10 of 39: A Decade Of Miku, or The Vocaloid Genre
A verbal history, personal reflection and all-around unnecessary but sentimental essay on where Vocaloid is on the icon’s 10th anniversary.
When you make cool music software, you probably want to make a mark on the music world somehow.
Hopefully one day, you’ll have everyone using it, maybe have that distinct sound to it, but enough versatility that it can be for anything. Ableton and FL Studio come to mind for music makers, and their impact on the music world is pretty much undeniable, as any aspiring EDM or pop producer has picked up one or another at some point.
That’s probably about as much as Crypton hoped for when they invested in developing voice banks for the Vocaloid software.
A project between music giant Yamaha and the University of Spain in the early 2000s, VOCALOID (the software) was released commercially 2003. Zero-G, still slightly active in putting out their own banks today, had developed the now-defunct LEON and LOLA English voice banks, followed by MIRIAM, which had the voice of American vocalist Miriam Stockley.
Crypton’s first foray into Vocaloid was actually MEIKO and KAITO, who were depicted as original anime characters. It was a bit of a tactics change from the English, though it was pretty true to Japanese culture of including human depictions of essentially anything. We can’t say for sure whether the illustration helped, or if Japanese music culture was just kind to the product, but both did pretty well.
When the second version of the engine came, things got real cute real quick.
On August 31, 2007 — ten years ago today — Hatsune Miku (“Hatsune” is the surname) was released on the V2 engine as a “CV” icon, or a “character vocal.” CV is exactly what it sounds like: Crypton chose to theme a character around the voice that they developed around a young anime voice actress, hence the cute, young girl.
In a few words, the release of Hatsune Miku came at a perfect time for the Internet. Creators around the world were itching to create, and Japan was a hotspot. Older anime fans will remember that around 2007, remixes and derivatives were starting to flood the Internet, and even original music became a part of it. (YouTube Poop in English countries, MAD in Japan — and much more. Who can forget this medley?) Of course, there’s also the prominence of “idol culture” in Japan, praising cute, young girls who can sing and dance well.
Miku was at the intersection of all of these things, at the right moment. And if these things weren’t enough, she was given one more boost that launched her into stardom.
At the time, a popular meme called Leekspin was still popular, showing an anime character from the show Bleach spinning a leek to a song called Ievan Polkka. (While the video dates back to 2006, memes had a much, much longer lifespan back then.) A clever Japanese musician, Otomania, paired the song with an illustrated video by Tamago.
The result was a cute, intriguing fictional character singing a song, published by a user. Imagine that, in 2007 — a fictional character, controlled by a user, singing a song chosen by the user, with illustrations by the user.
The derivative character became known as Hachune Miku, and the leek became Miku’s “unofficial item.” Ievan Polkka is a staple in Miku-related events and depictions.
To say this video exploded would be an absolute understatement; from there, a movement spawned.
Miku is often called a “virtual pop star,” or a “virtual idol.” In the most basic of descriptors, it’s essentially true, as she meets all of those requirements, even more so than fictional pop idols with full storylines. Newspapers and newcomers love her lack of history, her versatility, that there are no scandals and no romances and nothing to hinder her image. She is what she is, and her creators at Crypton give nothing more than basic specs.
What’s missed most of the time, meanwhile, is that she’s an essential foundation of an Internet community — a genre, I’d even say.
Vocaloid is centered around the Vocaloid software or characters. It’s more elusive than a community or fandom, as you don’t need either to create Vocaloid content. Vocaloid is the only requirement. Vocaloid music is merely music created with the Vocaloid software; Vocaloid art only needs to feature a Vocaloid character, or characters in derived works.
But in a way, it has its own nuances. Vocaloid, like any other genre, has always ebbed and flowed with the times. Anything goes, from electro-pop to hard, mellow rock, from Ievan Polkka to entire musicals and even anime and manga.
To a Vocaloid fan, good music is good music
And there’s a lot to follow, which begged the question: How? Namely, the Japanese music site NicoNicoDouga allows users to tag songs based on genre, Vocaloid used and the likes. So most music that was deemed decent was usually found by tag-surfers, and views accumulated. Vocaloid Rankings were automatically generated by users on a daily, weekly, monthly and even annual basis, and music was discovered second-hand there.
Meanwhile, Western fans who spoke Japanese would pour endless hours into translating the lyrics of the songs (which are usually put on the video itself). Fans following their favorite voice bank or artist, or even just browsing YouTube, would easily be able to find famous songs through this.
And fans aren’t picky. To a Vocaloid fan, good music is good music; some people may have different tastes, but for the most part, fans converged to support the top artists.
As for visual artists, sites like DeviantArt and its Japanese equivalent Piapro handled the load. MikuMikuDance was developed as freeware to cater to the animators.
Long story short, the community supported, and maybe still supports, the heck out of each other — even when it seems rough.
Copyright did become a question early on, as the song “Miku Miku ni shite ageru~” created a question of, well, what can you do with Miku? Ironically, a song about Miku tickling our hearts became a liability for Crypton. I assume Crypton eventually “came to,” and since then, they’ve come up with a set of guidelines: If you’re making money on a large scale, like in a major record release, you need to license the name Miku. For non-commercial purposes, anything goes.
Eventually, once many of these questions resolved, Vocaloid creators had room to breathe, Anyone could tell you that there was a time when Vocaloid was really “big,” maybe late 2008 into 2013. The same culture that carried Ievan Polkka into fandom brought Miku into the online-creator-space spotlight, including her and other voice banks in medleys, covers and original works.
Sega — yes, the video game company — was the first to sniff out something big and made a rhythm game, compiling many of the popular Vocaloid songs at the time. Project Diva has become a rhythm game and “anime game” staple series in the gaming world. More importantly, Sega decided to hold a concert in order to promote the game. Long story short, these concerts picked up attention, and it blew the whole Vocaloid scene up for a while.
With more attention and more creators came more competition. For a good while, even with the influx of attention, it was possible.
But things got a little out of hand for a while. Much of what I’m about to go over here is personal observation and speculation, based on conversations with others plus even some interviews I’ve read.
Basically, after about 2013, there was a dip in “notable Vocaloid producers.”
For one, many major producers slipped out of Vocaloid, into indie and mainstream music production. Songs, then, became a popularity contest for a brief bit.
What about the old days? What happened to the old spark?What happened to the core of Vocaloid, where it was about good music in Vocaloid?
Vocaloid has a tradition of storytelling, as many songs, even “pop” ones, often have a story with varying themes (and fans often assumed one was there even if there wasn’t). Some producers noticed that this would draw fans from song to song, and storytelling became a regular feature that producers needed to keep up with. It wasn’t that the songs were worse for it; it’s just that it became an expected thing.
It also became overwhelming to keep up with the production quality of both the music and the videos that came with it. If a producer didn’t have a snazzy video, their chances of getting discovered were worse than ever.
Producers that adhered to the above were rewarded heavily, often with compilation album tracks, light novels, manga and more.
To say the least, it was intimidating for new producers. Vocaloid fans began to get nostalgic: What about the old days? What happened to the old spark? What happened to the core of Vocaloid, where it was about good music in Vocaloid?
Even as someone who dropped out of the scene around this time for irrelevant reasons, I can say that Vocaloid is still alive.
It’s why I’m more apt to call Vocaloid a “genre” than a “community.” The thing is, even if the fandom ebbs and flows, “Vocaloid” is still an achievable goal. Always has been, always will be. If you draw Miku, Rin, Luka, if you buy merch, if you make Miku dab in MMD, you’re participating in the Vocaloid genre, because creation at all the bare minimum.
That’s what has always made Vocaloid spectacular at its core. Vocaloid won’t die with a bad song, a scandal or backstage drama. Its fans and creators have been the heavy lifters all along. If in 20 years, one lone fan acquires Miku and makes a song for the first time in a year, the genre is alive.
While I’m not “in-touch” enough to see them, I know that there are new producers out there, doing good work. The American fanbase has certainly expanded, and kids that I grew up alongside online are doing outstanding songs after being inspired by producers.
One song hits the sentiment well: Sand Planet, officially “Dune,” by Kenshi Yonezu, known to Vocaloid fans as “hachi.”
Yonezu-san split off from his typical Vocaloid work around 2012 after starting up an indie label with other Vocaloid producers. He himself went back-and-forth between drawing his own videos and using Task, who is responsible for these gorgeous visuals.
It’s a pretty ironic song, as at first glance, the lyrics could give off the impression that he’s mocking the state of Vocaloid:
Come to think of it, today is our happy birthday
Let’s dress things up just the way we want it
Around a cake that’s pure sentimentality,
Let’s sing a song
Salute before the graves of the masses,
Yes, the life that was born of the Melt sensation
Let’s hurry before this well dries up,
And leave this place…
Well, why would he slam Vocaloid in a song literally commissioned for an official 10th anniversary compilation?
Didn’t matter, because the early speculation was right. Yonezu-san actually states in an interview that the song is, in fact, about Vocaloid creation:
I was asked to do Magical Mirai 2017’s theme song during this, and when I looked back at the current state of NicoNico Douga, that “desert” keyword seemed fitting. NicoNico itself is drying up a bit… it’s becoming a desert, as I saw it. That definitely fit with the “desert” keyword I’m currently so fond of, so it felt like things snapped into place nicely, and thus it felt like it might be meaningful to do the song. And so it became this theme song directed at Vocaloid.
But he also hopes that his return to Vocaloid and acknowledgement of the issue inspires others to go back to creation:
More than that, I want to see how people respond to this “necessary evil” song sticking out. Like, “No, it’s not like that!” or “Vocaloid is overflowing with love!”… sorry, that sounded too ironic… But I think it’d be nice for people to respond with answers like that. And I hope that seeing it makes for many Vocaloid producers of a new generation, superb Vocaloid producers, being born one after another. So strictly speaking, I just want Sand Planet to serve as an opportunity for others to jump off from.
Sand Planet, like Vocaloid’s home on NicoNicoDouga, is a second home to Yonezu-san, but he wants to wander and leave, because it’s a place of mixed feelings.
That’s how many feel nowadays about Vocaloid, too, even in America. But producers go on, as long as Vocaloid is a usable product, and creators will persevere as long as Vocaloid keeps its charm.
And so Vocaloid will live on, hopefully like Yonezu-san prays for with his song.
Back in 2012, Otakon had the unfortunate honor of hosting the second Vocaloid panel I’d ever hosted (and we won’t talk about the first one). Hatsune Miku’s presence on the scene was coming up on its fifth year, and after the various concert series, by Sega, all eyes were on Vocaloid.
Equally as eager about getting free admission as I was to talk at a crowd about how much meta-knowledge of the subject, I threw the panel’s presentation together at the last second. It was mostly about, what is the history, what was fascinating, about it, what are some good songs. Alongside me was my friend Karla, who I’d mostly known online, but I ran into in NYC as we were Tumblr mutuals, establishing us as Official Online Friends.
The panel did come together, but Karla threw a final curveball at me: several American producers were present at the convention, and maybe I could include them. Sure, why not, I figured. Star power was good.
Vocaloid isn’t bound by canon or history
I don’t remember all two or three extras, but I know for sure one was CrusherP, who still releases music to this day. On standby on Skype was vgperson (or “vghime,” as we endearingly called her, who translated the interview I linked before), who was known for fan-translating major works, and refused to use her voice.
What stuck out about that presentation was that, while I didn’t have time to review the subjects with everyone, all of us on the panel were on the same page. I remember at least twice, we would talk about a subject, and then I’d sit there staring at the laptop, thinking, “Um, crap, that’s on the next page, what do I do now.”
At that moment, it was a crisis, as I’m a terrible moderator. But another five years later, to me, it’s fascinating how passionate we were about the subjects, enough that we could agree on the things that made Vocaloid great.
If we held the panel again, five years later — WHICH, BY THE WAY, I resurrected the PowerPoint of — I think we’d be saying a lot of the same stuff. Maybe different examples (oh god Maidloid and Save Miku), plus the addition of the issues discussed a section or two ago, but a lot of the same topics and questions are still there.
I don’t know if the 10th anniversary, plus all of the producers making songs about a dead community or something, will actually bring Vocaloid back to what it was five years ago now. And frankly, very few things can do such.
Long story short, Vocaloid is a stellar example of what happens when a company uses a bit of cultural ingenuity and lets loose.
Meanwhile, plenty of us are grateful to not only Crypton, but each other for making Vocaloid what it was at any point in its short history. It’s become an essential piece of Internet history and now Japanese culture, sitting at the intersection of online culture and the hunger of creation. It’s somewhere that, as long as we have the common thread of a product, we’re encouraged to just do the thing.
It was the act of limitless creation that made Vocaloid so fun and interesting.
Personally, Vocaloid was, for one, a way for me to learn my art. But it became a way for me to start thinking critically about communities, because as many of my followers know, that’s what I’ve always strived to do. I’m a sociology major now, for cryssakes, and I only know about sociology because I wanted to learn about the Internet, and mostly because of the way Vocaloid existed and evolved.
Most other fandoms and communities and even genres to a degree can’t claim. Vocaloid isn’t bound by canon or history, and while that’s fun for “pop star” claims, it’s even better for those who want a fun canvas to work with.
Maybe that’s what we need to focus on, then: It was the act of limitless creation that made Vocaloid so fun and interesting.
Musicians have gotten famous; animators have gotten their time; artists have gone on to do bigger gigs. But we all started somewhere, and we have one piece of software to thank.