If we’re being honest, even I wouldn’t have believed that headline if it was written even six months ago. Clearly being only vaguely aware of who Hatsune Miku is wasn’t enough and it took a proper introduction before I ‘got’ her. Of course there’s a lot of appeal to the character of Miku herself, and that forms the basis for many young fans’ devotion. That’s not what makes her appealing to me though; it’s the concept and execution of the character’s role, and what she represents from a business standpoint. To put it simply: she’s the future.
Even from this side of the screen, I sense some disbelief. Surely an animated, virtual pop star with a synthesized voice could only come from Japan, right? Well, yes, it could! However that is to miss the point of why Miku was created in the first place and why she’s attained an astonishing degree of popularity for something without a physical presence of any kind. Here’s what makes her so compelling and what made me immensely intrigued in her.
She’s Revolutionary Technology
Hatsune Miku is completely virtual: no part of her exists in the real world. In much the same way that digital and networked tools allowed animation production to be spread across the globe, Miku represents something similar, but for music.
What this virtual nature provides is flexibility for the creator. She can do whatever they want, and represents a degree of creative freedom on par with what synthesizers originally did back in the day for instruments. Digital voice synthesizers have existed for decades, but now it appears that the technology has finally advanced to the point where a voice that sounds close enough to a real one is possible, and palpable to listeners. Of course having plenty of autotuned music out there already certainly helps in regards to the latter.
Combining a voice with a character was a necessity for plenty of reasons, not least of which was economics. Having a digital voice is one thing, but that has no commercial appeal on its own. Creating a character which can ‘sing’ puts a face to the voice makes the entire package much more likely to be embraced by consumers.
Consumer’s appetite for characters is nothing new; going back to Felix the Cat if not further. Even within the music industry, characters are far from uncommon. Novelty singles have been popular for many years, and manufactured bands where the members essentially play characters with roles have proven extremely popular with both producers and consumers.
Hatsune Miku is the intersection of the two: she’s a character created to fulfil a musical role. She wasn’t the very first in that regard, but her success signals that she’ll be far from the last. It is only a matter of time before a fully-synthesized voice is capable of singing and speaking roles and that will usher in a whole new era of entertainment. Before you get worried about a corporate takeover of sorts, consider the next point.
Fans are Encouraged to Engage
I will admit that this caught me by surprise but in hindsight appears completely obvious. Miku is more than an entertainer; she’s a tool. She can and will do whatever the creator wants her to do from a musical standpoint. She can sing any lyrics in any tune and because she’s also digital, there are limitless opportunities to create and refine a track.
She’s also part of a software program from producing studio Crypton, who cleverly released a freeware version. What that induced was an explosion of fan-made music that the internet was only too happy to distribute. Some of the more popular tracks have been turned into official tracks complete with animated music videos.
While Miku is far from being ‘free as in speech’, she nonetheless has encouraged the growth of a large musical ecosystem that did not exist before. That’s precisely what any entertainment property attempts to do these days: people have little time for flash-in-the-pan pieces of entertainment. They long for something that also imbues themselves with sense of purpose and value, and by enabling fans to create and contribute, Miku taps into this in a big way.
Virtuality is Portability
The internet offers the ultimate in portability. You can have the same thing anywhere on the planet where a connection exists. It’s why YouTube has slapped TV networks silly; it doesn’t enforce national boundaries on content. Once a video is uploaded, it’s available to everyone at exactly the same time.
Extrapolate that to musical performers. Top of the Pops was once THE place to be seen for musical acts in the UK. One of the aspects that made the show so popular was that the music was performed live; meaning that artists had to dedicate time to attending the broadcast. As bands became larger, they started to run into difficulties, namely being unable to perform (and therefore promote) a single because they were touring in another country. Queen solved this problem with their music video for Bohemian Rapsody, which enabled them to retain a slot on the show even while they were busy elsewhere.
What Hatsune Miku represents is the extrapolation of that concept from mere airplay into actual performances. There’s usually only one artist or band and they can only perform in one physical place at a time, right? Now consider that the physical aspect is removed. A virtual performer is not limited to performing in only one place at one time, they can perform in any number of places simultaneously. As fame becomes ever fleeting, the ability to engage a vast audience at once is going to become incredibly important.
Taking into account the animated properties of Miku, you can begin to see where her advantages lie. Animated characters are notoriously difficult to transplant from the screen to the physical world. Sure Disney took a somewhat logical approach and have humans put on costumes, but given the often pseudo-anthropomorphic nature of cartoon characters, that often makes for uneven results. Now consider that given a suitable screen or projection, Miku can appear in an incredibly accurate manner. The audience does not see a ‘representation’ of the character; they see the actual character! Coupled with an increased emphasis on tentpole-like, event entertainment and it ought to be obvious which advantages and potential Miku holds in this regard.
She’s a Moneymaker
Lastly, what makes Hatsune Miku so fascinating is that ultimately, she’s a vehicle for revenue! I don’t mean to sound Mr. Burns when I say that, but rather that given all the points listed above, she’s an excellent example of technology, art, business, and fans all working together in a way where they all benefit.
Don’t believe me?
The vocaloid technology was originally developed from a Yamaha invention before being adapted for music. This gave rise to new, original art through the ability of the technology to create entertainment. This aspect drove fans to create even more music in a multitude of different genres and styles, giving them personal fulfilment in addition to contributing culture to the common good. Lastly, Crypton profits from the sale of software and from hosting events like the recent Miku Expos in Los Angeles and New York City.
Essentially Miku is the engine for the larger business in much the same way that Disney’s films and TV shows serve as the engine that drives the actual revenue generating divisions like the consumer products and parks. For producing studios, just such an engine is exactly what the goal should be. Why? Because it permits a large degree of artistic creation but in a way that also helps bring the money into the company that keep the lights on!
All the reasons above are precisely why Hatsune Miku is a character and concept that you should be paying attention to if you’re in any way interested in the direction that animated and music entertainment is heading. You don’t have to be a fan of her music — I am — but you must understand the underlying reasons why she exists and the degree of potential that she holds as we move towards an ever more connected, and digital world.
I’m curious to hear what you think!