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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Avril under the skin of consumers


Special to The Japan Times

Walking out of Shibuya Station on May 12, you couldn't help but be aware that Avril Lavigne's second album, "Under My Skin," had just gone on sale. There she was, belting out her new single, "Don't Tell Me," up there on the big screen above the 109 Building. Tsutaya had a booth set up with Avril's kohl-eyed visage staring out from a huge poster at the boys and girls who accepted plastic shoulder bags imprinted with the album cover. No one was buying the record, but it was still early. BMG Japan, Avril's record company, had plenty of time.

News photo
Avril Lavigne, at a recent media event to promote the early release of her second album "Under My Skin"

Well, two weeks, anyway. "Under My Skin" doesn't go on sale overseas until the end of May, thus giving Japan a head start on helping the diminutive Canadian teen shift her millions of units. Why do the Japanese get to hear the new album first? Is it because Japanese fans bought one-tenth of the 20 million copies of her 2002 debut, "Let Go," that were sold worldwide? Is it because the album was the first by a foreign artist since Mariah Carey to top Oricon's album chart? Is it because she played Budokan right off the bat?

No, it's marketing. A two-week jump on the American and European releases means two weeks without competition. Once "Under My Skin" gets released over there it will promptly arrive over here as a "parallel import," which is not subject to fixed prices the way Japanese albums are.

But BMG Japan is also the company that will import "Under My Skin," and which is mostly owned by the Bertellsman Group, the largest record company in the world, so what's the difference?

Well, the Japanese version sells for 2,300 yen while the import will probably go for about 1,500 yen in import shops, so you do the math. Two weeks can be a long time to someone who's been waiting much longer for the album to come out, and the P.R. push is meant to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

Avril herself lent a helping hand. She gave a news conference on the day the record went on sale at Shibuya AX, the music venue. BMG invited lots of kids to stand in the back of the hall and up in the balcony while the media occupied chairs in front of the stage. The place was packed. The new album blared out of the sound system. It was the first opportunity for many press people to hear it because BMG hadn't sent out samples. Some received "snippets" (brief pieces of songs), but it didn't matter. Nobody asks questions about the music anyway.

The emcee, a BMG employee, asked the kids how many had already bought the album. Only a few raised their hands. "Well, please buy it on your way home," he said.

The star came out to squeals and cheers and had her picture taken. "You are so cute!" screamed a girl in English, overcome by the unfairness of it all.

After the emcee encouraged the crowd to "act as if it's a real concert," Avril sang two songs, "Don't Tell Me" and "My Happy Ending," accompanying herself on acoustic guitar with a bandmate adding second guitar and harmonies.

The conference itself was dull, but Avril was gracious, playing up her mischievous reputation by describing a practical joke she played on her drummer. The only interesting question came from a Taiwanese reporter who asked about rumors linking her with Prince Harry. "That's what happens when you go to London," Avril said in her chipper twang. "The tabloids said we're going on a date -- not true."

She closed the event by thanking everyone "for being interested still."

On the way back to the station, you got the feeling that Avril's full-lipped features were in every window, or maybe it's just that everyone looks like her these days. A lot of people were definitely carrying the plastic shoulder bags. Obviously the BMG troops were doing their job.

This summer, the government will likely pass a bill restricting all parallel imports, which means the (expensive) domestic version of Avril's next album won't have any competition at all. But I'm sure the publicity people will find something to do.



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