One of the things that keeps coming up in K-Pop is something called sajaegi. Apparently the term used to mean a specific practice to inflate sales of digital songs, but nowadays it is used more generally to mean that a group got onto the charts by buying mass quantities of their own music.
Accusations of sajaegi are getting thrown around like nobody’s business, even though those in the industry say no way. It will shock you to know that sajaegi accusations typically crop up when a newer group is perceived as threatening a more-established group. And sajaegi is often used to “explain” facts that really require no explanation.
For example, BTS was recently accused of sajaegi. Apparently only sajaegi could explain how a group that sold 101,000 copies of its last album could possibly sell 80,000 copies of its current album. Silly me, I would classify that as “performing at, or possibly below, expectations,” but no, it’s a REALLY BIZARRE sales phenomenon that can only be explained via some kind of underhanded activity. Sajaegi also explains why an $18 BTS CD with nine songs on it could possibly rank higher on some weekly charts than a $26 BigBang CD with two songs on it–the fact that M sets you back $13 a song has nothing to do with it.
And of course you’re seeing “analysis” of this issue like this: Somebody claiming in all seriousness that whenever a group gets a breakthrough hit, sajaegi is the “likely” explanation.
(So . . . does that mean we were all bribed to like “Gangnam Style,” even though nobody outside Korea had ever really heard of Psy before? Because if that’s the case, someone owes me some money.)
Do bestseller lists and charts get gamed? YES. ALL THE TIME. I personally have gamed bestseller lists to great effect. Getting on the charts gets attention, and attention is A Very Good Thing in the arts.
The entire reason charts exist from an industry perspective is for marketing–that’s why there are so many of them. Getting on them is well worth a group’s while. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that anyone not willing to game a chart is simply not serious about their career.
But sajaegi? Someone buying enough of their own product to get onto the charts? No, that’s not common.
Why not? It’s really expensive.
BTS’s label said that they can’t afford sajaegi, and that’s entirely plausible. Think of the outlay to buy just 10,000 copies of an $18 album–$180,000! That’s a lot of money to spend on marketing. If an album is totally obscure, it might be worth doing (although if it doesn’t work, you’ve just wasted a ton of money). But if an album is doing pretty well anyway, that’s $180,000 to move it from, I dunno, #4 to #3 on Gaon, which is not a lot of bang for the buck.
Keep in mind, too, that until very recently, BTS never had a popular hit in Korea–unlike some groups, they make their money by selling CDs, not by having tons of endorsements or something. You’re not going to make money selling CDs if you buy them all yourself.
(And the crazy haters go, BUT THEY DO IT TO WIN MUSIC SHOWS! You cannot eat a music-show trophy, OK? K-Pop is a business, not a high school: Status and bragging rights are not worth $180,000.)
Well, if gaming charts is so common, but sajaegi is not, how do the charts get gamed?
So glad you asked! Here’s a quick primer on how to game a chart!
Advertise and Market. This is what I did, and this is what you really see larger labels do. Lots of ads, paying for prominent placement in retail stores–the whole BESTSELLER!!! song-and-dance.
It can work, or it can be an enormous waste of money. That’s why expensive marketing pushes are usually reserved for groups that are already popular–there’s less risk that way.
Fan Events. I did a post about Oricon that is all about this. That’s Japan and Korea: In the United States, Justin Bieber does what are called CD buyouts, which not only gets him money for drugs, fast cars, and lawyers, but also trains impressionable young people to donate useless crap to charities instead of the cash they actually need!
Aim for a Chart. You gear your work or sales to get on a particular chart. This can work several ways.
If charts are broken out by genre or by things like where an album was released, that can be really helpful–the more exclusive a list is, the easier it is to top out on it, because you’re competing with fewer people. Competition is also a factor when choosing when to release something–it’s easier to chart if no popular groups are releasing the same time you are. (This is why it pays to be suspicious of rankings when there’s no data on underlying sales available–remember, Jackpot was a #1 album while H.E.R was only #2, but H.E.R sold far better.)
If charts are broken out by time span–weekly charts are common–then you try to get as many of your sales as you can jammed into that one week.
How do you do that? Events, of course, but you also make the item available for pre-order. That way, people will order it in advance, and then all the sales will come in at once.
Notice that a lot of these practices I’m talking about are standard operating procedure in K-Pop: Fan events, genre classifications, pre-orders. This is all stuff you see so often you don’t even think about it.
Why are these practices so common? Because the risk of using them is very low. The Holy Grail of marketing is to find an approach that is cheap (or better yet, free) and effective. Sajaegi just does not qualify–it’s really expensive and of questionable utility, especially if you get caught. If you were desperate, stupid, and rich, you might do it. But most people in the industry aren’t going to–not because they’re super-pure and moral, but because it just doesn’t make financial sense.