously. When I find something starting to get some heat on Twitter or somewhere, I jump right out to wherever they are, I don't care how much it costs" (Namba).
KGY40Jr. is another group that astounded Namba. Musically, they're a spacey hodgepodge of parapara and Goa trance. Their producer, Kawacha Papa, makes deeply mysterious appearances on stage, wears an onion hat, and speaks and looks eccentric, but is known by some as the Japanese Lee "Scratch" Perry. To put it bluntly, it is chaos.
"I first saw KGY40Jr. in their hometown of Kamagaya, about an hour outside of Tokyo, at a shopping mall. They were selling "onion peel tea" at the show. It's drinking boiled onion peel, but you couldn't get a CD without buying it. So, I bought it. One box of tea for 2500 yen, with 1 CD-R. I bought 3 boxes and got 3 CDs (laughs wryly).
Ultimately, what I'm trying to say is that local idols are not always limited to working to turn a profit. It's not, 'sell CDs to make money,' it's more, 'we make CDs to campaign for awareness for our hometown.' Then when you shift attention to this music, the rough parts are what stand out, and without a doubt it has originality that could never come from a major" (Namba).
Of course, when we say they have uniqueness and originality because they are local idols, that doesn't mean that is always the case. There are a hundred low quality groups with the sole ambition of being a lesser version of AKB48. To sum up local idols in one word, it is that they are varied, with styles both good and bad.
However, it is also true that local idols are in an environment that supports their power and passion, to the extent that you could forget that there are bad groups out there. Above all else, the fervent feelings of the members of wanting to compete with Tokyo girls and showing that even they can become a major label act caused the boom to grow even larger. Local idols have become the target of music business earnings forecasts, and record labels keep a watchful eye over the nation to find the next diamond in the rough.
The boom is a full-blown arrival. Local idols are turning major. Naturally, the people involved wholeheartedly welcome this progression. However, cynically, that means that the "simple charm" and "sharp tongue" traits the girls originally started with get lost along the way. Hometown fans of these groups were left with no option but to watch with melancholy as they were rendered toothless by the majors.