Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

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More DDP

Here’s a view of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza that I took this morning through a dirty window.

DDP morning

And another from last night.

DDP winter evening

DDP on the cold night

Just a little shot I took of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza the other night. I never get tired of looking at that place.

 

DDP-night

The sad shambles of K-pop contracts

The nice folks at Eat You Kimchi have bravely waded into the muddy waters that are K-pop contracts. And their answers are more than a little depressing — a large “break even point” for training costs that artists must repay, while getting 40 percent or less of their revenues, all the while more expenses pile up, and there’s little transparency.

It’s a good overview, but I will add a couple more points:

  • Bad K-pop contracts have been in the news since long before 2009 (even if the JYJ/TVXQ problem took it up a level). In fact, Time magazine did a big takedown on the K-pop industry in 2002 — here (about payoffs and corruption, free) and here (about contracts and salary, but you need to sign in)
  • While the K-pop artist contracts are pretty sketchy, it is worth remembering that a lot of these companies have many trainees they are working on at any given time, which can be quite a cash-eater.
  • K-pop “stars” aren’t really stars the way we think of them (at least in accounting terms), but are more like employees. And pretty much everyone in the Korean entertainment industry works crazy long hours for terrible pay.

So, I guess to me the problems with K-pop are not because working conditions are so atypical for Korea; but for too many people, they are all too typical. Or typical of a kind of Korea that much of the country has outgrown — and it’s way past time for K-pop to catch up.

With more artists fleeing their production companies than ever, certainly the time is right for a big shift in the industry. In the past, though, when artists became moguls, they usually just repeated the same terrible business structure. But I’d like to think that sooner or later, some visionary will see the many, obvious weaknesses and try setting up a label that works for the artists.

Joining Colin Marshall’s Notebook

The charming and insightful Colin Marshall, host of the website Notebook on Cities and Culture, recently traveled to Korea to turn his analytical eye here.  He wrote several articles about Korea for The Guardian, and he also conducted a whole bunch of interviews with artists, thinkers, trendsetters, and, well, me.

You can listen to me here, going on about a whole bunch of Korea-related things, like pop culture, art, win and Pringles.

Many thanks to Colin for the fun afternoon. Sorry the audio wasn’t clearer, but we were talking at Mudaeruk — a great cafe, but it can be noisy.

Play that Funkafric music

Friday night I checked out a concert by one of my favorite Korean groups, the Jimmy McGriff-like organ funk of Funkafric. The show was held in the Hongdae club Strange Fruit, a small venue that has a surprising good sound system. For whatever reason, the turnout was pretty light.

Funkafric-2014Nov

Here are a couple of closeups, of the main man behind Funkafric, Lim Ji-hoon, as well as his current drummer Heo Curly (sorry about the poor quality of the pics).

Lim Ji-hoon

Curly-Nov2014

Sadly, I don’t have any good photos of the violinist playing that evening, Echae Kang. But she was very good, too. She and guitarist Ranhee Sun were particularly fun singing backup on their reggae-tinged cover of “La-La Means I Love You”.

This was one of those Funkafric shows where they teamed up with a pansori singer (sadly, I did not catch her name) — I gather they do that sort of thing from time to time. Usually I’m not a big fan of “fusion” music, but this mix actually worked out surprisingly well.

Funkafric-pansori-Nov2014

Honestly, there were a few people there. Not sure why all my photos are making places look so empty.

To get a sense of Funkafric’s sound, here’s a video of them playing on EBS last year.

Anyhow, I do believe Funkafric will be playing at Mudaeruk on Dec. 20, with My Way Killing and some other excellent groups. You should check it out if you are in town.

 

Cool autumn day

We had our first snow of the season last night — just a dusting that is pretty much all melted now, but it was still nice. In fact, I think this has been one of the most pleasant Korean autumns I can remember. Clear skies, and a much more gradual cooling than some years (when it seems to plummet from hot to freezing in about 10 days).

So I decided to take a walk down the Cheonggyecheon at lunchtime. As you can see, it was quiet and quite charming.

Cheonggye Nov 2014

Cheonggye2Nov2014

Cheonggye3Nov2014

I also passed the Dongdaemun Design Plaza.

DDP - Nov 2014

This really amused me. On the back side of the DDP, there is an ugly little room with a couple of rows of desks and chairs. It is close to nothing and resembles nothing as much as a cage in a terrible zoo. The sign on the window: Press Room.

DDP Press

Icky Diseases, Then and Now

It looks like we somehow survived the great ebola plague of 2014. Korea was, of course, devastated with, uh, zero cases. The United States somehow turned back the zombie-like scourge that infected, what, four people? Most of whom had been to Africa.

By coincidence, I have started reading an excellent history of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Just an excellent book so far.

GhostMap

It is especially fascinating to compare how fear and superstition back then got in the way of understanding and treating the disease properly — much as happened in the United States with ebola (fortunately, medicine and science was able to mostly out-muscle the politicians). I particularly liked the saying: “Whilst pestilence slays its thousands, fear slays its tens of thousands.”

Korea, like most of the world, has had to deal with periodic cholera outbreaks over the years, going back to at least 1821 when it came via China (that date would be before the disease made it to Europe). Cholera would continue to flare up over the years, well into the 1980s. This is an interesting paper on cholera and Korea in the colonial era. The cholera outbreak of 1919-20 appears to have been the most deadly in Korea, when 25,000 people died.

How things change. Today, the International Vaccine Institute, which is based in Korea, is working on an oral cholera vaccine specially designed for developing nations (being cheaper and easier to administer).

But I still got my flu shot.

Seoul sights

So, I went to a 1-year-old’s birthday party today (it’s a big deal in Korea) that was held on the 33rd floor restaurant of Jongno Tower in the heart of Seoul. Needless to say, the birthday girl didn’t seem to care, but us adults were impressed.

I think it has been more than a decade since I spent any time at the top of Jongno Tower, and I was really amazed to see how little of the old city remains in the area. Even in the direction of Insa-dong, there really are just a few alleys left.

Anyhow, the Tower has some of my favorite views of Seoul. Here’s one looking east along Jongno.

Jongno Tower

A little while later, I was up another high-rise over by Hapjeong, and happened to catch this view of the sunset.

Hapjeong sunset

Have street vents always had these signs? Or did they just start going up after that accident a couple of weeks ago?

Danger sign

Here’s the site of a fire that was in the news a couple of weeks ago. I eat lunch in the alley behind this building fairly often — fortunately, none of the restaurants were damaged (and no one was hurt). But it is a bit disturbing how many fires strike this part of town. Walking along the Cheonggyecheon, you can see a lot of fire damage in the buildings in the area.

Fire Damage

 

Book party pics

My publisher was nice enough to send me a few photos from the book launch party on Tuesday — not a lot, but hopefully it gives you a taste of the evening.

Here I am talking to Eric Oey, the publisher of Tuttle:

MarkandEric

(Honestly, it was fairly crowded at the event. More than it looks in these photos).

You can’t have a book event without signing some copies:

Marksigning

Here I am with Brad Moore of Busker Busker, apparently having a smirking contest:

MarkandBrad

Both Daniel Tudor and I have new books on the way from Tuttle, coming in January:

Comingsoon

 

Book launch party

Tuesday night was the official launch party for K-POP NOW! and for Daniel Tudor’s new book A GEEK IN KOREA. And I think it was fairly successfully — we had a good turnout of book store reps, journalists and friends, and people seemed to have a good time.

Unfortunately, things were busy enough that I did not get a chance to take many photos. Hopefully some of the other people who took pictures will send me some to share soon. So for now, all I have is this one picture from before the event started.

BookParty-before

 

Honestly, this photo is from before the event. We really did have a good turnout. I swear.

Thanks to all who came. I really appreciated it and had a great time.

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