By Kitchana Lersakvanitchakul
The idol phenomenon has witnessed an almost indecent surge in Thailand over the last 12 months, with BNK48 - the overseas sister idol girl group of Japan’s hottest music group AKB48 – popping up seemingly everywhere – on TV, in ads and as brand ambassadors for everything from soy milk to mobile phones.
The group, which was formed two years ago on the same “Idol You Can Meet” concept as the Japanese idol group, shot to fame with its second single, “Cookie Siangthai”, a cover of AKB48’s “Koisuri Fortune Cookie”, that had just about every teenager in this country singing the line “aeb mong ther yoo na ja”, meaning “I’m secretly watching you”.
Today, the girls serve as brand ambassadors and presenters for True Move H, AP Honda, Fujifilm X-A5, Samsung Galaxy J8, Jele Beautie, Yayoi, Lactasoy, Mirinda Mix It, and Toyota Yaris ATIV.
With money to be made, many enterprises have now jumped on the bandwagon with their own idol groups, among them Sweat16, Secret12, 7th Sense, Fever, CM Cafe, Akira-Kuro, and SY51 from Chiang Mai. The rules remain the same as for Japan’s idols: members aren’t allowed to take pictures and selfies individually with fans or sign autographs.
“The idol group has become an SME,” says Kun Rertnitiwong, producer and director of production house Sonthana and one of the founders of Secret12. “In the past, an artist trained for a few years before releasing an album, but nowadays it’s only three or six months. It isn’t necessary for a song to be perfect, because fans, called ‘otaku’ in Japanese, like to watch their idol going from zero to hero. Interestingly, the idol group has helped bring the CD back to life as there is no fear of copyright infringement. It’s rather like a photo set. It isn’t hard to make a copy of the idols’ photos but fans are willing to support them by sticking to the real ones. There’s been at least one case of a fan reporting a vendor selling photocopies of images to the police. It’s a matter of brand loyalty. I think the trend will continue for at least the next few years and I am happy to see the girls achieve their dreams. Making their debut is just the first step: the girls have to put a lot of time and effort into making their dream a reality – rehearsing for four hours a day, six days a week after a full day at school.”
Secret12, whose name is inspired by a vitamin brand that claims to banish tiredness, is different from other idol groups, because the members are skilled at singing, dancing, performing and acting as emcees. Kun, 37, has plenty of experience in the entertainment circle, and is aiming to push some of them onto the small screen.
“Most idol groups are building their own brand. Being an idol is more about business than singing, because it includes something as simple as a handshake, which the girls did at their first event, a Laser Game. For each girl, being an idol is almost within her reach, while being an artist or a performer is a far cry from her dreams. A fan club focuses on her endeavours to achieve her dream,” he adds.
Secret12’s first single, which will feature electric pop-rock, is expected to be released in February and the girls are in the capable hands of Kamhaeng Kriengkrai, aka Poo Shimi, and Paradorn Rodprasert, former guitarist of Rapbit Dolls, who wrote “Ornly You” as a fan song for Orn BNK48.
“The idol business has changed my vision. It’s all about being incomplete as an entertainer and growing into the group. Each idol member is an icon,” says Phat “Job” Sanguansantigul, founder and chief executive of 7th Sense Group and manager of its idol group of the same name. “An idol isn’t an artist or professional performer but sells who she is – her selfhood, if you like. Each girl is like a storyteller for a product. We produce a programme called ‘Go Ja Go’ to let the members practise getting their selfhood across and encourage them to come up with creative ideas. We want them to be good entertainers.”
The 31-year-old founder, who is also managing director of the Thai unit of South Korea’s music publisher The Jam Factory, will collaborate with other international songwriters on a song for 7th Sense, which already has four numbers to its credit – the anthem “Sampas Rak”, “Jongta”, “Khong Khwan” and “Fun Khong Rao”. The aim is to develop the group to an international standard.
“The song must be catchy,” Phat adds. “I have no idea how long the idol group trend will last but we see our role as preparing a new generation for the world of entertainment. That’s why we are trying to push the members into being more professional performers.”
Atipati Praihirun, a producer with Roamrun Entertainment, has new idol group, Fever in his sights.
“Fever has a different image form other idol groups,” he explains. “Most idol groups focus on cuteness and cheerfulness while Fever emphasises a smart look, as can be seen in the music video of their first song, ‘Start Again’. Musically, they are being managed by a team from the indie circle that includes Chalermphol Soongsak from Gym and Swim, Pokpong Jitdee from Plastic Plastic, and Noom Jued. Our aim is to make songs for the mainstream market, not only for idol otaku.”
Atipati is keen to make Fever a mainstream idol group rather than following the chika idol model, which is mainly concerned with music style and marketing.
“We are not only managing Fever as an idol group but also as an indie band,” he says.
Suriya “Phol” Supheekit, former member of underground post-hardcore bands Elizabeth Ashes and Linderoth, is taking another stance. His idol group, Akira-Kuro, is definitely of the chika type.
“Most idol groups in Thailand look alike with long hair and a cute look. Akira-Kuro is different. It’s a type of chika or underground idol group that is far more approachable as far as fans are concerned. Akira-Kuro also offers a kind of alternative music, sort of post hardcore, metal core, hardcore or pop punk.
The 14-member underground idol group, whose name means “white light and black light” in a reference to the good and bad sides of mankind, will soon release its first three songs – “Never Give Up”, “It’s Me” and “Anti-Cyberbully”, the latter about social media defamation.
“I have connections in the entertainment circle including music label Banana Records and concert promoter Kodindy. My plan is to organise Akira-Kuro’s event with a live house atmosphere like in Japan.
“In the meantime, Akira-Kuro will perform at ‘Weird Vol 1’ at De Commune on January 26,” Suriya says.