WITH its over-reliance on manufactured teen pop, and a leave-nothing-to-chance managerial style reminiscent of Phil Spector (minus the murder), there are obvious parallels between “K-Pop” and the American music industry of the 1950s and 60s. And perhaps now another box can be checked: the practice of bribing one’s way onto the charts. That’s payola, or 증회 in Korean.
Twenty-nine people, mainly radio and cable-TV staff, have been arrested on suspicion of accepting cash payments in return for airplay or fraudulent chart positions. New artists and their managers, keen to start their careers off with a hit, were the most frequent customers: Incheon Metropolitan Police believe that between April 2009 and May of this year, around a hundred wannabe singers paid a total of 150m won ($143,000) to several producers and the chairman of a cable-TV company. Such sums are dwarfed by the 400m won or so allegedly collected by the operator of a website that compiles a chart based on the number of radio plays each single receives. According to police, the unnamed 60-year-old took the money from singers and pop managers, promising six-month stays in his dubious top ten, for a price of 38m won each.
Others received money for songs that nobody ever heard: six employees of one radio station apparently fiddled with playlists in order to add songs to the charts which had never actually been aired. This pay-to-play(-or-not) scandal is especially unfortunate given the banner year that the Korean entertainment industry has been enjoying. Successful K-Pop concerts as far away as Paris have driven the local press into a frenzy, and prompted ordinary housewives to pour their money into shares of labels like SM Entertainment, the price chart of which now resembles that of an internet stock circa 1999.
Corruption though is the one problem that this country seems unable to stamp out. This year, on top of the usual civil service and chaebol naughtiness, no fewer than 46 players from the Korean football league have been arrested over match-fixing. For its extraordinary economic progress and rapid democratisation, South Korea is a smash hit of a nation—but in terms of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, there is a real danger of an imminent drop from the top 40.