115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Creative Destruction: The Baby Metal Phenomenon and the Global Music Market

Patrick Patterson, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Heavy Metal idol group Baby Metal may indicate a new marketing formula that will make Japan the next big player in the global music market.


Baby Metal is three teen girls singing idol-style songs (very clean lyrics, but also appealing to teens) against a background of driving, thrashing, and skillfully played heavy metal. A mashup of heavy metal and Japanese Idol pop, Baby Metal have made inroads into the metal scene in Europe and the United States, causing some controversy and a lot of confusion. The combination is a surprising one. They dress in black and red chiffon skirts and leather-studded vests. They have powerful voices but sing about how much they want chocolate, or how wrong it is to be a bully. Perhaps what is most interesting about them is that they sell. Not just in Japan. Baby Metal has become a global heavy metal phenomenon that can sell out London's new Wembley Stadium and headlines metal festivals all over the planet.

Business is at the center of this global phenomenon that is Baby Metal. In 2014 global music sales in all modes was almost fifteen billion U.S. dollars. Japan's share of that was almost three billion dollars, making it second only to the United States.[1] Japan’s music market is so big that it is usually more profitable for successful Japanese acts to stay at home and continue to please fans they already have. Going abroad to court fans risks losing visibility and sales in Japan. New acts in Japan don’t have easy access to global fans because Japan’s business is so domestically focused. For this reason, Japan's biggest acts rank high in global sales volume, but are practically unknown overseas. Japan’s largest historical album sales record is held by a rock group called B'z, whose total sales of eighty six million records since starting out in 1984 is more than Beyonce, Van Halen, Cold Play and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.[2] The current big pop phenomenon is AKB 48, a female idol group who is better known in the world than B’z, but whose performance and business model are so focused on Japanese fan interests that they have virtually no chance for significant sales elsewhere. However, Baby Metal is global. They have successfully taken the Western musical systems that form the foundation of these artists’ music, and the performance styles of Heavy Metal and idol groups, all of which are imports to the Japanese market, and sent them back out into the world. Baby Metal’s business model was based on finding a niche that would allow them to gain fans who were interested in both Baby Metal and Heavy Metal, but unsatisfied by either. Instead, by accident, they have captured the hearts, and the pocketbooks, of European and American metal fans. Their newest CD has been praised by fans and Heavy Metal superstars and sent the genre into a full-tilt identity crisis. This paper examines the history of Baby Metal as a product of cultural and business flows across the Pacific, and suggests that the Japanese music market may be revising itself along global lines.

[1] Recording Industry Association of Japan, "Riaj Yearbook 2015: Statistics Trends: The Recording Industry in Japan 2015," Recording Industry Association of Japan, http://www.riaj.or.jp/riaj/pdf/issue/industry/RIAJ2015E.pdf.

[2] Jeff Yang to SFGATE, May 25, 2005, http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/ASIAN-POP-Hello-Kitty-Rock-Rock-3307638.php.