Hatsune Miku isn't real. But the community of DIY artists, musicians, and filmmakers that have sprung up around her is—and could represent the future of pop fandom.
Hundreds of people gathered at a wrestling arena on the outskirts of Tokyo in late August to celebrate the birthday of someone who isn't real. Hatsune Miku, an aqua-haired singer who has become one of Japan's most popular entertainers despite being a cartoon character, turned five, and those attending this all-night event went big. Vans plastered with her image sat outside, and throngs of fans—many dressed up as Miku—left birthday messages for her. In the main room, DJs spun music ranging from soapy ballads to aggressive dubstep, all featuring her voice, to a packed floor.
It's likely that some of those bobbing along also created the tunes being played. The gathering was a celebration both for Miku and for Vocaloid, a singing-synthesizer program that has fostered the rise of a vibrant, nation-spanning community of do-it-yourself musicians, artists, filmmakers, and writers who create their own pop-culture products through the avatar of cartoon girl. By combining currents of fan fiction, YouTube-style tribute-video making, pop-star iconography, and social networking for a money-making enterprise, Japan for the past half-decade has offered up one vision of what the next evolution in online creator culture could become worldwide.
The Piapro License gives users free reign to modify Miku, but for commercial uses "creators work with Crypton to collaborate on a project that benefits each other financially."
The Yamaha Corporation developed Vocaloid ("vocals plus android") in the early 2000s, and the first commercial program arrived in 2004. It allowed users to input lyrics and then fiddle with the melody to generate a voice that sung what they wanted how they wanted it. In 2007, Japanese company Crypton Future Media introduced the first release in their "character vocal series" line, Hatsune Miku. It was just an updated version of the Vocaloid software, but the digital voice now belonged to an anime character. Sales exploded, and the company initially had trouble keeping up with the demand for the singing-synthesizer program.
Plenty of Japanese businesses have parlayed cute characters to success—Hello Kitty and Pikachu spring to mind—but Hatsune Miku's cultural ascension has been different. Crypton provided scarcely any information about the character, leaving it to users to interpret Miku how they wanted. Japanese video-sharing site Nico Nico Douga became a central hub for Vocaloid creations, as users uploaded original songs often accompanied by original images or videos, each putting a personal spin on the character. At the Miku birthday bash, the official program features fan drawings of Miku as a cute child, buxom adult, and skull-clutching goth among other representations.
The practice of fans taking an official character or franchise and bending them into what they wanted has been common in Japan for decades, through comic books, fan fiction, and art. In his essay "Comic Market as space for self-expression in otaku culture," Hiroaki Tamagawa says comic fans have been creating their own derivative comics based off existing franchises—called doujin in Japanese—since before World War II. In 1975, the Comiket convention started, offering a place for amateurs to sell their self-published works twice a year, once in August and once in December. Today it's the biggest gathering of its kind, and Tamagawa says "derivative doujin...appropriating professional work" has become the dominant product at Comiket. Vocaloid has strong ties to the event, and the earliest musicians to use Miku in their music sold CDs at Comiket.
Crypton's best move, though, was creating a product bringing together a larger community of doujin creators. The Vocaloid software allows individuals to record original music, but the Hatsune Miku character also attracts artists who want to swipe her image for original drawings or comics. Spin-off computer programs have also appeared, allowing fans to create music videos using Vocaloid characters. Crypton actively supports this re-appropriation process with its Creative Commons-like "Piapro Character License," which allows "users to take Miku's image and transform it to their needs," as Alex Leavitt, who researches Vocaloid, said in a 2011 South By Southwest presentation. He called Miku an example of "open-source culture": Her image can be modified however you want.