In a recent article on Yomiuri Online, Kenmochi Hideki, head of VOCALOID development at Yamaha, talked about various things regarding VOCALOID, including its humble beginnings, how it became a hit and what role subculture plays.
A general comment about how Japan has to beat deflation and get its economy back on track opened the article, and it prompted Kenmochi to talk about Japan and rebirth. After referring to Miku’s overseas concerts, Kenmochi then started talking about VOCALOID’s more humble beginnings. Development on VOCALOID at Yamaha started in 2000, and it was brought to market in 2004. Various musical instruments could already be simulated electronically, so the idea was to fill in the last piece of the puzzle by synthesising the singing voice as well. Initial sales weren’t very good, and the VOCALOID team didn’t feel very proud of themselves within the company. The team was shrunk down and by the time 2007 rolled around, only one other person was on the team with Kenmochi. They had a discussion with Crypton, and upon a suggestion to “might as well go out with a blast”, went with this incredible idea of having a virtual girl be the singer behind the synthesised voice.
Fortunately for them, the timing was just right, with sites like niconico and YouTube available to help amateur musicians spread their music world-wide. The first couple of weeks saw mostly cover songs, but original songs eventually started getting posted, and a similar thing is currently happening with China and Korea. Kenmochi notes that just as a person sitting in front of a player piano makes a performance feel more natural, Miku made the synthesised voice more acceptable because people could place her as the person singing the song, and this had a big impact. She became a big hit when people discovered her as a singer fitting for the current times. He then noted the importance of music as a required subject in compulsory education in Japan, saying that even if people only went through elementary school and couldn’t read full musical notation, they’d be able to point out where do, re and mi were on a staff; many hit VOCALOID songs were the result of people who wanted to input notes and enjoy the result.
Kenmochi finally closes by talking about how mainstream culture derives from subculture and that if subculture weren’t allowed to grow mainstream, then it would simply die off before being able to blossom; trying to help out a subculture in odd ways can sometimes be a hindrance as well. He notes that if there were too many conservative people, then no new culture or technology can be born; fortunately for Japan, there exists a group of people who would always jump onto new things. “That exciting feeling felt by you and others around you when something that couldn’t be done before was finally made possible,” Kenmochi says to the reader, “that is something that we should never forget.”