For some time now, Vocaloid — both Vocaloid songs and artists from the Vocaloid scene — has been taking the charts by storm. Every week, multiple artists who began as Vocaloid producers or as vocalists on Vocaloid songs are in top positions on Billboard Japan charts such as the Japan Hot 100 songs chart.
That’s why on Dec. 7, Billboard JAPAN launched a new chart, the Nico Nico VOCALOID SONGS TOP20, to track the popularity of Vocaloid songs(*) on the Nico Nico streaming video site. Why is the Vocaloid scene so hot? To find out, we interviewed Ine, a Vocaloid producer who released his first album, Direct-View AR, in 2022, and who has provided songs to artists such as Ado and King & Prince. We talked with him about the Vocaloid culture he has seen and experienced through his own musical background and his approach to song-making, and about what makes Vocaloid culture so appealing.
*The chart tracks all songs made using voice synthesis software, including songs made with software other than VOCALOID itself. “VOCALOID” and “VOCALO” are trademarks of Yamaha Corporation.
Ine, what do you think about the current J-Pop scene, in which you have Vocaloid artists and artists who started out in the Vocaloid scene becoming mainstream artists?
As a listener, I’ve listened to all kinds of music, without worrying about categories. In my playlists, I’ll have major J-Pop songs alongside Vocaloid songs I love. There will be songs by bands next to choral songs I sang when I was in junior high (laughs). That’s how diverse my playlists are, so the current music scene actually feels really natural to me. I feel like people aren’t getting hung up on who comes from a Vocaloid background versus who comes from a J-Pop background, but instead they’re saying “good music is good music.” That makes me happy, but also a little scared.
As I think creators will understand, when there’s the potential for your creations to be recognized for their quality, it also highlights the fact that your creations aren’t getting recognized. Vocaloid culture is a culture of people making music because it’s their hobby. Their motivation is that they like making music, and they just keep pushing on forward driven by this motivation and a sense of exploration. This emphasis on recognition could affect the scene in a few ways. It could be troubling for some people. I think part of what makes Vocaloid culture great is the fact that it isn’t open. In the Vocaloid culture of the past, there was a strong sense that people were simply having fun writing music, like playing in their back yard or a sand box, so their creations were accepted on those terms. I want to make sure I never lose sight of that. I’m not the kind of person who writes music to earn praise, so I want to maintain a good balance between the two extremes.
What got you into music?
I guess my start was when I was in junior high school and my dad bought me a guitar. I basically just studied on my own, learning how to play by myself. I bought guitar and song-writing equipment, and I played around with it for fun. I did join a band at one point, but that didn’t really lead into any real musical activities.
And what led you to start working with Vocaloid?
The Vocaloid scene wasn’t as big as it is now, but as a listener, I’d been exposed to Vocaloid music since I was in elementary school or junior high, so when I decided I wanted to make music, I just naturally thought, “I guess I’ll start with Vocaloid.” I bought Vocaloid myself once I became an adult. At the time, nobody around me was making music, so I appreciated how with Vocaloid I could do everything myself.
What led you to decide to become a producer?
There wasn’t really one particular thing. When I was playing around with my guitar, I’d play covers of existing songs or make little changes for fun. During that process, I came to wonder things like, “what makes that sound feel so good?” I unconsciously started matching up my musical sensibilities with music theory. So I started by playing around, and that naturally kind of flowed into me becoming a creator. I guess, in that sense, you could say that I’d wanted to be a producer from the very start.
What do you think you’ve been trying to achieve in your music creation over the years, from when you first started until now?
Hmm… One thing that’s been a constant since way back is that I’m not very good at communicating with people. That is, I’m not very good at putting my emotions or what I’m trying to convey into words. It’s not a vocabulary problem so much as that, a lot of the time, I understand that you can’t communicate everything you want to say through words, so I get sulky and I’m like “well then why bother?” Ever since I was young, I wanted some technique for conveying those “uncut gemstones” that are inside me, the essence that I then have to translate into words. I wanted some way, other than words or gestures, to convey what was inside me, in as high a resolution as possible.
I see. I read an article in which you mentioned that you once wanted to become a researcher. Do you think that spirit of exploration is reflected in your music-making?
The process of making music is like experimentation or research, in a way, and it does feel like I’m doing something that shares some similarities with science. For example, in the field of quantum mechanics, there are still countless mysteries on the frontlines of research. I always found that world to be so fascinating and full of potential. Science is, of course, the most reality-based field, where everything is rational and you can believe it with no question asked. But on the cutting edges of research, there are theories which you would intuitively think are impossible, but which are actually true. I’m enthralled by that kind of world that combines surprise with satisfaction, where you think “that makes logical sense, but the conclusions are still surprising.” I wanted to create something with that same effect. I’m not smart enough to become a quantum mechanics researcher, but I did happen to be able to create music. I think I wanted to do the same kind of thing that researchers do, but with music.
It seems that desire for “surprise and satisfaction” is one of your fundamental qualities.
In music, too, I like a balance of musical appeal, in the sense of “enjoying the sound of the music,” and the sense of satisfaction that comes with using music as a means of communicating something. I like there being both “surprise and satisfaction.” I’ve always liked creating things, and I’ve always had a desire to explore unknown worlds. When I was little, I liked art class and science class, and even now I like science-fiction novels and movies, which goes back to my childhood.
What are your expectations for Billboard JAPAN’s new “Nico Nico VOCALOID SONGS TOP20”?
When I think back to when I got hooked on Vocaloid, there was this unique feeling of excitement and surprise that came with digging around on my own and discovering a great Vocaloid song. I think that’s an experience shared by a lot of people who have gotten really into Vocaloid. I think the chart will provide people with even more opportunities for experiences like that, and it will make it easier for people to make surprising discoveries. I suspect there were will be some degree of “this is famous so listen to it,” but I’d also be happy if there was a bit of “but that’s not all, there’s more.” Songs become famous for a reason, so I want people to hear famous tracks, but I want them to realize that that’s not all there is. The Vocaloid culture is a culture of freedom, so I think things will be even better if people realize that they could also create this kind of music.
In 2022, you released your own first full album, Direct-View AR. You also wrote songs for artists like Ado, Kuribayashi Minami, and King & Prince. What kind of year was 2022 for you?
Everything changed for me this year — where I live, who I work with, how I spend my time. It was a really densely packed, fast-moving year. I was able to write music for a lot of different reasons. I guess I also struggled with starting to be recognized as a producer. I wrote music, worried, solved problems, gave up, struggled, had fun…it was a dizzying year. Seeing it put so plainly in print — I released an album; I wrote songs for other artists — it feels like I’m hearing about someone else’s life.
How did you create “Kagakushu,” the song you wrote for Ado?
I received an offer out of the blue. It was really surreal and surprising. The theme of the song was the lack of boundaries in our overly connected modern society. The feeling that there are no longer being clear boundaries between what you are and what you aren’t. I guess you could call it losing yourself. I wrote the song as a sarcastic SOS about this whole situation.
The song is really critical of modern society and modernity.
We’ve lost sight of what to do in the face of the unknown — what we want to do, what we should do, what we can do, where we are and what we’re doing. We keep pushing forward nonetheless, but overall we can’t determine what the right choice is. There isn’t a right choice in the first place. I think the variety of experience we have is making this often true for groups and for society as a whole. People are clinging on to their past experiences, I guess. As the title (Japanese for “over-training”) shows, the song is about the irony and the struggle we feel in our inability to deal with the unknown.
What do you think of Ado’s singing voice, and of her presence in the Japanese music scene?
Instead of trying to explain using complicated, carefully chosen words, I think it makes more sense to put it simply: She’s cool. That “cool” contains all kinds of different types of admiration. Before her major label debut, she spent a long time uploading videos as an utaite (cover vocalist). The other day I saw her doing a cover on Choparty 2022. Her singing reaffirms what I think is cool about the songs I already like, and it also introduces me to new songs. I think that’s amazing. It’s like she shows the coolness inherent in herself, and the coolness she’s sharing with you, and the coolness of the message she’s sharing, which all synergistically combine. It’s kind of like that sense of excitement you get when you’re reading a comic and the main character is joined in battle by some super strong character.
I see! I get exactly what you’re saying.
She’s cool, and when she brings in other people, it’s like she turns them into the protagonists, and she makes everything cool. For me, at least, I feel like she’s a really encouraging presence.
The title of the last song on your first album, Direct-View AR, is “Personality.” The very first song you uploaded as a Vocaloid producer was “Avoidant Personality Disorder.” The contents of the lyrics stand in stark contrast. What led you to include “Personality” as the last song of the album?
When I wrote “Avoidant Personality Disorder,” it was partly autobiographical. I’d just started Vocaloid production, and I was an office worker at the time. At the time, I was writing about my really closed in feelings. When I uploaded “Avoidant Personality Disorder,” it was my first time putting out into the world these feelings inside me, thoughts that I’d never been able to share before. It felt like I was putting them out there in the open. Looking back now, I’d always dabbled in music as a hobby, so although I always figured that I’d eventually upload something, I didn’t know when that would be. I kept putting it off for one reason or another — the sound didn’t come out well, I wasn’t able to make a video, whatever. Now, thinking back, it’s a little hazy, but I guess that what with working at home because of COVID, I was stuck at home with extra time on my hands, so I thought, “maybe this is the time for me to come out of my shell.” I showed a little courage. Now, two years later, looking back from my current perspective, I’ve been able to share things with people, there have been developments that went above and beyond my expectations, and I’ve been able to do what I’ve done with the support and help of others. I wanted to express what I feel now, looking back on that first song. That’s what some of the lyrics are about. The track itself is almost the same, and the melody of “Personality” was already finished by around the day after I finished “Avoidant Personality Disorder.” I wanted to go back, sometime, somewhere, and release it. I think it was something I needed to confirm for myself.
So, in closing, what do you see as the appeal of Vocaloid culture?
Put briefly, it’s how everyone involved is on this level, interconnected field. Based on my own experiences, there aren’t any hurdles whatsoever, either as a listener or as a creator. There are almost no hurdles beyond buying Vocaloid. If you want to be a creator, you can get right to it. As for myself, I don’t clearly remember when I decided to become a Vocaloid producer. I just did what I wanted, without thinking about it too deeply, and the next thing I knew I was writing songs for others. Everything naturally and smoothly interconnected. So it’s a culture where, the moment you want to be a Vocaloid producer, you can start creating. It’s not a world where you think, “maybe one day I can do this,” but a world where you think, “I can start doing it right now.” I think this lack of barriers is one of its appeals. I think that’s why you have so many people now coming together and creating so many diverse types of music in the scene. I like games like Minecraft, and the feel of the Vocaloid scene is kind of like the feel of traveling in an open world game like that. You can go to famous cities, you can go to wonderful little-known spots, you can even serve as a guide for others. You can do what you want, like an adventure without limits. That, to me, is the appeal of Vocaloid culture.
—This interview by Fumiaki Amano with introduction by Maiko Murata first appeared on Billboard Japan.