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Why Did 38% of the Korean Top 200 Disappear From Streaming Overnight?

Last week, the night before the 28th of February, something awful happened. Two Loona albums I absolutely love were taken off of streaming. Needless to say, this has ruined my entire semester. How can I go on?

Just kidding.

The problem is actually far more interesting and far more wide-reaching. Those two Loona releases were two of hundreds of releases taken off of Spotify among hundreds of Korean artists and groups (my main K-pop playlist on Spotify has been cut in half). And why? Because the biggest music distributor in South Korea refused to bow to Spotify’s very recent endeavor into South Korea, and the distributor’s unwillingness to give them the license to stream their music in South Korea led Spotify to revoke their global license.

Now some background on the distributor, Kakao M: out of the top 200 releases on the Gaon charts, Kakao M is responsible for around 38% of them (all of which cannot be found on Spotify anymore). The release dates of their catalogue range from groups in their 1st and 2nd years, to idols that were setting the stage for modern K-pop more than 15 years ago. As a Loona fan, I happened to hear about this distributor years ago due to the almost laughable mismanaging they did of their releases, including neglecting to put a new release on iTunes on the release date, as well as even putting their music under the wrong artist name.

Okay so they’re a shit company, fine, but that doesn’t necessarily explain Kakao M’s motive here to not renew their license with Spotify now that it’s finally opened up domestically.

Here’s what does: Kakao M, in addition to owning 38% of the top 200 releases, also owns the largest streaming service in South Korea, a service called Melon (which is only available in Korea, even with a VPN). Up until now, Kakao M has had a near-monopoly on music streaming in South Korea. But as I said earlier, Spotify just launched their platform for the first time in the country on February 1st, putting Kakao M in the incredibly awkward position of either having to allow their main competitors a large slice of the streaming market in South Korea, or having all of their music taken down in every country.

And from Spotify’s perspective, they have all the leverage in the world here. K-pop is (of course) just one of many genres that Spotify gets a lot of streams on, and they didn’t even lose half of the Top 200, as well as any of the releases that came out under one of the “big three” labels (YG, SM, and JYP). So not only is Spotify keeping the majority of K-pop releases, but the biggest artists and groups (household names like Blackpink and Twice) still remain available.

So where does this leave us now? It’s only been five days since these releases were taken off Spotify (after a year and a half of negotiations), but Kakao M has now, as expected, infuriated a HUGE amount of fans of various idols and idol groups all over the world, as well as domestic fans that either wanted to use Spotify or are simply pissed that Kakao M is willing to fuck over their artists for the sake of keeping a streaming monopoly. Everyone knows if you’re gonna negotiate you have to know when to walk away from the table, but in my opinion, it really seems like this is gonna bite them in the ass.

The fact that Kakao M’s releases include idols that have been in the game since 2007 will not play out well for them either. It’s one thing for smaller artists and groups in their first few years to be taken off of Spotify, but it’s quite another for 15-year veterans of the Korean music industry.

As an example: Sunmi debuted in Wonder Girls in 2007 (an incredibly influential 2nd-generation group), left to pursue a successful acting career, and then came back to debut successfully as a solo artist while composing and choreographing all of her own music (a lot of which is now off of Spotify). At this point she’s the idol of idols, meaning that she doesn’t need Kakao M to be successful, nor does she have to bite her tongue for fear of some kind of professional consequence. It’s artists like these that Kakao M should now be afraid of, the ones who are simultaneously hugely affected, as well as having very little to lose from speaking out.

In fact, only five days into this debacle, and it’s already begun. Epik High, an internationally acclaimed alternative hip hop group that debuted in 2001, tweeted the following the day after the releases were taken down: “Apparently a disagreement between our distributor Kakao M & Spotify has made our new album Epik High Is Here unavailable globally against our will. Regardless of who is at fault, why is it always the artists and the fans that suffer when businesses place greed over art?”

I may or may not follow up on this piece next week depending on what happens, but there are a few other side-stories that might interact too, such as the only-now-growing cultural exchange between China and South Korea (which has been very sparse for decades due to political tensions), as well as Kakao M’s next move which I’m eagerly anticipating.


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