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Don’t Fear the Subsidiary Label

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The history of LOEN Entertainment can be followed through name changes, with each change marking, whether related or not the two are related, a major event in the company’s history. Founded as Seoul Records in 1978, it changed its name to YBM Seoul Records the year it went public, 2000. When it was acquired by SK-Telecom in 2005, the name reverted to Seoul Records, only to change again in 2008 to LOEN Entertainment when it took over MelOn. Then in 2013, the Hong Kong equity firm, Star Invest Holdings Limited bought out SK Telecom to become the majority shareowner of LOEN Entertainment and while LOEN remained LOEN, its content production division was rebranded, “1theK.”

But while that last name change may lack the impact of previous names, it bespeaks to the nature of the change that has occurred within LOEN, post-SK Telecom. It is not large sweeping change, but change more carefully and deliberately applied, which often renders it invisible. This includes even alterations that would qualify as “large” like LOEN’s shift from just LOEN Tree to a multi-label system. Although LOEN’s music branch is not just LOEN Music anymore but Jo Yeong-cheol-run LOEN Tree and Shinsadong Tiger-run Collabodadi, and Starship Entertainment, which was acquired as a subsidiary label, the change has not had an an acute effect on any of the idols. In fact, most of the changes groups have gone through, like Sunny Hill’s shift in identity, has been the result other factors, in this case the departure of Janghyun, than the label change.

Contrary to the fears that bubble to the surface with any label merger though, even the new ‘subsidiary’ status of Starship Entertainment has not manifest itself in any releases from its groups. Of course, LOEN had promised as much in a press release they made announcing their acquisition saying,

Starship’s main management will not be altered, allowing it to maintain its inherent character and operate as an independent label system. At the same time, we plan on creating a synergy between these two companies through high quality content production and marketing cooperation with Loen’s existing labels.

This is by no means an act of goodwill on LOEN’s part as much as this is just how subsidiary labels usually work. They exist separate from that of the main label and have their own CEO, staff, identity, and style of music and are usually responsible for their own daily operations. In other words, despite being acquired for a subsidiary label it remains mostly business as usual.

That latter point even includes those labels that happen to be home to more unorthodox or interesting groups, whose uniqueness is usually left intact — think Sony acquiring Chrome Entertainment, home of Crayon Pop. Or CJ&M’s acquisition of Seo In Young’s eponymous entertainment agency and thus Seo In Young. The biggest change to happen there was the change in name from Seo In Young Entertainment to Blossom Entertainment, while her music has remained the same. Case in point: the video for her first release under EB, “Thinking of You feat. Zion T” bears the same synergy between her fashion and music that existed on her previous releases where here videos were as much about her fashion as the music.

Take solace in this consistency, for now. Remember it as the label consolidation of the past two years that has been more sporadic becomes more frequent as the consolidation that has happened in all major music markets takes root in Korea. Soon big labels will buy out small labels for new talent, to acquire successful singers, or to diversify, while smaller labels will sell to big labels due to competition or the allure of more resources. And the concomitant anxiety will no longer be about change but stifling of innovation and how ultimately things just stay the same.

Covers from singles and the upcoming full length from Doll☆Elements

From J-Pop Idols

Doll Elements (ドールエレメンツ) is a Japanese idol group formed in 2011 by Arc Jewel. Their name is sometimes shortened as Doll Ele (どるえれ) (Source)

The Economics of MYSTIC89

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“Mystic89 isn’t an agency that represents idols, or indie music. But I think it turned out, as the agency can portray both.” Or so Park Jiyoon said in a 2013 interview with Soompi. Her observation is not wholly without merit. Founded in 2001 by Yoon Jong-shin, MYSTIC89 does seem to be a hybrid of indie label, Pastel Music and that of a more conventional idol producing entertainment agency with an eye on fitting into mainstream trends. Not that any of those under the MYSTIC89 roster fit very snugly into the idol label, nor are any of them marketed as if they would. Unlike idols who usually tailor themselves to a prepackaged image, MYSTIC89 marketing approach is the reverse. Instead of images their singers are marketed based on their own unique selling points, be it the timbre of their voice, their lyrical or composing style, or all of the above.

Uniqueness is a relative term though and MYSTIC89 naturally has its own idea about what is ‘unique’ and what type of uniqueness they look for when signing a singer. Ideally it is something that is not too strange, frightening, or dark, and ideally there is an angle to it that engenders it with mainstream appeal. For those whose unique selling points are not quite as amenable to mass appeal as others, there is a small allowance for flexibility. For these special cases it is merely a matter of striking a balance between their ‘uniqueness’ and what appeals to a general audience predicated on a cost-benefit calculus. In this model costs — things that would detract from mainstream acceptability — are permissible as long as they are not so high that they offset too much of the gains.

In practice this balancing act looks a lot like Puer Kim, who debuted under MYSTIC89 earlier this year. Before joining MYSTIC89 she was an indie singer, whose style ran contrary to what was popular in the mainstream. Her lyrics were strange and often dark, her visuals unsettling, and sometimes surreal, and her videos of the sort of low-tech aesthetic for which indie rookie idols have often been written off for by audiences. For example, the music video for her song, “it’s hard to be the daughter of a woman loved by god,” is a poorly lit black and white video that includes a scene where Puer Kim, dressed in a low-cut black dress, stands in front of a table and cuts the rind off a melon melon with a knife.

This is the sort of style that any other entertainment agency would have gutted for her major debut, but not MYSTIC89 who have made it a point of retaining Puer Kim’s personal color, sometimes even literally as with her latest mini album, Purifier. The teaser for the album is modeled after the fruit-cutting scene, albeit with the necessary alterations to bring it more inline with recent trends. In comparison to the video, the teaser is of a higher quality, better lit, and in color, although there is still the shot of Puer Kim standing in front of a table, cutting a melon.

Of course, these changes to the aesthetic rob the teaser of what made the original video so strange and unsettling. But those characteristics do not have a place in a production that is meant to appeal to appeal to mainstream audiences. Again, it can be weird, but not too weird, or as in the case of Puer Kim’s debut single, “Manyo Maash,” dark, but not too dark — certainly not dark enough that it includes a critique of two of the biggest entertainment agencies. Indeed, even the potential subversiveness of her latest single, “Bank,” the video for which could be interpreted as a critique of any system that runs contrary to the platitude, “People are more valuable than money” that appears in the video, has been effectively neutered. In the absence of any marketing providing a clue or an idea as to how the vide should be interpreted, k-pop news sites defaulted to the easiest and most obvious interpretation. To them, it is all about fiscal responsibility, which Puer Kim happens to be very serious about. And who is to say that they are wrong? It certainly will not be MYSTIC89, since to introducing a conflicting interpretation would be much too costly.

In hindsight, MYSTIC89 was never going to be the entertainment agency that indulged her potential ‘anti-idolness' for much the same reason. Darker concepts are a hard sell when it is idol groups doing them, and for a singer like Puer Kim, who would not even benefit from the cover of ‘idolness,’ she would have been doomed to niche status. Once branded 'niche' her options would be limited. She could press on and release music for a limited audience, with limited financial returns or sacrifice her artistry and become more appealing to mainstream audiences. There is that third option though, the one employed by MYSTIC89 that is newer, riskier, and far from ideal: do both.

—Seungah in response to the question, “What was the biggest change in your new album?” during an interview for Arirang’s “Pops in Seoul Segment”

Related to what I wrote in this post: “Sunny Hill: The Almost Girl Group

“Despite being strategically staged, commercial events to sustain loyalty, fan meetings present the idol as a “real” figure with whom his fans in Japan can be intimate. They bring to life all of his perceived qualities and attributes, as the idol performs beyond the necessary routines of an actor.
Anne Allison remarks that “friendship” can be made with and through products of popular culture, which incite desires and blur the boundary between fantasy and reality. Fan meetings are an example of this, inciting and intensifying fans’ desires, and blurring the boundary between the fantasy and reality of intimacy with the idol. However unreal this sense of intimacy may be, it gives meaning to the time, money, and emotions that these women invest in being Yon-sama fans.”

—Ho Swee Lin – “Emotions, Desires, and Fantasies: What Idolizing Means for Yon-sama Fans in Japan,” Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, Edited by Patrick W. Galbraith and Jason G. Karlin

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