QRIMOLE Episode 2: money, music, management

You said that you wanted more QRIMOLE, so here it is!  Kpopalypse is back with more QRIMOLE!

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Maybe this is a silly question, but does recording a song take long for a vocalist?  I mean, I hear idols complain quite frequently about losing their turn count with rock-paper-scissors, being very upset when they’re last.  A mini-album has 6 tracks (1 is usually an intro).  Even if they’d have to sing a song in its entirety, the total wouldn’t go over 30 mins.  Even if they had to re-sing everything 5 times to get some magically great take, it would still be 2 and 1/2 hours.  The singer provides the vocals, and the rest of the staff does every other work, right?  So why are some idols saying stuff like “I had a poor recording, my members are upset” to “It was so difficult for me to record my turns for this album, I started drinking and I lost myself”?

Here’s a typical process of recording vocals for a solo performer, for one song, from an engineer’s perspective.  Let’s assume all the actual backing music is already written and mixed nicely.

  1. Arrive at the studio, switch everything on.
  2. Find the backing tracks, load them into ProTools (or similar digital audio workstation (DAW)).
  3. Get coffee.
  4. Set up a vocal mic and headphones for the vocalist, and a music stand is also polite.
  5. Meet the vocalist, brief her on the process, show her around a bit of she’s never been to the studio before.
  6. Get the vocalist to test the mic, can she hear herself?  Can she hear feedback or anything else that shouldn’t be heard?  Adjust as required.
  7. Is the vocalist happy with the mix of the backing track in the headphones?  She might say “can I have less keyboards and more drums please” or something.  Adjust accordingly.
  8. Make sure you save this new “vocal recording guide setting” separately somehow because it’s now different to the one on the actual intended final mix.
  9. If the vocalist is allowed actual creativity (highly unlikely for k-pop solo performers but possible in rare isolated cases) they may also have creative input about your backing track, maybe they want something removed or added, boosted or cut in the final mix too.  Make these changes if required, be sure to save them but keep the original settings too just in case their creative ideas are utter dogshit/shot down by the agency later.
  10. Check that the vocal is coming through okay to the DAW with a short level check.
  11. Make sure the vocalist is comfortable and ready to go.  Do they have everything they need (coffee/water/drugs/etc).
  12. Do a test recording of the vocals for the song. Tell the vocalist that it won’t be kept.
  13. Quickly save the test recording anyway – sometimes the spontaneous first shot where the vocalist isn’t feeling all nervous and pressured about “oh my god it has to be perfect” ends up sounding better than any of the official takes!
  14. Record an “official take”.  This might take a few tries and some patience if the vocalist keeps fucking up or whatever.
  15. Assess the quality as you record – is it good enough?  Are there mistakes, and if so are they easily fixable, or is it too much effort and better to just get the vocalist to do it again?  Give whatever feedback to the vocalist that their ego and soul can handle.
  16. Play the recording back to yourself as well as to the singer, either through her headphones or in the control room with you.  You can skip this step if you both already know the take was particularly good or bad.
  17. Discuss with the vocalist – how did she feel about that take?  Does she feel that she could do a better one?
  18. Go back to step 14 and repeat.  Record as many more takes as required until both you and the singer are satisfied, or until the singer or their agency runs out of money to pay you to do this shit.

Now let’s imagine this scenario again, this time for a large idol group.

  1. Arrive at the studio, switch everything on.
  2. Find the backing tracks, load them into ProTools.
  3. Get coffee.
  4. Set up a vocal mic and headphones for a vocalist, and a music stand is also polite.
  5. Meet the vocalists and their handlers, brief them all on the process, establish who is doing “crowd control” of this mob.  Show at least one important person around a bit if they’ve never been to the studio before so they can tell the girls where the toilets are etc.
  6. Bring the vocalist into the studio recording room.  Show the other girls to the studio waiting room, let them wait there with their handlers.  If very obedient, you could bring them into the control room but this isn’t recommended.
  7. Get the vocalist to test the mic, can she hear herself?  Can she hear feedback or anything else that shouldn’t be heard?  Adjust as required.
  8. Is the vocalist happy with the mix of the backing track in the headphones?  She might say “can I have less keyboards and more drums please” or something.  Adjust accordingly.
  9. Make sure you save this new “vocal recording guide setting” separately somehow because it’s now different to the one on the actual intended final mix.
  10. No need to worry about creativity here, these girls’ agency won’t be having any of that nonsense.  If you were stupid enough to bring any of the waiting girls into the control room, now is a good time to tell them to either get the fuck out out or they can sit there and watch as long as they shut the fuck up and don’t say anything annoying while you’re working.
  11. Check that the vocal is coming through okay to the DAW with a short level check.
  12. Make sure the vocalist is comfortable and ready to go.  Do they have everything they need (coffee/water/drugs/etc).  Make sure the person about to cut their vocals is not distracted by anyone else.  Hopefully by now some catering has arrived but probably not.
  13. Do a test recording of the vocals for the song. Tell the vocalist that it won’t be kept.
  14. Quickly save the test recording anyway – sometimes the spontaneous first shot where the vocalist isn’t feeling all nervous and pressured about “oh my god it has to be perfect” ends up sounding better than any of the official takes!
  15. Record an “official take”.  This might take a few tries and some patience if the vocalist keeps fucking up or whatever.
  16. Assess the quality as you record – is it good enough?  Are there mistakes, and if so are they easily fixable, or is it too much effort and better to just get the vocalist to do it again?  Give whatever feedback to the vocalist that their ego and soul can handle.
  17. Play the recording back to yourself as well as to the singer, either through her headphones or in the control room with you.  You can skip this step if you both already know the take was particularly good or bad.
  18. Discuss with the vocalist – how did she feel about that take?  Does she feel that she could do a better one?
  19. Go back to step 15 and repeat.  Record as many more takes as required until both you and the singer are satisfied, although if she’s a complaining sort or extreme prima donna and time is short just boot her ass out after a few takes and tell her she did great even if she was fucking shit – you can stitch together a passable version of her vocals just by copy-pasting the best bits of each take together if you really have to, or failing that, get one of the other girls to sing her part, they all sound more or less the same anyway.
  20. Usher the vocalist out of the room, into the waiting room where hopefully there is now food and beverages for her to enjoy and her groupmates and handlers present who will probably give encouraging words to her face and talk behind her back about how she was awful later.
  21. Repeat the entire process again from step 6, for however many vocalists there are in the group.

As you might be now starting to get a feel for, this is NOT a quick process for you as an engineer.  A very quick, very dirty “let’s not get too fussy about things” vocal session for ONE song with ONE singer might take 30 minutes if they were really, really easy-going about the results – and singers rarely are easy-going, after all it’s their reputation that is riding on the final product the most.  A more realistic timeframe for a large group recording a mini-album worth of tracks is something like an entire full work day, and that’s if the engineer is hurrying and being conscious of “time = money”.  If the group is not nugu but has money to burn in the studio getting it “perfect” the mini-album could take a week, or longer.

The other thing you may have noticed is that in the second scenario, only one girl is brought in to sing at a time, and everyone else has to wait.  So in an 8-member group each girl is doing about 12.5% “being involved in the process” and 87.5% “waiting around for some shit to happen that actually involves me”.  There’s lots and lots of time for the girls to sit around in the waiting lounge, get nervous as fuck while they wait their turns to sing, have petty fights with each other, drink, share jelly snacks, generally get bored as shit, etc.  One of the reasons why substance abuse is so common in the music business is simply because during downtime when working there’s not a lot else to do.  Also, now you know why nobody wants to go last.

While watching a fancam, I noticed one of the lead vocalists fiddle around with her ear-piece a lot. Even though she was smiling at all the right times, whenever it wasn’t her turn, her face would seem panicked and she’d keep pointing at her ears.  She even stopped mouthing her parts correctly even though every single live performance of this song I’ve seen only had her singing live just 50% of the time over backtrack. Was she not hearing herself or something? If she knows the song by heart and when her turn comes (she still did her choreography with robot-like reflexes), can’t she sing the same way she always does even without hearing herself?  Why stop miming?  I remember this happened to a Eurovision representative of ours a few years ago too, where she blamed her lackluster vocal performance on “my in-ear was dead”.  No one, not even she, explained what that meant.  So the press all shat on her and then blamed her for the penultimate position the country got.  So what gives?  Can a malfunctioning ear-piece turn your vocals to shit to the point where you even stop lipsynching at your own concert?

Yes it can!  In-ear monitors are there so you can hear the backing track nice and clearly while you sing (or pretend to sing) your (or someone else’s) vocal part.  If your in-ear monitors go quiet, then that’s a problem, you can’t hear the backing track properly and you can lose track of where you are.  Depending on what other ambient sounds are around the venue, this might mean that you start singing woefully out of time.  An even bigger problem is if the in-ear monitors have some other kind of issue, so that rather than going silent they start emitting a high-pitched squeal or a low hum, or static, or distortion, or some other weird noise.  This isn’t unheard of – the mix that goes into the in-ear monitors is controlled by the live sound engineer and that person may decide to dial something into your monitors that you don’t want or didn’t request, or they may just not be paying enough attention, or perhaps they spilled some coffee into their console.

Are pictorials as good of a sign of money flowing to a group as CF deals? I noticed after Stellar had a comeback they had several pictorials with a bunch of magazines. Also how would you gauge the success of a comeback in terms of exposure?

Depends, and this can be answered with one simple question – is the pictorial selling something?  If it’s just a simple “let’s take pictures of these girls” then they might see little or no money.  If it’s “let’s take pictures of these girls wearing a specific fashion brand label” or “let’s take pictures of these girls holding specific designer handbags” or “here’s a girl holding a product”, then significant money would have changed hands.

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Modelling such as this would have netted Sulli some decent cash because this picture is from a set where she’s promoting a specific fashion label collection for a fashion magazine.

stellarbnt

This photo of two of the Stellar girls is also from a fashion magazine, but are the girls promoting specific clothes here, or just promoting themselves?  I don’t know the answer in this case, but this is the difference between a photoshoot that makes a lot of money and one that does not.

If the whole industry is pretty much based on mass exploitation (unlike many other industries), is there any way to support the idol/artist rather the company lording over them? Or do I accept the fact that they’re a product made and packaged by many other industry employees?

The latter.  The idol is a “front end” for a fairly large machine in the background.  It’s silly to say “I want to support the idol but not the company” because it’s the company itself that supports the idol the most, because to the company, each idol is an investment, and they want to see returns off that investment so the companies go all out trying to give their idols the biggest boost possible, even in the face of snarky, cynical fans who don’t understand.  I see this mentality most commonly with fans of MBK groups – “I don’t like the company but I love my idols”.  Everyone hated MBK during the T-ara scandal and many still do, but who solidly stuck by T-ara when everyone claimed to hate them?  Who kept giving them comebacks and high-budget videos?  Who pushed them into overseas markets and cut deals with foreign agencies so T-ara would maintain a high international profile and always be viable?  MBK did, and the reason why they did it is not out of the goodness of their heart, but because T-ara is an investment to MBK and it’s MBK’s responsiblity to make returns on that investment.  If MBK failed with T-ara, it wouldn’t just be the T-ara girls who would be out of a job – several employees at MBK from stylists to choreographers to wardrobe to technicians and many others would have to be downsized, people would lose jobs and livelihoods.  Right now MBK is pushing DIA over T-ara, and that approach makes complete sense.  T-ara already have a core audience and shitloads of fans around the world, they will be fine no matter what and don’t need that huge push anymore, however MBK’s smaller groups have a lower profile and need that boost to get them started.  What do you think “Produce 101” was really all about?  When I interviewed Sarah Wolfgang who was in Tahiti, her parting comments were that people behind the scenes don’t get enough credit for their hard work, and it’s true – instead they’re constantly undercut by fans who think they know what’s best just from looking at things from the outside, which is ludicrous.

Why do you think YG’s Black Pink promotes in only one music show?

That’s standard for YG and probably the case because YG don’t need to promote a lot on shows, so they don’t. From what I know about behind the scenes at those shows, promoting on them is a royal pain in the ass so YG are doing all their artists a massive favour here.

Then why do other Korean household names (in the music industry, like SM) have to promote their artists in different music shows in a single week if it’s tiring as well as expensive for the artist and company, respectively? Sorry, I’m just really curious.

Check out this uncharacteristically insightful Netizenbuzz article where a lot of legit information is revealed about what it’s really like behind the scenes at music shows.  It’s a pretty fucked situation, and YG are honestly just being a bit nicer to their artists than other labels, because they can get away with it due to their brand power being a big drawcard, they don’t bother to appear on shows that they’re not directly plugged into the infrastructure of.  Other labels could take the same approach if they wanted, but the reality is that the k-pop idol scene is so hotly competitive that nobody wants to lose even the smallest advantage, so there’s enormous pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” and be seen as just as nice, just as polite, just as conciliatory as everyone else.

There’s a lot of complaining about YG’s inability to stick to schedules or managing their artists. However, out of the Big Three they have the highest profit.Are they just “lucky”? Is there a valid strategy behind the “mis-management”? (Like creating a “shortage” of comebacks, so people will be more hyped?) I just find it hard to believe that a successful business like YG would be so “unprofessional” and still be able to compete in the music market…

YG are in a very good position financially and have been for a long time, and people don’t get into positions like that through mismanagement.  Luck can get you part of the way, but while a lucky person may come across a fortune, a smart person will know how to retain and build upon that fortune, which is what YG have done in Korea.  What people need to realise every time they see an article about YG’s shenanigans and a whole bunch of reactions to it, is that everyone who is reacting is being strung along.  YG work with a pretty specific schedule template (12-36 month breaks and then multiple simultaneous or closely sequential releases) to build up anticipation and make each new comeback feel like a big event, and a lot of money and planning is poured into the “machine” each time this happens.  If YG were a shitty company with no idea how to promote their artists, nobody would be reacting to anything they did, there would be no “controversy”, there would be no “scandals”, nobody would be complaining about a lack of comebacks etc.  They’ve got the Korean market pretty well sewn up through clever marketing and they know how to make their artists stand out and have currency among the competition, and boy do so many of their fans not even appreciate it.  The average YG fan wouldn’t know a single thing about what managing an artist actually entails, that’s abundantly clear from the kind of comments that these people leave on news articles and social media, and it’s fine to not know something, but it’s also fine to just admit it!

You explained in a very plausible way that the music isn’t really the “main focus” of companies like SM, but that they create idols to more or less make money with advertisement contracts. How do you think the concept of SM Station fits into this logic? What are they trying to do with it? It cant really be for the money, since digital songs dont make all that much… And do you think that SM is succeeding with whatever they planned with SM station?

I see it as a “showcase” type of thing, but instead of showcasing “idols” specifically, thei’re showcasing “brand value” i.e: “look, here’s all the different things we can do, no need to go to anyone else but SM for your entertainment needs”.  It’s a way for SM to say “we’re the top of the tree, look how much we encompass”.  To the advertisers the message is “look, we have the biggest brand power, we are the most prolific, we can release new product every week, look how active we are, look at all our different music styles and visual styles, we’re very flexible to your needs, now wouldn’t you love to do some business deals with us?”.  Is it working – well, I couldn’t say without looking at the accounting – and when I say “accounting” I don’t mean “music sales” but rather “what was the expenses vs the uptake on new clients dealing with SM product and new income sources before and after SM Station” which is the sort of thing nobody in my position (an outsider) can answer.

With all of these “reality” shows featuring trainees trying to make it into debuting groups lately, I’ve been wondering about trainee debts. If your company decides to drop you, do you still owe them anything? Or do you get to walk away with free training and plastic surgery?

Depends on the contract.  Someone with a label contract in Korea going through the whole trainee process, my understanding is that they still owe their trainee debt after contract termination in most cases.  The exception would be a “termination with no conditions” but this is rare in Korea to my knowledge.  However in the case of something like a low-tier Produce 101 contestant who didn’t make it into the final 30 or whatever because they weren’t part of the “arrangement”, there would be no debt to pay because they barely had any training in the first place… but no income, either.  However I’m yet to hear of a k-pop agency actually paying for any idol’s plastic surgery, all the reports I’ve heard are that the idols pay for that and get it done themselves… sometimes even against the label’s wishes!

why there are 5-6 producers for one fucking song

Because many k-pop songs are written by “committee”.  A bunch of people sit around a table months in advance and plan the next comeback for a big group and discuss every angle – “What do we want it to sound like?  What look do we want the video to have in it?  What theme do we want?  Who should write the music?  What audience demographic are we targeting the most?  What will have the biggest impact compared to what’s out there right now?  Do we want to fit in with current styles to milk a hot trend or stand out as different to get noticed?  Who will do our choreography and what should it look like?  What are the performers going to wear?” and so forth.  Then they either go shopping for a song that suits, or hire someone to write one, but anyone who is effectively controlling the musical direction of a production is a “producer”… and damn straight they want an album credit!

Not really about music but why would idols debut under some no name small agency, do they actually think they’ll get lucky and make it big.

People who debut under NUGU ENT don’t do so because it’s their dream of being unknown and one day getting featured in Kpopalypse Nugu Alert, but because that’s probably all the options they had left.  I guarantee you that at least 90% of idols who debut under tiny no-name agencies all went to SM/YG/JYP auditions first to see if they could get in.  (The other 10% would be people in groups like Bambino, PPL, Pocket Girls etc where the girls are specifically aspiring to be “race queens” rather than “pop idols”, these aren’t really idol groups in the true sense but adult club dancers with an idol group front-end.)  However if all the big agencies say “no and don’t come back”, but you’ve invested your entire life trying to realise your dream of being an idol, what are you going to do – give up on your life goals?  Some might be happy to start afresh with something else, but others will fight on and keep auditioning their way down the tree until they can find an agency who will take them.  They’re running for their dream.


That’s it for another episode of QRIMOLE!  Hopefully you enjoyed this and have even more questions in future!  Also, the first two QRIMOLEs have been very business-oriented and that’s fine with me but you’re allowed to ask other things too, anything that might require a long-form answer from me is certainly potentially eligible!  Let’s see who can come up with the most interesting topics for the future!

7 thoughts on “QRIMOLE Episode 2: money, music, management

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  3. After reading at this post, i couldn’t stop thinking (and giggling) if maybe, when snsd were recording “bad girl” yoona managed to fuck up her part of the song (she says yeah, like five times XD), like imagine the engineer saying : OK yoona you’re up, she walks in and says yeah, and the eng goes…hum let’s get that one more time…
    ore maybe her manager just recorded her part in her cellphone and send it to the engineer via email, lol.

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