Lady Gaga's Scandalous Attempt to Rally Fans, J-Pop Style

She's not the first to coax diehards into buying multiple copies of the same song. The practice is standard in Japan, for reasons that increasingly apply in U.S. pop music.

AP / Joel Ryan and Itsuo Inouye

Recently, Lady Gaga found herself getting attention she, for once, didn’t want. On her Twitter account, she announced a contest where the two fans who bought the most copies of her new single “Applause” would win a trip to London’s iTunes Festival to meet her. She also posted a link to a page allowing fans to watch the video for her latest song 150 times in a row. Both were part of Gaga’s attempt to push “Applause” higher up the Billboard Music Charts, which earlier this year started counting YouTube views to their ranking figures.

The people running the charts weren’t pleased. Billboard’s Editorial Director Bill Werde wrote on Twitter that “an artist tweeting out and facebooking a link that enables a fan to hit play and leave their computer is not in the spirit of what we chart,” adding “I just hate to see anyone try to game the charts.”

Gaga’s ploy, though, isn’t a new strategy—at least not in Japan. There, nobody much minds when pop stars urging fans to buy multiple copies of a song. Rather, it has become a standard way to sell music, and one of the biggest reasons that the country has recently surpassed the United States as the largest music market in the world. This tactic—along with Gaga’s recent stunts—say a lot about how the relationship between artist and fan has been changing on both sides of the globe.

The Japanese pop outfit to most rely on fans buying multiple copies of the same single also happens to be the best-selling group in the country today. AKB48, a peppy-sounding collection of 88 young women divided into smaller teams, dominates the nation’s Oricon Charts. Their latest single, “Koi Suru Fortune Cookie,” sold more than a million copies, becoming AKB’s 13th consecutive single to do that. This feat has only been accomplished by one other Japanese act—rock band B’z—and earlier this year AKB48 became the No. 1 female artist in Japanese history when it comes to sales of singles.

Their ability to coax fans into repeatedly buying the same song explains these record-breaking sales numbers. It's an ability that comes out of one of  the central fantasies of AKB48: That they are “idols you can meet.” CDs often come with some sort of physical bonus item, like a trading card or photo of a random member, which in itself encourages fans to stockpile singles. Add in the fact that discs sometimes include a ticket for a special handshake event, where fans can briefly meet singers, and the appeal of shelling out for dozens of the copies of the same song becomes irresistible for the band's many diehards.

AKB’s cleverest promotion is an annual election, held in June every year to determine the most popular member of the group. It has become a big deal in Japan, with the results show broadcast live on TV and on YouTube. Fans vote, but ballots only come alongside whatever single the group releases the month before. In this pop democracy, the fans purchasing more copies of the same song get more votes. In 2011, one listener bought more than 5,000 CDs before the election, costing an estimated $109,000.

Spurred by AKB48’s success, most pop performers in Japan now turn to similar tactics to move units, and it’s not just similarly constructed idol groups doing it. TV actors and Korean artists trying to cross over into the Japanese market arrange these types of meet and greets as well. In Bloomberg Businessweek recently, Mariko Yasu wrote that AKB48 and the various other artists who have copied their tactics have helped push the Japanese music market to $4.3 billion in sales last year, eclipsing the U.S. total for the first time.

One reason this strategy works so well in Japan is because it also happens to be a country where physical music still make up the bulk of sales: 80 percent of the Japanese music market compared to 34 percent in America. Whether due to Japanese consumers preferring to own actual objects or because a harsh anti-downloading law passed late last year scared off those who pirate music, CDs dominate the Japanese market while they’ve joined the floppy disc and the VHS tape as technologic punch lines.

Well, mostly joined. Western record labels routinely release “deluxe editions” of albums, usually tacking on some bonus tracks or alternate takes and releasing that as a way to extend the record’s shelf life (Lady Gaga did this with 2011’s Born This Way). Still, physical sales in the US lag behind digital downloads; digital music revenue in 2012 surpassed four billion dollars for the first time ever. These shifts in how people consume music prompted Billboard to start counting YouTube views to their ranking metric—the reason Gaga Tweeted out a link that would inflate her video views.

Gaga is the first major American artist to try to sell fans the same song multiple times, but the dynamics between fan and artist has changed so much in the past few years that it isn’t that crazy an idea. In her Businessweek article, Yasu talks to music commentator Hideki Take, who says AKB48’s success is “a drastic change in relationships with fans by involving them in the star-making process,” later adding “the fans feel they are part of the success.”

This, too, is how American pop music has changed. It was more than a decade ago that American Idol first gave viewers the opportunity to vote for the nation’s next great pop star. Since then, and as platforms like Twitter and Facebook have allowed artists to connect more directly with fans, American music consumers have been made to feel closer to the performers they follow. It isn’t that fans are necessarily more passionate about pop stars in 2013—it’s that they have more ways to feel like linked to them. "Pop stars … have become more and more adept at being themselves, or at least constructing pseudo-selves for social-media consumption," wrote Michael Hirschorn in a May New York Magazine piece on why A-list musicians wield more power these days than A-list actors."Better at manipulating the levers of closeness and distance, openness and mystery, that social media requires. "

The result is that, as Jason Richards detailed for The Atlantic last year, "we're in a new era of factionalized fandoms," where fans brand themselves with tribal nicknames and take a rooting interest in their favorite artist's commercial success. This is the case in both America and Japan; the only differences come in how fans act on their loyalties. A J-Pop supporter might buy multiple copies of a CD to boost overall sales, while an American consumer would watch a performer’s music videos many times on YouTube (and retweet it, or write a Tumblr post about it, or share it with Facebook friends) to boost the number of total views. AKB48 have a rival in Nogizaka 46, a similar dozens-strong idol unit, which prompts fans to become more invested in how many copies of a new song a group sells. It’s just like the rivalry between British boy bands The Wanted and One Direction, or the “who will sell more?” narrative accompanying recent singles from Katy Perry and … Lady Gaga.

Ultimately, Gaga deleted the Tweet linking to the 150-times-in-a-row clip, even though Werde faced the digital venom of many “little monsters.” Perry’s “Roar” ended up performing better than “Applause,” though that will probably only galvanize Gaga’s supporters. Fans might not be keen to buy multiple singles as they are in Japan, but they’ll find some way to back their favorites.