Monthly Archives: September 2013

Clown Fear

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The greatest thing about this:

is watching the Clown Fear people completely lose their shit.

(You realize that it wasn’t until Stephen King’s It came out–especially after it came out on television–that people actually developed/were willing to admit to having Clown Fear? When I was a kid, having Clown Fear would have been like having Kitten Fear or Rainbow Fear or Unicorn Fear.)

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Well, maybe Unicorn Fear is warranted.

Things everyone (but especially Korean musicians) should know about the U.S. music market

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Let’s start with the basics.

#1. It’s huge.

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Via Wikipedia.

I note that because some people seem to think it’s unpatriotic or racist or something to try to reach out to the U.S. market. It’s not about whether someone loves their country or whether they think that people who look like them somehow aren’t good enough. It’s about money. Musicians need that to eat.

#2. The majority of U.S. music sales are digital

Since Japan is the #2 music market in the world, many Asian musicians and labels focus their selling efforts there and know that market well. But the #1 market in the world is VERY unlike the #2 market in the world. Only 17% of the Japanese music market is digital, compared to 58% of the American music market. Ignoring digital won’t necessarily hurt you in Japan; in the United States, it’s a killer.

That’s not just because often the only alternative offered to digital is a $40 import CD. I simply don’t buy CDs any more, no matter how cheap, and I don’t play the ones I own. Why not? Because I carry around a teeny little device that has more than 500 songs on it. Everything in my house and car is set up so I can just plug this little device in, and I’m golden. If a song isn’t digital, as far as I’m concerned, it might as well not exist, because I will never listen to it.

#3. The digital market in the U.S. is dominated by iTunes.

Yes, still. iTunes accounts for 63% of digital sales; the second runner up is Amazon, with a relatively paltry 22% share. And:

In terms of customers, a commanding eight out of 10 digital music buyers downloaded their albums or tracks from iTunes in the fourth quarter.

So what does this mean for Korean musicians hoping to make some money in the U.S. market?

#1. You need to be on iTunes

I could make a really, really, REALLY long post about all the Korean music that I would like to own, but that I cannot buy because it is not on iTunes (or Amazon–I’ll buy there, but iTunes is where I go first). Old stuff, new stuff–people make videos and spend tons of money marketing music internationally, and then they don’t sell it in a way that Americans can buy it. The purpose of marketing is not to “raise awareness” or “build brand” or anything like that–the purpose of marketing is to sell product. If you convince me with your marvelous marketing that your music is something I really want to have, and then you make it so that I can’t fork over some money for it, you’ve just wasted a whole lot of your time, money, and effort.

#2. You need to be on iTunes right away

Typically when an album is released, there’s a spurt of publicity–even better, people who like your music will follow you on social media specifically to get news of new releases.

What happens if you don’t release the album onto iTunes until months after the release? Well, that just happened with Zion T’s Red Light, and I’ll tell you–I like Zion T, I follow him on Facebook, and there was no news that his album was finally available in a format I was willing to buy. I found that out by accident. (Once again, the time, effort and money of marketing on Facebook? Wasted.)

That is bad, and not only because maybe I wouldn’t have ever bought Red Light. It’s bad because of the way bestseller lists work. Bestseller lists reward a sudden surge in sales. If you have an album that sells OK day in and day out, it will never appear on a bestseller list. What will appear is a song that sells a lot very quickly, even if the steady seller actually sells more units over the entire year. So you don’t want people buying your music whenever they find out it’s available digitally–you want them to all to go buy it on the same day.

Why do you want to be on a bestseller list? It’s great marketing. Payola exists because bestseller lists give musicians such great visibility.

Speaking of bestseller lists….

#3. Classify yourself by music, not language

DO NOT classify your music as K-Pop unless you sound like Super Junior or Girls’ Generation. The non-Koreans who like K-Pop will listen to your rock/hip-hop/folk/whatever and run away. Rock/hip-hop/folk/whatever fans will be more receptive.

#4. Make sure all your songs are linked to your name

If you release this

as Kye Bum Joo, and then release this

as Kye Bum Zu, do you know what iTunes thinks? It thinks you are two different artists. Unless they know Hangul, someone who loves “The Ceiling” will not be able to find “Something Special” by looking up your name. Someone who loves “Something Special” will not be able to find any of your older songs.

You cannot be too careful with this. They seem to have fixed this, but for a while there a search of “CN Blue” on iTunes got you different songs than “CNBlue.”

And if your name is a fairly common word that will turn up a bazillion results–like, say, Loco–you need to make sure iTunes knows that the Loco who did “Take Care” is the same Loco who did “No More.” (I don’t know if Loco has any more songs on iTunes than that–can you guess why?)

#5. Provide translations of song titles

I love Hangul, but my iPod hates it and does not know what to do with it. If I want to be able to find a song, I need a translated title. I can do this myself (yeah Google Translate!), but it’s a lot easier if you do it for me.

The Idols and The Underground, Part 2

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Before I was talking about Korean idol groups versus the Korean underground and how the two are distinct from each other. This time, I want to talk about what they have in common, or more generally, how K-Pop idol groups influence other forms of music in Korea and what they have in common.

The first things Americans tend to notice about Korean idol groups is that 1. There are a whooooole lot of people, 2. They are ALL vocalists, and 3. They sure spend a lot of time trying to fuck the camera.

Thing #4 probably has to do with eyeliner/foundation use.

Now, the reason given for this is always that K-Pop is a soulless commercial product aimed at horny teenagers. You throw a dozen or so good-looking guys in eyeliner on stage and let them lick that camera lens until their tongues falls out, and the money just comes a-flowing in. Vocal quality is irrelevant–that’s what Autotune is for.

There’s some truth to that, but in and of itself, there’s really nothing wrong with having a large number of vocalists–the Beatles had four, after all. We’ve gotten away from having multiple vocalists in the United States, I think for a few reasons. It’s seen as easier to market a single front man, the economic pressures of the American market tend to force groups to be as small as possible (so that the money is split fewer ways), and we simply don’t have such a formal musical training process here.

But while Korean groups have someone who is explicitly given the job of being the group’s leader, there’s not this rigid expectation that there will be one and only one lead singer. In fact, the pressure seems to go the other way. Take the group CNBlue–a rock idol group. The group’s lead singer sounds like this:

And its other lead singer sounds like this:

Note that the bass player sings backup and raps. And the drummer? Well, he used to get off the hook–I mean, come on! there’s already three singers!–but no more:

That seems pretty typical–the expectation seems to be that everyone will pitch in with vocals. Unless a person REALLY REALLY REALLY cannot sing (after practicing and trying REALLY hard), they’re going to wind up singing.

Well, OK, but CNBlue is still an idol group. What happens when you get away from the idol groups, into the underground?

One nice thing about Korean hip-hop and R&B is that it’s easy to find new artists–just pick a song you like and look up the many other people who are featured on it, and you’ll probably find something else you like. Then do it again, because that song probably has several people on it as well. Not that you don’t ever get songs where it’s just one guy singing or rapping, but it’s not at all uncommon to have an entire gaggle of singers and rappers all on one song. They’re not in the same group–in fact, they may be in different crews or even on different labels–but the impulse to throw multiple voices at a song seems pretty strong. Even a bunch of high-school students making mixtapes produce songs with–well, “Storm Ganzi” has nine people on it. Most have fewer, sure–I mean logistics alone requires it–but it’s not uncommon to have four or five vocalists on a song.

Another thing about Korean hip-hop that you’ve probably already noticed (because it’s what “Gagnam Style” is all about) is that these guys often make a point of looking odd or homely. Psy dresses in an unflattering way; Primary wears a box on his head. They’ll try to draw attention to their supposed deficiencies in the looks department: A perfectly handsome rapper goes by the stage name Ugly Duck; Rhythm Power goes for sounding desperate with an album titled Every Single One Is Handsome. Even hip-hop idol groups like Block B and BTS make point of looking like idiots whenever possible.

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They used to be young and foolish.

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Now they are slightly older.

That sort of spoof on the polished perfection of K-Pop isn’t limited to looks–certain Korean hip-hop artists love making false goofs. (Dynamic Duo is big on that–you can see Choiza pretend to screw up in this post.) It’s a bit like how American hip-hop artists try to act all gangsta to distinguish themselves from pop artists, only it’s waaaay less tedious.

My favorite:

Can you enjoy the lyrics of a Korean rap if you don’t understand Korean?

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One of the great joys (or great agonies) of hip-hop in my book is that you can really hear the lyrics. Now, if it’s a Little Wayne song, you probably wish that you couldn’t, but if the rapper is a talented lyricist, the pleasures are many.

It’s time to set yo’ clock back bout as long as you can
I stop daylight, it’s Ludacris the maintenance man
Get your oil changed, I check fluids and transmission
You one minute fools, you wonder why y’all missin’
[. . .]
Just cause I’m an all-nighter, shoot all fire
Ludacris, balance and rotate all tires
–Ludacris, on Missy Elliott’s “One-Minute Man”

Obviously, you can’t listen to a Korean song and get that kind of amusement out of it.

Or can you?

Dynamic Duo is one of my favorite hip-hop groups, but it’s hard to find English translations of their stuff. Still, I think I have a fairly good idea of what that song is about.

Same thing with this song–I only found this translation recently, but I think Rhythm Power is hysterical, and in most cases I haven’t been able to find translations of their songs. They’re just funny.

Well, OK, let’s say that if the delivery of a Korean rap is really funny, then you can enjoy it without understanding the lyrics. But not otherwise, right?

Hm. Let’s take a rap passage that I think is especially impressive lyrically, from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”

A normal life is boring, but superstardom’s close to post mortem
It only grows harder, homie grows hotter
He blows. It’s all over. These hoes is all on him
Coast to coast shows, he’s known as the globetrotter
Lonely roads, God only knows
He’s grown farther from home, he’s no father
He goes home and barely knows his own daughter
But hold your nose ’cause here goes the cold water
His hoes don’t want him no more, he’s cold product
They moved on to the next schmoe who flows
He nose dove and sold nada

What I did here was try to mark the two most common rhymes (including internal rhymes) and assonances in that passage. (There’s also the superstardom/post mortem/all on him bit.) Note that this passage isn’t funny and doesn’t use an extended metaphor the way the Ludacris passage does–what’s remarkable about it is the sound of it, the fact that Eminem managed to pack in that many rhymes and assonances.

Now listen to this:

Starting at the 1:29 mark, what do you start to hear? A whole lot of internal rhymes and assonances. I don’t know about you, but the first time I heard that song I just went nuts because the lyrics sounded so good.

Obviously you can look up lyrics to see if they’re any good or not. The nice thing about it is that if you look up Rapper X, and you realize that he’s basically the Korean Little Wayne, then you can just not look up his stuff again and enjoy the music unimpeded by the stupidity. If, however, it turns out that he uses metaphor beautifully or something, then you can keep looking up his lyrics and enjoying the poetry, and every time you hear his song, you’ll think of those brilliant lyrics and how beautiful/clever/funny they are. (Of course, you are at the mercy of the translators, but nothing’s perfect.)

Then there’s that highly specialized area of lyrical wit in Korean rap: Bilingual word play.

Oh, yeah.

Apparently YG has been on a copyright tear, so I don’t want to link anywhere, but if you poke around and find the Epik High song “You Don’t Deserve Her,” you will hear something quite remarkable.

A little background: Epik High has two rappers, Mithra Jin and Tablo. Tablo, who speaks fluent Korean, was born in Canada and has a master’s degree in English literature from Stanford University. In other words, he is bilingual in a way I can never hope to be.

According the translation site KPopLyrics.net, at about 40 seconds in, “You Don’t Deserve Her” goes:

Mithra Jin: But his behaviours are like hardened feet.

Tablo: Ha ha.

That’s the translation. If you are an English speaker, this is what you’ll hear:

Mithra Jin: Hand on my Buddha and I’m bi.

Tablo: Ha ha.

Top that.

“I deep inside of you”–English language and Korean popular music

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So, the other day Block B released a new song. Block B is a group that encourages its fans to make fun of it, which means they attract fans who are not afraid to do so. With their new song, they once again delighted their English-speaking fans with a malapropism.

The .42 mark

Yup. “I deep inside of you.” Actually it’s “I deep inside of you, I can’t get over,” which if you are Of A Certain Age (shut up!) is even funnier, because “getting over” used to mean “getting through the current tough times to something much better.” It’s a bit like “get happy”–not dirty in and of itself, but “I deep inside of you, I can’t get happy” definitely Means Something. Something that U-Kwon should not be experiencing at his age.

U-Kwon’s English is, in a word, horrible, and he was Block B’s previous holder of the Inadvertently Filthy English Usage Award.

The .48 mark

“I dunno, I dunno, I dunno, but I’m hard, hard,” while flapping his crotch with his shirt. Still a classic, but I think “I deep inside of you” edges it out.

Now, there are people who disagree that U-Kwon should hold Block B’s Inadvertently Filthy English Usage Award at all, because of this:

The 1:25 mark

“Fuck us! Zoom, zoom, zoom!” would seem like a sure-fire winner, especially since that song kept getting banned. But I disqualify it, because we’re talking about the Inadvertently Filthy English Usage Award. I’ve uploaded probably a hundred of Zico’s mixtape songs, and believe me, he is familiar with the word fuck.

My point is, these guys don’t speak English very well, they mess up the English in their songs all the time,* and their English-speaking fans love it. 

Which they shouldn’t, right? Whenever people discuss whether Korean popular music could break into the U.S. market, the knee-jerk answer always seems to be, “Of course not. Americans will never embrace a non-English song!” The various non-English songs that have been huge hits here are seen as the exception, not the rule, because Americans will never-ever-ever-ever-ever like a song that’s not in English.

But you know, I’m American, the only language I understand well enough to comprehend when it’s sung is English, and I’d rather listen to Korean than this kind of painful word salad.

Actually, this makes about as much sense as most inspirational speeches.

Of course, just because a song is written and sung by native English speakers doesn’t mean it’s not a painful word salad.

You can argue that I’m just weird, and maybe I am. But I’m also a writer, and the rise of self-publishing has proven wrong all kinds of industry notions of what will and will not sell–let audiences decide, and they may surprise you.

Another thing about self-publishing is that a self-published writer can do just fine on sales that would never be acceptable to, say, Random House. There’s a tendency for the public to define success in publishing as Massive Bestsellerdom. But the fact is that there’s this whole arena below the radar where self-published writers are quietly making a good living.

And I think there’s something similar going on with non-English music. In 2012, world music sold 8.7 million digital tracks, while Latin music sold 21.1 million digital tracks and 9.7 million albums in the U.S. These songs may not be chart-topping blockbusters, but they’re chugging along. In addition, I think that these days most Americans have some experience with non-English genres. If you’re used to, say, reggaeton songs being in Spanish, when you hear a Korean song in Korean, it’s not such a shock.

Of course, if you’re less experienced with music, it may well be a shock: One reason why I’m skeptical that teen-oriented, commercial K-Pop will find great popularity in the United States is because teenagers tend to have limited life experience and very rigid notions about what is cool. I could definitely see most teenagers being put off by the mere fact that a song is in Korean, not to mention the fact that the guys wear glitter eyeliner.

So there may be enough resistance to non-English songs to keep Korean music from dominating the U.S. market, but I still think it likely that Korean music will find a larger place in the U.S. market than it has today. The U.S. market is huge, and you don’t have to dominate it to make money.

*K-Pop songs often feature English not because they’re trying to appeal to the American market, but because they’re trying to appeal to Koreans (English is seen as cool) and to other Asians (who are often more likely to speak English than Korean).

On the Release of “Be the Light”

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Block B released “Be the Light” today.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? A bit poppier than their usual thing, but the vocal talent is just, wow. Wowowowowow. I love the bit toward the end where Zico and Park Kyung are trading off rap lines–they are just so quick and so slick, if I didn’t know their voices I would just assume it’s all the same guy. I also like the upbeat feel of it, which is certainly appropriate under the circumstances.

And I’m very happy that this song exists at all. By the time I discovered Block B, they had already weathered a scandal that had required them to drop out of sight for eight months. I could argue that people overreacted to what happened (and some people REALLY did overreact), but I can’t argue that they didn’t do anything wrong–they came across as flip during a serious crisis, and that is always going to blow up in your face.

But they came back stronger than ever–only to have to drop out of sight again because they were being ripped off by their label.

Let me tell you something about the music industry in Korea. Despite the crazy stalkers and the faux-wealth videos and the fact that the Korean music industry is growing by leaps and bounds, it is not a business on the scale of the music industry in the United States. Little Wayne’s problems include the fact that it takes a long time to go to Hawaii even via private jet; Jay Park’s problems include the fact that his family lost their house to the bank last year.

When you rip off a guy who grew up in a one-parent household and whose older brother had to support him, this is not a victimless crime. These for the most part are not people who have so much money they’re never going to miss, oh, say a sum that might range from $400,000 to $1.8 million, even if they’re only due a seventh of that. You don’t know how telling I found it that, when Block B sued their old label, the label’s response was to basically say, “How the hell can they afford to sue us? They shouldn’t have a dime!”

It’s not uncommon for musicians and other artists to get ripped off. In fact, lots of times, it’s the norm, because either there actually are no alternatives or because artists believe that there are no alternatives.

I’m hoping that digitization is going to change a lot of that–it has really opened up publishing and music in the United States, and I hope that’s what’s going to happen worldwide. The arts are never going to be an easy profession, but anything that makes artists less dependent on middlemen–labels, publishers, studios–is a good thing in my book. I’m happy to see Block B taking the indie route, and while I’m sure there will be issues ranging from minor hiccups to bonafide clusterfucks ahead of them, I hope they keep at it–not just to show the world their music, but to show the world that there is another way.

ETA: I should note that I wrote the above bit about U-Kwon before the video came out. And yeah, maybe they picked him to be the one who gets savagely beaten for 3+ minutes because he can sell the physicality. But I suspect there’s another reason as well.

EATA: This is a post written by someone who knows a lot about what they call “the K-Pop machine” but not a lot about Block B (they actually write and produce their own music, which is a major reason why they can essentially go indie). Regardless, it’s a great critique of the top-down way the industry is run and how artists can really get the shaft.

Female voices

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There seems to be a mentality in the world of K-Pop that if a group is popular in the Korean market, than that’s what you should push in the United States. And I think that assumption stems from an unfamiliarity with contemporary American music culture, which differs in many important ways from contemporary Korean music culture.

These differences really come to the fore when you look at girl groups. As I mentioned, there’s the whole assumption in the United States that if I can see your panties, then you must not be able to sing. But it’s not simply an issue of visual style (and American Puritanism)–to an American, from a strictly musical perspective, these women suck. They are simply untalented singers.

Picking a girl group song pretty much at random:

Come on–I can sing “Roly-roly-poly” through my nose every bit as well as anyone from T-ara.

Not that there aren’t great Korean female singers. But they tend to either be American (Lydia Paek) or to have spent a good hunk of time in the United States (Bom from 2NE1). And to an American, the women in K-Pop who have talent are SWAMPED by the women who can’t sing for shit–for every 2NE1, there are literally dozens and dozens of T-aras and Girls’ Generations.

Now, I think this attitude about female pop singers has to be frustrating to non-Americans, because the United States has produced some extremely popular female pop singers who sound very much like chipmunks.

But the thing non-Americans have to keep in mind is that even fans of Madonna and Britney Spears agree that they are not good singers–hell, Madonna herself acknowledges that she does not have a great voice. People like them anyway–they like the attitude, they like the music, they like the dancing, they like the showmanship. They do not argue that the vocals are good.

Who gets credit in the United States for having good vocals?

Notice any similarities among these women? A wide range, yes. Good vocal control. A powerful sound. Virtuosity–I cannot sing these songs anywhere near as well as these ladies.

Also, they sound an awful lot like this woman:

What are we looking at? We are looking at the influence of American gospel music on American popular music. That influence has been HUGE. Gospel style came in like Godzilla and trampled everything before it. Gospel has so intensely affected American music culture that an American female vocalist who has sold bazillions of records and whose career has successfully spanned decades is considered by everyone–including her–to not have a great voice.

Gospel has not conquered all in other countries. Check out the comments to the “Mega Yak” video, by Delight, which features the wide range, good vocal control, and powerful sound of Yeondu. Apparently it is “yelling” and “noise.” (Hmm-kay. I don’t think many Americans hit the 1:47 mark and go, “Why is that girl yelling? Can’t she keep it down?”)

Now, we can argue that the real problem is that people in other countries don’t appreciate the virtuosity of gospel-style singing–and, yes, as a red-blooded American who grew up worshiping at the alter of Aretha Franklin, I would like to agree. I will certainly say that a female singer’s chances of actually getting anywhere in the United States is greatly increased if she can master the gospel style. She will no longer hear that she lacks talent, and she will not be expected to agree that she lacks talent.

But in the interest of fairness, I have to point out that there are other singing styles that are very difficult and take years to master, and many Americans are quite up-front about not liking them at all. In fact, they tend to regard them as so much yelling and noise.

That’s a dude, yo. And he’s freaking 60!

While some have argued that girl groups are more likely than boy groups to break into the U.S. market, I see female K-Pop singers getting caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s easy to alienate your home audience by “yelling,” but Americans simply won’t view you as talented unless you work that gospel style. So far the girl group I think is best positioned to thread that particular needle is 2NE1, but I have no idea if they’ll make the effort. It will be interesting to see what happens, in any case.