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The Future Path of Popular Music

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Minhun Kang

Whether we are strolling through the streets shopping or eating in a restaurant, music is always present around us. Our ears are exposed to a myriad of sound sources without any filters, becoming accustomed to these tunes.

This omnipresent music, which we inevitably hear everywhere, is what we call popular music.

Whether in joy or sorrow, humble and genuine popular music has always embraced the hearts of the masses and has been beloved.

However, the reality today is that popular music is not only unloved, but also struggles to escape the fate of being an outcast. Music meant for the masses is losing its diversity and creativity day by day, ultimately facing rejection and neglect. This has undoubtedly led to a downturn in the music industry.

Music critics, seizing upon this situation, have been relentless in their criticism, maintaining a tense balance between producers and listeners.

However, unlike classical music, where the style and framework of critique are well-established, the nature of popular music is highly subjective and ambiguous. To a listener, if the music feels good, that is all that matters.

What is there to gain from debating the right or wrong of a song that others enjoy? The wounds and misunderstandings our music industry bears are too deep to scrutinize every single issue.

Now is the time to broaden our perspective and adopt a more fundamental approach.

This article aims to critically analyze the current state of the popular music industry from the perspectives of record labels, producers, and the public, and to explore solutions for growth into an ideal music market.

Like other aspects of popular culture, popular music broadcast through mass media is a kind of service industry that attracts a large consumer base to generate revenue. Hence, record labels and producers typically prioritize profitability.

Profitability directly ties to popularity, leading to a focus on what the masses want and what attempts have been successful. Next, since it’s music for the general public, the focus is on music that is easy to understand, familiar, and unburdening. The last consideration is diversity and originality.

Producers who best meet these conditions end up creating the so-called hits. However, most producers, fearful of the risks associated with the third condition, merely produce derivatives of previously successful hits.

Of course, it’s inevitable that numerous derivatives follow in the evolutionary process of music due to a new work’s influence.

But when everyone hastily publishes music following a trend, the music that reaches our ears inevitably sounds uniform.

This is best exemplified by the issue of plagiarism disputes. The current music industry is never quiet from plagiarism controversies.

Statistics from a recent article (provided by Naver) on plagiarized albums show an explosive increase from 51 cases in 2003-2004, to 183 cases in 2005-2006, and currently 409 cases in 2007-2008.

Blind plagiarism disputes by netizens and the media should be discouraged, but the actual increase in plagiarized songs is an undeniable fact.

Songs influenced by foreign popular music are often the subject of controversy, but from the perspective of musical diversity, this isn’t a significant problem for the public. However, compositions hastily produced by so-called professional composers, filled with trendy chord progressions and melodic techniques, cannot escape public scrutiny.

Music, being a human creation, can naturally result in similar pieces. However, the extent of domestic songs being criticized both domestically and internationally indicates that the issue has crossed a line.

This leads to another problem: the lack of diversity among active producers in the music industry. This arises from the process of reducing risk by opting for familiar music.

Record labels, in selecting producers, consider extensive project experience or outstanding educational backgrounds — essentially, those with flashy careers and proven skills — as essential to reduce risk. Consequently, the current music producers in the popular music sector are distinct. Like an elite force, they monopolize the latest albums of singers, effectively controlling the landscape of popular music. No matter how diverse the music they attempt to create, how varied can it be coming from a handful of composers?

Record labels are conservative and cautious in selecting producers, though they lack the capacity to scout new artists to represent their brand.

The situation is quite different in Japan, where there is active cultural exchange in the music market. Japanese popular music is diverse and experimental, starting from its genres. Regardless of market size, this fundamentally lies in the diversity of producers.

While Korea tends to value younger singers in popular music and more experienced producers, Japan does not follow this trend. For example, mature bands in their 30s to 50s like SAS, Mr.Children, garner fans across a wide age range, or a 20-year-old producer launching a new artist to top the Oricon chart (Japan’s music ranking service based on album sales) are not rare occurrences.

Japan’s progressive and liberal music market has naturally led to its growth as a global music market.

It’s not entirely the fault of record labels and producers that the Korean music industry faces significant challenges. The mainstay of popular music is, after all, the public.

As mentioned earlier, the primary consideration for record labels before launching a project is ‘what kind of music does the public want?’. It’s inevitable for suppliers to cater to consumer preferences for profitability. Consequently, the music offered through mass media is generally biased towards genres popular with the masses.

However, the level of this trend is excessive today. Yet, the public simply accepts what the mass media feeds them, often without questioning the homogeneity of the music flowing from their TVs.

Indeed, over 80% of the Top 100 popular songs on domestic music websites are focused on ballads and dance music, clearly showing the public’s extreme genre preferences.

Even Seo Taiji, who once presented a new paradigm in popular music with experimental and progressive tunes, is now struggling to make an impact in the current music industry. His new album, full of fresh and diverse elements and released after four years, fails to resonate easily with the public, unprepared for something new.

The public’s ears, accustomed only to the familiar, have become rigid. Many producers, fearful of public indifference, hesitate to present their own or new things. The public should not just complain about the lack of music to listen to, but first consider why there is a lack. Their passive attitude and one-sided acceptance could lead suppliers to believe that ’the public only wants this type of music’.

Thus, the three facets of record labels, producers, and the public are more clearly revealed. These three are entangled like a never-solved cast puzzle. To solve this, touching just one part is not enough. Effort is needed to listen to each other’s positions and guide the current situation in a better direction.

Producers need to try more diverse approaches to appeal with their own uniqueness. As the public’s demands increase, the music market is also evolving. If compared to industrial production methods, it’s no longer about mass-producing a small variety of products, but rather producing a variety of products in small quantities to enhance quality.

Record labels should create a competitive structure by providing more producers with such opportunities.

The public needs an attitude of actively demanding the music they want and being open to new things.

One good way for these three positions to establish a dialogue and maintain contact is through competitions.

Recently, not only small music-related companies but also some major portal sites have been holding contests for creative music. This is because the development of computer music has made it possible for anyone to take an interest in music production.

The era of amateurs carrying their own recorded albums to record labels is over. Record labels need to take the initiative to discover a variety of artists.

Judging these competitions through public voting would be ideal. The public can broaden their musical horizons by evaluating the fresh music of amateurs, while producers and record labels can analyze these public choices to attempt more diverse genres.

As Mikhail Glinka once said, music is made by the people, and composers merely arrange it. It seems ironic, but it is true.

By opening ways for the public to access a wider variety of music, they can broaden their musical perspectives, and gradually the public will have more to say about domestic music.

Producers just need to listen to the public’s words and provide the music they have longed for and will long for.

If everyone remains complacent in the current situation, despite their dissatisfaction, nothing will change. Now is the time for all to step forward actively and ignite the fuse to elevate our music industry to a new level.