Near the end of March, 2017, I interviewed Kpopalypse, a music expert actively working in the music industry.
One of the things that prompted me to ask Kpopalypse questions was something that (actor and producer) Aaron Sorkin said in a commercial for his screenwriting masterclass: “It’s not just that dialogue sounds like music to me. It actually is music.”
So, who better to ask about music than a music expert?
Disclaimer: I have not attended Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting masterclass. I’m not receiving a referral fee nor any other gain by linking to Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting masterclass. I’m not endorsing Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting masterclass. I don’t know what’s in Aaron Sorkin’s masterclass. But the commercial for his screenwriting masterclass provoked a thought in me so I have provided links to it for anyone who is interested.
In this interview, you may see reference to singer and actress Lee Hae-In (link to her instagram). I originally wanted to use pictures of her to show my facial reactions to what Kpopalypse was saying during the interview, but then I realized that I probably can’t legally do that without asking Lee Hae-in for permission first. This website is part of a registered business and the pictures that I wanted to use are from Lee Hae-in’s personal instagram.
In Kpopalypse’s interview post, he posted a picture of Lee Hae-in above each question in his transcription of the interview, which can be read here: Kpopalypse Interview – Episode 3
Warning: The interview, and Kpopalypse’s website, contains coarse language.
Coarse language is expected in the music industry in some parts of the world. You can read more about the music industry in Kpopalypse’s posts about the music industry (including organized crime and sexual exploitation), drugs in the music industry, and where money comes from in the music industry. Kpopalypse also writes articles about the technical aspects of music, music production, and singing, among other things. He also writes about boobs and other sexually-charged topics. Kpopalypse.com is not a Christian website. I thought you should know that going in.
The interview that I had with Kpopalypse is mostly clean. I’ve replaced some words in this interview with asterisks, but that does not change the meaning that Kpopalypse was conveying. You can read the original version of this interview (and see pictures of Lee Hae-in) on Kpopalypse’s website.
I considered using LE’s (of EXID) facial expressions instead of Lee Hae-In’s, because LE has been giving us so many facial expressions while she’s been taking care of the members in her group (while the group leader, Solji, is on medical vacation), but I couldn’t be bothered taking the screenshots. So here’s the video, for your entertainment! (The members start being really annoying about 3 minutes into the video.)
One of the questions that prompted me to contact Kpopalypse is, ‘How do people in the music industry make money?’ I wanted to know how people who work in artistic industries support themselves because, maybe, the ways that people do things in one artistic industry can be applied to other artistic industries as well.
That resulted in 10 questions which became an interview that was 2 hours long.
It took Kpopalypse 6 hours to transcribe the recording of our interview (Kpopalypse recorded the interview).
Here is the interview. When a name appears at the beginning of a paragraph, that person is talking until the other person’s name appears. I did it this way, instead of bolding my questions, because this interview is more a discussion than a straight ‘question and answer’ interview and it’s easier to read large blocks of text when they’re not in bold.
Kpopalypse speaking: Kpopalypse is back with another Kpopalypse interview! This time it’s Kpopalypse as the interview subject!
The QRIMOLE series has been going great, and lots of people have been sending in some excellent questions. However one person called Smartryk Foster had so many questions that he sent them in by email instead. As they were all very good questions, I felt that a good response was beyond the scope of even QRIMOLE and that it might work best if I have a chat to him via Skype and answer everything in an interview format.
Smartryk is an interesting person in his own right, who has a keen interest in writing, and he has a website which you can visit, which is smartrykfoster.com. There’s a lot of content on there, much of which is Christian bible studies (a topic about as far away ideologically from my own writing as anything I can think of, but if you’re into that feel free to check it out), but there’s also other stuff like links to a useful book you can purchase to help you with story writing, and small essays on related story-writing topics that cover writing technique which some folks reading this with writing aspirations might also find useful. Smartryk also has an appreciation for Lee Haein of Gangkiz, which is important.
Smartryk only asked ten questions, but they were of high quality and mostly turned into wildly tangenital conversations, all of which are recreated here for your reading pleasure.
Smartryk: Thank you for agreeing to this interview! And how about you introduce yourself?
Kpopalypse: I’m Kpopalypse, from Kpopalypse blog! I’m a music teacher, I’ve worked in audio engineering, music management, etc. – all this in the Kpopalypse FAQ. I’m not in the k-pop scene itself but I know people who are in those related industries in the west so I’ve got a pretty good idea about the business side of things. Sure Korean culture is different, but what tends to not be different is business practices, as money’s fairly universal! There’s a lot of common elements, and I do see those reflected in the rare chances I do get to interact with Koreans who are in the k-pop business in some form. I don’t know if you’ve read my previous interviews…
Smartryk: I actually did read the Sarah Wolfgang one, but haven’t read the others yet.
Kpopalypse: A lot of that reconfirms for me a lot of the things that I know to already be true, but if I say it’s true nobody’s necessarily going to believe it, because I’m not in that area of the business. So that’s part of the reason for doing the interviews, to say “here’s someone who is/was in the business, and here’s what they think”.
Smartryk: Not only do you have your own business knowledge but you’ve sourced information from people in various parts of the industry, so you can actually say you really know what you’re talking about.
Kpopalypse: The nature of the Internet is that anybody can put anything up there and people do that a lot, which is why there’s so much misinformation about all sorts of things. K-pop’s very young audience is full of that sort of misinformation probably more so than a lot of places, but I don’t want to be someone saying “look at me I know everything”, it’s better if I can back it up somewhere, as there’s no reason why someone should necessarily take my word for it. I do want people to question what they read and that includes questioning what I write! People shouldn’t take what I write as the gospel truth necessarily, just like they shouldn’t believe what’s on some shitty Korean news site. I’m trying to give an example of going deeper, I think that’s something people should do.
Smartryk: Something that has occurred to me is that, when the audience is basically children, they look at what they see and then they make decisions and actions based on what they see, not thinking about all the things that happen behind the scenes and all the business logic behind it.
A lot of the time, if they’re kids who are still in high school, they’re not even thinking in terms of business logic — you learn that in college.
Kpopalypse: People accept the reality that is presented to them. That’s what The Matrix is all about – people don’t generally have a reason to question their reality if it’s something that works for them. That applies to all sorts of different things.
Smartryk: And then sometimes, if people are looking for knowledge about some things, you might have a bunch of conflicting information from people who are spreading misinformation, and in the end you don’t really know what is truthful and sourced from good sources, and what is just people putting our misinformation for all sorts of reasons.
You look at the whole T-ara controversy: it was an internal conflict that blew out of proportion, mainly because a bunch of people were spreading malicious lies.
Kpopalypse: That’s why my blog focuses a fair bit on the T-ara controversy. I’ve never done a big “let’s explain the T-ara controversy” post, but I’ve used it as a jumping-off point for about 50 or 60 other articles, talking about all sorts of different things.
Smartryk: I actually looked into that extensively and could give my own observations about what I think probably happened to cause this whole thing, but out of respect for T-ara and their upcoming comeback, I personally think it’s a good idea not to focus on that at all.
It really was an internal thing that became external and blew out of proportion. There were many things that went wrong, many things that could have been handled better, but most of it is just people lying about them, and that has caused such an uproar since 2012.
Recently, Jiyeon decided to postpone her comeback because of the recent news about Hwayoung because Jiyeon wanted to be judged on her musical talents, not receive sympathy sales or whatever from people who are saying “poor T-ara” now. For their sake I think we should all not focus on that until maybe after they disband.
Kpopalypse: People ask “why is k-pop so secretive behind the scenes”, but if people knew what was actually going on, it would just generate more stuff like what happened with T-ara.
Smartryk: Especially because of how fans would react, protesting and causing things to be taken off shelves, etc. I mean, social justice is great and all, but come on people!
Kpopalypse: The path to hell is paved with good intentions!
Smartryk: I was looking for info on how to market books in the publishing industry. When I read your post about how K-pop stars are the ‘shelf space’ and how they earn money primarily through endorsements, it reminded me of an interview that I watched recently.
In it, someone who works at the ‘Globe and Mail’ news site explained how their news website makes money through sponsorships and ad revenue, and how [that] sometimes dictates which news articles they feature more prominently and which news articles gets published (especially in the more specific news categories on their website).
While reading your article, it seemed to me that news articles on websites are ‘shelf space’ (and perhaps in newspapers also), that marketing is designed to manipulate people’s behaviour, and that retailers sell consumers’ behaviour to product manufacturers who sell to consumers.
Kpopalypse: Yes, I would agree with all that.
Smartryk: Then it struck me that this is a problem that all ‘copyrightable’ industries may face. Music, video, graphics, and text can easily be copied. That’s a bulk of the world’s arts, or at least how most arts are mass-distributed to consumers. It’s also news and anything else that can be easily copied (and pirated). It’s information that can be electronically transferred.
So I was wondering, how do artists who are not ‘shelf space’ promote themselves? How do they earn money? Are they sustained through music sales? If you can, I’d like you to answer those questions [for] artists in Korea, specifically, and for artists elsewhere (specific to regions/countries or in general). Are indie artists given the same type of contracts that that pop artists are given (in Korea and elsewhere) and do their labels think ‘If the artist is making a profit, I’m not doing my job’?
Kpopalypse: How do artists who are not shelf space promote themselves? The answer is, generally, with great difficulty! You have to find a niche somewhere. These days you can’t really rely on the sales. Artists who were millionaires in the 90s are these days using Kickstarter to get their funding. The technology’s changed everything, and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, it’s not going to go back to how it was. This is something that the industry’s been struggling with for quite some time, in that they’ve been forced to get away from the idea of selling the music or the book as the actual product, and move onto selling other things. Kpop does this particularly well, they’ve realised that they can’t make a living selling the digital singles that cost five cents and that anyone can pirate anyway, but what they can provide as a saleable product is more the actual idol themselves, and the cultural experience of “experiencing the idol”. The music itself is not the business anymore, it’s the business card, and people see the business card and see “this company has all these idols and this massive fanbase, and maybe I’d like to do business with them and they can sell my t-shirts or my coffee cups” or whatever. That’s where the really big k-pop labels make the money through the really big stars, not through any music. They don’t make anything from music directly, unless they’re like a million-seller. You need to have an absolute super-monster hit to be making decent liveable money off music. Something like 50.000 sales is not enough. Divide 50.000 by however many people who are in the group, then take away all the company overheads, it’s peanuts honestly. So k-pop companies have worked out that they have to feed off other industries, so they’ll feed off Samsung, by getting their idols to promote Samsung’s TVs or something like that and collect the endorsement money from Samsung. For Samsung it’s worth it too because they’ll see their sales increase when Suzy promotes their Samsung phone or whatever it is.
In the west, it’s not working quite as well. The reason why is western audiences are a little bit more cynical about artists promoting products. It’s seen as something which is not compatible with being an artist.
Smartryk: In the west, the artists feel that they control their own music, but in Korea you’ve basically got the companies dictating to the artists. ‘this is where you’re going to sing, this is when you’re going to sing,’ etc., because they’ve basically raised the artists and the artists owe a whole bunch of debt to them.
Kpopalypse: There’s debt in the west too, but in the Korean pop there’s not the expectation that the artist is the creative person. Sure there is that expectation in certain circumstances, but with the really commercial music that’s not expected, whereas in the west that’s expected. You would expect Adele or Mariah Carey or whoever to have at least a reasonable amount of input in what they do, and whether that’s true or not, that’s certainly the expectation. So when those people start promoting products really openly that can be seen as a conflict of interest. For instance there was a really big promotion that happened in Australia a few years ago, and I don’t know if it happened overseas, with Status Quo the 60s rock band promoting Coles supermarkets which is probably the biggest supermarket chain in Australia. It was everywhere, you couldn’t watch the TV without seeing these ads. They used Status Quo’s song “Down Down” for a jingle “the prices are going down” with this big arrow-finger, it was really cheesy and it was everywhere. I don’t even watch TV, I haven’t watched TV since 2002 and even I saw the ads. They copped a lot of criticism, from people saying “here’s this supposedly great classic rock band, and they’re cheapening themselves with these advertisements for a supermarket”.
Smartryk: There’s also some feeling that people have an emotional attachment to the song, it means something to them, then they see it being used in some cheesy commercial and it’s weakening the experience that they had when they first listened to the song.
Kpopalypse: That’s why The Beatles always refused advertising, because they were that big that they didn’t need it, and they felt “we don’t want to cheapen the experience of our songs for our fans”. So that’s why you don’t hear Beatles songs in advertising, and if you do attempt to use their songs, the company that owns them (I think it’s Michael Jackson’s company) will serve you a Cease & Desist, and that’s happened quite a bit, they’re quite proactive about removing any instance of their music in advertising.
Smartryk: That’s also to preserve the prestige and quality of the music. If it’s not the type of music you have in advertising in general it shows ‘this music is a cut above, this is the way it’s supposed to be in its pure form, and if you want to use this music for anything, you’re going to be using it to listen to it.’
Kpopalypse: My personal view on it is that it doesn’t change the music in any way whatsoever, and therefore I don’t really care. I just care so little about what people do as a general rule, that I don’t really give a shit if music I like is being used in an advertising context or not – it doesn’t change my experience. Certainly other people don’t feel that way. Of course if you hear it all the time you get sick of it, and it builds an association between that song and whatever the product is, whereas before they may have had an association with that song and being in high school or whatever, so it ruins that for them. I guess because I’ve been in the business for so long, I just see it and I think it’s fine, plus I’m used to k-pop where they do it and I think it’s fine, because I know how little money people make. I just think that whatever people can do to make money is fine, and if people have a problem with it then it’s their problem! Obviously that’s a fairly minority opinion that I hold!
Smartryk: Maybe the reason why Korean idols can make the money on endorsements is because the companies are selling the image of the k-pop stars, and the fans are rallying so much around the person that they’re willing to try to support the person by buying whatever the person is selling. So when the person endorses something, the audience may not necessarily be buying it because of the person [saying] it’s good but because the person can make some money if they buy the thing that the person is endorsing.
Kpopalypse: That’s definitely a motivation for people to buy stuff. Fans have worked out that it’ll look good for the sales guy. Part of the power of endorsements is just fans being easily led, but part of it is also the smarter fans who realise that these k-pop idols might not be making much money so they think “let’s spend a bit of money to help them”.
Smartryk: I remember hearing that the K-pop stars are not really considered to be true artists by the public because they don’t control their own music, except rare cases like G-Dragon or Akdong Musician, and that there are actually a bunch of other genres in Korea that are more popular with the public that are not blasted in commercials and everything else all the time. It’s just that it’s the k-pop that gets aired on TV and radio.
Kpopalypse: The average man on the street in Korea, they’ll know G-Dragon and Girls’ Generation, but they don’t care about or even really know about most of the idols that your average international k-pop fan would. Groups like Jaurim, J-Rabbit, Busker Busker, are way bigger than the idol stuff, it’s only the real peak of the idols that get to the same level in terms of recognition and sales. However what you’ve also got to consider is Jaurim is not making any extra money selling shampoo, they’re probably making all their money through the traditional methods of selling CDs or touring. This gets back to your question “how do artists who are not shelf space promote themselves, how do they earn money” – well some of them have to go through the traditional methods and it’s just as hard there as it is for the idols. Bands who are either not on labels, or who are but aren’t marketed in an idol direction, they’re in the same predicament that the western bands are in where only the absolutely top 1% make a sustainable living and the rest of them are either struggling really hard or they have second jobs. I was talking to the guy from the Korean Indie website who is in Korea and has a lot of contact with various “indie” groups and asked him “who’s actually making money” and he said “there’s only two groups that are making a living, all the other ones are scraping by or working part-time jobs”. I’m the same, I can’t make a living purely off of music and I do other jobs from time to time, that’s the way it is, and the way it is for 99% of people in the industry. If you’re an idol in that situation where you’re not making money it’s a slightly different kettle of fish but – you’re still broke! So you have to make money somehow. It’s a difficult thing for everybody.
The music industry globally has been on the downturn since the 1990s. Will it ever be different? People are probably always going to value music and creative art in general, but I think the days where people are willing to fork out the sort of money they used to for that sort of stuff are over and probably over for good, so there’s going to be less of it that’s sustainable. As the music industry is a glamour industry, it’s an industry in which a lot of people want to be working. Whenever you’ve got an industry that’s a glamour industry – music, writing, photography, acting, modelling – there’s always going to be more people wanting to work in that industry than there are people who can actually make a living sustainably from it, as the supply of labour exceeds demand for the product. What that does is it pushes the wages down, if everyone wants to work then you can afford to treat them like shit. That’s how Produce 101 gets away with whatever they get away with, because people are so desperate to be the next star and there’s that 1% chance, and they know that people are willing to forego quite a lot of comforts now for that slim possibility of living on a golden cloud later on.
Smartryk: Even if they don’t win, if they do something at least memorable on TV to get their name out there, they might get more opportunities to do something else to promote themselves.
Kpopalypse: As people are finding out, the real winners of those sort of shows are not the official winners, but the ones who make a memorable impression with the public. In the latest Produce 101 TV show, Jang Moonbok will probably end up doing okay (notwithstanding some unfortunate accident of some kind) because he’s just made an impression and that’s more important than being at number one. With the Unpretty Rapstar show there was Truedy who won it, but nobody liked her, so her win didn’t matter, and it was Yezi from Fiestar who ended up getting all the benefits from wining even though she didn’t win. The same thing happened with Busker Busker, who didn’t win the show that made them famous, but they hit it off with the public. There’s an analogy between this and what I was talking about before, where it’s all about selling the person, not selling the music – these shows are all about selling the people. It doesn’t matter if you get a number one hit, what matters is does the public recognise you as a person of interest? Sometimes those two elements are part of the same thing, sometimes they’re not.
Smartryk: I remember I think from one of your articles, Yezi made a rap about how the show was scripted and how she was not supposed to win, [Kpopalypse note: actually this was an Asian Junkie article] and that got edited out, which tells me that in that analogy you basically have the show being the store deciding where the shelf is supposed to be, and she was not the primary shelf that she wanted to advertise expensive products on, so…
Kpopalypse: Someone put her on the wrong shelf, so the show was like “nope, none of that… go back to where you’re supposed to be!” Later on maybe they realised “okay, maybe we should have put her there after all” but of course they can’t really admit that sort of thing.
Smartryk: I’m thinking that if that show is scripted, then probably Produce 101 is scripted, and probably all the other things that have to do with advertising or promoting K-pop stars are probably also scripted because they’re trying to make an impression with the audience.
Smartryk: Which is kind of deceptive, really.
Kpopalypse: Well, yeah.
Smartryk: The whole thing about the K-pop stars being sold as the ‘personality’ to people, why does that work in Korea and not elsewhere and why does Korea seem to focus on advertising through endorsements as opposed to companies in the west that advertise through brand value?
One thought that came to me is that because Korea is under so much pressure, not only through their school system but also through their structure of work [life] and social life, to the point where it’s the suicide capital of the world… maybe because the people are under so much pressure, they gravitate toward a K-pop star’s life as kind of ‘escapist fantasy’ and that’s why they can get so emotional and worked up about things. If something destroys that fantasy then it’s having a serious impact on that person’s life because that person is holding onto that fantasy for dear life to escape the pain in their own life.
Maybe that’s why that particular side of the K-pop industry works, to allow the endorsements to happen.
Kpopalypse: I was talking to a person a while back who is a big fan of reality TV (he shall remain nameless, to protect the guilty!). He also has a high-level job that probably pays well but comes with a lot of stress. He said to me that he uses his brain all day at work, and when he gets home he doesn’t want to think. He loves watching reality TV, he says “I know it’s bullshit, and that it’s all crap and people say to me ‘why are you watching this bullshit? You’re smart enough to know that this is stupid’ and I say ‘yes I know it’s stupid and that’s kind of why I like it, I’m not after anything intellectual, I’ve got enough intellectual stimulation in my life, I don’t need more of that, I just want something that’s funny and entertaining and silly. I know it’s the dumbest thing in the world but I don’t care, it suits what I want when I come home from work’.
Smartryk: Something to relax the brain.
Kpopalypse: Yes. You can see Koreans engaging in that way with k-pop all the time. There wouldn’t be this big swell of fluffy boy and girl groups if there wasn’t a whole bunch of people seriously interested in escapism. I think a lot of people in Korea have trouble coping with life, it’s certainly not a place that I’d ever want to live, people often assume I’m obsessed with Korean culture or something because I do a k-pop blog, but no not at all. I like the pop music, I like the food and honestly that’s it. Everything else about Korea to me is really unappealing, and I could never live there, it would drive me nuts.
Smartryk: I’ve heard that the local term for Korea among Koreans is “hell Korea” because of how hard it is to live there.
Kpopalypse: Korea has a lot of problems and I feel much luckier living where I am now, that’s for sure. So people are stressed there. School life obviously sucks, that’s well-documented, every single male living there above a certain age is an army veteran, that’s got to have an impact…
Smartryk: Not to mention the things that go on in the army…
Kpopalypse: I’m sure if there’s so much bullying in school the army’s even worse. University there is bad, working life is bad, there’s all these crazy rules… I don’t think I’d have a very good time in Korea, I’d be happier here. I think when you have a really under-pressure population of course escapism is going to be popular, for the same reason it’s popular anywhere else, but maybe there’s just a little bit more need for it in a country like that.
Smartryk: Why do some people think that they have to promote an artist until all that artist’s profit has been eaten up? Is it a business decision, or out of spite…? I remember you mentioning that when talking about how music works in the west.
Kpopalypse: Well why not? There’s still some profit to be made, why wouldn’t they? I guess it is a business decision to exploit the revenue until it’s not there. If you dig a hole in the ground to mine coal, you mine it until there’s no more coal and then you go somewhere else. If they’re looking at the artist as a product to be used, then they’ll use that product, and once the amount of returns they’re getting from the product are not at least equal to what they’re putting in, then the artist is now a resource no longer worth bothering with so they’ll wind down their use of that resource and wind it up somewhere else, someone younger or prettier or whatever. It’s not really a spiteful decision, it’s just the reality that they’re trying to stay afloat as a business, and exploiting people is part of the business.
Smartryk: That sucks!
Kpopalypse: It’s just reality. It’s kinda messed up, but that’s the music business all over – it’s changed from exploiting music to exploiting people. Exploitation isn’t necessarily a negative thing if you’re realistic about it. If I was a young and attractive person (which I’m definitely not) and was wanting to get into k-pop but with my current wisdom, I’d say “okay I’m probably going to be young and attractive until I’m about a certain age, so once I get to age X I’d better have my backup plan and think about how I’m going to move into something else”. It sucks, but they’re also responding to demand and the fact that people don’t want old, ugly idols. MBK debuted that group Gangkiz where all the girls are 27, 28, 29 years old straight out of debut, they did this in early 2012 hot off the success of T-ara before the whole scandal erupted, and with similar songs. Theoretically it should have gone nuclear but instead it completely died, and it’s because girls of that age just can’t compete with all the other stuff that’s going on, and that’s just the reality of it. If companies are doing stuff that sucks, it’s only because the people who are buying it suck. There was that group called Piggy Dolls with all chubby girls in the group and they couldn’t make any money, nobody wanted to endorse that. Then the agency came back and reformed the group with different girls and everyone complained “oh that’s so terrible, they got rid of them and started a new Piggy Dolls with completely different girls” but if they really wanted those original girls why didn’t they put their money where their mouth was and make a noise about them on social media, support them in some way at the time, but they didn’t. I bought a Piggy Dolls album from some k-pop store in Sydney and it cost me $2.50 because no-one would buy it, I was the only one, it had been sitting on the shelf for years! So it’s the whole “be the change that you want to see”, people complain all day about these companies being bastards, but they’re just responding to what you’re doing.
Smartryk: It comes back to the point of – if you like something, support it, and if you don’t, vote with your wallet instead of going on the Internet and blasting people.
Kpopalypse: Yeah, exactly. People who are doing it the right way are people like Korean Indie, who is like “I really want to see indie bands get more exposure, I really like this, I don’t like the corporate stuff, so therefore I’m going to start up a platform and dedicate it to what I think should be getting exposure and try to promote that and get people to interview etc” and I’m the same with certain things. I don’t like the fact that k-pop fans are so irrational. I don’t like the fact that people are ruining the musical experience for others by being concerned with all this other bullshit which I think does not matter, so I was like “alright I’m going to start a blog where I’m going to talk about some of the bullshit, and try and do it in a funny way, that people are actually going to want to read so it’s not a lecture, and people don’t feel like they’re reading some boring crap, but they can still have an underlying subtext of trying to broaden your mind a bit”. If you want the world to get better, if you don’t like something then there are things you can do to improve their lot in some small way. Sure, my blog is a small thing, Korean Indie is a small thing, buying someone’s T-shirt is a small thing, but if a lot of people do it… corporate activity is the real democracy in society today.
Smartryk: A million people buying something for a dollar each is a million dollars.
Kpopalypse: If everybody on the Internet who said “I’m bummed out because Piggy Dolls’ company sucks because they disbanded Piggy Dolls” – if all those people had gone out and bought a Piggy Dolls album, they might’ve stayed on for another six months. I think that people are hypocritical about that. I get that it seems kinda sucky on the face of it, but the companies are just responding to human nature, and human nature wants young attractive people so they’re just responding to that. If you don’t like that, then make your own human nature better, and they’ll respond to that.
Smartryk: Speaking of Gangkiz, I remember in one of your articles you mentioned that you liked Lee Haein and were wondering what happened to her.
Kpopalypse: Yes – do you have some information on that?
Smartryk: Yes, she became an actress and she is on Instagram.
Kpopalypse: Let me know what she’s in. If it’s a TV show I won’t watch it but if it’s a movie I might.
Smartryk: She was recently in a TV show that’s 102 episodes long, and you know Korean shows are an hour a piece.
Kpopalypse: I haven’t got time for that shit!
Smartryk: [laughs] If it’s a 16 episode drama, maybe 32 or maybe 50 episodes if it’s really good, but 100-something, no, I’m not doing that!
Kpopalypse: I can’t binge-watch TV at all. I like movies because 80-90 minutes and it’s done, that’s cool. But once I start watching a TV show then I have to keep watching it, and it’s just too much time.
Smartryk: How do smaller K-pop companies stay afloat when their artists aren’t earning anything (or not much) through commercial ads or other endorsements?
Kpopalypse: They take out loans, and it’s basically a gamble. If you’re starting up a k-pop company you’re usually taking out a loan, it’s like buying a house. You need to lease a building or at least part of a building to train your people or whatever, and also you’ve got to provide for their expenses, so they’re putting out massive cash outlays to try and get the company back in the black at some point down the road, so it’s a big investment. You’re not really in a position to do this properly until you’ve banked a few million or so. This doesn’t stop people of course, so there’s plenty of companies, and that’s why there’s so many fake ones that are just fronts for organised crime or prostitution, because that actually makes more money than the idols at least in the beginning. Assuming that everything’s legit and the girls aren’t being whored out, then it’s through loans and whatever other activities. The CEO might have a business in something else. A good example is the company that’s got Loona, their videos are hugely expensive, all filmed internationally, perfect-looking videos and everyone’s like “how is the company affording this when no-one even knows who these girls are?” and the answer is the parent company is a private arms contractor that sells weapons all over the world to all different countries and this k-pop thing is their second “hobby business”, it’s a side project from one of the people who is part of this arms company.
Smartryk: That reminds me of how in Japan recently they’ve started promoting the military using anime characters. You don’t think that as something that would usually be done. And now you’re telling me that an arms company is getting into the k-pop scene …that brings all sorts of ideas for stories into my mind right now.
Kpopalypse: That’s just one, there’s a few others. With MBK, Kim Kwang Soo actually has investments in a steel company and manufacturing. One of my bosses who runs a studio that I work at also has a construction business. So the whole “one foot in music, one foot in something else”, it’s not just the artists who do that, it’s also actually the people who run companies. People love music, but they also realise that it’s hard to be successful. People still want to have songs with videos and dances with groups of girls or boys or whatever, they enjoy it and they’ll fund it in all sorts of different ways to make the reality happen.
So that’s one way – you can either put all your eggs in one basket and take out a loan or have a very rich sponsor – that’s what happened with Crayon Pop’s company by the way, they had a very rich benefactor who basically just shoved a whole bunch of money at them and said “alright, here’s your money for a few years, see what you can do”, that’s why they didn’t go belly-up and lived long enough to get a hit.
Smartryk: I was wondering about that.
Kpopalypse: So you can either “all-in”, or you can just do it on the side of something else. Doing it all-in is tough, it means that you’re banking on the success of your artists. The “big three” k-pop labels were all started by people who had great success as artists themselves in the 1990s and so they had a large financial pool to draw from to say “alright let’s set up this company and keep it going” so they were able to make that big investment and then put in the years and wait and then get returns and then build it from there, but obviously you have to be in that position in the first place, otherwise it’s not really viable.
Smartryk: So basically for the companies to be able to support the artists and not go belly-up, they really need another source of revenue coming, in as their primary source or their backup source, because the arts is such a volatile industry.
Kpopalypse: With someone debuting a girl group, with so many of them already, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be big. So they need to get some income coming in from somewhere else, either as a loan or something else. Once they’re established the bigger companies become self-sustaining and then it starts to make a profit, but a new company’s not going to experience that for many years. We’re talking about the artists being in debt and taking years to pay off their debt, but the company’s got even more debt because they’ve got all the debt of looking after the artists, the debt just goes up the chain. So when the artist finally pays off their debt, that just means that the company is not losing money on that person. Once they get to that point of break even the company is like “okay now we’re starting to see some profit, now we might be able to give you a little bit of money”.
Smartryk: And when the artist leaves the company, while owing a whole bunch of debt, then the company is still saddled with the debt and no way of making money off the artist.
Kpopalypse: Yeah, unless they send the artist a bill. Which happens. It depends on the contract. For a training period for an artist, if you go through that whole training exercise and don’t end up with a debut, which is the case for 95%, then you’re looking at a debt which is about the size of a new car – a good new car. They’ll send you that bill 9 times out of 10, unless they decide the terminate the contract with no bill, which does happen sometimes but rarely – usually if it’s a high-profile thing, like when Hwayoung was gotten rid of from T-ara they didn’t send a bill, same with a few others who were controversial. But if it’s not a controversial thing but just “oh okay, you’re out” then yeah you’re probably getting a bill.
Smartryk: I think with Hwayoung what happened was Kim Kwang Soo released her out of the goodness of his heart because he saw that she just really wasn’t mature enough to be able to handle what was going on around her…
Kpopalypse: And he was friends with her dad!
Smartryk: That too! But personally I think KKS [Kim Kwang Soo] didn’t manage the environment properly and he kind of poisoned the environment for the whole group, and I read that between the lines by looking at what he said and what the artists did. Maybe he was feeling responsible for some of this and said, “Okay, you’re talented, but I’m just going to let you go as-is. No hard feelings, but you can’t stay”.
Kpopalypse: Well I’m sure that if he had saddled her with a big debt, I’m sure she would have whinged about it on social media and it would have been an issue so I think “let’s cut my losses” was probably the smart move in that case. It would have added a lot more fuel to the anti-KKS fire that was burning pretty brightly at that time, and which was burning pretty brightly in k-pop before T-ara even existed.
Smartryk: Well, it’s burning for good reason. You know that shortly after T-ara debuted, Hyomin went on the TV show Invincible Youth and Jiyeon went on the TV show [SBS] Heroes. In one of the interviews with Hyomin near the end of Invincible Youth, she said that, in one of their performances, their costumes didn’t fit so KKS basically made them starve. Also, while she was on that show, every time the camera was off she was eating to try and just get food in her. And the food would fall on the floor, and she’d just pick it up and continue eating simply because the food was that precious at that time. Then all the other things – she says that KKS micromanages, that [there are] professionals who can do their job, but that he interferes in everything. They kind of like him, they see him as their direct leader, but they’re certainly not happy about some of the things he did, like making Qri wear a Christmas tree during a performance. And she cried for three days after that…
[Editor’s note: In this interview, Hyomin said that she cried for two days because her company wanted to her to dye her hair white. The company decided to let her hair be dyed gold instead. Qri cried because she had to wear so many Christmas-themed costumes in a short period of time. One of her costumes was a Christmas tree dress, but this video shows that she seemed to be happy performing in it. In that interview, they didn’t say how much Qri cried.]
Kpopalypse: [laughs] The only real difference for me between Kim Kwang Soo and any k-pop CEO, is that he wasn’t Internet-savvy and technology-savvy enough to not get caught. I have no doubt that exactly the same things are happening with every other k-pop company, and they’ve all got CEOs who are doing all sorts of weird things and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. When you think about what we were talking about before with the amount of investment these companies make, if those six don’t perform it’s his own livelihood on the line, so he’s probably very tempted to micromanage, and when the whole scandal blew up he gradually backed off from that and thought “oh crap, maybe I’ve gone a little bit too far here”…
Smartryk: The T-ara members are saying that now he second-guesses everything that he does because he feels that he made a really bad decision and he’s the one to blame for the state that T-ara is in.
Kpopalypse: Yes. However, micromanagement like that, that happens with all of them. You just hear about it more from T-ara. KKS is a bit older than most k-pop CEOs, he’s like an old guy with a wig, he’s not very fluid with reacting to things. When the scandal blew up he took a few days to respond and in that time all the speculation started, if he’d clamped down on it really fast arguably it wouldn’t have blown up into such a big issue…
Smartryk: When the scandal blew up, he was in Japan at the time. He dealt with it when he got back to Korea, which was a few days later.
Kpopalypse: Which was the wrong thing to do – if he was a social-media-savvy kind of guy, he would have been like “oh shit, some bad stuff’s happening with my group, better get on the Internet and fix it”. He’s an older generation guy, who probably runs a shitty old computer with Windows XP and if something ****s up someone has to go over there and help him and say “you clicked the wrong thing, you gotta move the mouse over here”, he’s probably got a personal assistant to help him buy computers…
Smartryk: That reminds me of a story I heard about some IT guy that was working at a big company, and the boss called frantically saying that he’d been hacked, and so the IT guy ran over there. And when he looked at it, he knew exactly what the problem was. He took a newspaper off the keyboard.
Kpopalypse: [laughs] So he’s one of those guys, who is old-school. He managed Boram’s mother back when she was a trot singer. All the other people who are CEOs in k-pop, they’re all my age, or JYPs age, or younger, so they’re people who have been brought up with computers and they’re aware of the technology. So they’re a bit more reactive, they’re a bit more fluid about responding to people and making the right noise on the Internet and all that sort of stuff. It’s impossible to do it completely perfectly because of the way that k-pop fans are, but they’re all a little bit better at it than KKS is, who is really bad at it. I think a couple of years ago he stepped down from his official role and delegated a lot of the micromanagey stuff to someone completely different. He’s still there as the figure of whatever for T-ara but if you look up MBK’s website he’s not the CEO anymore.
Smartryk: Yeah although T-ara does say that he’s their direct manager, so he’s still doing all the managing of T-ara specifically and that kind of makes sense given that it seems like T-ara is their bread and butter right now.
Kpopalypse: He’s been given a lower-profile position with more power, in that domain anyway.
Smartryk: Do some K-pop groups establish a ‘base of power’ in specific cities or regions, or venues, etc. where they grow their influence before they trying to become more well-known? Or do all the K-pop groups compete for the same large market, basically?
Kpopalypse: If you look at all the “adult-oriented” k-pop groups, for want of a better term, they drill down a slightly different market. Groups like Bambino, Pocket Girls, Dimepiece, Laysha, who sort of have the sexy thing going on all the time, those group can do a show in an adult club without blowing their cute image because they don’t have a “cute” image. They’ll do race-queen sort of shows.
Smartryk: The power-base that they establish is more towards specific types of market rather than to geographic locations.
Kpopalypse: Exactly. Laysha or Bambino might try and get on Music Core or whatever, but there’s only so many slots and they may or may not get on, but they don’t really care because they’ll go and dance in a club that also does strippers or something like that. They might be the half-time entertainment, who knows. Or, at a racetrack… somewhere where people go to expect to see girls in bikinis. So instead of selling the music or even the idea of themselves as idols they can sort of just sell their bodies, whereas Apink or Gfriend doesn’t have that avenue available to them because there would be a controversy.
Smartryk: Oh yeah, big time.
Kpopalypse: They are kind of stuck with the main market. The market for adult-oritented k-pop girls is slightly different to the market for Gfriend and IOI.
Smartryk: Basically, the teenage fans.
Kpopalypse: Yeah. That’s why the more squeaky-clean k-pop groups have trouble finding gigs, it’s for that reason, they can’t perform in a lot of places. It’s also why the Ladies Code accident happened. Because there are so few opportunities for shows for the more squeaky-clean k-pop groups, they have to take the opportunities that come up, and so they’ll drive back and forth between Seoul and Busan or wherever to do these gigs, and sometimes with very little sleep, sometimes with the same tour manager driving them around all the time going insane, and they’ll start speeding and things like that. There’s more pressure there when you limit your market like that. That’s the main example of that type of thing.
Smartryk: The rest of the questions take things in a bit of a different direction, but it’s kind of related because the various K-pop companies have their stars acting, whether it be in TV, movies or musicals. The following question came to me when looking at MBK’s website and finding out that they have a whole bunch of actors, most of whom don’t have credits assigned to them.
How do actors earn money? Does acting pay well enough for them to live on (obviously, this will depend on how much an actor works and how much an actor gets paid in each role) or do actors primarily make money through commercial deals, modelling, etc.?
Kpopalypse: Actors make **** all, really! If you’re not a big actor in a movie or something, you’re making peanuts. It’s really bad, for much the same reason that the music industry is really bad. Some niche acting roles do make a lot, but most don’t, and the ones that do make a lot, make a lot for a reason. It’s hard work to get on a regular basis. If you search up “how much do Korean actors make” you’ll find out plenty of information on what they make – **** all.
There’s a guy that I know who is a singer in some bands down here, and he got paid $30,000 for a 30 second TV commercial. His task in this TV commercial – I’ve never seen this commercial – but what he apparently does from memory is he rides on some ride-on lawnmower and does something silly and embarrassing, I’m not sure what it is. For that 30 seconds he got paid $30,000, like a year’s income.
Smartryk: A thousand dollars a second. That’s good money.
Kpopalypse: As it was a weird embarrassing thing that he had to do and it was for an ad that was going to be played nationally, it’s not the sort of thing that everyone would want to do and the company was a big company who were willing to throw money at it and say “$30,000 that’s no worries, we’ll make that money back in a week”. So that sort of thing is very rare but once again that’s for a product for an advertisement, that’s where the money is in acting. Unless you’re a movie star, then yes you’re making money if you’re well known, but if you’re a C-list movie then maybe not. But endorsements of products make money, because you’re feeding off another industry that is not a glamour industry, like a lawnmower industry that actually makes money – good money – selling lawnmowers to people.
The ones who appear on k-dramas, yeah it’s pretty tough. The idols who do it might make a little bit more because they can afford to charge more because they know people will watch the TV show because the idol is in it. They’re actually bringing a value to the show, which is a thing that people don’t see when they complain about idols in k-dramas. The fans think “isn’t the idol taking the spot of an actual actor who can act better and who could be getting paid?” but the thing is that whole show might not even be there if it wasn’t for the idol. The idol’s probably what’s bringing in a whole different audience that normally perhaps wouldn’t watch that show, and now they’re watching it because IU or Suzy is in it, and that’s actually making money, and advertisers see “oh IU is in this show, maybe I can put my soft drink ads in it, and people who really like IU enough to watch this show will see my drink ads”, so it also more attractive for endorsements. IU can afford to charge $80,000 to be in a k-drama for a bit whereas your average actor can’t because they’re not going to make $80,000 worth of returns, whereas IU will charge a lot but she’ll pay for herself because that extra revenue will come in because she is there. The whole show might not even be viable if she’s not there. If you just throw in a bunch of actors and nothing else, and no other reason to watch it, hey it might be successful anyway but it might not. If you’ve got that idol there it’s a bit of an insurance policy so you can say “hey maybe the show might be a hit or it might end up being a bit crap but at least we’ll definitely have the idol fans watching it and we can say to our advertisers ‘you can be sure all the Kai from EXO fans are watching it because Kai is in it, so if you want your product to be seen by all these crazy people, spend money with us’”.
Smartryk: I heard that the way they do the contracts for the main stars in the drama is they try to be competitive to get a star in a drama so they offer a lot of money to the star and then, to get the return on investment, that star gets the most screen time also, which means you get crazy things like people getting two or three hours of sleep per day. And on daily dramas, which are an hour a day of filming, you sometimes have people going on three hours of sleep per day for six months. And that’s just not healthy by any stretch of the imagination. Then sometimes, depending on the studio itself and how well they manage their finances, you might have the main stars being paid and then the other actors being paid, but then you’ve got the regular staff who are not being paid very well. They also have some kind of law where if a person works 24 hours then you have to pay them overtime, so the crew works 23 hours and are then told to go home and sleep for an hour and then come back. Which means they’re getting peanuts also, not to mention the possible health problems.
Kpopalypse: All that stuff happens and it happens because there’s so many of these shows and they don’t all make money. So the companies are like “alright, let’s just cut every possible corner we possibly can before we get into legal trouble”.
Smartryk: South Korea, with a population of 50 million, compared to the U.S. [United States of America] with 360 million. And the U.S. has so many different channels, shows and reruns. With Korea, you’ve got 3 or 4 main TV channels and people pay for the TV service. You don’t have advertisers playing ads during the episodes, so the entire business model becomes a little bit different. In the U.S., you’ve got 2 weeks to film an episode. And if the episodes are not making money, you can know pretty quickly and cancel the show, or whatever. Whereas in South Korea, because everything is so expensive, they sometimes start filming a month ahead, and sometimes film the whole show before it airs, but often times they’re filming two episodes every week as the show is going on. Then, because you only have 3 or 4 channels, there’s less competition. So the industry can still kind of sustain itself that way, but it seems like the actors or crew are not being treated or paid very well, plus the insane filming schedules.
Kpopalypse: Yes, that’s probably quite accurate!
Smartryk: Do you know what might be in an actor’s contract? Specifically Korea, because in the U.S. you’ve got the Acting Guild and I’ve seen their multi-page contracts.
Kpopalypse: No, I’ve never seen one, not even in my own country. I know people who’ve done various acting gigs but most of those have been short term – ride on a lawnmower, get $30,000, that sort of thing. Yes they do have to sign stuff, it’s just simple agreements, saying “this is what we’re going to pay you for X” but basically they’re getting a flat fee. On a TV series maybe there’d be some sort of rolling payment structure or maybe they’d just get one lump sum for all of it, I don’t really know. It’s not something I’ve ever looked into closely, because my entire experience in TV is basically people doing things for adverts and also for music videos, I’m not involved in anyone who is doing any work here for dramas, the industry for that here (in Australia) is quite small, and it’s all based far away from where I live.
Smartryk: Would you have any advice for people who want to earn money by playing music but still want to retain creative control over their music and not turn themselves into ‘shelf space’?
Kpopalypse: Yeah, get a second job! [laughs] Make sure you’ve got some money somewhere else coming in, if you want to be completely independent and free from financial pressures. You’re always going to have your creativity compromised if you’re trying to make money, because as soon as you say “alright I’m going to be making money out of music and that’s it” then you’ve got to think about your audience now and what they want, as opposed to what you want as a creative artist, because those two things may not be compatible. You can’t on the one hand say “I want to be a creative artist and do whatever I want” and then on the other hand say “I want everyone to buy it”, because they might disagree, they might think you suck or they might just not be into what you’re doing. So if you’re wanting to do something a bit different, and you don’t want to be part of the demon machine, the corporate satanic mill, which is fair enough if you don’t want to be part of that – I don’t particularly want to be part of it myself, I would probably last about two minutes as an idol – then that’s fine, just make sure you’re doing something else to make money and then you don’t have to worry about it.
I do all sorts of different things, some of them are creative, most of them these days aren’t really creative music endeavour and I do take jobs outside of the music industry from time to time as well. I’ve still made way more from music than what I’ve spent on it, I’m probably one of the few in my country who can actually say that I’ve made more money out of the music industry than what I’ve spent on equipment, but if I had to rely on creativity in music as an income all the time, I would have to make a lot of compromises. This is just being realistic – I’d have to be a lot more conscious of what people want, and I’d have to pander to that, and I couldn’t really be bothered. If people want to be creative, do it – I absolutely encourage people to be as creative as possible, and to explore boundaries, do whatever you want, why do pop if you don’t want to, do crazy weird stuff for sure, I love it.
Before I did the k-pop radio show that I do now, I did an experimental music show for 15 years and I played all sorts of weird stuff from all around the world and got to know a lot of cool people. They were almost all not making money – but they were almost all quite realistic about it too, and they were like “this is what I do because I love it, if I want to make money I do other things”. There’s a half-way house of going through independent labels and stuff but that’s really difficult, independent artists make peanuts. Their contracts are better, but the contracts are better for a reason, it’s because there’s less money in there. It’s economies of scale.
Smartryk: So do you have any advice for the type of jobs that artists can do if they want to leverage the artistic skills that they’ve already honed?
Kpopalypse: Jobs outside of music or within music?
Smartryk: Within or without, take your pick.
Kpopalypse: Prostitution works really well. If you want to make a lot of money really fast, being a prostitute, that’ll do it. [laughs]
Smartryk: Well I think that answer’s kind of obvious for everyone! [Editor’s note: Don’t do prostitution. I can give you many reasons why. I could write an article about that, if you would be interested in reading it.]
Kpopalypse: It’s a good occupation to get into if you need money really quick. But aside from that, it doesn’t really matter, just whatever skills you have. There’s not many jobs these days for someone who is only capable of pushing a broom in front of them. To be employed in the 21st century and to consistently have money coming in, you need to be getting smart, and doing things that machines can’t do. Right now machines can do basic manufacturing jobs. In ten years, machines will be able to do basic retail jobs. The person who does the drive-thru at a fast food place, that sort of job’s probably not going to last for too much longer.
In the west, with all this technology, we basically have structural unemployment, there’s always going to be a certain amount of people who are not going to be employable, and if you don’t want to be one of those people, you just need to look at the skills you have, and think more in terms of not so much a specific job but more the skills. If you’re a musician, what sort of skills do you have, and how do they translate into other things? If you’re the leader of a band, maybe leadership is something that you can apply somewhere else. If you’re fixing your broken amplifier all the time, maybe you can fix other things too. If you constantly have to deal with your drug-****** bandmates who are always getting drunk and high and are never on time, maybe those skills are useful in the business world in terms of managing teams, it’s probably much easier to do that in the business world than in the music world to be honest! Just look at your skillset and think to yourself “alright, how can I sell this to an employer? “.
Smartryk: So bottom line is that the arts don’t make money and you need a backup plan.
Kpopalypse: Pretty much, yes! That goes for all artistic endeavour. If you’re not at the 1% at the very top of the tree, you’re not making money.
Smartryk: The following question might not be relevant.
Kpopalypse: Just ask it anyway – I’ll do my best!
Smartryk: Before I ask this question, let me tell you why it might not be relevant. This is about T-ara. You know Boram and Soyeon are supposed to be leaving the group as their contracts expire in May and the other members are supposed to have their contracts until December and then the fate of the group is decided. The question is: What do you think T-ara’s sound will be like after Boram and Soyeon exit the group (assuming that Kim Kwang Soo doesn’t add members)? And then I thought – wait a minute, the rest of the group is basically T-ara N4!
Kpopalypse: Well there’s the answer to your question – what does T-ara N4 sound like? But let’s assume the worst-case scenario, that Boram and Soyeon leave and then the other ones leave and then T-ara is gone, even then it doesn’t really matter.
The sound doesn’t come from the group, especially in T-ara’s case – they barely even sing their own songs, really. Half of the vocals in “Sugar Free” are LE from EXID, and with most of the other vocals that they have it’s what they call a “vocal soup” – MBK actually used that term to describe it, when someone mentioned this – they just blend the voices together a bit and whoever sings a bit better might stick out a bit more. They all kind of sound the same – it’s not like BigBang or something like that where there’s quite a bit of vocal difference between the individual members. T.O.P sounds completely different from G-Dragon and if you’re listening to a GD&TOP song you know who’s who, there’s never any second-guessing about that. On a T-ara album even T-ara fans couldn’t tell you who was singing what at which time and get that accurate if they hadn’t seen the video or hadn’t seen any live performances or singing credits. A week before “Sexy Love” came out the audio leaked and there was a really crackly recording from a live concert circulating around k-pop forums, and all the fans started debating “who’s singing which bit?” and they all had different opinions. I don’t know who was right, but they all had completely different ideas about who was doing what bit.
The current theory is that T-ara still intend to continue on, just without MBK and that’s actually a reasonably likely theory because you have to remember that T-ara are signed to Banana Plan in China and the guy who signed them up, Wang Sichong, is just like the richest rich person who ever was rich, he’s the son of the richest man in China. He apparently gave the girls a sports car each when they signed up, and I think what’s probably going to happen is they’ll wait until December when everyone’s contracts are up, go to China and Wang Sichong will decide what happens to them from there. They’ll probably be doing “Bo-Peep” [T-ara song] at his mansion while girls are skinny-dipping. Will that change the sound of the group? It depends, there’ll always be pressure from T-ara fans to have them continue to use the songwriters that they’ve always used, and MBK may or may not care about that, but the new company might, depending. You might get an Absolute Second Album with Shinsadong Tiger writing all the songs, that’s a best-case scenario… or you might not, I guess you don’t know. Depends what they want to do in terms of songwriters. The only reason why the sound should change is different staff being involved in the writing, if that doesn’t change then the songs shouldn’t change. If it does change then the songs could change, or they might make a conscious effort to continue with the sort of sound that T-ara has been associated with.
Smartryk: T-ara has been known as the retro queens and they also do a bunch of EDM [Electronic Dance Music] stuff, but I also remember a news report a few months ago saying that for their big comeback, which was going to be a full-length album, they were partnering with Doublekick music because Doublekick has done so many of their songs and the songs have been good up until now. As for what would happen with T-ara as a group, I also remember that Soyeon said the members of T-ara want to stay together, even if they get married and have kids. Whether they’re legally binded together, it seems that they still think of themselves as T-ara in the way that the KARA members think of themselves as KARA.
Kpopalypse: For the moment they’re legally bound to MBK to some degree. Come December, they’re no longer bound to MBK but what MBK might still legally own is the T-ara name. It might end up being a situation like Beast and Highlight where all the Beast members except one took off to another company to do Highlight and everyone knows that they’re Beast. If MBK wants to keep the T-ara name something like that could happen, or there could be a legal battle. In a better scenario there might be some sort of agreement that has been made between KKS and Wang Sichong where the name gets transferred, that’s a possibility but who knows. After December KKS can’t do anything to stop T-ara from being together, but after December he could potentially do things like say “well I own your back catalogue, you can’t do these songs” or “you can’t use the T-ara brand”.
Smartryk: Yes, because, thinking about it, the name T-ara is technically a legal brand, I’m sure.
Kpopalypse: That could happen but obviously we don’t know.
Smartryk: Can you recommend a good microphone to make voice recordings with on a Mac computer? This is more of a personal question for me.
Kpopalypse: Not specifically for Mac. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s for a Mac or PC, everything these days is pretty compatible and Mac is actually the industry standard for recording studios anyway. A high profile recording studio these days will be running ProTools and they will be running it on a Mac, not a PC. That’s not to say that there aren’t PC studios out there with ProTools, there certainly are, but it’s more common for it to be Mac at least on the professional end of the industry. It depends on what sort of microphone you’re looking for, which depends on what you’re doing with the microphone. If it’s just for voice recording for stuff like this interview, then a plug-in USB microphone is fine.
Smartryk: I was thinking for voice acting and recording an audio book.
Kpopalypse: These days USB micrphones are actually pretty good, you don’t need to spend more than $150 for a decent USB mic if you just want to record your speaking voice. If we were talking about recording instruments for a live band, or recording an album, then we’re talking a lot more money and much better microphones. But if you just want to record an audio book you just need a USB mic and a room to record in that is not too reverby, which has acoustic treatments on it so it has a nicely dead sound with not much echo, and just speak clearly into the microphone. You can just use free software, you don’t need to spend money on a fancy audio workstation, a free program like Audacity for the Mac will do. It’s just a cut-down cheapo version of what professional workstations use that doesn’t have the big features, but it’ll record one track of vocals just fine. Getting a good result is more about having a good space and making sure you’re using the equipment properly with the right settings. Don’t spend big money just for recording your speaking voice, there’s no need.
Smartryk: I’ve got one last question and this might be a really, really big one to answer.
Kpopalypse: That’s okay, as you can tell I’m not adverse to taking a while to answer questions!
Smartryk: [Aaron] Sorkin, a famous writer, said, ‘Dialog doesn’t just sound like music to me, it is music.’ That got me thinking about music composition. What is the relationship between lyrics and music? How does a lyricist approach writing lyrics, and is there a difference between writing lyrics before music is made for them and writing lyrics to match a piece of music?
How do music composers approach music composition, and is there a difference in how they compose music before and after lyrics have been decided on? And is there a difference from all that when lyrics and music are being made at the same time?
Kpopalypse: ‘Dialog doesn’t just sound like music to me, it is music.’ – technically that’s kind of correct. The definition of music changes depending on who you talk to, but I’ve always preferred Frank Zappa’s definition of music, which goes like this: say you want to create some art in art gallery, so you throw a tomato against a wall and it makes a red splat. Now that red splat isn’t art, however if you then put a frame around that red splat, then what is within the frame becomes your art. It doesn’t have to be a physical frame, it can be a frame in space, but you are saying “within this particular zone, resides my art”. You’ve defined where the art begins and ends. Now the tomato splat on the wall has become art, because an “artist” has defined it as such, before then it was just a tomato splat on the wall.
Smartryk: So, without that frame, the janitor would clean it up.
Kpopalypse: To the janitor it’s probably not art, but if you put the frame around it the janitor goes “oh okay, that’s art now, so I’m not going to clean that, but I’ll clean this other stain on the floor here which I’m pretty sure isn’t art”. With music it’s the same except that the frame does not exist in space, it exists in time. It kind of exists in space as well because music might be in one location but it might not be in another location, but it’s kind of a “space + time” frame, a four-dimensional frame. So you’re saying “from point X to point Y in time, here is my piece of music, and in there I’m going to make some musical sounds, or sounds of some description, and that is now music”. As an artist you can say that. As a listener you can say that as well. Someone walking into a factory might hear factory noise and they might say “wow it’s really noisy in here”, someone else might perceive the different rhythms of the factory noises and kind of perceive almost like a tune or a rhythm, so they might say “oh, it’s kind of musical”.
Dialogue is like that as well, because everything that comes out of the vocal tract has a pitch of some kind, so especially if you’re listening to something which isn’t in your language, you’re hearing the sound but you’re not hearing the meaning, so it’s a lot easier to perceive that in a musical context. So that’s where you can perceive dialog as music if you wish.
The relationship between lyrics and music, how does a lyricist approach writing lyrics – there’s many different ways, it can happen in any direction. Some groups I’ve been in I’ve just written some music and said “okay here’s some music, write some lyrics over it, you’re the lyricist, go”. Sometimes it’s the other way around, someone will turn up with essentially poetry, and say “I’d like to put some music behind this, how am I going to do it” and then I’ll start writing the song and try to fit the words into the song. Or, you can do it all at once. There’s no real rules on how people do it. Usually people will start with what they’re better at – someone whose comfort zone is more the instrumental side will usually write the backing track first and then try the hard stuff which is for them to fit the lyrics over the backing. If someone is a naturally gifted lyricist they’ll tend to start with the lyrics first and then if they’re in a position where they have to write the music themselves they’ll then try to fit the lyrics into it, or around it, and try to figure out the puzzle. I honestly couldn’t give you any sort of patterns about what’s more successful, I know with k-pop what they tend to do is start with the music first.
They’ll basically do concept > music > lyrics. The CEO or whoever’s driving the show, whoever the creative manager of the project is will say “I want girls down on the beach in Baywatch costumes, so I want a nice summery upbeat song” or something like that. So he’ll say to the music guys “that’s what I want, write something that will fit with that” so they’ll write something and then the CEO might say “yep that’s it ” or “no that’s not quite what I want do it again” or “I’ll go to someone else” and they’ll just keep going until they get something that they’re happy with. So they’ll get back music and that includes how the vocal melody is supposed to go as well, even though there’s no words yet. After that they’ll write lyrics and fit them in later.
The only reason why I know this is because I’ve spoken to people in k-pop recording environments who have said that “I had to sing over a guide vocal that was just nonsense words, it wasn’t the proper lyrics, then we had to learn the proper lyrics later on”. Where it wouldn’t happen that way is in a situation where a company just buys a song outright. Something like Oh My Girl’s “Closer” is like that, where the whole song was just shopped around to k-pop labels, with the lyrics included, and they probably then had to change the lyrics a bit because they had to fit it into Korean. That’s the difference between a commissioned song and a purchased song. It tends to be the bigger labels who will actually buy songs. SM [SM Entertainment] does it a lot.
Smartryk: This reminds me that I read once in writing… I’ve heard that there are two types of approaches that writers take and one depends on whether the person is introverted or extroverted. Someone might flesh out a really good character, but then muddle around in the story because they don’t know how to make a plot. Whereas another person might make a plot and have it really structured what’s supposed to happen in the plot, but then they try to make a character fit the plot and the character is not believable.
[Editor’s note: It’s ‘conceptual writer’ and ‘intuitive writer,’ not ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert.’ ‘Conceptual’ and ‘extrovert’ do not mean the same thing, and neither does ‘intuitive’ and ‘introvert.’ Conceptual writers may not all be extroverts, and intuitive writers may not all be introverts.]
Kpopalypse: Who’s the introvert and who’s the extrovert? I’ll take a guess and say it’s the introvert focuses on the plot?
Smartryk: I think it’s actually the introvert who focuses on the character and the extrovert focuses on the plot, because the introvert is the one who is feeling everything in the character and the extrovert is the one who is structurally managing things. I’d have to look it up, but the thing you’re saying about the two approaches, where they might make the song with nonsense lyrics just to try and make sure the song works and try to add lyrics later on, or vice-versa; that kind of almost matches what happens in storytelling. I wonder if there’s two different types of personalities behind the two different approaches.
Kpopalypse: It’s k-pop, there’s no personality! [laughs] I don’t know if you’ve read my horrible fanfictions…
Smartryk: I have not ventured into that, as yet.
Kpopalypse: Do so, because it’ll change your life. But when I write I don’t start with the plot or the character, but rather the idea of what do I want to get across as a subtext of the story to the audience, what snarky point do I want to make about k-pop by way of telling this story. Then once I have that, I’ll write the story AND the characters. I guess I begin with the idea – “why am I writing this, what am I trying to say”. Then the next question is “what’s the best framework that can fit over that, that can be entertaining and funny and interesting to people and also engage people who are into k-pop” and everything else just sort of branches out from that.
Smartryk: I look forward to reading them. And given what you’ve told me, I think you’ll find my book quite interesting!
Thank you for reading this interview!
I will elaborate on some of the points that we discussed here in a future article.
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