South Korea: An Indie Band's Death and the ‘Acorn’ Controversy

Following the death of indie band member Lee Jin-won, Korean bloggers and Twitterers are boiling mad over the music industry's unfair distribution system. Lee Jin-won, the one-man indie band of ‘Moonlight Fairy The Grand Slam Homer'(:달빛요정역전만루홈런), who died of a stroke last week, is reported to have lived near poverty line, even after his album made minor successes. What shocked most Koreans is a rumor that Lee had been paid in ‘Acorns’, one internet site's virtual money, which has no value in the offline world.

Korean songs are becoming huge hits in Asian countries to such a degree that a second Hallyu (:Korean wave) around the world is developing in popularity. But behind its glamorous facade, most of struggling musicians are unable to make ends meet. After Lee's death, a theory that Lee had been paid in Dotori (‘Acorn’ in English), Cyworld’s virtual money, has been widely circulated online. Acorns can be used only within the Cyworld site (Korean version of Facebook) to purchase virtual goods like the mini blog’s background music, wallpapers and décor. The SK communication which owns Cyworld strongly denies such claims as malicious rumors.

Captured image of Lee singing, Video by Hang Ji-hoon, Used with Permission.

Despite SK Com's denial, several music industry experts predicted that in certain instances Lee had indeed received ‘Acorns’ before being properly compensated for his music. They assumed that the online music store would have paid Lee after his album surpassed a break-even point. Lee's own song, ‘Dotori(:Acorns)’, is strengthening this argument. The lyrics from the song ‘Acorns’ strongly insinuates that the musician had been given the Acorns which are of no use to him.

“이건 먹을 수도 없는데
이걸로 뭘하란 말야.
쓰레기 같은 노래지만
무겁고 안 예쁘니까.
이슬만 먹고 살수는 없어.
일주일에 단 하루만 고기 반찬 줘, 도토리 싫어.”

“It (referring the ‘Acorn’) cannot be eaten. What do I do with this. My song may be trashy, heavy and not pretty, but I cannot live on dew alone. I need meat at least once a week. I hate Acorn.”

Blogger Glassyouri, who cited the aforementioned verses lashed hard at the unfair distribution system for driving the singer to his death.

BGM 으로 얻어진 수입에서 3-4원이 가수에게 지급된다고 한다… 일하고 한창 돈 못 받을 때, 요정님의 ‘입금하라'라는 노래를 들으면서 심하게 공감했는데…아티스트의 창적물을 날로 먹으려는 쓰레기 같은 집단들은 정말 망해도 싸다.

I heard that only 3-4 won (US 3-4 penny) from the BGM (Background music) revenue is given to the musician…When I had not been paid, his song ‘Wire Me the Money’ was so moving… Those trashes who devour the artist’s creation without properly paying them – they should be destroyed.

Defending itself from mounting criticism, Cyworld's public relations director posted an explanatory article dispelling the rumor, claiming that they have neither made any direct transaction with the musicians nor compensated them using Acorns. A minority of netizens have sided with the SK Communications, but more of them are not buying it. The article later clarified that 35 percent of profits go to the artist.

@ keeping7 : 또한번..무분별한 확대 재생산의 폐해사례가 나왔군요. 애꿎은SK컴즈 이미지만 바닥으로.
@ aip209: 50%이상을 음원 유통사가 가져가는게 폭리요 착취아닌가 @wikitree
도토리 받는 뮤지션들을 위한 아고라 서명운동 시작 무한알튀 부탁함다

@Keeping 7: Once again, a rumor had been indiscriminately amplified and reproduced. Poor SK communications, their image had been dragged through the mud.
@Aip209: But still, isn't it a profiteering and exploitation? The music distribution companies take more than 50 percent of profits!
@wikitree: We started signing an Agora online petition for musicians paid in ‘Acorns’. Please retweet it to infinity.

Online music stores is where most albums are traded nowadays. While an idol star with an established entertainment agency may have various means to earn money, like starring in a soaps, films or commercials, an indie band depends almost entirely on its album sales, especially online music sales which have become their primary income source. According to Hankyoreh report, compare to the iTune's case, songs are sold at half price in Korea and a smaller proportion of profits goes to musicians. On Mellon and MNet Korea, two online music warehouses in Korea similar to iTunes,  a song can be purchased for 500 Won (slightly little less than US 50 cents) on average, about half of the price of iTune’s per song price of USD 0.99.

From this discounted price, the online music stores take 45 percent of revenue and a large majority of the remaining profits goes to the copyright associations and distribution agency. The musician is left with less than 200 won (less than 20 cents). iTunes, on the contrary, takes only 30 percent of revenue and the distribution agency takes 70 percent. Then the agency divides the rest in half between the production company and the musician, who can get around 40 percent of the total revenue.

What aggravates the already hostile situation is the comprehensive package deal, which offers almost free downloads at a fixed rate. The limitless streaming services is given at less than 3 dollars a month and for the comprehensive package deal, the consumer can download 40 songs for 5 dollars and 150 songs a month for only 9 dollars. These two packages are where 70 percent of online music sales are made and from these deals, only few pennies goes to the musician.

Beside the huge proportion of profits taken by middlemen, the most serious issue is the transparency in distribution system. No one, even the musicians, has a clear idea of the exact amount of sales and profits, as Chanhee tweeted:

Chanhee (@schbard) RT @eaeon (5) 저작권 협회와 음원 유통사가 담합하면 시장 규모 자체를 얼마든지 축소 은폐할 수 있는 구조다. 뮤지션과 창작자들에게 돌아가야할 수익의 대체 얼마만큼이 눈 먼 돈으로 사라지는지 짐작할 수 조차 없다.

Under current system, once the copyrights association and music distribution companies decide on price rigging, they can easily downscale or conceal the actual amount of music sales. It is hard to even guesstimate how much money which supposed to handed over to musicians and creators get lost in the middle.

Blogger Qkrgusdl 95, a longtime fan of Lee, defined his music, ‘a hauntingly beautiful and sorrowful music that only someone who had gone through true agony can create’ and indirectly criticized netizens who are ready to burst with rage on any issue without sincere sympathy toward Lee.

처음에는 앨범을 사려 했는데 제가 다니는 앨범가게 중 어느 곳에서도 파는 데가 없어서 소리 바다 정액권을 이용해 다운 받게 되었습니다….달빛요정역전만루홈런, 이진원씨가 돌아가신 후에야 알게 되신 분들이 더 많은 거에요. 죽고 나서야 검색어에 오르다니. 이건 기뻐할 수도 없지요. 많은 누리꾼들이 특히 트위터- 음원료 대신에 도토리를 받았다는 말에 ‘부글부글'하고 있던데 그 사람들 중 몇이 이진원씨의 음악을 들어본 적 있을까 궁금하네요…가난은 예술의 아버지라지만, 그에게는 유독 가혹했던 것 같습니다.

I wanted to buy his CD but no CD store near my area sold his CD. So I downloaded his songs after purchasing Soribada's [note: Korean version of Napster] comprehensive package. Many would have heard about the ’Moonlight Fairy The Grand Slam Homer’ after Lee had died. I cannot feel happy about he made into the most searched word list only after his death. Many netizens are angry at the fact that he had been paid with ‘Acorns’ instead of proper payment from the songs. I wonder how many of those people had really listened to his songs…Although it is evident that poverty is the father of art, reality had been exceptionally harsh to him.

Several people have blamed Korean net users who casually distribute songs online. Many bloggers are still sending requests to other bloggers to hand them illegally copied songs, never buying the songs through proper means. Great songs are ready and the online market system has been installed. Ethical market players are the only missing piece in this zero-sum game.

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