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[62/365] Why All The Western Hype Over BTS Is Not Really A Good Thing

Recently BTS walked away from the Billboard Music Awards with the Social Media Artist award in their hands, a testament to the power their fandom has on social media. It’s touted as a hugely historical moment: some Korean dudes winning over the likes of Shawn Mendez, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and Justin Bieber? It’s a landmark for K-Pop and a step forward for Asian representation in American media. It’s proof how music has no boundaries and can be enjoyed regardless of cultural and/or geographical limitations.  It’s a win for us all!

Spoiler alert: it’s really not.

With their win, a huge chunk of American media’s been tripping over each other to put out the most clickbait articles about the amazing Korean wonder act, from Vogue to Rolling Stone to (as always) Billboard. With all these big names reporting on BTS, surely it must mean they’re getting more exposure, more representation for Asians, especially for Asian Americans, right?

Only in the sense that they’re considered exotic and foreign. What separates them from homegrown Kor-Am artists? Kor-Am artists are so buried in the United States, they had to go to South Korea to have a fighting chance. Jay Park’s mother told him to go to South Korea seeing how much he preferred dancing over studying; he went back to the States after leaving 2PM, but even then he returned to Korea to sing and act, eventually creating AOMG. Eric Nam was invited by MBC to compete in a singing show. Ailee had to use connections to land an audition in South Korea to further her career. John Park auditioned for Superstar K2 after being a semi-finalist in American Idol. All of these talented Kor-Ams, born and raised on American soil, had to leave the country to pursue their dreams. All of them found relative success in South Korea, relative being had they remained in the States, they wouldn’t have been able to achieve any form of recognition at all. This is proof that there are good Kor-Am artists out there, but none of them ever get the spotlight. Why all the media dickriding BTS then?

The answer perhaps lies in their ‘foreignness’; they are not familiar to many in America. They hail from the faraway land of South Korea, a country most Americans probably can’t even place on the map. They’re not Americans. They’re unusual – they don’t speak English and they have a totally different culture. They’re exotic.

And perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but this is why ultimately it’s a net loss for both Asian representation and the image of K-Pop in American media. The American media hypes BTS for clicks, sure, but some also because they’re so unAmerican. They’re the foreign sweethearts here for the first time at an American award show, adorably awkward and fascinating, the exotic visitors. How is this a good representation for Asian Americans? How is this any different from films with ‘Oriental’ characters playing the same old ‘Oriental’ stereotypes: the scheming, backstabbing liars and the demure, submissive women? How do you call this representation when all it is is a modern glorification of the exotic Oriental trope?

That’s the tone I’m mainly getting from some of these articles and interviews. Why glamourise BTS and pay no attention to Kor-Am artists? This is why. No point in highlighting local homegrown talent when it’s nothing fascinatingly different. BTS is not American. BTS is different. That’s why.

(AsianJunkie’s big boss IATFB wrote at length about the next part better than I do, so I recommend checking his piece out too.)

The venerable T.K. from Ask A Korean wrote an excellent piece a while back about what he considers K-Pop; his point was that similar to Latin or the very muddy label of world music, K-Pop does not denote a particular style of music specific to that genre like RnB or rock. It’s a regional denominator – K-Pop simply means music from South Korea. Anything from idols to Psy to Tablo can be K-Pop (Tablo himself is okay with the label). There are derivatives like K-hip-hop and K-indie, but these typically seek to differentiate themselves from what they consider mainstream popular idol-inundated music; either way, it’s still Korean music. It’s a geographical distinction, not stylistic.

It’s not a distinction that everyone understands, least of all B-grade ‘journalists’ rushing to make money off them clickbaits. Jeff Benjamin is arguably the worst out of all of them – most BTS fans like to think of him as BTS’s number one Western supporter, but he’s more trouble than he’s worth. There have been instances of him not crediting people for lyric translations in his articles:

(He went back and credited @papercrowns in the end, but failed to make a note of it in the article like a respectable journalist would when amending their piece.)

Most of his pieces are biased; a legitimate music journalist approaches music impartially – he doesn’t. In a recent article in Rolling Stone, he wrote:

One look at Psy is proof enough that K-pop acts tend to focus on crafting crazy-catchy tracks with an eye toward the Western mainstream…

One point stands that Psy is indeed K-pop, but with an eye toward the Western mainstream? They’re Koreans – their main market is the Korean audience. The hell do they care for Western mainstream audience for? Yes, some companies try to target the Western market (see: G-Dragon and CL, Ailee with her US debut as A.Leean [which absolutely everyone suddenly has selective amnesia about]), but their main market is always, always the immediate Korean audience. What’s up with this bullshit then? K-Pop columnist but doesn’t have the slightest clue how the K-Pop market works, get on out of here.

In the same article, he adds that:

While other K-pop acts focus on songs about heartbreak and partying, BTS have connected with audiences by touching on topics such as mental health … politics … and even female empowerment .

You want a song about mental health? B.A.P’s rapline track 주소서, or going further back Bang Yongguk’s AM 4:44. Politics? Jay Park’s Raw Shit. Female empowerment? KittiB’s Doin’ Good.

And these are all just off the top of my head. BTS was not the first K-Pop act to talk about these things, and neither are they the only one; for Jeff Benjamin to act as if they’re the ultimate social activist does all these other artists a disservice, and is ultimately an insult to K-Pop in general. He’s basically labeling the entirety of K-Pop as vapid based on the one Psy track that broke out in the West, when Psy also had songs that touched on social issues. How does this in any way portray a good image of K-Pop in American media? There are a lot of fans out there who say as long as it brings K-Pop out of its niche, it’s good enough – but is it really worth the validation when it brings down K-Pop in this manner? It’s not a good image; not for BTS, not for Asian Americans, and certainly not for K-Pop.

None of this is BTS’ fault. I’m not saying it is. What I’m saying is maybe we should all take a step back and try to look at this from a rational perspective. Is this bringing BTS more exposure? Yes, but more exposure doesn’t necessarily mean good exposure. Not when it’s in such a way that lets the American media simultaneously play on their exoticness and puts down the entirety of Korean music. Not when BTS never even needed this sort of cheap, flash popularity in the first place.

I don’t think BTS are naive enough to think this award means anything other than the fact that their fanbase is fucking dedicated; it’s a popularity contest, and they know that ultimately it’s their music (read: sales) that’s important. I do hope they realise this’ll be a flash in a pan thing and I’m hoping they’re just going to milk these eyes on them the best they’re able without biting off more than they can chew,  but it’s a shame that a vast majority of the K-Pop fandom thinks validation from Western media is so important, when actually it isn’t.

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[18/365] K-pop, Where Not Everything Is As It Seems Pt. II

Read Part One here.

In this second installment of a series where I point out unsavoury things about the Korean entertainment industry, I talk about album sales, chart rankings, and how they milk the idol fandom of all their money.

Before I continue, I have to reiterate something: this series is called K-Pop, Where Not Everything Is As It Seems but I’ll most likely be talking about the Korean entertainment industry in general as well, instead of only focusing on the idol industry. When I do talk about the idol industry, I’ll also be referencing the J-idol industry which is significantly different compared to the K-idol industry. For today, however, the focus will indeed be on the K-idol industry – in particular how the companies operate and how they make money in relation to album sales and chart rankings.

(Spoiler alert: the idols don’t make a lot.)

First things first: the music industry and the idol industry are two very discrete things in South Korea. You can’t compare a solo musician like, say, John Park with an idol group like EXO and wonder why he’s not making as much bank or as popular as them. You might ask what’s the difference between a singer and an idol group: they release albums, they do live performances, they hold concerts if they can, they go on TV shows to promote themselves – it’s all the same things, so what’s the difference?

The difference is in the name: John Park is a singer. That’s what he markets himself as. He’s a singer-songwriter, and that’s all his name carries, entertainment-wise. EXO is an idol group – they’re more than just singers, rappers, dancers. They’re marketed as objects of adoration. They’re idols.

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Some may object (ha) to my usage of the phrase objects of adoration, but that’s the sad case. For all it’s worth, the idol industry objectifies the artists to a reprehensible degree. The entire industry revolves around marketing the idols as some sort of untouchable figures of aesthetics, of beauty and grace and elegance and the objects of your sexual fantasies, and it achieves that by focusing on their image.

There’s a lot to be said about idols and their image. It’s different from a concept in that a concept (for an album or release) may influence their image, but they’re two different things altogether. An idol’s image is their face to the public – it’s the persona they put on for the cameras and their fans. If you think your idols behave exactly the way they do on screen and in V Live shows, you’re dead wrong. It’s an image. Your idols are playing an eternal show. They’re characters created by the company to feed your fantasies. In other words, they’re not real. What you see on Twitter and on TV shows and during concerts and fanmeets? That’s not real. There is no way of knowing the actual person behind the characters – behind the idols – and thus this persona, then, becomes your reality. How can it not? This fake persona is all you’ll ever know of your idols. That’s what you call an idol’s image.

In general, idols are untouchable. They’re so far removed from what we consider to be human, we stop applying basic human characteristics. They don’t get tired. They don’t feel lonely. They don’t have privacy worth protecting. Everything they do is public access, because they’re idols. They’re made for the public. It only makes sense that everything they do – including their private lives – is made accessible to the public as well. That’s how you get sasaeng fans who break into idols’ dorms and install surveillance cameras and stalk them everywhere they go – it’s the idea that fans are entitled to every single aspect of their idols. Even if we’re not talking about sasaeng fans, idols are still objectified by normal, casual fans who get into fandoms based solely on how beautiful or cute or adorable or handsome the idols are. When a group has positions for its members ranging from lead vocal to dancer to rapper to visual, you know there’s something wrong. Honestly, in what situation would a music act require visual as a position? When it was never about the music, that’s what.

It’s not the idol groups that don’t care about the music. It’s the companies, and the idols are bound to their companies. What the company says, goes. But that’s another topic altogether.

The point is, when idols are presented with an image – the sweet youngest member, the hilarious eldest duo who act like an old married couple, the sassy but also completely meme-worthy diva, take your goddamn pick – it’s what the fans lap up. It’s what the fans love, and what the fans are there for about 90% of the time. The fans aren’t there for the music, they’re there to support the characters the idols portray. When an idol tells them to stay loyal to the group and support them no matter what, the fans swoon because the character of their fantasies is relying on them and asking them for help. They swoon because it’s a fantasy made real, and they stream non-stop and download albums and buy hundreds of copies of a single album because in this fantasy, their idol winked at them and begged for their help with puppy-dog-eyes, and who could refuse that?

That’s how the industry milks fans of all their money. If it was about the music, what purpose would buying fifty copies of the same goddamn album achieve? Sure, I’d get an album because I’m a collector by nature, and I’d buy a digital copy because nobody uses a goddamn CD player when they’re on the go anymore, but other than that? I wouldn’t buy more than what I need. So why fifty copies?

Because idols hold fanmeets, and there are two ways to get into fanmeets: via lottery, and on a first-come-first-served basis. Both methods require purchasing albums, but unlike the latter where the first 100 or so to purchase an album at so-and-so store would receive a ticket to a fanmeet, the former requires one to purchase multiple albums. The idea is that one album constitutes one entry for the lottery, and to ensure your luck it’s better to stick your hand in the pot loads of times. For smaller groups, the number of albums to have a fighting chance of making it into a fanmeet is around 15-20, and even those chances are damned slim. For bigger groups like EXO and BTS (arguably the two biggest male groups right now), the number can go anywhere from 100 to 300 albums, maybe even more. I’ve heard stories of how an EXO-L bought 200 albums and was denied the fortune of making it into the fanmeet. 200 albums and they didn’t make it anyway. If that’s not brutal, I don’t know what is.

What’s so special about fanmeets? Fanmeets are where fans can get up close and personal with their favourite idols – insofar as a fifteen second interaction before you’re shuffled off the stage is up close and personal – and for most fans, this is a dream come true. It’s the chance for them to see the characters of their fantasies in real life, because the idols will undoubtedly continue to play the same character as their image dictates in fanmeets as well. It’s their fantasy made reality, and they’d give up their left kidney for that. Or buy hundreds of albums, at least.

This, then, is how the industry utilises the idols’ image to their profit. By selling that image and selling that chance for fans to interact with their created characters, they’re able to sell ridiculous amounts of albums because fans are desperate that way. Fans are enamoured by their idols – hell, that’s what the term idol entails anyway – and so they’ll pay anything to get the chance to hold their idols’ hands and hear a corny joke and be flirted with. So enamoured they’ll buy fifty albums for that chance – and if one person buys fifty albums, imagine how much bank the company’s making. A lot, I tell you.

That’s how the industry manipulates fans to contribute to physical sales. What about digital sales? That’s where the rankings come in place. The Gaon Music Chart tracks the sales both physical i.e. albums and digital i.e. streaming, with the latter based on online data from various Korean web-based music providers, the most popular of which is MelOn. More streams and downloads, higher ranking on charts. Fans are super hyped about getting their fave idols at the top of the charts that they will hold mass streaming parties (where loads of people stream the songs at the same time) just to increase their idols’ rankings. Again, high numbers of downloads and streams do not mean they’re popular among the general public, much like how the number of physical album sales is no indicator of an idol group’s popularity among the general public. It’s an indicator of the size and dedication of their fandom.

Contrary to popular belief, an idol’s group success on the digital rankings means jack shit. I’ve mentioned that the high numbers of downloads and streams doesn’t necessarily correlate with their general popularity outside their devoted fandom, but here’s the ultimate kicker – idols don’t make much money from streams and downloads either.

This is the reason why I stressed Korean before. BTS – and by extension their company – are making huge profits by selling their music on iTunes, taking into consideration their incredible popularity with overseas fans. But on MelOn? They’re making less money than they were when they were trainees, and that’s saying something. AsianJunkie puts it succinctly:

And when you consider that ‘status’ is built on dedicated fans streaming at all hours of the day, it really doesn’t mean much.

One thing that the regular music industry shares with the idol industry, however, is this: the biggest money-maker for them is tours and concerts. The idol industry has additional moolah from CF deals, but the game changer is still concerts and tours. That’s their biggest source of revenue, not album sales.

There is also another way for companies to rob you of your money, apart from making you buy fifty albums and spend all your money streaming and downloading songs on MelOn. What’s that, you ask?

It’s merchandise. MERCHANDISE. It’s one thing to be putting out albums, but it’s another thing altogether to put out an album and then release the exact same album three months later with three additional songs and call it a repackage. See, with the way the industry is set up with supporting the idols on sales and music shows and rankings and all, the number of sales for the original album and the repackaged album will be identical – meaning, people will still buy the repackaged album in huge quantities even though all it has are like three new songs, two of which are most probably instrumentals (EXO, I’m looking at you). It’s a shitty tactic, because it doesn’t make sense. Why release two similar albums and call the other a repackage? It’s similar to a deluxe version of an album, but the difference being there’s not a lot of good bonus content to warrant it. With deluxe versions, you get maybe five or six new songs, live versions of hit singles maybe. It’s good content, and one I’d be glad to pay money for. One new song and two instrumentals are not.

We’re not even talking about concert merchandise. This is from 2014’s YG Family tour:

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LOOK AT THE FUCKING PRICES AT THESE THINGS

I know ₩30,000 is equivalent to around $25, which isn’t a bad price for a t-shirt at all, but in my currency it’s RM114. That’s a month’s worth of groceries for a damn t-shirt. Nope. Nope.

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₩10,000 (or RM38, which can get me groceries for roughly a week) for a cotton bracelet. I refuse to partake in this blatant display of corrupt capitalism. Fuck that shit. I’d rather buy groceries that starve for a bracelet I can make with my own two hands.

No matter how much shit I talk about overpriced merchandise, however, it’s not my main concern. I don’t really care about people paying for overpriced merchandise. You do you!

What I do care about are things like Season’s Greetings. They’re basically little packages that companies put out in the spirit of the seasons, usually in winter. You see a lot of them popping up near Christmas, with almost every idol group putting out one each damn year. They usually have things like DVDs, planners, calendars, photocards, photobooks if you’re particularly lucky, little knick-knacks like keychains and stickers. Guess how much these sell for?

About $100, give or take.

Another more ridiculous variant are summer packages. So far I only know BTS that releases their Summer Packages on a yearly basis, but other idols may do the same too. Let me know if you know any. Last year’s summer package from BTS had a photobook, a DVD, two mini posters, a PVC zipperbag, an inflatable beach ball, two sheets of tattoo stickers, and one charm accessory. That also retailed at around $100, give or take several tens of dollars. That’s not even including the various other DVDs and photobooks and whatnot these companies put out that have nothing to do with their idols’ music and instead capitalises more on the fans’ infatuation with their idols’ image.

It’s not the price that bothers me. It’s the obvious fact that because this is the idol industry, they’re literally selling their idols’ image. I wouldn’t be bothered if the idol industry is nothing but that, but the fact that they’re also claiming to have music as their priority irks me. If it’s about the music, why all the unnecessary fanservice? Here’s why: it’s all for that $$$. It’s disheartening and I think more than a little unfair for idols who are truly in the business because they love performing, because they love music – it’s unfair for them because in the end, all that hard work and effort and passion will be put on the backburner to make room for aegyo and flirting with fans at fanmeets and concerts.

Do fans care? No, they lap it all up. They’ll pay all they can, because this is supporting their idols and no price is too high. But what does it matter in the end? The companies make bank, the fans are happy, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Well, except the idols.

Next part: objectification and how the idol industry is possibly one of the most disturbing showbiz categories available.

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[11/365] K-pop, Where Not Everything Is As It Seems Pt. I

Thought it’s a shame to leave this topic hanging when I’ve specially made an intro for it a few days back, so here I am with today’s topic: K-pop, and the machinations that make up your favourite idol groups.

The thing with K-pop fans is that they’re most often too focused on their idols, they don’t stop to consider how the industry works. And the Korean entertainment scene is an industry – a huge one, at that. Like all industries there are marketing strategies and economics involved; it’s where money changes hands and image becomes a hot sellable commodity. There’s no denying there’s talent and hard work put in by the idols themselves, but for the most part we can’t deny there’s plain old economics involved too.

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God bless xkcd, honestly

If anything, the management part of the industry is what’s worth paying attention to. oniontaker, for all the drama that surround him courtesy of salty fans and crazy folk, is a surprisingly accurate source of information. He’s not an informer, just someone who’s well intimated with the industry, and folks like him are worth paying attention to because he knows what’s what. He’s worked with some of the bigger names in the industry; hell if I’m not reading it wrong he’s also a key part of it. Who would you rather believe, an anonymous nobody or an anonymous somebody who’s consistently proven that he’s got the connections to back up his claims? Yeah, I’d go for oniontaker too.

I mentioned oniontaker because if you were to go through his posts that aren’t about dating gossip or rumours, he actually tackles them with the business part of the industry taken into consideration. What would profit the company? How would the company cover their losses? Is it really true Minzy leaving 2NE1 changes nothing for YG Entertainment? He looks at it from the business point of view, and that’s fascinating to be honest. He’s prime proof that the Korean entertainment industry is, above all, a goddamn industry – it’s ultimate purpose is to generate a huge-ass income and I think fans would do well to remember that.

There’s a fine line between, say, supporting your idols and being blind to the industry machinations. Did you know, for example, that most entertainment companies pay variety shows to have their idols featuring on it? It’s not your favourite idols giving up their precious rest time to help struggling variety shows become more popular – it’s your idols doing their job, putting themselves out there to promote themselves. It’s part of the reason why fans hate TS Entertainment so much, because they won’t let B.A.P take part in variety shows; it does seem to be getting better lately, with One Fine Day and the members have since been appearing in variety shows over the past year, but with the whole lawsuit issue and hiatus, it’s hard to say if a few measly variety shows are going to be helping B.A.P get back their spotlight.

That’s another thing fans don’t consider – not all companies treat their artists fairly. B.A.P put up a fight and went on a hiatus, severely hurting their popularity in the mean time – don’t try to lie to yourself, the hiatus helped no one. They went on hiatus in 2014 and during that time EXO and Bangtan surged up the popularity ranks in their absence. The hiatus hurt them a lot, and it was all because TS Entertainment wouldn’t pay them fairly. We don’t hear about these cases a lot, mostly because the artists don’t usually try to fight back – B.A.P did and they eventually went back to TS Entertainment, didn’t they? The few successful groups to have fought back against their unfair contracts are Shinhwa and JYJ who left SM Entertainment (not to mention ongoing lawsuits by Wu Yifan, Huang Zitao, and Luhan, and complaints from f(x)’s Amber and Super Junior M’s Henry – just how shitty is this company really?), and Block B filed a suit against their old agency Stardom Entertainment because the company didn’t pay their wages for an entire goddamn year. Minzy didn’t renew her contract with YG Entertainment because Yang Hyun Suk focused so much on new groups he’d basically left 2NE1 to stagnate for years – the members each made roughly $50k in 2015 without any new material or promotions, and that’s about what a normal dude makes in America from his white collar job. If I were Minzy, I’d be pissed the fuck off too. Right now BEAST is fighting against Cube Entertainment to have the rights to their group name, much like what Shinhwa did, and cases like those take decades to settle. And these are the more high-profile cases where the artists basically went, “You know what? Fuck it,” and put up a fight. What about SEVENTEEN, who had some of their songwriting copyrights taken away by Pledis Entertainment? The oldest among them is born in 1995 – that’d make S.Coups 22 years old this year – so how would you expect them to deal with a lawsuit? Unfair work environments and dodgy deals surround these idols on a daily basis, and it’s all the more unfair when you think about how most of these new generation idols are just kids.

Let’s not even get into the nitty gritty mess that is the trainee years. You can’t help but think there’s something wrong when you hear idols reminisce about their trainee days where they slept in a pile in packed rooms and spent hours upon hours practising, all with no wage or no allowance. They’re trainees – they’re an investment made the company. If they make it, they make it. If they’re lucky, they make it big after years of training and only after debut can they hope to think about getting paid. If they’re not particularly lucky, they end up in some nugu group that take years to gain recognition and aren’t even very well known outside their fandom. If they’re super unlucky, their group falls down by the wayside mere months after debut – and this is just the groups that do debut. What about the hundreds of groups that don’t even make it past their debut? Groups that don’t debut at all? What about trainees that spend years training since they were teenagers only to have no career at all? For every successful rookie group on the market right now, there are at least fifty that have fallen by the wayside. It’s a fact worth bearing in mind.

Next part: albums, chart rankings, and how the Korean entertainment industry milks the idol fandom of all their money.