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“Major Debut”: the Rite of Passage that Decides an Idol’s Destiny

アイドルたちの運命付けられた「通過儀礼」としてのメジャー・デビュー
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“Major Debut”: the Rite of Passage that Decides an Idol’s Destiny

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For many idols these days, a major debut strongly implies a way to gain prestige. But what exactly is this “major debut”, which is talked about as a turning point for most idols?

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Last month, Hello! Project’s new unit Kobushi Factory announced to make major debut in this fall.

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On July 9th, Stardust’s girls band “Le Lien” has just announced their major debut in this September.

To start off, I would like to briefly explain to the idol fans abroad about Japan’s major music labels and indie labels.

Major labels are, in the strict sense of the word, companies that belong to the general incorporated association that is the Recording Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ). There are only 18 companies that are regular members of RIAJ. (Reference : http://www.riaj.or.jp/about/member.html)

RIAJ has 20 companies that are associate members and 23 companies that are supporting members. Among these numbers, there are both indie label and major label recording companies mixed in together, making the judgment regarding non-regular members even more difficult.

Furthermore, some people recognize recording products that have the RIAJ-issued distribution code, known as ISRC (International Standard Recording Code), as major distributers, but the number of companies that are registered for this are over 1132. It seems to go against the “major” part of “major labels”.

Even among RIAJ’s regular members, some recording companies had 2014 releases that mainly consisted of remakes and alterations of older songs, like For Life Music Entertainment. For a “major label”, this is kind of a sad state to be in.

Furthermore, there’s a big ladder for indie labels leading up to becoming a major label, so there’s also that to consider.

However, in Japan starting in the 90’s and following a time when CDs sold the most, starting in the 2000s musicians and major labels were forsaken in the wake of increasing CD releases by indie labels. There are also cases where the master license is in the hands of the musician, who uses major labels just for the sales network.

Space Shower Networks, a supporting member of RIAJ, is currently doing distribution for big names such as ORIGINAL LOVE and Kouji Tamaki. Indie labels’ place as background players is becoming a thing of that past.

There is also the reality that, in the first place, today’s listeners of Japanese music listen to music without caring much about which ones are from major labels and which ones are from indie labels. If you buy the CDs at a large-scale CD store or on Amazon, there is no real difference. With the iTunes Store, it’s even easier to forget about the difference. The subscription-type music site LINE MUSIC also offers music from indie artists such as Yurumerumo! (You’ll Melt More!).

Yurumerumo!

Yurumerumo!

But where do members of fan clubs buy their CDs the most? The answer is simple: at event locations. After a concert, they buy the CDs regardless of whether they are from a major label or an indie label. Also, idols tend to hold events for advance orders, as well as release events the week of the release, but these tend to take place at large-scale CD shops such as Tower Records and HMV. In this way, CD shops are handling CDs from indie labels so well, it’s not too often that one can feel a barrier between the major and indie labels.

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The idol group of the indies label “T-Palette Records” : POP (Period Of Plastic 2 Mercy)

The idol group of the indies label "T-palette" :  Negicco

The idol group of the indies label “T-Palette Records” : Negicco

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The idol group of the indies label “T-Palette Records” : lyrical school

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The idol group of the indies label “T-Palette Records” : UPUPGIRLS(KARI)

That being said, it’s true that major labels have more resources than indie labels. Production costs and promotion expenses are big, and they have operations in sales promotion. But, with the slump in CD sales, it is now the case that not all artists that belong to major labels enjoy such benefits. And, as a result, artists such as the previously mentioned start to move away from major labels.

The same can be said for idols. If you are able to read Japanese, I’m sure you have seen the whirlpool of disgruntled tweets on Twitter regarding the way recording companies treat idols that debut with major labels. Not all major labels have the know-how that is needed to sell the special genre that is idol music. If the objective is to just sell CDs, indie labels will also do the trick, and there are also idols that make it into Oricon top 10 while staying with their indie label.

Even though that’s the case, why is it so important for idols to debut with a major label, a.k.a have a “major debut”? The reason is because it is seen as a rite of passage among the idol culture.

In Japan, idols follow the classic path of aiming for the top of the Oricon charts, having a solo concert at the Budoukan, and participating in NHK’s Kouhaku Uta Gassen. One could say it’s a very conservative genre. And, within that, lies the rite of passage that is a major debut. When artists make the jump from an indie label to a major label, it’s a definite sign of progress.

For idols, their ability to progress decides their destiny. And, in this way, the major debut is a clear sign that the idol has made it. This is what I think is the true form of the “major debut”.

Translated by Tanoshii Emily

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Author
munekata
munekata

Born in 1972, Akimasa Munekata is a music critic who has written for MUSIC MAGAZINE and Record Collectors for rock in Japan after HAPPY END, pop, the flow of western rock and pop after Beach Boys, world music, and folk music. Recently, he has hopped on the bandwagon and begun writing about idols as well.

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