[FOCUS] Transparency in compiling music charts becomes hot topic in music community

By Lim Chang-won Posted : December 10, 2019, 17:17 Updated : December 18, 2019, 07:47

BTS member Jin comments about "Sajaegi", a K-pop term for music hoarding, during this year's Mnet Asian Music Awards on December 4. [Yonhap Photo]

SEOUL -- Transparency in compiling online music charts became a hot topic in South Korea's music community after some outspoken artists, including a BTS member, criticized an unethical practice of manipulating chart rankings through Sajaegi in Korean, which literally means hoarding.

There have been allegations about Sajaegi by some South Korean artists and labels to manipulate music chart rankings. Viral marketing companies are suspected of using thousands of smartphones to stream a client's song in a tactful method. Fans came to recognize unfamiliar movements in real-time song charts after online music services started providing graphs showing the movements of songs in recent years.

Sajaegi became a major issue after Park Kyung, a member of K-pop boy band Block B, tweeted on November 24, "I'd like to do some music hoarding like these people." He revealed the names of Vibe, an R&B duo of Yoon Min-soo and Ryu Jae-hyun, and five other singers. Vibe and some other artists named took legal action against Park for defamation.

Several other musicians have sided with Park. Jin, a BTS member, set forth his opinion during the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) on December 4, "Instead of negative methods, how about making good music in a more honest way. I hope the era will come when everyone makes and listens to good music."

Crush, an R&B and hip hop singer, followed up the next day and said: "I think hoarding should be eradicated. There are a lot of people who are working hard rightfully, and I'm sorry that (Sajaegi) is happening."

Sajaegi was at the center of debate on December 9 at a seminar hosted by the Korea Creative Content Agency, a state body, and attended by music community officials, experts and scholars. Online music service operators were under pressure to play a bigger role in monitoring Sajaegi, although they insisted they were innocent.

Korea Management Federation executive director Lee Myong-kil urged online music service companies to come up with measures to monitor Sajaegi, while Shin Sang-kyu, an official at Dreamus, the operator of online music streaming service Flo, said that music viral marketing companies should disclose their data.

"Viral marketing companies should reveal relevant data to uncover the truth," Yoon Dong-hwan, vice chairman of the Record Label Industry Association of Korea, said, pointing to suspicions that chart ranking has been raised sometimes through music streaming disguised as viral marketing.

Normally, a popular song will move up in a gentle upward curve to eventually reach the top of song charts. Songs suspected of chart manipulation literally skyrocket up the chart, drawing almost straight lines pointing up in sharp angles.

Suspicions about chart fixing grew even larger when music services categorized the top trending songs by ages. Sometimes top-ranked hip-hop and pop-ballad songs that are suspected of chart manipulation are soaring through charts favored by those who would normally listen to old pop songs and Trot, an old-style ballad music genre which is popular among old generations in South Korea and Japan.

The difference between actual hit songs and songs that are suspected of chart manipulation is seen clearly on YouTube. While hit songs released by popular singers quickly collect millions of views on YouTube, songs suspected of chart manipulation score far less. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, a state body, YouTube is the second-most used online music service after Melon owned by South Korea's web service giant Kakao.

Sajaegi is punishable by the Music Industry Promotion Act. Violators can receive a maximum of two years in jail or a maximum fine of 20 million won ($16,761). However, it is often positioned in a gray zone with no specific regulations. An investigation into chart manipulation is almost impossible because suspected companies carry out discreet methods mainly at workshops located in China and Southeast Asia. Also, streaming a certain song over and over again is not illegal.

In 2013, large entertainment companies filed complaints with the prosecution against companies suspected of hoarding music records, but they were not indicted due to insufficient evidence. In 2018, the culture ministry investigated singers suspected of chart manipulation only to conclude that it was difficult to see if they hoarded songs.
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