K-Pop: Stream Like You Breathe

Culture

Every morning when Kim Eun-ji gets up, she looks at her desktop computer, iPad, and smartphone to see if they are streaming music without problems. Although all sounds are muted, there are six digital music platforms streaming music 24/7 on her gadgets. She checks to see whether any of the digital music platforms have been interrupted while she was asleep; if the streaming list contains all the appropriate tracks; if the list itself is on repeat; and clicks on the My DNA section of her Melon account to see if her previous day’s streaming activities have been reflected in her total streaming counts.

Then she opens the AzTalk app on her smartphone and posts her current streaming activities on her K-pop idol’s AzTalk channel. She smiles to see thousands of other fans who have posted their own streaming activities that morning in solidarity. Before she leaves for work, she checks her smartphone to see if the TeamViewer program, which links her gadgets to her smartphone, is working properly. During the day, she makes time to stream other K-pop idols’ tracks and uploads a screenshot of those streaming activities on other idols’ fan community websites.

Kim, 33, is not the only South Korean who performs these daily rituals.

According to Wiseapp, some five million South Koreans subscribe to Melon, a popular digital music platform. Besides Melon, digital music platforms such as Bugs (0.9 million), Genie (1.8 million), Mnet (0.8 million), Naver Music (1.5 million), and Soribada all allow subscribers to stream music freely on their computers, smartphones and tablets. Each platform has its own Top 100 chart, which measure popularity according to the number of people streaming and downloading each song.

On these charts, it is not unusual to see several songs from the same album of a single artist in the top 100. That is because a large number of fans, like Kim, show support for their favorite artists by streaming their music 24/7 to boost their rankings, in a practice known as sumseuming — “streaming music 24/7 as one breathes.”

K-pop fans know that an artist’s future career depends on their past commercial performance. An artist’s management agency has the authority to decide whether to release a new album or not. Some agencies will indefinitely delay launching an artist’s new album if the artist’s previous album sold poorly.

In order to encourage the management agency to release their idol’s new songs and organize concerts and fan meetings, K-pop fans work hard to make sure the artist is popular and commercially successful so that the management will be motivated to back more production.

It’s easy to dismiss such labor as a consequence of brainwashed fans, victims of the capitalist music industry that exploits personal devotion to make money. But the way K-pop fans go about performing this labor is often strategic, based on careful planning, preparation and research; it hints at agency on the part of such fans, who master the rules of the industry to shape it to their liking.

The practice of endless streaming came into being in the age of the digital audio file.

During the pre-Internet, first-generation K-pop era of the 1990s, fandom activities mostly consisted of purchasing the artist’s CD in order to boost sales and going to concerts and music shows at TV broadcasters to show support. This changed drastically after the rise of the digital audio file in the Korean music industry since the 2000s. As more people chose to subscribe to music streaming sites and CD sales declined, the popularity of digital audio files became far more important for an artist’s commercial success.

For example, music programs on TV, which serve as an important gauge of artists’ popularity, heavily rely on the digital audio file consumption in deciding their own chart rankings. KBS Music Bank, which has been running since 1998, counts digital audio files for 65 percent of the score, CD sales for five percent, media appearances for 20 percent, and viewer questionnaires for 10 percent.

K-pop fandom is attuned to these criteria and has developed corresponding strategies. One of the most basic ways to have more people listen to an artist’s music is to position it on the top of the digital music platforms’ charts. Many South Koreans listen to music during their commute. If a consumer is no fan of any particular artist and has no musical preference, he or she may just open a music-streaming app and start listening from the top of the chart.

K-pop fans continuously research digital music platforms and music TV programs’ ranking criteria to come up with ways to ensure each streaming is counted. For example, fans continuously stream a playlist that mixes newly released music and older songs so that the playlist is longer than 60 minutes. That is because each streaming of a song only gets counted once per hour. (Sometimes fans will mix into the playlists, as Kim does, music by artists they don’t necessarily support, for strategic reasons; in return those artists’ fans will stream her idol’s music to repay the gesture.)

Fans may mute the music, but must make sure that each song plays to the end without interruption for the streaming to get counted. Many fans even go to the trouble of obtaining disused computers, smartphones, and tablets so they can register for accounts and subscriptions to digital music platforms.

Because it is difficult to check whether the gadgets are streaming properly all day, fans utilize programs like TeamViewer to connect their gadgets to their smartphones and check their streaming activities after they step away from their gadgets. Fans encourage each other by posting FAQs and step-by-step tutorials for all kinds of gadgets via blogs, social media networks, and YouTube videos, not only in Korean, but also in English for international fans outside of Korea who do possess a Korean mobile number and bank account.

Smartphone apps such as AzTalk (an affiliated app of Melon) serve as a community platform for dedicated K-pop fans. AzTalk features several functions like certifying streaming activities (because it is linked to Melon), writing fan messages, chatting with K-pop artists, and encouraging fandoms to compete with each other for various events.

Streaming activities are currently regarded as one of the most basic and important tasks for a K-pop fan. For example, some fan groups require showing one’s total number of streaming counts (usually in the thousands) to be able to participate in an event or receive unofficial fan merchandise. A Melon subscriber can prove his/her total streaming counts by providing access to the “My Music DNA” section on the Melon smartphone app. In this case, not only one’s loyalty for the group, but also the incentive one may receive encourages and motivates K-pop fans to continue sumseuming.

Kim Ji-hyun, 25, says it is extremely difficult to stream every single minute of the day. She often discovers her music players paused while she was asleep or busy at work. “But there are so many dedicated fans who have streamed for several weeks and months without even a split-second of interruption. They have the highest streaming counts,” she said  in awe.

While some fans choose to “come out” to their family, friends, and colleagues as a K-pop fan, many conceal their identities and daily rituals. For Kim Ji-hyun, one of the main reasons for concealing her identity is not because she is ashamed of being a K-pop fan or her fan activities. Rather, she hides it because she will sometimes skip family events or make up excuses and leave work early to attend a K-pop event.

“Sometimes people look down on you or won’t take you seriously if you are a K-pop fan. And they can’t understand even if I explained why these activities are important. Many fans hide their identities so that they can participate freely without the burden of convincing or explaining it to non K-pop fans.”

Despite the stigma, Kim Eun-ji says that streaming is “the most fundamental responsibility of a K-pop fan,” and that when she first became a K-pop fan, one of the first things she searched for online was the streaming playlist.

“If you love your K-pop idol, if you know what’s best for them and want to see them perform for a long time, you have to stream.”

 

Cover image: Big Bang, a beloved K-pop group. (Source: Koreanet via Wikipedia, CC BY SA-2.0)

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Areum Jeong researches and teaches Korean and Korean American film, literature, theater and performance. She earned a PhD in theater and performance studies from UCLA and has taught at UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, and USC.