TS and I were discussing Seven Seasons’ YouTube channel vs. CJ E&M’s YouTube channel, and it occurred to me that distributors and distribution is one of those things that is extremely important to artists who want to make a living from their work, but that is largely hidden from consumers.
(A quick note: Before you get all excited about our conversation, please keep in mind that we do not know that Block B gets more revenues from Seven Seasons’ YouTube channel. It seems reasonable to think that they would, but we do not know that for a fact–they might not, or they might make such a teeny amount more that it doesn’t matter. Seven Seasons may well just be asking people to watch the Seven Seasons channel because it’s easier for them to keep track of views there. ETA: BBI theorizes that it may help with some Gaon rankings.)
Typically when you talk about the business end of the arts, people either expect you to say that a certain element is terrible and horribly exploits artists, or they expect you to say that you’re not a real artist if you don’t have [whatever]. But with a lot of things, the reality is much more nuanced: Something that is a great idea for Artist A might be a total catastrophe for Artist B–or it might be a good idea at one point in an artist’s career and not another. These are decisions that people working in the arts have a weigh carefully and make deliberately. It’s hard for outsiders to judge these decisions because, unless we want to break into oppa’s dorm and–in a surprising twist!–steal his ledger instead of his underpants, we don’t have enough information.
So, on to the topic at hand: Distributors are specific companies (such as CJ E&M), but distribution is really more of a concept.
What do I mean?
Back in the old days, what usually happened was that a musician performed music, a label turned that performance into a physical album, a distributor sent that album around to different retailers, and the retailers sold that album to customers.
So the chain went:
Musician -> Label -> Distributor -> Retailer -> Customer
Now let’s say you’re an indie musician in the United States in the present day. You produce your own albums, which you upload yourself to iTunes, Bandcamp, and Amazon.
The chain goes:
Musician -> Retailer -> Customer
Who’s the distributor? There’s no company doing the job. You could say that the distributor is you, the musician, because you uploaded the sound files. Or you could say that the distributor is the retailers, because they host those files and make them easy for customers everywhere to buy them.
However it happens, distribution is vital: If a product isn’t available for sale, no one can buy it!
So, what about Block B?
Well, they’re in South Korea, where digital music doesn’t make much money and physical album sales are very important to the bottom line. So it’s important for them to use a distributor, because they have to get CDs onto store shelves (and to KPopTown and YesAsia and KPopMart) if they want to pay the rent.
So what are the downsides of using a distributor?
A distributor costs money. Usually they take a cut.
They may require that you use them for products that don’t really need a distributor. Block B may well have to use CJ E&M to distribute things like music videos or digital songs if they want that CD distribution.
A distributor may get involved in a corporate feud. In U.S. book publishing, a distributor got into a tiff with Amazon, and every author whose publisher used that distributor saw their books vanish off that site. In Korea, the music distributor Loen Entertainment (now 1theK) went back and forth on promoting a JYJ member’s album, presumably because of JYJ’s problems with their old label.
What are the upsides?
Distributors take care of work for you. It’s a lot easier to have a distributor tap their large network of retailers than for you to go from store to store trying to talk individual owners into carrying your stuff. Even with digital, a distributor can help–maybe the members of Block B don’t want the trouble of uploading songs onto a bunch of different digital music services that are in different languages!
They get you into outlets you could not get into on your own. It’s not uncommon for stores to carry only goods that come from certain distributors.
In the Korean music industry, they promote as well.
The promotional aspect of K-Pop distribution is why it’s a bit wrong-headed when people get upset about a distributor’s YouTube channel “stealing” views from a group’s own YouTube channel. Yes, it may be the case that the group gets more revenue when you go direct, but the whole point of having the video on more than one channel is so that more people will see it. It’s like an American band that sells CDs on a Web site and that also has the CDs on sale at Starbucks: They’ll make more money off each direct CD sale, but they’ll likely sell a buttload more CDs via Starbucks. This kind of breadth-of-market vs. profits-per-sale balancing act is the sort of judgement artists (and other businesspeople) have to make every day–as a fan, you just have to take it on faith that they aren’t being complete idiots about it.
In a CD-oriented music market like Korea, distributors do have quite a bit of power, but it’s important to remember that artists have power, too. The problem with being a distributor is that it’s totally behind-the-scenes work: No one gives a crap who distributes stuff! That’s why labels and musicians can be their own distributors–nobody cares! Block B swapped Loen for CJ E&M–did anyone notice? Has it affected your experience of their music at all? If an artist has a big enough fan base, when it comes to distribution, they can pretty much do whatever they want.