A few months ago, indie act Busker Busker‘s somewhat surprising victory on MBC‘s M! Countdown inspired me to take a closer look at whether or not the system(s) employed by music programs to determine which music group or solo artist will take home the glorified paperweight, a la Patricia trophy of the week.  After all, it’s no secret that music program victories hardly seem meritorious; oftentimes, the award unconditionally goes to whichever big-name act happens to be promoting at the time, regardless of whether or not one would consider it actually deserved.  However, while many would like to point fingers at music programs for the fact that Super Junior and SNSD are automatic shoe-ins to win for weeks on end whenever they make a comeback, it is more likely the fans who are to blame for a seemingly unfair system that dooms the underdog.

Well, it seems as though frustration with the status quo is not just limited to fans: in an effort to focus more on music and less on promotions, the producers behind SBS‘ Inkigayo have decided to abolish both the Mutizen award, which is given out to the top-selling song of the week, and the “Take 7” segment, which recognizes the top seven songs and artists currently promoting.  In announcing this decision, producers explained that the ranking system essentially had no meaning and that they wished to do away with the repetitive cycle of comebacks and awards in order to focus more on the music.  Commented a producer, “We believe that rather than a ranking system, K-pop’s global recognition is far more important.  In the entertainment world, there are many K-pop artists that have talent.  In order to focus on the music, we will be organizing more collaborations and special stages.”

Honestly, if there was one awards system out of the three (both M! Countdown and Music Bank also offer awards) that was the most fair, it was probably Inkigayo‘s; because a song cannot win the Mutizen more than three weeks in a row, it ensured that groups or artists deserving of a chance in the spotlight would certainly get it, but also freed up said spotlight for other songs far more quickly than do its counterparts, which allow songs to win for months on end (if they are indeed that popular or successful).  However, one has to respect their acknowledgement that even their kind-of-fair system really doesn’t add much to Korean entertainment.  It doesn’t take a great deal of thought or brainpower to acknowledge how grossly out of control all of the awards systems have gotten, and Inkigayo‘s decision was met with a mostly positive response from other professionals in South Korea’s music industry.

Ah, but there is one small group of individuals who aren’t very happy.  It seems that in their selfish decision to do away with the Mutizen, the folks behind Inkigayo failed to take into account the needs and wants of the giant entertainment companies that have benefited from the ranking system for years!  Indeed, some producers have stepped forward to defend them against this gross injustice, remarking:

This could be a problem for artists that depend on album sales, such as male idols.  Honestly speaking, it is true that male idols gain strength from their fandoms, who purchase albums in order to create advantages for them.  If the rankings system disappears, this sort of support probably will as well.

Sorry, what’s that now?

First of all, to say that male idols are the only ones who depend on album sales is just plain ridiculous.  Pretty much every music group or singer relies on album sales, much the same way that any individual with a job relies on a paycheck; if you are a singer or musician and you aren’t managing to sell songs, then chances are you won’t be a singer or musician for much longer.  Also, album sales tend to be a window to other opportunities, especially in the South Korean entertainment industry — big sales often lead to CF deals, appearances on variety shows, regular billings on radio broadcasts, and the like.  So yeah, I’d go ahead and say that KARA and Secret almost certainly depend on album sales for their bread and butter just as much as do SHINee and Infinite.

But here’s what really gets me.  The producers who have argued against dropping the ranking system seem to be under the delusion that eliminating the ranking system will somehow de-incentivize fandoms to support their artists.  Essentially, they put forth that fans believe greatly in the significance of awards and will not bother to purchase albums if they can’t bask in the victory afterwards.

To be fair, this claim is not totally without merit.  The ranking and awards system has become deeply ingrained in the whole ebb and flow of the K-pop market, to the point where it has penetrated nearly every aspect of its function.  Fans have indeed become conditioned to expect material payoffs in exchange for their support of their artists.  But to say that the entire K-pop industry will basically collapse inward once fans no longer have the Mutizen to point to as the fruits of their labor is just ridiculous.  First of all, as mentioned, Inkigayo is certainly not the only program to offer awards — and so even if it is true that trophies are he only thing keeping fans from dropping their support, there still currently exists enough incentive for them to buy up those albums.  And even if Music Bank and M! Countdown get rid of their awards systems as well, there will still be the Gaon ranking chart, the Korean Billboard chart, end-of-the-year music festivals, the MAMA awards, Digital Daesungs, and all that jazz; these are not things that can be easily done away with any music market.

But really, as we’ve seen even here on Seoulbeats, fandoms don’t need a trophy or even any sort of acknowledgement in order to derive satisfaction from supporting their artists; that fans come out by the droves to vote on polls that are objectively and completely meaningless in the grander scheme of things is a helpful indicator that fandoms will most likely continue to support their artists no matter what.  Does it really matter if SHINee wins “best comeback of 2012…so far” on Seoulbeats?  Please hop on over to this post and just scroll through the comments for a bit.  Now tell me if it matters that the Mutizen no longer exists.

What everyone seems to be forgetting, however, is that most other global music industries (or at least the ones that I can think of, at any rate) do not distribute weekly awards or even have music programs — and their artists are doing just fine, largely because they sell music based on musical merit and not on meaningless hunks of plastic disguised as trophies.  Adele may have won eight Grammy awards, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that her fans probably didn’t buy her music in an effort to ensure that she’d take home a bunch of prizes someday; they most likely purchased her albums 19 and 21 because they liked the music and wanted to have it on their iPods to listen to.  She probably doesn’t need a rabid fandom that derives pleasure from some completely insignificant title in order to boost her own popularity; all she needs is to keep releasing music of outstanding calibre and she will have a place in the industry for as long as she wants it.  The same can be said for the hundreds of vibrant indie artists that have been rocking America’s music scene for quite some time now.  Though Rilo Kiley can’t lay claim to victories or even meaningless poll wins, it didn’t stop them from producing five CDs before they disbanded in 2011.

My point is this: producers in South Korea are pissed because they worry that this fundamental change in Inkigayo‘s format foreshadows a dramatic change in the format of the entire music industry.  They fear going from a music industry that is based on meaningless achievement to one that might actually be based on music.  In other words, entertainment companies and producers are expressing concern about actually having to rely on music to sell itself — which (and excuse me for saying this) might be something that some companies haven’t placed a premium on in quite some time.  It sounds to me like they’re doing a terrific amount of whining over something that they should have been doing in the first place: focusing on the creation of music that will have greater reach and impact with a broader audience.  To which I say: OH PLEASE.  The over-saturation of the K-pop market with crappy music that is buoyed by fandoms that are wholly unconcerned with quality needs to stop.  If K-pop ever wants to be taken seriously at the global level (and judging by all of the blather we hear about Hallyu on a weekly basis, I’d say that it does), then this shift is a long time coming and completely necessary.  Bravo, Inkigayo. 

As if it weren’t obvious, I welcome the change.  Regardless of their motivation for doing so, it’s great to see Inkigayo taking steps to emphasize music above everything else — and I can only hope that it will lead to a slow but progressive change in the larger K-pop industry.

(SBS, Billboard, Sports Chosun, Nate)