Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: January 2011

Egypt on Al-Jazeera

Great to see the coverage of Egypt on Al-Jazeera:

Al-Jazeera’s news abilities have been underrated for years. Sure, the channel has its problems and biases. But its coverage of Africa is so much better than any other major news organization I know of. And it is been really great reporting the uprisings around the Middle East over the past couple of weeks.

As someone who spent so many years in South Korea, I found there was always the ghosts of Korea’s democracy movement lurking in the shadows around many of my stories (even those not directly related to democratization). Now, watching these uprisings in Egypt and around the Middle East, I cannot help but wonder how similar these scenes are to what happened in Korea in 1987 (and 1980 and other key dates).

Amazing times…

K-Pop Rebellion

Interesting to see so many K-pop bands turning on their management companies these days. Girl group Kara is the latest, with three members basically telling their management to get stuffed. Good for them, and for the member of Dong Bang Shin Gi and Super Junior who did the same thing. And anyone else. But I doubt their actions are going to change anything, not unless people start to address the underlying problems.


The problem, in my humble opinion, is the fundamental difference between the management companies and their talent, along with the huge gulf between the powerlessness of the star wannabes versus the complete power of the stars.

The K-pop business model is basically unchanged since SM Entertainment created HOT way back in the mid-1990s. The management companies find aspiring young people, train them relentlessly for years, then create a group for their top talent and try to make them stars, mostly through TV appearances. Yes, you have the Internet now, and all the changes it has brought. And cable TV and established interest in Korean acts overseas. But for the most part, the formula is the same.

A big company like SM Entertainment (or JYP or whoever) will likely have 50 or 70 kids in training at any one time. That’s a lot of ramyeon noodles and dance instructors and real estate to pay for. The big companies especially need a steady revenue stream to pay for all of that. So it is no surprise the kids are treated like commodities, like links in the supply chain. After all, the supply of young hopefuls is endless. The number of successes available is very small.


The stars and the fans, however, tend to see things very differently. The young stars and starlets are savvier than ever. They know what kind of money they are making for their bosses. They know they are the show. Japanese management might be able to change Morning Musume’s members almost every year, but Korean fans freak out when management tries to change their bands (ie, the 2pm and Super Junior fiascos).

Japan, though, is changing the situation in Korea a lot. Japan is now the biggest music market in the world (as they are just about the only ones still buying CDs). Ever since DBSG had a huge 2009 in Japan (earning around $100 million, for CDs, concerts, and ancillary rights), everyone has been excited about Korean pop there again… Kara and Girls Generation did great in Japan last year. From what I have heard, K-pop is the biggest it has been in Japan since the heydays of Boa and WINTER SONATA.

Korea has never been a big market for music. While the Korean movie market is much larger than you would expect for Korea’s economy, the music market is much, much smaller. So the labels and managers have always had exports on the brain. But I doubt they have ever had a year in Japan as good as 2010.

So you have three members of DBSG break off and form JYJ, trying to make it on their own. Two or three members of Super Junior leaving the group. And now three members of Kara leaving their agency. But will it really make a difference in the Korean music industry? I doubt it.

Maybe the band are getting paid better, maybe they have control over their own lives — great for them. The Korean courts have generally been supportive, but the management companies are not about to let go easily. But I do not see any fundamental shift in how talent is discovered or groomed. No change in how the music is produced. No change in how fans get to experience and consume that music.

Look at Rain, who left JYP Entertainment three years ago to forge his own career, only to go back to JYPE last month. The prodigal song.

Now you have a situation where the Korean management companies can find and develop the top talent, but they cannot hold on to them. And the aspiring wannabe stars cannot develop on their own, without the expertise and connections of the management companies. Clearly, the Genie (For Your Wish) is out of the bottle, and something has got to give.


I think the Korean music industry is basically the victim of its own success. Their business model has taken them about as far as it can go, but now something different is needed. Hip hop is good example, as groups and performers like Epik High, Tasha (Yoon Mi-rye), and Drunken Tiger have escaped the management system and had great success on their own while (most importantly) making better music. With iTunes, Soundcloud and other online music portals, no band needs to be controlled by managers/labels anymore, like they were in the age of terrestrial TV dominance and record stores.

Korean indie bands going to SXSW and other music festivals (as Galaxy Express, Vidulgi Ooyoo, Idiotape, and Apollo 18 are this year) is also a big step forward. The summer music festivals, like Jisan Valley and Pentaport, also help open the market and show people other ways of doing things.


This is not an argument against pop music–I like good pop, as much as any genre. But I am saying that the current way the Korean pop music industry is built is inherently broken, and until the management companies and the aspiring talent and the fans all recognize this and make changes, nothing is going to change.

2010 Korean Movie Wrap-Up

Patrick Frater over at Film Business Asia gives a solid overview of the Korean movie market in 2010, using data just published by CJ CGV. The key points:
– Ticket sales were down 5 percent to 148 million. That is the lowest level in five years.
– Korean film attendance was down 2 percentage points to 47 percent of the overall box office.

Sadly, the report did not include any estimate of 2010 revenues. Given the rise of ticket prices in general (thanks to 3D, 4D, and IMAX screens), I would not be surprised if overall revenues were about the same as 2009. But final, official data probably will not be released for another month or two.

Also worth noting is the Korean movies accounted for 7 of the top 10 last year, and 10 of the top 20. There were no non-Hollywood, non-Korean films in the top 20.

If you do not include AVATAR (which was released in 2009, but made most of its money in 2010), the top film of the year was Won Bin’s THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, with 6.25 million admissions — not bad, but that is only the 15th best Korean film.

So, not a great year financially for Korean movies, but not a disaster either. Kind of “meh” — like too many of the movies themselves.

Park Chan-wook+iPhone=Movie

I was more than a little amazed today to read that Park Chan-wook has made a short film on his iPhone. Called NIGHT FISHING (파란만장, or Paranmanjang, in Korean, which translates to something like “Eventful Life” or “Troublesome Life”), it’s a 30-minute film he co-directed with his brother, and it will be coming to Korean theaters soon.


Of course, this is all a KT promotion, so who knows what it will end up being. But, still, kind of cool.


Top Korean Music of 2010

Well, 2011 is well underway, but I am still putting together my thoughts about 2010. This certainly is not a complete list, but it is a short list of recommendations of some good Korean indie music that I came across. Hopefully the music scene can keep up the momentum and turn it into more mainstream success soon. But to give you a quick rundown here:

1) DJ Soulscape – More Sound of Seoul
Far and away the best album of the year. DJ Soulscape mixed together a huge smorgasbord of great Korean music from the 1970s, most of which you’ve never heard before. It’s as educational as it is fun, and all-round brilliant.
(Yes, this was released in late 2009, but it was such a great album, full of wonderful and obscure Korean songs from the 1970s, I am putting it in this list)
Then, in alphabetical order:

Apollo 18 – Violet and Red
One of Korea best rock/post-rock bands today put out two interesting albums this year. Red was a re-release of last year’s album, but completely re-recorded and with a few extra songs added (thanks to the money they earned from a KOCCA grant, after their Hello Rookie win in 2009). Together with 2009’s Blue, each album has a slightly different feel, while still being a unified sound.

Glittering Blackness, Fall – EP
Glittering Blackness, Fall is one of the most interesting of Korea’s many instrumental, “post-rock” bands. Their EP is just four tracks long, but each is a surging blast of noise and swirling progressions.

One of the most unusual new bands around, Jambinai uses Korean traditional instruments, but cannot really be considered “traditional” music at all. With their ambient, surging style, they are closer to post-rock than anything from the Joseon Dynasty. But their use of Korean traditional instruments makes their sound incredibly haunting and captivating.

Lee Sang-eun – We Are Made of Stardust
With her 14th album, Lee is quite a veteran of the Korean music scene. But while some of her albums can be repetitive, and sometimes boring, this is one of her most creative and lively in quite some time. A little uneven, sure, but most of the songs here are quite pleasant and catchy. Even more surprising, her voice sounds clearer than it has in quite some time. Has recording technology found a way to reverse the effects of 20 years of smoking? No idea, but this was a good album.

Lowdown 30 – Another Side of Jaira EP
Growling blues rock, like the Black Keys. Not all the songs work, but the best are gravelly, heavy fun. The first song Jungdok is especially good.

Oriental Lucy – Midnight Hotel
More quirky and electronic album (and Portishead-like) than their first EP, Oriental Lucy is more alternative/indie rock, like the kind of thing you might hear on KCRW or some college radio station in the West like that. At times more New Wave sounding, singer Soohee’s brings their songs an unusual urgency and energy.

Sunkyeol – EP
A moody, acoustic ambient release, I found Sunkeyol a pleasant surprise. I am not sure what I was expecting, but their album was surprisingly moving for such a simple sound. I am told it was actually recorded in 2006, but just released last year.

Swimmingdoll – 8winningdoll
One of the more interesting and unusual entrants into the post-rock, shoegazer genre. Swimmingdoll songs start out pleasant and haunting, but then jar with odd atonal shifts and dubs.

In general, I think 2010 was a very good year for Korean indie music*. I had not even noticed until I started putting together this list, when I kept rediscovering one solid album after another. Not simply strong in one genre or another, the Korean music scene is more diverse than I can remember it ever being, with great hard rock bands, acoustic, postrock, dance and whatever Jambinai is.

But one strange thing I have noticed is that, in general, Korean bands’ recordings are is much stronger than their live performances. When I first got interested in Korean indie music, back in the 1990s, the opposite was very much true. Considering I live in Europe these days and do not get to Korea often, this is a development I am happy with. But at some point, bands are going to have to develop stage presence if they want to break out of the Hongdae underground (especially if I am going to keep running the Korea Gig Guide).

For more opinions on top Korean albums in 2010, you can check out the Korea Gig Guide, where I share my thoughts, along with contributors Shawn Despres, Dain, and Kim Jongyoon of Scatterbrain. You can also read some interesting columns over at Philip Gowman’s London Korea Links — Anna Lindgren, Saharial, and Philip himself.

As for non-Korean stuff… It is hard to keep track of releases, but here is what I could recall really enjoying:
Black Keys – Brothers
Grinderman 2
Holy Fuck – Latin
Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
Japandroids – Post-Nothing (yeah, this was 2009, too, but I just heard it in 2010 and I loved it, so I am including it)
Naked and the Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You
Robyn – Body Talk
Stromae – Cheese
Tron OST
Zoey Van Goey – The Cage Was Unlocked All Along
*The rise of Korean indie music this year also boosts my little (and not very serious) theory that the success of Korean movies and music are inversely related. The better one does, the worse the other seems to do. Last year, Korean music was really good, but movies were remarkably mediocre. Go back to the 1950s, and it seems like, again and again, whenever one areas gets better, the other takes a dive. Movies flourish in the late 1950s, then drop off in the later 1960s—around the time music takes off. Then Park Chung Hee kills of the great Korean rock scene in the 1970s, and soon after movies make a small comeback (well, the 1980s were a tough time artistically in Korea for all art forms, I think). The 1990s saw music rise up again, then crash spectacularly after the financial crisis, just as movies going on their amazing run. It’s spooky, I tell you.

Myspace and the Perils of Online Value

Word is out that Myspace is going to be cutting staff by 75 percent this year, after its user based dropped over 24 percent in 2010. And to think Newscorp bought Myspace for $580 million just two years ago.

Which is one reason I am extremely skeptical about about how these online social networks are valued. Facebook is now, theoretically, worth $50 billion? Groupon is worth $6.4 billion? Sorry, but I just don’t see it. Few (or none?) of these online ventures have the solidity to be long-term bets, and you are going to see a lot of investors lose a lot of money, over and over again.

So what’s it really worth to capture a few million eyeballs over the short term? This is an especially important question considering that the moment your ads start to get intrusive, you lose market share–big time. I think a much better method is needed to determine value for online start-ups, especially those in the extremely nebulous world on social networking. But until the greedy and gullible learn their lesson (the hard way), this is going to keep happening. Yes, the Internet is reshaping business models all over the world, at a very deep level. But there is something to be said, too, for business basics.

‘Bent It’ in North Korea

There has been a lot of stories (and here and here) over the past couple of days about North Korean television airing BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM (Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film, which starred Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley), apparently the first Western film to be broadcast on TV there. This has led to much speculation about why–Why now? Why this movie, about a Sikh girl who dreams of playing professional soccer?


Most speculation has focused on the film’s content (apolitical), with a bit about the current state of life inside North Korea. But these stories miss one important fact–North Koreans already know the movie, as it was shown at the 2004 Pyongyang Film Festival. It was censored then (just as it was on the TV broadcast), and not many people could see it, but it did play there. And I think one of the film’s producers was invited to Pyongyang, too (I recall talking to one of the producers at PiFan the following year).

North Korea can be a difficult, opaque state, but once the powers-that-be there know someone/something and have a personal relationship, they often grow much more comfortable. Witness Dan Gordon, whose documentary about the 1966 North Korean soccer team, THE GAME OF THEIR LIVES, has allowed him to return to North Korea to make other documentaries. Or Johannes Schoenherr’s trips to North Korea. Or the foreign animators who work there.

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