U-KISS, Crowdfunding, and What It Means for K-pop
As international fans, we are mostly unaware of the reality of the Korean music scene so it’s not surprising how easy it is to fall under the guise that all idols are created alike, especially those that have been around for a while.
U-KISS’ lack of popularity is evident though in many things that we as fans often ignore or try to overlook, such as the fact that they’ve never won first on a music show, whereas groups who also debuted in 2008 with them have all won more than once. And even if fans recognize their unpopular standing, none of us were prepared for the announcement that came earlier this week that they would be crowdfunding their next album.
On September 9, U-KISS’s official Facebook page posted an announcement of the opening of their crowdfunding project called K-Pop Funding. However, a few hours later, they deleted the post, and this confirmed to many people that it had to be a scam. But U-KISS’s official Twitter and Facebook both went on to dislodge that notion when they made posts that there was a technical error with K-pop Funding’s website and that it would be up and running again soon.
Three days have passed without the site returning to order. Despite the promise that it would “tomorrow” several days in a row, we are all confused as to what is going on and the veracity of the entire situation. Regardless of the way this all plays out, this has brought crowdfunding and all of the issues associated with it into the forefront of all of our minds.
First, what is crowdfunding exactly? To put it simply, it is reward-based funding where funders give money with the expectation of a perk or reward of some sort in exchange. K-Pop Funding explained it on their official blog as fans giving their support (in the form of money) and sharing the project through social media so that others too can give their support to U-KISS, that the group can use that money to produce their album and dole out rewards in accord with the amount of support given.
The concept of crowdfunding has been around for quite some time, but with the internet’s reach really taking off in the past decade, it’s no surprise that crowdfunding hit it big with the masses through the web. Companies have used the web and set themselves up as a way to connect those with little funds for their projects to the masses who might be interested in donating money to them. While crowdfunding is available to start-up businesses, charities, and hobbyists, this method has become especially useful for indie creatives, such as aspiring musicians, directors and designers.
Through websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, many have been able to circumvent the big entertainment companies and the connections necessary to see their work produced. They manage to get the capital they need to create short films, demo albums, and the like without the connections that major entertainment players have. In a sense, they level the playing field.
But the game changed in the crowdfunding realm in March earlier this year when Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a movie for the now-cancelled cult hit TV show. The campaign broke records and brought in $5.7 million in the 30 days it was open, going nearly $4 million over their $2 million goal.
Then, inspired by Thomas’ success with the Veronica Mars project, actor and director Zach Braff took to Kickstarter with his own film project in May. He too surpassed his $2 million goal, finishing the 30-day campaign with just above $3.1 million.
These two cases and quite a few other similar examples brought up the question of who should be allowed to use crowdfunding. After all, Veronica Mars is a studio-owned franchise, and Braff is a well-heeled Hollywood star with connections. Shouldn’t they be disqualified from the crowdfunding method?
It’s hard to say for sure, though Kickstarter released a statement about the issue, since both had their reasons. The rights to the Veronica Mars franchise belong to Warner Bros. who refused to touch the project since they did not believe it would be successful (the show was cancelled for a reason), and Thomas made a deal with the studio heads that if he could raise the funds and prove that people wanted a movie, they would give him the green light and distribute the film. Braff said that while he could go the route of meeting with investors to get the capital to produce his movie, he would lose much of his creative control, and the project would suffer and change.
The question still stands if either of these projects was in the right. But in the case of U-KISS producing an album this way, it’s a lot easier to see the problem. While both Thomas could not create the Veronica Mars film and Braff could not maintain creative control without their campaigns, U-KISS’ album will likely still be produced with or without the crowdfunding project. Some have said that this project is proof that their company, NH Media, really must be on the verge of bankruptcy, but that’s unlikely because the group has put out polished work in the past. It would be different if the group’s album production had been significantly sinking to the point that everything seemed like a demo tape. Then, maybe NH Media might really be lacking in the money to create an album, but that’s not the case.
It’s possible that this is a well-intentioned mistake à la Crayon Pop with their bank account controversy. The original post on U-KISS’ Facebook page did say, “We have always been thinking about how we could give back your love.” Perhaps the members really do think this is a great way to get fans to participate in the production of their album, but the company must be aware of the advantage of this as well. Not only do they get profit from the album sales and the forthcoming promotions, but they don’t even have to put up the money to produce the album since the very same people who buy the albums will be paying for its production. There really is no way that NH Media won’t make a considerable profit from this if it goes through.
And that’s the key phrase: if it goes through. All of the rewards say that it won’t happen if they don’t get at least 1,000 backers. Does this mean U-KISS will not get a next album if they don’t get the funding through their campaign? Again, unlikely. This means that the company is probably prepared to shell out the cash to pay for production, but they don’t want to if they don’t have to, which is unfair to fans who are already going to spend money on the finished product.
One might argue that one of the rewards (the 75,000 KRW, or approximately 70 USD tier) is a signed copy of the album, so not everyone is going to have to pay twice. But that’s only one reward tier. The others don’t receive an album, despite helping in its production, and even those who do receive one are likely to purchase it anyway to support the group’s album sales and chart rankings.
Another problem with this situation comes from another reward tier (that of 125,000 KRW or approximately 115 USD). The reward of a “DNA accessory” has not been clearly defined beyond the description provided by K-Pop Funding: “We will send accessories (e.g. necklace, ring, etc.) containing U-KISS’ DNA.” But what this implies is pretty creepy. Images of vials of blood, nail clippings and hair swatches come to mind. Through the crudest lens, one might say that the U-KISS members are whoring themselves out and literally selling their bodies for money to pay for their next album. Regardless of how you view it, this is problematic since it feeds the unhealthy, obsessive aspect of fandom culture and further enforces the idea that idols are just objects to be consumed, not human beings.
And if the project goes through, this may change everything about the industry if other companies follow suit. The K-pop industry does all it can to suck money out of consumers. Fans have so many options to sink their money into digital singles, albums, repackages, posters, concerts, clothes, accessories, and more. Now, though, if others go down the same path of crowdfunding, which is implied in the mere creation of the website K-Pop Funding, then fans will be spending all of the money with companies making all of the profit with little to no risk.
The sad part about all of this situation is that the members of U-KISS are not behind it, but they will be the ones to deal with whatever backlash may arise, even though this is NH Media’s doing. NH Media calls the shots and has decided that they don’t want to pay for U-KISS next album unless they have to. We don’t know the internal affairs of the company, but it appears that they are hesitating to invest more in a group that hasn’t returned enough in the past. It’s understandable that the company wouldn’t want to lose money, but if the situation was really as bad as it appears, then they could easily have disbanded the group ages ago, citing financial problems from the get-go. Thus, we can’t pinpoint an exact reason for their decision. All we can do is speculate because right now everything is still in confusion, but we can say that this entire situation will certainly be a game changer for the entire K-pop industry.
What are your thoughts, readers? Do you think this is all a scam? Do you think it’s right for NH Media to fund U-KISS’ album this way? Leave your thoughts below!