In Korea’s multi-million-dollar music industry, labour exploitation is the norm

Korean music is synonymous with glamorous K-pop stars like PSY, Big Bang, Girls’ Generation and Super Junior. But they are a lucky few that can earn tens of thousands of dollars or more with each performance. They are a very small part of the music industry in South Korea.

Last year, indie musician Lee Lang made headlines for selling her trophy to the audience right after receiving it at the Korean Music Awards.

“My income in January was 420,000 won (around $US370),” she said, before starting the bidding. “Not just from my music sales, but the total. Thankfully, I made 960,000 won ($US840) in February. It is difficult to make a living as an artist. It would have been great if there was some prize money to this award, but it is not the case. So, I think I’ll have to sell this trophy.”

An alarming portion of South Korean musicians don’t get paid for their work. Unfortunately, this mistreatment is commonplace. Singers and songwriters often complain that there is no law, no contract and no average price in the music industry. Labour exploitation is the norm.

Kim Hyeong-seob, the drummer of the indie band Another Day, knows this well. “When my former band was invited to a cultural event two years ago, an employee of the organising company said we’d get paid 300,000 won (less than US$270).” After they performed, the promotor changed his terms and the band were told that they would not paid. Kim says that such practices are prevalent in the music industry.

It’s not uncommon for musicians to perform without knowing how much they will be paid. On Mule, an online community for musicians, posts seeking artists to perform at events are uploaded every day. Very few of the job postings state how much the payment will be. Some posts even ask for ‘charity talent,’ which means unpaid.

“Even verbal contracts are rare,” said Esssin, an indie singer and manager of the education and policy team at the Korea Musicians’ Union, which was established in 2013. “When artists ask about the fee before a performance, organisers commonly respond, ‘How dare you ask for money? You should be thankful just to be on stage.’”

This kind of mistreatment doesn’t only happen only to indie musicians, many of whom perform and busk in Hongdae, a bustling student neighbourhood in Seoul and a hub for musical talent.

Unless you are the ‘hot’ musician of the moment, this sort of humiliation happens frequently to musicians,” said Esssin. “Music professors and even well-known singers are sometimes subject to this mistreatment,” he says.

A former member of a K-pop boy band, speaking on condition of anonymity, agrees. “Singers with no names, who belong to the smaller entertainment agencies, are the most vulnerable members within the music production system. My K-pop group was basically forced to sing for free by our company and event organisers. We had to perform many times with no income, just waiting for the day we’d hit fame.”

The smallest slice of the pie

Even when an artist’s music becomes popular enough to generate revenue, their financial situation doesn’t always improve. When songs are distributed through streaming sites, musicians get the smallest bite out of the profit pie.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, a consumer pays an average of 14 won (1.2 US cents) for streaming a song on a music distribution site. However, according to Bareun Music Cooperative, a group aiming to improve profit distribution for musicians, many sites provide a monthly flat rate service (for limitless streaming), which cuts down the user price by half, to 7 won per song. Of this 7 won, composers and writers take 10 per cent. Singers and instrumentalists get 6 percent. 40 percent goes to the company distributing the music on its website and 44 percent goes to the company that produced the music.

A common joke among musicians in the industry goes like this: “If we can buy cigarettes with the profit from the song, we did ok. If we can buy fried chicken, we have succeeded.”

The origin of this exploitative practice may be partly cultural. Yun Jong-su, a manager at indie label Bunker Buster, say there is a social expectation that artists shouldn’t ask for money. “This is a common perception. People think that artists are supposed to be hungry in their profession, that even though they’re poor they should work passionately. This perception aggravates the situation for musicians, who must remain silent despite not being compensated for their labour,” says Yun.

Advertisements about free music aggravate the situation. For example, in February 2015, Milk - a streaming app launched by Samsung Electronics in 2014 - used this slogan to entice consumers on its Facebook page: “Do you still pay to listen to music?”

Some artists say there is no such thing as a minimum wage in the music industry. “The minimum wage law does not apply to the music business,” says Choi Hyeon-min, the leader of indie band M020.

“Power and fame rule the industry,” he argues. “As an example, if a famous singer wants to sing the song of a rookie composer, the composer is commonly forced to give the song for free. Sometimes, even the copyright is not registered under the composer’s name; there have been cases that the person who introduces a newbie composer to a famous singer steals the copyright [for the song]. Also, there is no standard fee for a performance. It depends on the unilateral decisions of the event organisers.”

This lack of standard fees even plagues festivals funded by the government.
The organisers of the 2017 Chimac (fried chicken and beer) Festival in Daegu, attracted popular outrage after announcing that each member of a band would be paid only 20,000 won (around US$18), am amount that doesn’t even cover the one-way bullet train fare from Seoul to Daegu for a single musician.

To make matters worse, the festival had secured a budget of 780 million won (around US$685,000) through sponsorship from the Daegu government and numerous other public agencies, including the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The festival’s budget, compared to the meagre compensation given to musicians, angered even more people.

Scared to speak out

Most musicians don’t resist openly. They are afraid of being known as a ‘rebel’ and losing valuable opportunities to create songs and perform. “Companies with the power to produce music and organise festivals usually sit above the artists. Artists give up on speaking out for their rights and just continue to work,” said Esssin.

“Performing means making a promise to the audience. Let’s say we receive only 20 per cent of the fee that was originally offered to us. It’s not like we can only do 20 per cent of the performance. We have to do 100 per cent for the audience. Some companies exploit this reality to buy the labour of musicians at a rock-bottom price,” says a musician who gained popularity through YouTube and AfreecaTV, a South Korean streaming site.

She requested anonymity, because she was afraid that openly criticising the music industry would ruin her career. “To make a profit, the only possible way is to broadcast yourself online. It brings in advertising and helps grow your own brand as a musician,” she says.

Laws rarely help. It’s not easy for artists to get support through the Artist Welfare Act, which came into effect in 2011 after the death of Choi Go-eun. Choi, an award-winning screenwriter, was found dead in her apartment that year, with an unsent note to her neighbour asking for some rice and kimchi. She had died of hunger, while suffering from pancreatitis and hyperthyroidism.

To be eligible for government support under this law, a musician must submit a list of albums he or she made over the past three years and show that his or her annual income is more than 1,200,000 won (around US$1,100) or 3,600,000 won for three years (around US$3,200). This minimum income is supposed to prove a person is viable as a professional musician.

“Considering it takes a long time to produce an album, this law doesn’t reflect reality at all,” says Yun Jong-su at Bunker Buster.

On 19 September 2017, the Korea Musicians’ Union was part of a small protest at Gwanghwamun Plaza in downtown Seoul, organised by Laborers’ Union of Culture and Arts. Fifteen people gathered in the square and demanded that politicians pay more attention to the working conditions of artists.

Some musicians are opting for new ways to survive rather than waiting for society to change. Bunker Buster has held a successful fundraising event, which brought in enough money to produce two albums and plan a concert.

The Bareun Music Cooperative is another example of musicians fighting for their rights. Established in 2014, the organisation is comprised of around 2,500 singers of all genres. It aims to inform the public about the maldistribution of profit in the music industry, and demand a higher share of the profit for artists.

“To create a healthier ecosystem in the music industry, we are promoting revisions of the relevant laws and trying to change public perceptions of artist rights,” says Shin Dae-chul, Bareun’s chairperson and one of the most famous guitarists in South Korea.

Changing how some musicians themselves view their rights is another task.
“More musicians should be aware of the unjust conditions surrounding themselves, study the law and confidently demand what they should receive,” says Esssin. “At the very least, we need to ask for a contract before working. If we hesitate to claim our own rights, society will never change.”