Periodically I come across comments written by people who are trying to understand why certain decisions are being made in the Korean music business. Some people do quite well with it (I do recommend Kpopalypse), but often the people making these comments lack experience in the business world and tend to fill in the blanks with whatever they know.
This is why there’s often a focus on personalities and markers of popularity, because these commenters have been to high school and are quite possibly still there. Other wells of (mis)information is the whole PR-generated mythology of K-Pop being one big happy loyal family, assumptions that all Korean music is generated via SM Entertainment-style “factories,” and certain incorrect beliefs about the Korean economy that are actually quite prevalent even outside of K-Pop circles.
I wanted to talk about Korean hip-hop for two reasons. The first reason is that Korean hip-hop is becoming more prominent–so much so that CJ E&M recently acquired Paloalto’s Hi-Lite Records, which is a very interesting deal for reasons I will get to in a bit. The second reason is that Korean hip-hop engages in certain practices that I think tend to be misinterpreted by fans of conventional K-Pop.
What do I mean by that? Well, I’m going to start with a misconception that doesn’t sound very business-y, but that I do think is germane.
Misconception #1: When Korean hip-hop artists perform together, it is because they are the best of friends. The is the whole SM/YG family thing (which isn’t actually true in the first place) being imposed onto the hip-hop scene.
The thing about Korean hip-hop is that it is hugely common for different artists to collaborate on songs in varying combinations. It’s easily more common for that to happen than for people to perform only with artists from their own crew or label. I assume this is a result of the Korean hip-hop scene being so small for so long: You had to stick together if you wanted to get by!
Working with different artists is the norm, and it is expected. This is why contestants on Korean hip-hop shows are always being judged on teamwork–if you are a Korean hip-hop artist, you will wind up performing with different groups of people, and you’d better be able to deal with that.
But there’s no reason why you all have to be friends. These days, you can collaborate on a song without even meeting–you just e-mail sound files around. These are work relationships, and if you’re a professional, you’re mature and emotionally stable enough to get the job done even if you don’t particularly like the other person.
If you watch the Jay Park episode of The 4 Things Show, at around the 31-minute mark Simon Dominic talks about how he had a big blow-up with Swings. However, he most certainly did not try to prevent other artists at his label from working with Swings, even though the two of them haven’t really patched things up yet–that would be inappropriate. Simon Dominic doesn’t have to be friends with Swings, but he clearly does feel like he has to be professional and allow collaboration.
The They must be best friends!! misconception seems to lead to another misconception:
Misconception #2: When Korean hip-hop artists perform together, it is because their labels have a close business relationship. No. You don’t have to be blood brothers, and neither do your labels.
Obviously, unless they are exceptionally generous, when someone features on someone else’s song, they are getting paid. But a one-time payment or a royalty share being paid to a specific artist is not the same thing as one artist’s label owning the other artist’s label–even if, let’s say, the label gets a cut of any independent work by their artists. (That would suck, by the way, but that is how a lot of the big K-Pop labels do it. Because their contracts are horrible.)
Again, it’s very, very uncommon in Korean hip-hop for artists to stick to their own labels. That’s a K-Pop thing, because K-Pop labels want fans to be loyal to the label, while viewing the label’s talent as interchangeable and disposable. Korean hip-hop has a different history and is much looser.
I think it’s notable that once things get international, people seem to get much less confused by this concept. Krizz Kaliko appeared on a Rap Monster song; no one seems to believe that Big Hit Entertainment now owns Strange Music, or that Strange Music has been secretly funding Big Hit Entertainment all along.
On to our next misconception!
Misconception #3: Having a corporate partner is the same thing as having a corporate owner. Wow, no. It is pretty much impossible to be indie and actually make money without a corporate partner, but having, say, CJ E&M as a distributor is very, very different than having CJ E&M as an owner.
Obviously, yes, you do comply with what a corporate partner wants if you want to keep them as a partner. You also have to comply with what the power company wants if you want to have electricity in your home. That does not mean you work for the power company.
It’s a huge difference in degree of control. I put books out through Amazon; that means I have to format the files in a certain way. That’s it. I am not an employee of Amazon who has to show up at a certain time, dress a certain way, etc., or I lose my relationship with Amazon. I am not contracted as a writer with one of Amazon’s publishing imprints; I do not have to write certain kinds of books or deliver them on a particular schedule if I wish to maintain my relationship with Amazon.
Why did CJ E&M have to buy Hi-Lite Records? Because CJ E&M wanted to exercise a certain degree of control over Hi-Lite Records, and it could not exercise that degree of control as a corporate partner.
It doesn’t matter that CJ E&M is part of CJ Group, a large Korean conglomerate with ties to Samsung, while Hi-Lite is small. It doesn’t matter if Hi-Lite was using CJ E&M’s services. If CJ E&M wants to run Hi-Lite Records, they have to buy it.
Why am I harping on this point? After all, if we were talking about a large American company that decided it wanted complete control over a smaller American company, it wouldn’t be such stumbling block for people to accept that the large company has to buy the small company in order to own them.
Buuuuuut when the companies are Korean, we run into:
Misconception #4: All businesses in Korea are secretly controlled by chaebol.
What’s chaebol? A large Korean conglomerate (like Samsung! OMFG!). Historically chaebol had close ties with the Korean government, although the financial crisis of the late 1990s demonstrated that even such ties couldn’t keep a poorly-run chaebol afloat.
If you watch Korean dramas, chaebols pop up all the time! Those beautiful, wealthy, emotionally-stunted heroes? All inheritors of chaebol! (It helps that the term has been expanded to mean just about any largish company.) And they (or their evil mothers) are always making sneaky back-door deals via their chaebol!
Chaebol! Chaebol! Chaebol! Oh my God they’re everywhere!!!
The only problem is that, out in the real world, chaebol are not the only or even the dominant form of business in Korea. Ask A Korean did a great post last year about how deeply embedded stereotypes about Korean businesses are–they’re not overwhelmingly these large, corporate operations. Significantly more Koreans than Americans are self-employed; Korea has a ridiculous number of restaurants; etc. In other words, small business is huge in Korea.
Guess what? Large corporate conglomerates are very rarely interested in putting money into Mom & Pop businesses. Mom & Pop businesses have to go to the bank or maybe hit up friends and relations if they want cash. Secret payments from huge corporations rarely make it onto the ledger.
And Mom & Pop businesses are what a lot of Korean hip-hop labels actually are. Dok2 runs an extremely successful Mom & Pop business in Illionaire Records, but it’s a Mom & Pop business (three artists!) all the same.
What’s damned interesting about the CJ E&M/Hi-Lite deal is the very fact that a large corporate conglomerate decided to buy one of these dinky labels. That’s fascinating. I think it’s not just because they want to stay on top of music trends; I think it’s because they’re trying to figure out how these Mom & Pop labels are managing to do so well these days. The music industry in Korea is changing, and CJ E&M doesn’t want to be left behind–and they’re not just worried about the rise of trap.
ETA: I think the fact that SM Entertainment went to so much trouble to try to tank JYJ is one reason people assume that large corporations are, as a matter of course, super-interested in what the small fry are doing. But that situation, I would argue, was the exception, not the rule–SM couldn’t even keep its interference secret, and JYJ was able to prosper regardless. I think any sane business person would conclude that SM’s paranoia about the “threat” of JYJ and its interference with the group hurt the company far more than anything JYJ could have done.