So, Sammie had a question about whether or not Zico could be termed a success that WordPress decided should be cordoned off with the porn ads in the spam folder (how I appreciate WordPress’ judgement in these matters). The question got me thinking about success in the arts, and how people tend to discuss and perceive it.
We have a saying in the United States: Nothing succeeds like success. That sounds nonsensical, and it’s supposed to–what it means is that it’s a lot easier to become successful after you’ve already become somewhat successful. Once you’re a success, people want to hitch their wagon to your star, and lo and behold, opportunities arise for you. It’s the getting from zero to the point of being somewhat successful that’s the real bitch.
Which is all to say: It’s in an entertainer’s interest to be perceived as successful–that’s why stories about how much revenue (but not profits!) a K-Pop group makes become public. It’s also in the interest of people who don’t like that entertainer to attempt to damage that perception and to claim that, despite appearances, this person is not a success. (Of course in K-Pop, haters will pretty much stoop to anything–Hi, IU!)
But a lot of the arguments made against success are kind of common defaults you’ll see often. Sometimes it’s sort of a whiny hipster thing, but where these arguments get really interesting is when they are an argument that was valid once, or that could be valid today, but are not necessarily valid in all cases. So I’m going to talk about the various arguments that get made against someone’s success, and try to break them down to give you an idea of what’s inside.
I’ll start with the simplest one.
This person is not really successful because I don’t like the people who buy their music. This just garbage. I’ve seen all kinds of different iterations in K-Pop: Groups that are popular overseas aren’t really popular, because foreigners aren’t really people. (Thanks!) Selling to kids is bad; so is selling to old people. Selling to people who like the genre is of course a major failing, because everyone knows that only idiots like that crap.
In addition, groups that sell mostly to their fanbases aren’t really successful, because they don’t sell to the general public. Oddly enough, groups that sell mostly to the general public are also not really successful, because they haven’t developed a proper fanbase. (If you want to make this sound more business-y, you can claim that certain groups aren’t really successful because they haven’t conquered Korea’s digital market, and other groups aren’t really successful because they don’t move enough CDs. If you want to sound super-authoritative, claim the group is not really successful because it’s not “relevant”–whatever that means.)
Basically, this all comes from people who have a hard time saying, “I know people love this, but it’s just not for me.”
This person is not really successful because they are a one-hit wonder. This is an interesting one, because sometimes it’s true and sometimes it’s really, really not.
We’ve all heard of the true one-hit wonders, people who wind up homeless 18 months after having some huge hit (coughcoughdrugscoughcough). But in a surprising number of cases, what looks like a one-hit wonder is just someone who has popped into a market they’re not usually in, and then returned to their own market. That’s why a group like One Direction can make a billion dollars inside a year, even though most people could name only one of their songs.
Hits are very unpredictable things, and it’s smart to maximize the value of the ones you have. Sir Mix-A-Lot gave a good interview about this where he talks about leveraging “Baby Got Back” so that he can do whatever the hell he wants:
It’s also interesting because there are sometimes people who don’t look like they’re one-hit wonders, but they actually are–at least from a financial standpoint. A performer might have a slew of hits, but thanks to their contract and the way the revenue is divided, they never see much money from those songs. Then they say, “Screw this!” and write a Christmas song or something, and that’s where they get 90% of their annual income.
This person is not really successful because the charts are gamed. The charts are always gamed. That’s why they exist!
Of course this is an argument that actually contains some truth. Right now, Korea has eight “major” real-time music charts–eight! They’re practically begging to be manipulated, aren’t they? So, Zico releases “Boys and Girls” at midnight, when most people are asleep, and his night-owl fanbase buys it (‘cuz who needs sleep, anyway?), and he has an all-kill and gets some press! Whoo-hoo!
That’s the game, kiddos.
Everyone’s pretty much playing the same game, though, so it’s not like that all-kill is bad news or something. In fact, it’s very promising! It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily mean that “Boys and Girls” is sure to be number 1 on the weekly charts or anything–we’ll know more when the Gaon numbers come out, because they do sales figures and not just rankings.
We won’t know everything even then, because there’s a lot the charts don’t cover. But good news is still good news–if something charts well and the sales figures are good, then the song has done well. You don’t need to overthink that one.
This person is not really successful because they don’t sell that much/don’t have endorsements. It seems like a no-brainer to argue that someone who doesn’t sell that much isn’t that successful, right? And sure enough, often it’s true. But not always. In fact, this is where things can get super interesting, because they can reflect the shifts happening in the Korean music market today.
In one corner, we have Standard K-Pop Group. The group has lots of members, and every time they release an album, it’s a full-on production. The group releases expensive videos and appears on television shows, doing elaborate choreography and wearing fancy costumes.
All this coordination with various members and the choreography and whatnot takes a lot of time–it takes them months to put something out. In addition, they can only appear on television if the shows are willing to schedule them.
Because they have all that overhead, they need to sell well to stay afloat. What happens when a release tanks? Oh, hell, all that time and money spent on videos and costumes and choreography? Flushed right down the toilet. Even worse, they’ve whiffed their big opportunity to be on television and may not be allowed back, since there are other, more-popular groups competing for the same slots.
The big alternative source of revenue in K-Pop is, of course, endorsements, so the members better scramble for those as well. But of course if the group isn’t that popular, and there are more-popular groups out there wanting the same endorsements . . . oh, boy.
In other words, there is a lot riding on each release. Each and every release has to do pretty damned well, otherwise there’s trouble.
In the other corner, we have Dok2.
Starting at about the 12 minute mark, Dok2 starts talking about his process for composing music, as well as his business model.
Both can be summarized as: Crank ’em out!!!
Does he spend a lot of time lovingly crafting his art? Fuck no! Does he worry about television shows, choreography, costumes? Hahahahahahahaha! Dok2 just puts out as much music as possible in as little time as possible.
(It should be noted that this sort of process can drive people who are themselves not creative artists completely insane. My personal favorite was when someone ranted on about how Pablo Picasso is an overrated hack because he didn’t spend a lot of time on each piece of art. But if you’ve done creative work, you know that the amount of Serious Effort you put into something can be completely disconnected from how good it is.)
Do Dok2’s songs sell that well? He freely admits (translation by nahaekim):
I don’t have amazing hit songs. . . . [I]f a person had one song that received 10 units of love, I made 10 songs that each had 1 unit of love.
Could Dok2 survive as a Standard K-Pop Group? No. Standard K-Pop Group must have every release perform up to a certain level, otherwise they go down the tubes. But Dok2 does just dandy! Why? Because it doesn’t matter to him if a song doesn’t sell that well–he’s got a dozen others in his back pocket, and (this is important) nothing is preventing him from releasing them. He doesn’t have to worry about the television shows, he doesn’t have to worry that record stores won’t stock his CDs–he doesn’t have to care about any of that.
Does he care about endorsements? Why should he? I mean, he’s not going to turn them down–it’s money after all, and we all know how Dok2 feels about that. But he doesn’t need to scramble for endorsements–he’s making plenty from his music.
Why can he do this? Digitization. This is what it does to an arts industry–it fundamentally alters the ecosystem in which artists operate so that novel business models can thrive. (This is why I think that CJ E&M bought HiLite Records not because they want to keep current with Korean music trends, but rather because they want to keep current with Korean music business model trends. Because those fuckers are changing, fast.)
What that means is that attempts to judge Dok2’s success by the same criteria one would use to judge a Standard K-Pop Group’s success are simply wrongheaded. He probably sells fewer copies of his songs than Standard K-Pop Group; he could also probably buy each member of Standard K-Pop Group ten times over. Which is success?
What intrigues me, given where I sit, is watching Block B be their weird hybrid selves. With their solo efforts, they’re following a Dok2-like path, doing multiple digital releases while forgoing CD sales and music shows. But they also do the Standard Kpop Group thing, appearing on television shows, doing choreography, and releasing CDs. I don’t know if they’ll eventually decide that they prefer one business model over the other, or if they’ll continue to do both. They probably don’t know either.
These are interesting times.