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Ayumi Hamasaki Against the Music

Written by Kitazawa Tell a Friend

On April 8, 1998, B'z, one of Japan's most representative bands, released their 24th single and successfully took the number one spot on the Oricon charts again. On that same day, a 19-year-old female singer named Ayumi Hamasaki who had struggled in the entertainment industry for a few years released her debut single. The single peaked modestly at number 20 on the Oricon charts. At the time, neither she nor her mentor and producer Max Matsuura could have possibly known that this was only the beginning of a fairy-tale journey for both them and Japanese pop music.


It is not possible to talk about the past decade of Japanese pop music without mentioning Ayumi Hamasaki. In the past ten years, Avex Trax has claimed the highest market share among Japan's record companies, and Ayumi has been the company's best-selling artist. According to a financial report Avex released in March 2001, even as overall music sales lagged, Avex still managed to grow 12.6% in comparison to 1999, achieving 83.3 billion yen (US$794 million) in sales. Ayumi made up over 40% of that number. A music industry observer once joked that she alone was worth the same amount as H2 (Japan's ill-fated 2003 rocket which resulted in 43.3 billion yen of loss). More impressively, in 2001 Ayumi comprised 16% of Japan's total record sales, a staggering market dominance that she maintained for almost three years starting in 2000. Even in 2007, her tenth year in the music industry, she still generated seven billion yen in album sales to become the second best-selling artist of the year. This kind of pop longevity is unique in Japanese and global music.


So, how exactly did a high school dropout from a single-parent family become the face of J-pop?


The Early Years: April 8, 1998 to November 30, 2002

Looking back at the Japanese music scene in 1998, there did not seem to be much space for a singer like Ayumi. Amuro Namie and her two million-selling single Can you celebrate? were still going strong, female pop group Speed swept the year with three million-selling singles, and Ayumi's greatest competitor Utada Hikaru made her debut at the year's end. Add to that the strength of visual rock and the shocking death of X Japan guitarist hide, it was a wonder that Ayumi, without any special selling points or buzz, managed to debut at the front end of the charts.


In early 1999, Ayumi made her breakthrough. Her debut album A Song for XX, released on January 1, topped the Oricon charts for four consecutive weeks. On April 26, her seventh single Love~Destiny, a lyrical ballad composed by Tsunku (lead vocalist of Sharan Q and producer of Morning Musume), also hit number one on the singles weekly chart. Be it luck or strategy, Ayumi managed to avoid both Utada Hikaru's First Love (the all-time best-selling Japanese album) and the best-selling single of the 90s, Dango 3 Brothers.


To explore a new musical style, Avex invited labelmate Do As Infinity to compose Ayumi's next two singles Boys & Girls and A. In the seven weeks from August 2 to September 3, Ayumi topped Oricon's weekly charts for six of those weeks, with Boys & Girls beating out Suzuki Ami's Be Together for the top spot. Even more impressive, A was unprecedentedly released as a 4A single with multiple remix version tracks; this album-length single remains Ayumi's highest-selling single with 1.62 million copies sold. Her album LOVEppears followed in October and created a minor controversy with an album cover that featured the singer topless, covered only by long locks of hair. At this point, Ayumi had already surpassed Amuro Namie and Suzuki Ami, standing side by side with Utada Hikaru as the top female singers of their generation.


In the next two years, Ayumi and Avex put everything on the line to challenge the reign of Utada Hikaru. In this period, Kuraki Mai, Shiina Ringo, MISIA, and a Goto Maki-led Morning Musume all joined the race, but be it in terms of marketing strategy, record sales, or album creativity, none could threaten Ayumi's status. In the end, it was Utada Hikaru who again came out on top with her singles Wait & see~risk (2000) and Can you keep a secret? (2001) beating Ayumi's Seasons (2000) and M (2001), and album Distance (released March 28, 2001) barely outselling A Best (compilation released by Avex against Ayumi's wishes to go up against Distance) by 3%. Ayumi's overall achievements, however, were stronger, in terms of total record sales, market share, and year-end statistics. In 2001 she became the first female singer after Amuro Namie to hold a Dome Tour in Japan's four largest venues, and in early 2002 she graced the cover of Time magazine.


2002 was a turning point for Ayumi Hamasaki. The focus of her music changed from pop ballads and dance numbers to rock and electronic numbers, and the album I am also included hip-hop elements. Her first single of 2002, the album cut limited release Daybreak, however, also ended her string of number one singles by coming in second. Her next single Free & Easy took her back to the top of the charts, and H would even outsell Utada Hikaru's travelling to become Ayumi's fifth million-selling single.


Other than Avex's generous financial support - reportedly, just in 2001 the company spent close to one billion yen (US$9.56 million) on production and promotion - a great part of Ayumi's success since her debut can be attributed to an all-round marketing strategy. "Ayumi Hamasaki" was more than a singer, she was a brand. Ayumi's trendy image made her the ideal brand spokesperson. A cosmetics label introduced two lipstick colors bearing her name; 500,000 lipsticks were sold in a mere two days. A beauty center saw 15% growth in customers after an ad featuring Ayumi hit the streets. A leopard print mobile phone (in continuation of her Duty image) limited to 30,000 units that Ayumi designed and personalized completely sold out during preorders. Certainly, Ayumi and Avex's marketing strategy is one of endless innovation, constantly presenting fans and consumers with new styles and products.


From the new images and extensive promotion to the high market share and record sales, Avex and Ayumi were basically aiming for the kind of fame and milestones achieved by the likes of Southern All Stars and Amuro Namie. Ayumi, however, was working in a very different market than that of Southern All Stars' and Amuro Namie's golden years, and no one could turn the tides of regression in the Japan music industry.


A Ballads (December 2002) to Present

Starting in 2003, Japan's female singers entered a period of decline, and Ayumi could not maintain the buzz of her previous five years. Overall changes in music production, compounded with the effect of the SARS epidemic on the Asian economy, led to a dramatic drop in record sales. Even notable releases like SMAP's Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana and Ayumi's No way to say, which won her the Gold Prize at the Japan Record Awards for the third consecutive year, could not resist the trend of falling sales. The fact that No way to say only sold 240,000 copies (according to Oricon statistics that year) indicated that Ayumi, Avex, and the whole of Japanese music had entered a new period.


In 2004, a high-profile fallout between Max Matsuura and Avex chairman Tom Yoda sent ripples through the Japanese music industry. Ayumi's announcement of support for Matsuura and intentions to follow should he leave the company sparked off similar declarations from Do As Infinity, hitomi, Every Little Thing, and other major artists on the label. In the end, Avex withdrew Matsuura's resignation and Yoda stepped down. For an artist to affect top-level management decisions in a company of such stature, this case not only clearly signified Ayumi's status in Avex, but also marked her as a true diva in world music.


In 2005 and 2006, Ayumi maintained her record of number one singles, largely because of Avex's marketing strategy and structural changes in overall album sales. Even then, with the rise of NANA star Nakashima Mika, new-generation singer-songwriters YUI and Kimura Kaela, and Avex's own Koda Kumi and Otsuka Ai, Ayumi's limelight was clearly spread a lot thinner. The changes in musical style that Ayumi began in 2002, however, began to pay off in this period. Singles STEP you/is this Love? and Bold & Delicous and albums MY STORY and (miss)understood were all highly experimental, integrating new elements into traditional J-pop sound and establishing the style heard in 2007's talkin' 2 myself and Secret.


In 2007, Ayumi released two compilations, A Best 2 -Black- and A Best 2 - White, which came in at number one and two on the Oricon charts. Moving in an international direction, she also held an Asia tour and collaborated with Hong Kong actor Shawn Yue for the music movie Distance Love released with her double A-side glitter/fated. At the year's end, she released her first digital-only single Together Again.


As Ayumi's tenth anniversary year, 2008 did not start off on the best footing. Her ninth album Guilty debuted in second place on the Oricon charts, making it her first studio album to not hit number one. This was complemented by the shocking confession that she had lost all hearing in her left ear, leaving the diva's career up in the air. Ayumi, however, vowed to continue with music and has since released two remix compilations, ayu-mi-x 6 -GOLD- and ayu-mi-x 6 -SILVER-, and her latest number one single Mirrorcle World.


In Japan's current music industry, no other female singer can compare with the sales and status of Ayumi Hamasaki. Though she may not have the best vocals or most acclaimed music among Japan's top female singers, her influence over pop music and trends is unmatched in terms of record sales, marketing, and management style, and it is hard to imagine any other singer rising to such fame in the near future. Ayumi Hamasaki is undoubtedly the very definition of J-pop diva.


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Translated by Sanwei



Published April 28, 2008


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