Monday, August 10, 2009

Pop Goes the Contract

There is a fairly decent overview of the contract situation faced by entertainers in Korea over in today's Joongang Ilbo. Using the lawsuit Dong Bang Shin Gi (aka TVXQ) has filed against SM Entertainment as the peg, the article looks at the long and onerous contracts that most entertainers in Korea have to have, especially singers.

As you have probably heard, on July 31, three members of DBSG filed suit against its management company, claiming their contract is unfair. DBSG is one of SME's most popular bands these days, and is doing especially well in Japan, where they recently played two nights in the Tokyo Dome. The band's complaints were mostly the same things we have heard over and over again in Korea over the years -- their contracts are too long, their contracts do not pay enough, the penalties for leaving the management company are too severe, the performers do not have enough control over their own careers, the performers are not paid enough (probably the biggest issue).

I do not want to get into the details of DBSG's particular case. That is something for the Korean courts to decide. But I do think that cases like these bring up a much bigger point.

Arguing about the "fairness" of idol contracts -- how many years should they be, how much should the performers be paid, etc. -- misses the big point. I am tempted to call it "Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," but that is probably a bit harsh -- after all, the Korean entertainment industry is showing few signs of sinking any time soon. It is more like arguing about what kind of pain reliever is best for a critically ill patient. That is, such talk deals mostly with the symptoms of the disease and misses out entirely on the causes.

Korea's pop idols are not paid poorly and overcontrolled because the management companies are evil. The management companies are just doing their best within the current system. And judging by the long list of big stars who have emerged from Korea's music system over the years, they are apparently doing something right.

The trouble is, Korea's music system itself, which is very resource-intensive and very top-down (like far too much of the Korean economy in general). Because the burden of developing stars and marketing them falls solely on the music companies, it takes a huge amount of money to create new stars. The biggest companies have over 50 performers (mostly young people) in training at a time, taking dance classes, singing classes, learning how to act like stars, and usually living in company housing, eating food paid for by the company, being driven everywhere by the company. All this adds up pretty quickly.

So when a band gets paid pennies for an album sale, you have to remember that the performers spent years in training before they earned any money, and that for each performer earning money and doing well, there are many other aspiring young people who never make it, but who nonetheless burn through company money. How many hopefuls does each company have for each performer who makes it? Five? Ten? I do not know, but it is big enough.

The real problem (as I argue in my book, POP GOES KOREA) is the lack of diversity in Korea's music business, in particular the lack of a live music scene. In most countries, live music is the core, the heart. Young people pick up instruments and play in their parents' garages or wherever. Some get good enough to play in clubs. A few get good enough to put out albums (or MP3s or whatever). A very few make money. Basically, the cost and inconvenience of developing acts falls on the wanna-be performers. By the time they get to the music labels, a lot of the winnowing and development has already happened.

Even in Japan, where J-Pop is big business, you have J-Rock and jazz and a fairly wide range of choices. And choices drive competition, when reduces the stranglehold that music companies otherwise might have.

Strangely, Korea used to have a great live music scene. It was a long time ago, but back in the 1960s and 1970s, most of the big performers had a live music background, whether playing on the US Army bases around the country or playing the live clubs of Myeong-dong or wherever. Even in the 1980s, as Korea's music scene turned more poppy and synthesized (and saccharine), there was still a live foundation most of the acts had -- Cho Yong-pil, Shin Hae-chul, Jo Sung-mo, and the like were all live performers first.

But in the early 1990s, the scene began to change, especially with the coming of Seo Taiji. Even though Seo Taiji wrote his songs (well, mostly) and performed them himself, he typically performed them prerecorded, with The Boyz dancing away furiously beside him. It was the formula that Korea's music companies would use to create their boy- and girl-bands. And soon the manufactured dance bands came fast and furious. Within a few years, they dominated the TV music shows, Mnet, and the like.

For a generation of young people in Korea, being a "star" has meant being a dancer first, a pretty face and perhaps a singer. Very few young people pick up a guitar with dreams of making it big. Sure, plenty of kids play music, for any number of reasons. But few harbor serious dreams of using the guitar (or whatever) to become rock stars.

And as long as the live music scene is not a viable route to becoming a star in Korea, the local music scene will remain dominated by the music labels and manufactured pop music.

The funny thing is, for all the talk of the dominating power of the music companies, the truth is they are actually very weak. They are merely responding to the economics they are given. If young people were to choose different music, the whole system would fall apart. If playing in Hongdae became a route to fame and fortune, then the system would have to change. But as long as Korean young people show no interest in anything but K-Pop, all they will be given is K-Pop. And the system will not really change.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for such an in depth article. I've been following the DBSK scandal for so long and I've never really spoken up because at the back of my mind, I always thought, everyone keeps saying SM is evil and that it's all their fault, but somehow, that didn't fit.

I'm a media productions student and all throughout this whole issue, the one thing I've been thinking is, do the fans really know how much it takes to produce a group such as DBSK?

Thanks for putting things in perspective! Cheers!

Chuck said...

"As you have probably heard, on July 31, three members of DBSG filed suit against its management company, claiming their contract is unfair."

If it was unfair, why did they sign it? I'm pretty sure no one was holding a gun to their heads. Ergo, they honor the contract. You can't have your cake, and eat it too.

jenny said...

excellent post. i especially agree about the utter lack of diversity in large-market korean music. sigh.

ROK Hound said...

Where they say unfair, I would hazard that some clauses might even be unconstitutional. If something is unconstitutional and you want it struck down, you have file a suit. It's not something that can be solved with contract law and the Labor Board.

Anonymous said...

Such good points, holy crap.

Great article!

SC said...

First off, thanks for writing this. I respect your opinion a lot and was hoping you would address the topic.
However, I feel a bit as if you turning things on their head... Running a company is hard, yes, but most blame this on the failing economy and downloading behaviour of consumer. Small companies indeed can but do their best to compete and adapt, but don't big labels only profit from allowing little independency and variety? Limiting competition has brought them advantage, not the consumers: it's a monopoly situation. I would think the high demands of the youth are a response to the standard of training and marketing a company like SME uses to stay on top. They've created a brand image of a label that invests well and brings succes. Besides thinking they need smooth looks and moves, young fans of kpop dream of getting recognition from a well-known company and becoming part of a 'trainee family'. Even many TVXQ fans hesitate to side with their idols out of respect and loyalty towards SME. Naturally, SME can only keep this up with a sufficient pool of trainees and exploitation of artists to free investment money. It's not an easy or inexpensive job, but as long as they keep control over their production, they can continue to more or less dictate the public's taste.
Wanting to change the system through Korean youth taking a different interest is like wishing they would start watching less popular shows and tune away from big radiostations. All youth want to fit in with the mainstream. Blaming bad music on bad taste is one thing, saying good taste could overrule the financial overweight of companies another. To get back to TVXQ's case - established artists who've left their company would have more individuality and sincerity than artists kept in groups bound to a concept. It might take away some power from big companies. When distributed to small companies and artists that work for themselves, this might lead to more variety. So, if we want to help the patient, fighting long, tightly binding and exploitative contracts is, I believe, most definitely relevant.

In any case, thanks for sharing your knowledge. I think it would be great if Korean youth learned of the other ways of becoming an artist besides signing questionable contracts and I would love it if you defended/explained your point of view in a reply.

Mark Russell said...

Thank you for your comments, everyone. It is always nice when something you write gets people talking.

To SC: I rarely approve of letting consumers off the hook. In a free market, they are at least 50% of any equation.

And SM Entertainment is definitely not a monopoly. Especially not in the digital age. There are many other forms of music available readily to anyone and everyone. Even if teenagers want to fit in and listen to the same music, how does that explain everyone else? Why do not university students and adults listen to more varieties of music?

A small number of people have always had a lot of power in the music and entertainment industries, in Korea and other countries. Feel free to pick up a copy of my book and get the bigger story about why Korea has evolved in the way it has. ;)

I will try to post more about this soon, as soon as I get a free moment from work.

SC said...

Thank you for your reply. I'd like to correct that I didn't mean to say there's a literal monopoly in the hands of SM. I was referring to your statement that at the moment esp. teenagers think the only way to break through is through being trained by a company... But in any case... As someone who only has contact with the teenage market - which can be called anti-diversity and sensitive to advertisment by nature, I definitely don't know about young adults or adults. Reading about their part in this story and about how they might influence the music industry more and in a more positive way would be great. I look forward to any other articles and will look into purchasing your book.