Korean music and the digital marketplace

One of my top priorities during this last trip was to not become the main player in a tragic murder-suicide. To that end, I spent a lot of time with headphones on, listening to Korean music.

Why Korean music? Well, it's new to me, and it's interesting. I'm not talking about traditional Korean music, or even K-pop, but rather certain Korean rock and hip-hop artists. (I actually feel sort of weird about lumping these groups together, because they're quite different musically. The only real similarity, I think, is a willingness to cross genre lines in unexpected ways, which probably says more about what excites me than anything else.)

So, how does a non-Asian, non-Korean-speaking ajumma living in the U.S. find Korean music? The answer is, totally randomly! As I mentioned, I started looking into the music because I was trying to extend the experience of watching a show I liked. That got me to FT Island and CNBlue on YouTube. Then I was curious if Psy was actually any good, and the answer is, he sure as hell is. (Language warning on the first one--yes, Psy lived in Boston and cusses quite comfortably in English--but not on the last one, because what sounds like "nigga" is actually the Korean word "niga," which means "you are.") Then I went to Pandora's CNBlue channel, which played this song, and lo, I discovered Epik High. Then, operating on the theory that Korean bands that have had major scandals tend to produce more-interesting music, I found the hip-hop group Block B, featuring the rapper Zico. (Let's just say they were hoping to create Korea's own Eminem, and by their more-conservative standards, they totally succeeded!)

If this seems like a haphazard method of music discovery, I KNOW. (Of course, as a rule, you never know how people will find your stuff.) Poking around YouTube is just not efficient. The band's official channels tend to be dedicated to stuff like Christmas messages to (existing, Korean) fans. Pandora has been of surprisingly limited use: The Psy channel is novelty rap; FT Island didn't have a channel until just a few days ago; and Pandora has apparently decided that if you're on Epik High's channel, you're just weird, so they'll give you some folk rock. You know, to go with your hip-hop. I fully expect to hear Simon & Garfunkel on the Jay-Z channel now.

What's been helpful with FT Island and CNBlue has been their live concerts on YouTube. They are excellent. Of course, FT Island's concert wasn't even posted by them or their label. Instead, it was put up and given English subtitles by a fan. (Which is nice, because it turns out that Mae West has been reincarnated and is FT Island's lead singer now.) CNBlue at least posted its own 392 concert, but there are no English subtitles available--and they talk and talk and talk while the audience laughs and laughs and laughs.

Once you find songs you like, there's a whole 'nuther tangle: How do you buy them? CNBlue's 392 album is $50 on CD. Presumably the songs would be cheaper (and the band would actually make more money) if you got them on iTunes, but you can't--392 is not available on iTunes.

Other CNBlue songs are on iTunes, but you'd better spell that name right. Spell it "CN Blue" like some native English speaker, and only one album comes up. "CNBlue" gets you more, but not 392. Oh, wait, you really liked the 392 live concert? They're a great live band, aren't they? I actually like the live version of CNBlue's "Coffee Shop" much better than the studio version. Too bad, though. If you want the live performances, you have to shell out $50 for a concert DVD--and forget about those little live TV appearances.

(I will say that YG Entertainment, which is Psy and Epik High's label, seems to have it waaaay more together. Presumably the success of "Gagnam Style" woke them up a little. Although they still don't have any live versions for sale (which strikes me as abundantly foolish--you can sell the same song two or three times over! What's not to like?), and they don't have English translations for the titles of a lot of their songs, meaning that once you have the MP3s, it's hard to find the particular song you wanted to listen to.)

Where this gets incredibly frustrating is when it comes to Block B and Zico. The band is suing their label for what looks to be some pretty serious financial mismanagement, and Zico managed to offend the entire nation of Thailand. (But he has yet to be sued by his own mother or to threaten anyone with a gun. Work harder, Zico!) All that means his chances of finding another label or getting the acting roles and endorsements that seem to form a big chunk of many Korean musicians' earnings are pretty slim.

So what's he been doing? Putting out a TON of music, that's what! He's put out his own mixtape (Zico on the Block 1.5) and produced one for P.O., who is another rapper in the group. Of course, he's giving it all away. Yeah. And it's not the first time--the original Zico on the Block came out a couple of years ago, and those songs were given away, too.

Do you know what happens when you give music away? No one has a financial interest in carrying it, so becomes very hard to find. And when you do find it (I really had to have this song), it's at some really dodgy download sites--I ran anti-virus software on everything, but you know, if I'm going to contract a virus from a problem-child musician half my age, I'd like to at least have a good story to go along with it. I would rather pay iTunes 99 cents or $1.29 than deal with dodgy downloads. Plus, I'm lazy enough that if Zico's music was on iTunes, I'd never even think to try to find it for free.

Obviously, I don't know all the details--maybe the contract he's suing over prevents Zico from actually selling music, or maybe iTunes is not free or easy to use for musicians living in Korea. There are legal issues surrounding selling mixtapes, of course, but I would think that that sort of thing could be worked around, since it's basically a matter of getting permissions. And I feel like if you're the kind of musician who wants to focus on making music rather than looking pretty, you need to take a serious look at how to monetize the music you make. I realize that Korea is not the United States, but look at Owl City--that was literally some guy sitting in his parents' basement uploading music to the Internet until he hit it big.