Music, News & Commentary

How the anime girl with green hair is shaking up the music industry

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She has performed in front of sell-out audiences both in her homeland of Japan, and abroad from Indonesia to America. She has opened concerts for Lady Gaga, performed in Pharrell Williams’ music, made a guest appearance on David Letterman, and even appeared in political campaigns that helped Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, get over the line.
Her voice has featured in over 100,000 songs, many of which have been released worldwide, has licensing deals that sees her star in interactive games, and she has become the face of a major racing team in Japan. She is one of the real rising stars of the global music, and most fascinating of all is the fact she isn’t even a real person.
“She” is Hatsune Miku, a vocaloid, and a bit of software. She is not the only vocaloid, but she is certainly the most popular and global, and has a growing international presence and a public personality that is only eclipsed by the biggest of the music industry’s stars. Miku also represents a very real digital disruption that is going to make waves through the music industry in the years ahead.
For those unfamiliar with the term, vocaloids are digital musical instruments, or pieces of software that a producer plugs into sound recording software just as they would a virtual piano, drum set, or guitar. The difference with vocaloids is that where a piano plays notes, vocaloids sing lyrics that the music producer types into the software for them.
This concept in itself is nothing new. The idea that computer software can recite lines that we type into it has been around since the days of the early Macs, where school kids would find it amusing to plug rude words and sentences into the computer’s otherwise limited word processor and have them speak them out to the great irritation of teachers and fellow students (of which I was admittedly one such kid).
What is new, and driving the rapid growth in interest in vocaloids, is the foresight that the software developer, Crypton, had to hire an artist to create a face and personality for the program. The result, as commissioned from popular artist, KEI, is the green-haired anime girl whose design has almost become more famous than her voice. There are over a million examples of Miku fan art on popular art websites across the Internet. Using a piece of animation software called MikuMikuDance, fans are also able to create music videos for the popular music tracks. Unlike so many Japanese companies, Crypton is also very open with its IP, allowing fans to create fan art, or even music, under a commons license. It is only when individuals seek to make money from the character and voice that a commercial license needs to be negotiated, and this has led directly to a massive explosion of Miku’s popularity.
Crypton is keenly aware of where Miku’s success lies. “Without KEI’s illustration, Miku would not have been so popular,” Tomoko Otsuka, Crypton Future Media representative, said. “The persona of Miku that he created plays such an important role in this phenomenon we’re seeing.”
Equally, though, it is a company that is aware that its other strength is in its ability to disrupt existing models for music production, democratising the art for anyone who aspires to break in, but is constrained by budget. The Hatsune Miku software costs the equivalent of around $200, and that is a massive saving when compared to the cost of hiring a singer and recording studio to produce a new song in a more traditional manner.
“One of the most important reasons for the growing popularity of vocaloid software is that Crypton allows users free use of Hatsune Miku for non-commercial purposes,” Otsuka said. “As a result, we have developed a strong co-creation loop, in which songs, illustrations, and videos have been created using Miku by various users.
“For example, at Hatsune Miku concerts, she sings songs that were created by fans. Her routines and costumes are also fan created. That means that fans collaborate on the concert with us and Miku.”
To date there have been a couple of inhibitors that have prevented the Miku (and other vocaloids) to really break out from Japan and enter into western culture. One is the character itself, which, while seen as harmlessly cute and cheerful to the Japanese, is in the eyes of many westerners overly sexualised (and then aged too young for that sexualisation to be comfortable). The other is a language barrier, in that most vocaloids, including Miku herself, have traditionally been restricted to Japanese voice banks, making their ability to perform songs written in English problematic at best.
This is changing. In 2013 Crypton released the first English voice bank for Hatsune Miku. At the same time, it redesigned the character to appear more mature, and thus palatable to a western audience. The original Miku still dominates in Japan, but Crypton is homing the more culturally-appropriate, older, Miku will help drive her home in America, Europe and Australia.
It’s still messy to use the software in English (with instructions and support often in the kind of garbled English that could only come from Google Translate), but just as it took Japanese Miku a couple of years from her 2007 launch to really start to take her place aside the likes of AKB48 and other popular local music groups, so too will her popularity grow in the west. Already fans are responding positively to her games and turning up to popular culture conventions in droves dressed in Hatsune Miku costumes (at the recent SMASH! Anime and Manga convention in Sydney there were dozens of people wearing Miku costumes). It’s only a matter of time before young music producers (and perhaps some veterans as well) start to create music that drives demand for the character even more.
None of this will threaten the music superstars. Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift aren’t about to find themselves out of a job because they can only produce a fraction of the music in a year that Miku’s fans do each day. But for the journeyman singer and covers artist, as the profile of Hatsune Miku and other vocaloids grows further and becomes more international, it is going to be very difficult indeed for them to find work and compete with an on-demand superstar voice like hers.

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