Pursuing a musical labor of love the hard way

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Pursuing a musical labor of love the hard way

In Korea, making a musical album is difficult, and producing one that resonates with the public is even more problematic. That’s why singers depend on giant entertainment companies.
These companies find songwriters who know what the public likes, and distribute and market albums. But they come with a price tag, sometimes an expensive one.
Musicians Kang Tae-ung and Choe Hyeong-bae decided to do things on their own, not only writing and recording their own albums, but marketing and selling them too.
Mr. Kang, 51, recently produced his second album, titled ― what else? ―“Kang Tae-ung’s Second Album.” This came after years of going through what he calls the “non-famous singer’s phase.”
Mr. Choe, 33, made the album he’s always dreamed of, which is also his first, titled “SAL.”
When the two men met for the first time at a JoongAng Ilbo interview, they seemed to get along.
“How’re the sales going?” inquires Mr. Choe.
“My song is ranked 101st on Bugsmusic (a popular music Web site in Korea). Last week, the radio played it about 40 times,” is Mr. Kang’s matter-of-fact response.
Mr. Choe appears slightly taken aback. What is the secret to this success, he wonders?
“You have to go to each radio station three times a day, meet different producers according to the schedule. For local stations, you have to send the CD in the mail,” says Mr. Kang, happy to share tricks of the trade. “It’s hard for local stations to play a song if the public doesn’t request it. I guess there are some people out there who requested my songs.”
Mr. Choe has had a difficult time getting airplay for his music. “My song was on the radio just once. And that was because someone helped get me on Bae Cheol-su’s Music Camp. My music was introduced on the show and people seemed to have liked it. But I realized that without connections, it’s hard to advertise music.”
Both men may make their own music, but that is where similarities between the two end.
Mr. Kang comes from a poor family, and did not finish elementary school. As a youngster he worked on a farm to earn a living. But one day, he decided to come to Seoul, with only one thought in mind ― to be a singer.
He worked at a factory and sold chocolates on the street, but devoted all his free time to music. After saving enough money, he took a high school equivalency test and went to a local college to study composing.
He made his first album in 1998. The hard part came after he had written and sung the music. He started performing in cafes, selling CDs after shows. Then he made the rounds of radio stations, pushing his album to whomever would listen.
The sad love song “Ibyeolhajianeun Ibyeol” (The Goodbye That’s Not Goodbye) made him a household name. He then composed the theme song for the popular TV show “Insaengdaeyeokjeon” (A Change in Life’s Fortune). Six years later, he has released his second album. The slow beat and comfortable melodies of his songs accompany an honest portrayal of his life story.
“Even though my body is tied up in a busy schedule, I want my soul to be free,” says Mr. Kang.
Mr. Choe played guitar in a high school band. After failing the SAT exam, he devoted an entire year to preparing for the next round of tests, still finding time to practice his guitar. He continued playing through college, eventually settling into a career that had nothing to do with music; his father felt very strongly that he should have a “normal” job. But even as an office worker, he couldn’t give up what he loved.
Two years after graduating from university, he made an “experimental” record. During the course of making the album, opportunity knocked. He now archives classical performances for the Kumho Cultural Foundation, working as a secretary to Kumho’s honorary president, Park Seong-yawng.
In April, he made an album of the music he composed in his 20s. He sang two songs on the album himself, and features other singers for the rest. His music incorporates bossa nova, pop and jazz.
Mr. Choe is also philosophical about his choice. “At first when I thought about making an album, I felt like a prisoner who had to escape jail by digging a hole in the wall with a spoon. But I kept going, and one day I realized I was close to where I wanted to be.”


by Lee Kyong-hee
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