# A quick history
Since the 80’s, when trot, premature Korean ballad forms (Bit gwa soguhm, and Jo-Yong Pil embraced the stage, to the 90’s when bubblegum pop (H.O.T, Baby Vox, Dongbangshinki, S.E.S, Finkl, Fly to the Sky, Deux, Sechs Kies) and first hints of R&B (Solid with Kim Jo Han, Kim Kun Mo, et al.) reigned, K-Pop has developed an admirable music industry. As we entered the 21st century, Korea quickly caught on trends including auto-tune, dance beats, and developed vocalists and dance groups alike that put the entire Korean music industry the fourth largest music market in the entire world, closely trailing the US, England, and Japan. If Japan’s music can be said to be influenced by British bands, we’re following the influences of the other top-tier– black music of America.
At a net worth of $21.7 per capita per billion (pcpb), one would be a fool to guffaw at this explosive industry that has grown explosively and alarmingly large. (Source: Korean Ministry of Tourism and Culture) In fact, its influence has become so large that Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong have accused Korea of a xenocentric influence– a sociologist’s term meaning “the preference for products, styles, ideas of someone else’s culture than one’s own.” Resulting lawsuits have not been a source of embarrassment, but of pride for Korean artists who see their work imitated and plagiarized by fellow Asians on a daily basis.
But what’s wrong? Where does it hurt?
For starters, over 70% of the music produced sound the same– the same electronica beats inspired by “eurotrash” out of Amsterdam, for instance. The majority of boy-band/girl-band/dance group artists (who dominate a whopping 83% of the 2010 top 100 lists according to Melon.com) use auto-tune excessively. Lot of netizens have exclaimed that this defeats creativity and lowers the standards for our vocalists. Some have compared our K-pop cycle to the decline of the J-pop industry which was devastated and shrunk from a market size of almost $30 bn. in 2005 to a current estimate of a mere $9 bn. as of 2010. The contributing factors? Too many undertrained, underqualified dance groups, the emergence of porn stars as vocal artists, and the death of the voice of the audiophile– leaving the occasional good song on the top 10 chart for almost 6 months at a time. In other words, Japan has faced a desertification of their music industry– and many people fear the same is happening to Korea.
Rather than trying to package the issue into one neat conclusion, what we get is a barrage of opinions and a mosaic of different issues.
Thus we had an interview with two influential figures who wished to remain anonymous: one currently a music producer at the M.net label, and a vocal trainer who plays cross-functional roles across YG Entertainment and at DSP Entertainment.
# The Interview
Q. What do you guys think of the K-pop scene right now?
A. (laughter) I don’t know, if we were to say it positively, it’s like a salad bowl, with a variety of music styles. If we say it badly, it’s like diarrhea.
Q. Since we’re off the record, what do you guys truly think of the K-Pop scene?
A1. Let me first say this. I’m going to assume my readers are reasonably intelligent. I’m also going to assume that over 4000 songs, I can bet you– and name a 100 off the bat as a part-time composer– follow the Canon in D chord pattern. Have you seen that video “Pachabel Rant” on YouTube? The guy sings like 20 songs that have the exact same chord progressions– but they’re all famous! So that’s not a problem. But as a composer and producer what is the problem is that there’s no room for creativity. Just as 99% of Korean moms tell their kids to study hard and go to Seoul University and then become a doctor or lawyer or professor, most Korean labels are saying “follow this chord, it was a hit for that group, just change it a little and write new music. Maybe add rap.” There you go, new hit song that sounds vaguely familiar– because it is.
A2. I’m going to be the devil’s advocate and say the opposite. I say it’s OK– we’re experimental and are coming up with types of music. It’s kind of like Clazziquai for the masses!
A1. But Clazziquai does electronica and other types of music too, house and ballad-like jazz songs, which I like.
A2. Right, but my point is this: it’s NOT okay that we remain like this as we turn the page on the decade, but it’s ok that we’re like this for now, trying out new styles. It’s been less than 10 years since DJ DOC hit the Korean scene with hip-hop, 17 or 16 since Seo Tai Ji, and it’s only really begun with Drunken Tiger and Epik High. I’m expecting fresh new talent– not crap like San E from JYP.
Q. You seem to have something against JYP?
A2. Yes. As a vocal trainer who’s worked for artists at many labels before, I have to say that I can’t deny the disappointment. The case is so typically Korean– we have the students who score top on the test because they went to hagwon and memorized 4000 words over the summer, and then the student who scored well because he’s genuinely smart. We have too many of the former.
Q. Is that bad?
A. No, but it’s the attitude that’s wrong. People who want to become artists just show up and expect to be trained to do well while dancing ridiculous chroreographies– and since that’s even too hard for Korean teens who are becoming pop stars, they went and used auto-tune! That’s ruining the entire purpose of auto-tune. It’s there to intentionally distort your style, not to cover up a voice that can’t sing. Look at T-Pain– he’s an impressive vocalist if you find music by him without the auto-tune. He can actually sing! But look at recent girl groups who are produced by second-tier labels: T-ara for example, Rainbow, and Seven Muses (models! Why aren’t they modeling? Why are they singing? Because they have shapely bodies, have large breasts and wear skimpy outfits– that makes money) and non-leader members of boy/girl band groups. The reason why I hate JYP, is that he endorses a culture where sub-par artists live off of the cheap music. Don’t get me wrong– he himself is an innovative and respective artist. But look at the model of idol group– it’s not sustainable, they produce 2 or 3 real great songs and fade into history.
My point is, the only reason we listen to that music is either a) because the singers look good, or b) the music catchy– but not good enough that you’ll remember it in five, six years. Five– no, ten years later, I’m still listening to Kim Gun Mo.
Q. So it sounds like you changed your side of the argument.
A2. No, I’m just angry as a vocal trainer that our jobs are no longer what it used to be– all the presidents of the major labels (YG, SM, JYP, and DSP) say “use autotune and we’ll be fine,” to the point that even the artists are cocky enough to think that now. I’m saying it’s OK to be experimenting, but not abusing the technology we’re given.
A1. Let me butt in before this gets off track. As a producer at m.net, I’m glad to have met with talented artists: Brown Eyed Soul, K.Will, Lee Seung Chul, and Lee Eun Mi just to name a few. I also helped Tablo record some Movement artists, and it’s been a blast.
What I want to get across here is that we’re overstaying our welcome with current music trends. I feel that Korean culture, as a Korean, is highly prone to yuheng (quick trends) that come and go with every season. Every ten years, on average, British and American music changed because the artists defied current styles and tried coming up with new songs. It’s hard– think about it. We’re given 12 notes to work with; four dozen major/minor chords, and occasionally blues/jazz chords. And yet we’re expected to somehow make songs that please the listener– and we do just that.
As a part-time composer, I highly admire Yoon Il Sang (Bogoshipda), Kim Hyung Suk (Kim Gun Mo’s songs, In Soon Ee’s songs), and Jo Young Soo (SG Wannabe, Tae-Yeon’s solo songs, SeeYa, Davichi, Huh-gak) as the top three composers in Korea. Why? While younger composers like E-Tribe and the Yongamhan Hyeongjae make really catchy songs that we want to listen to, they’re using what already exists to their best extent and essentially remixing.
What these others have is a talent for innate creativity to come up with something you’ve never heard. Listen to just the first minute of Bogoshipda sung by Kim Bum Soo– and play it on the piano. Who on earth would come up with a melody like that?
A1. It’s time for K-pop to get back to change. We’ve already got great composers, what we need are great artists. I think the program “나는 가수다” (I’m a singer) is great because it brings the mass audience back to Korean music’s roots– we’re R&B and black-music influenced, and artists like Kim Bum Soo, Kim Gun Mo, Baek Ji Yeong, Sora Lee, Lena Park, Jeong Yup, and Yoon Do Hyun remind us of the diverse spectrum of music that we can sing besides dance music.
A2. We’ve been focused too long on dance, which Korean only discovered recently in the last two decades. But while it’s always great to see a new Wondergirls with a Nobody and a KARA with a Pretty Girl, that shouldn’t be the face of Korean music. Pretty people are nice to look at– but imagine just listening to them on mp3– half of the music is unbearable. We just like seeing them in skimpy clothing half the time. We have so many other genres to explore, like Rock and R&B. And we require good vocalists to be the backbone and voice of those wonderful musics– I’m talking people who’ve sung for their entire life, or have trained for 10 years– heck, no training is fine, Kim Bum Soo never got training, he just sang at church!
Q. Final thoughts?
A. Dance music is just a fraction of music. Look at Clazziquai– it’s a syndicated term meaning “Classical,” “Jazz” and “quai,” the last being a term to describe electronica/house music. K-pop should be like that– a diverse range of music, not chained by the centrifugal force of 17-year olds who receive mandatory training for two or three years and are bound by slave contracts. We have just so much talent out there– we just have to find it.
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