Saturday, September 08, 2007

Rank Music

Fairly lame article at The Korea Herald today (big surprise, I know) about pop music television programs that manages to repeat a lot of silly notions, reverse cause and effect, and in general misunderstand the music industry's woes. You can read it here.

The point of the article is that Korea's TV channels are thinking of bringing back chart shows, counting down the top songs of the week. Those shows were common and popular on Korean TV until a constant barrage of ranking scandals forced all those shows to give up their ranking schemes

That type of program was abolished in 2001 as debate over the fairness of such criteria gathered momentum. A big part of the controversy involved the recognition that such popularity-based programs were biased too much in favor of the tastes of teenyboppers, and more seriously, regarding possible favoritism resulting from the access which artists' agents had to programmers.

Note: The Korean Herald story claims the chart shows were discontinued in 2001, but I believe only KBS's Music Bank ended its countdown then. SBS's POP CHART LIVE went until January 2003. I cannot find my notes right now, but I think MBC, Mnet and KMTV all discontinued their charts later in 2003 when some big payola scandals broke.

Anyhow, the story was mostly okay up until that point, then it continues with this:

With the pop music market always redefining the term "worst possible," regarding really poor sales, (there have been only two albums which have sold over 100,000 copies in the first half of this year), networks are considering resurrecting such programs as a way of revitalizing the local pop music scene, which, once again, is triggering a controversy.

Not really the writer's fault, but what a stupid notion -- that chart shows will bring back interest in the music scene. Ratings were falling for the music chart shows for some time, as were sales.

"The depressed pop music market is related to the unpopular pop music programs," Kang Young-sun, producer of Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation's "Show Music Center" said in an interview. "The rating system should be positively encouraged if it can help the market regain its old popularity," he continued.

Ugh. No, the depressed music market is not a result of the unpopular music programs. The programs are unpopular because the music is unpopular.

Whatever angle you approach it from, the controversy boils down to a dispute over the fairness of the programs' criteria in deciding rankings.

Well, yes and no. Having reliable, fair charts is important. Certainly in the past, Korea's various charts were blatantly unfair, biased against artists who did not promote on a particular channel, and highly influenced by payola. Today, though, there is a lot less money being made and a lot more outlets for music (albeit the same music most of the time).

No, the real problem is not the current lack of charts but the continual reliance on teen-pop music to the complete disregard of almost all other genres. Sure it worked for Seo Taiji and H.O.T, but you can only go to the well so many times. It has been 14 YEARS, and the Korean music industry is still cranking out the same, tired formula.

When the Backstreet Boys stopped selling, the American music industry moved on and found new acts. Pop rises, pop falls, rock rises, rock falls, same with hiphop, country, and all the other genres. Just imagine what the American music industry would be like if, once Backstreet Boys stopped selling so well, the music industry kept pumping out more and more Backstreet Boys (and Backstreet Boys-like music). Of course sales would plummet.

But that is what the Korean music industry has done. A little bit of "techno" has been added to the mix, some "urban" (god, I hate the euphemism), but for the most part, it is the same gruel as ever. Sure, middle school kids deserve their bubblegum pop, but what about the rest of the country? Are 25-year-old men supposed to listen to that music? Are 40-year-old women?

Pop music desperately needs other genres to recharge its batteries. The annoying thing (to me) is that Korea once had that diversity. It had folk, rock, trot (of course) and more. But the military governments killed a lot of that, and then the huge success of dance-pop and ballads made way too many producers focus that music, which they did very well, but at the expense of almost everything else.

The movie industry revived in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it discovered new voices and variety (although that had given way to an ominous sameness in the last couple of years). Korean TV dramas did well around Asia for a time because they were so different than local fair (although they, too, are showing signs of losing popularity due to sameness).

When will producers in all of Korea's media realize that it is to their advantage to keep trying new things, instead of safely repeating the same thing, over and over? Korea's writers, directors and songwriters have all shown themselves to be incredibly talent and creative when given the chance. What is it going to take for them to get the chance again? Or, better yet, when will they demand their creative freedom again?


gordsellar said...

When it becomes commercially feasible?

I may be a musical freak, but to me, groups like Hwang Shin Hae Band and 3rd Line Butterfly are the kinds of bands who could revivify music... except that their music lives and breathes in the live setting. (Like most really alive, revivifying, electrifying music.) The immense majority of Koreans have no experience of really live performances, and the ones who are otherwise have mostly seen prepackaged "shows" of pop music or mass-market comedy. Alternatives can't flourish if people aren't interested in paying a little money to see them. So to me, it all boils down to too little demand.

Mark Russell said...

Hi Gord:

Thanks for the comments (this one and the one in my Six Degrees of Obfuscation post).

I agree that demand is low. But I think there are reasons it is low. Korea has a history of supporting live clubs, and demand could be improved.

Supply creates its own demand, as the saying goes. Groups like Deli Spice were able to build a following and pull themselves out of Hongdae. Other bands and clubs could do the same.

All entertainment fields need entrepreneurs who help find talent and grow the market. Audiences can learn and change over time -- look at the Korean movie market or how cable television has soared recently.