Forcing an industry to dance to a new tune

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Forcing an industry to dance to a new tune

Show business is glamorous, Park Kang-won agrees, but in his nearly 20 years in the music industry the producer has seen what he calls the dark and rotten core beneath the sugary surface.

During those two decades, Mr. Park says he has learned that it takes a fortune and good connections to make it big. Public relations "fees," vacation money, gifts -- the corrupt demands of the key producers and executives in the industry are endless, he says.

Mr. Park played the game and prospered. But by 1998, he had had enough. "I got fed up with the decayed structure," he says.

Mr. Park was not alone in his dissatisfaction. On July 11, the Seoul District Public Prosecutors Office said enough is enough and began a crackdown on the entire music industry to eradicate the "evil." The campaign in some ways mirrors the fight against payola in the United States in the 1960s, but in many ways the Korean scandal is grander in scale.

To date, more than 30 TV producers and talent agency representatives have been either indicted or arrested. The prosecutor says 10 of them are in hiding. The owners of the four largest talent agencies, Sidus, GM, SM Entertainment and Doremi Records, have been indicted. "I will bury them all," says Kim Gyu-heon, the chief prosecutor of the case.

The news surrounding the crackdown on irregularities in the music industry brings back memories for Mr. Park of his early days in the business. "I guess I was too naive," he says.

Mr. Park was a young man who loved rock and roll when he waded into the pop music scene in the mid-1980s. He started out as a deejay in Seoul clubs, turning to producing and management in 1990.

Then in 1991 he visited Midem, an international music market in Cannes, France, and realized that the local music industry had a long way to go if it were to become competitive internationally. "I wanted to do something for local artists," he says.

In 1993, he started a small music company, One Music Entertainment. His first project was to promote a rock band, Black Syndrome. The band's debut album, in 1996, won some very good reviews in Europe, becoming the first Korean album to be licensed for release in the French and English entertainment markets.

But that was not enough to make it in the local music industry. Mr. Park had thought that to be a star musician, only the music mattered. He completely missed the mark. "To make music that sells," he says, "it takes money and 'friendly' connections with TV and radio producers."

For a long time, he simply could not get his bands' music played on TV or radio. Then a major music agency approached Mr. Park, offering to work for him. It would only cost 30 million won in "public relations costs."

"To me, it was a great fortune back then," Mr. Park says, "but I was told that it was a scanty amount of money for proper promotion."

The agency's "proper" way of promotion worked. The band got more airplay and its album rose on the pop charts. The album was making money, but Mr. Park felt something was wrong and decided to go out on his own.

To get coverage on TV pop music programs, a crucial part of gaining popularity, he visited TV stations to meet producers.

But getting their attention was not easy. He had to wait in the hallways with other managers for hours. TV producers, he said, threw new albums away, not even casting a glance at them. "I had to swallow my pride as a producer many times," he says, "Many influential TV producers treat others like their subordinates."

He soon learned that to make friendly connections with TV producers, under-the-table deals were required. A fellow producer might get a phone call from a TV producer asking for money for a vacation. Finally, he had enough of it all and walked out.

These days, he still runs the agency, but he mostly deals with imported albums.

Mr. Kim, the chief prosecutor of the case, calls the present structure of the local music scene a "vending machine" ?money in, airplay out. "It's a vicious cycle," he says. Several bigtime talent agencies and music companies, like Sidus, GM, SM Entertainment and Doremi Records, have those managers who keep more than friendly relations with TV producers.

The crackdown has had a substantial effect. Bigtime music producers, including Lee Su-man, the head of SM Entertainment, have been charged with breach of trust and misappropriation of funds. Mr. Lee is in the United States, on what the company calls a business trip. The prosecutors office has urged him to come back, and recently Mr. Lee's lawyer said Mr. Lee would soon return. Eun Gyeong-pyo, a TV producer at MBC, was charged for receiving bribes along with many other TV producers.

Another big shot, Seo Se-won, a comedian and film producer, was also charged, but, according to the prosecutor, he fled to Hong Kong. His popular talk show was canceled by KBS-TV when Mr. Seo did not return.

Crackdowns are nothing new. There were efforts to eradicate corruption in 1995 and 1999, which turned out to be unsuccessful.

The earlier cases were unsuccessful in jailing the TV producers and agents. In 1995, when Eun Gyeong-pyo was first arrested, he was quickly released when 174 fellow TV producers sent in their resignations on his behalf.

Kim Jae-hyeong of KBS paid a 10-million-won (about $8,500) fine in 1999 and was back in business.

The chief prosecutor says, "This time, it's going to be different."

Music industry insiders agree. "We thought it would be the same old flabby investigation, just for display," says one manager at GM. "But this time, the prosecutor looks so determined, which scares us all."

As the prosecutor sees it, a few major talent agencies dominate the local pop music scene, repeating the winning formula of pretty-face and lip-syncing dance groups. The tight links between these agencies and TV producers is basically a cartel, allowing the few to stay firmly in control of an industry that is known for its incestuous relations.

The prosecutor says he has exposed many of the under-the-table deals. He says it is common for a music manager to take on any number of minor chores for TV producers, then slip a payoff in the process. "A birthday cake delivered to a TV producer could carry an envelope with an unimaginable amount of cash in the box," Mr. Kim says. "A TV producer might ask a music producer to wash his car, which implies that he needs a new one."

The crackdown is welcomed by underground musicians and civic groups. "I hope this strict crackdown might finally open the door for more varieties of music," says Lee Hee-kwon, a producer and manager at Drug, an independent record label.

The investigation seems to be just at the beginning of a long inquiry. "No matter what, I'll make the changes happen," says the prosecutor.

Mr. Park, however, remains skeptical. He remembers all-too-well from his years in the industry just how entrenched the special interests are.

"To eradicate the deeply-rooted evil could mean overturning the whole pop music scene," he says. "Something fundamental should be done."


Lee Su-man, the head of the SM Entertainment Group, was a pioneer of Korea's pop music industry. He spent his career as a singer and a star emcee. He formed many of the biggest dance-pop groups, including S.E.S, Shinhwa and the mother-of-all-boy-bands, H.O.T. He groomed the teen star BoA, making her a huge hit in Japan.

Mr. Lee is now in the United States.

Seo Se-won is the big daddy of the entertainment industry. He is one of the most popular comedians, talk-show hosts and movie producers. His 2001 film, "Jopok Manura" (My Wife Is a Gangster), was seen by more than 5.5 million viewers in Korea; the rights to the movie were bought by Miramax.

He has close and deep relationships with TV stations and pop stars.

Mr. Seo is now in Hong Kong.


Leading the battle on 'evil'

Chief Prosecutor Kim Gyu-heon at the Seoul District Public Prosecutor's Office is not one to mince words. "Evil," is how he describes the local music industry.

Mr. Kim volunteered to investigate the entertainment industry when he took his post this spring. "I like pop culture so much that I cannot ignore the seamy side of it," he says. On July 11, Mr. Kim announced his plan to attack the behind-the-scenes absurdities and corruption in the local entertainment industry.

The prosecutor is a big fan of music. "I cannot live without music," he says. Mr. Kim's office in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul, has a high-quality CD player amid the bulky volumes of legal tomes and reports on the case. He keeps a collection of his favorite CDs, such as Sarah Brightman and the jazz singer Yun Hee-jeong. The ring tone of his cellular phone is the jazz classic "Fly Me to the Moon," which he loves to sing at karaoke bars.

This enthusiasm for music cemented his determination to clean up the industry.

What bothered him was the monopoly of dance pop on the local music scene. "I couldn't understand why every time I turned on a television, I saw the same manufactured dance groups in gaudy costumes," Mr. Kim says. "Something was wrong and an autopsy on the industry seemed crucial."

The results of that autopsy? The victim died of creative asphyxia, brought on by a hardening of the business arteries -- in other words, the improper relationship between music and television producers. "The music agencies don't let the public choose what music they like," Mr. Kim says. "They first make music that's likely to sell and force it on the public by buying off TV producers."

The myriad of payoffs and wheelings and dealings are compounded by rumors of sex scandals and gangsters in the industry. There have been reports that the prosecutor and his family were threatened, which he strongly denies.

Regardless, the prosecutor knows this fight will not be easy, but he says he is in it for the long haul.

"It's a long and winding road, but I'm willing to take it.

by Chun Su-jin

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