Who (or what) is Hatsune Miku? The making of a virtual pop star

Doug Levy. The Next Web via Shutterstock blog. 18/10/2014

Last week, mainstream America — and David Letterman — was introduced to one of Japan’s most intriguing phenomenons, the virtual star known as Hatsune Miku. Making a holographic appearance as the musical guest on the Late Night host’s show, Miku was joined by a live band to perform a song chosen specifically for special live performances in the US this month.

If it all left Dave (and others) a bit confused, it’s not without reason: Miku is much more than just an animated star in the vein of Gorillaz. Rather, she’s a representation of the evolution of digital music technology, crowdsourcing, and creative collaboration.

Technically, Hatsune Miku is a program — a vocal synthesizer called a Vocaloid, developed by Japanese software company Crypton Future Media. She’s not the only one, but she is the most popular, with a rapidly growing fan base worldwide. Anyone can buy the Vocaloid and use it to create songs; everything Miku performs live was created by members of a burgeoning global community, with tens of thousands of songs featuring her voice uploaded since its launch in 2007.

Over 4,000 of those songs are now commercially available via Miku’s record label, Karent, and her avatar has even opened for Lady Gaga on tour.

To help make a little more sense of it all, and to get all the details on Miku’s 2014 Expo, which brings her to a New York stage this weekend in conjunction with an NYC gallery exhibition, we spoke with Cosima Oka-Doerge, US/EU Marketing Manager at Crypton Future Media.

Shutterstock: Do you find it difficult to explain who/what Hatsune Miku is to people who aren’t familiar with her?

Cosima Oka-Doerge: Oh yes, definitely. Most of the reactions people have when they first see or hear about Miku are very biased, but once we have the chance to start explaining what Hatsune Miku really is and how it started out, we get very positive reactions. There’s a lot to explain and it’s difficult to cut something down to a simple answer.

Miku is a new concept in so many ways: as a music program and virtual singing synthesizer; as a projection on stage performing with a live band; as an interface for people to communicate their creations; as a collectively constructed pop star; the list goes on. (…)

When the avatar was first created, did anyone expect her to become the phenomenon she is today?

That’s difficult to say, but we at least expected that the software itself would have an impact that goes beyond our usual target of music producers. In 2007, the technology for voice synthesis had improved immensely, already creating quite a buzz among music producers. But with the character illustration, and actually giving the voice of the software a face, we hoped to give the software a broader audience, which really worked out and enabled users to get inspired and to create new artworks around Hatsune Miku.

Another factor for the fast growth of Miku’s popularity was that, in 2007, many video sharing services were emerging, so creators had places where they could present their music and videos to the whole world. (…) We were very aware of this development, and reacted by building a free content-sharing site in Japan, piapro.jp, that aims at being a platform where users can upload their creations and easily find partners for collaborations. That was a huge factor for the fast growth of Hatsune Miku followers.

What do you think Hatsune Miku’s success says about the future of music, art, and collaboration?

This is a very interesting question. I think it says that the world has changed in terms of how we perceive and consume content, from a relatively receptive audience to an active-participatory one.

When Miku was released, it immediately tapped into this newly arising consciousness, and I believe it filled the blank spot that was missing in this vastness of “being connected” with the whole world: the factor of having a joint interface for mutual collaborations, of actual realization and output of the new awareness of bottom-up, instead of top-down, structures of creation and the music business itself. Miku inspired so many around the world, really becoming an icon for this movement, where creation is available for everyone. (…)

Is Hatsune Miku more popular with creators or with general fans now? Do you feel any need to manage how she’s presented in the media?

I would say that she is equally popular among creators and fans. Also, the culture around Miku is so complex and versatile that it’s even hard to draw a line between who are the fans and who are the creators. We have the most amazing comments from young people around the world, often describing that although they weren’t interested in art or any sort of creation until now, with Miku they developed a curiosity, a desire of wanting to create something. Now we have all these amazing people finding something they are good at. It has really no limit. In addition to music and illustrations, we have fans and creators posting their videos of special Miku dance moves, even cooking with Miku — all sorts of lifestyle areas are covered. Being a fan or creator in the Miku culture, it’s quite a blurry line, I think.

With the sheer amount of content created using the character, how do you sort through it all when you’re deciding what to spotlight?

It is a crazy amount. We only manage by knowing where and how to look. For example, we look up what’s popular in the community by the number of views on NicoNico or YouTube, reading comments, and then considering which songs work well together for the whole setlist of a concert. This includes the collaborative artworks between the various users, like illustrations and costume designs that go along with the songs, which works nicely for presenting Miku in various styles throughout the show.

What’s the most impressive or unexpected thing you’ve seen someone do with the character?

There are so many amazing artworks with Miku, it’s hard to pin it down to a single one. Basically, it covers any area in which artists would create new works — music, illustration, stage presentations, dance moves, 3D modeling and so much more. There’s even a whole opera made with Hatsune Miku that traveled to Paris and was on stage in the famous Théâtre du Châtelet. It’s called The End: A Vocaloid Opera by Keiichiro Shibuya.


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