Epik High maps the soul, redefines kpop business model
By now, I’m sure y’all have heard about Epik High‘s newest album — and their new, independent business model by which they’re distributing it.
Namely, they’re opting out of the major-label system and putting out their record themselves, via their spankin’-new website mapthesoul.com and iTunes. The site’s got everything written in Korean and English, is taking overseas orders, and they’ve even got a Twitter account (mapthesoul).
This isn’t the first time a band has done something of the kind — recall Radiohead’s 2007 “In Rainbows” album, which they released online (for free! — they accepted donations but didn’t charge a set fee) — but for a Korean artist or group, it’s a bold step. I don’t think they’ll be changing the kpop landscape single-handedly, because if anything, bands like Radiohead and Epik High have something important that struggling indie newbs don’t, and that is a huge and loyal fanbase from which to draw. Naturally, this makes their jump out of the “system” into self-production easier than, say, had they attempted this as unknowns.
But the buzz and the likely success of their endeavor is promising for the future, and — as the band proclaims on their website — revolution begins with one step.
Below is a new interview from Chosun.com, which talks to Tablo about the album, the business behind the decision, his personal philosophies, and all that other good stuff.
Instead of a “Song of the Day,” here’s Epik High’s newly released “Map the Soul” MV:
“Why did I choose zero won over 2 billion won?
Because things had to change.”
Tablo (29) is as full of assurance as usual. His expression brims with confidence, and he unreservedly answers questions about social issues. He’s also full of conviction about his album, which went on sale on March 27. He openly revealed his relationship with film actress Kang Hye-jung, which heated up the internet earlier this year. On March 11, I [interviewer Park Shi-young] met Tablo at one café in Seoul’s Cheongdamdong.
The Story of Tablo’s Twenties
Tablo’s group, Epik High, is a popular hip-hop group receiving the absolute support of university students. In particular, it appears that their popularity is especially high among top students. Let’s look at that reason first.
Tablo: “If that’s really true, it’s probably influenced by my past history and image [as a master’s in English literature from Stanford]. It’s probably also a result of our serious lyrics. That makes me feel good, but also worries me. Among university students, the number of people who think for themselves is gradually decreasing, and I wonder if that means our fanbase is also shrinking. [Laughs]”
Q: How was your twenties?
“In my early twenties, I graduated from graduate school and entered the real world. Forging ahead without a definite plan, I spent the first half feverishly making music and faced failure. The remaining five years, I’ve been busy out of my mind being active with music. But because I’d poured myself out in mind and body during my twenties, I also have a clean slate.”
He also meets the public as a DJ on MBC FM radio. Last year, he revealed in an interview, “The reason I DJ is because I have a sincere hope to be heard by people.”
Q: Why do you feel such a desire for communication?
“Since I was young, I didn’t have many people to talk with. I was a loner. I lived mostly abroad, and felt a lot of racial discrimination. Some people looked at me like I was a bug. Fortunately, my hobbies were reading and writing, so I didn’t really conflict with people that much. Even now, I don’t have a wide range of interpersonal relationships.”
Q: I sense you have distrust for this world that emphasizes networking.
“When I see books or newspaper reports that emphasize the importance of networking, I just laugh. If people aim to cultivate networks, they can’t help but turn malicious. It’s better to spend that time doing your work and taking care of your loved ones and family. I’ve never gained anything from networking.”
Q: What sort of message do you want to convey through your activities as radio DJ or your albums?
“I want to say that you can make things change for the better. Also, I want to tell them that although people think, ‘You have to succeed in order to do what you want to do,’ that’s really untrue. No matter what your circumstances, it’s already possible for you to do what you want. If you say, ‘I’ll do that after I’ve succeeded,’ it’s already too late.”
Q: Isn’t that possible for you because you’re a famous musician? Average twentysomething people are facing growing troubles in the job market.
“My father was an orphan. When he attended school, he’d go barefoot. That person allowed me to become someone who dreams. The environment or conditions don’t matter at all. There will always be adversity in any time. Here, look. If there’s a societal problem, you can choose to do one of three things: run away, create change, or adapt to it. If you adapt, you can’t say anything, because you’ll soon become a reason for the social environment. And there are very few places you can run away to. In the end, you must make change.”
Q: What are you saying should change, and how?
“Even if I don’t talk about a concrete thing, everyone can see that there’s something wrong going on right now. I want to express the message that the people who feel this can come together to discuss and fix it. Personally speaking, after Epik High’s contract came to an end with our management, offers came in for 1 billion, 2 billion won. But I chose zero won instead. I was called crazy, but I thought this was something I had to do, and that I had to make change.”
Q: Why did you have to set up your own company?
“If you look at pop-music chart programs, performers have no choice but to compete. Everything’s a competition. What I’m doing is definitely different from what other artists are doing. The format is different, the content, the goal, the message are all different. But it was frustrating that I had to be shown via the same music charts. We wanted to take on a new challenge with our own formula.”
The conversation naturally turned to Epik High’s sixth album, which went on sale on March 27.
“We released this album along with a book. It contains essays, work diaries, and photos. I think we put out our best album. Not only have we put out the album, we’ve also created a website that we’re operating. We’ve really worked ourselves to death. I’ve even wondered if we really need to do this much. It’s the same price as a CD that someone else spent two weeks making. [Laughs]”
Q: Looking at past interviews, you’ve said, “For people who want to become pop singers, ask yourself if you want to make music yourself, or if you just want to be a person who makes music.” What about you?
“Of course, I’m the former. People who are truly passionate about it are different. When they listen to music, you can tell. People who really love music don’t have to say they want to become singers. Someday, they’ll be one.”
The Korean Twentysomethings of Whom He Speaks
Q: What space or area symbolizes the twentysomething generation?
“The airport. Not necessarily a real airport, but something that continually departs and returns. It doesn’t make sense for them to want a place to settle. They are prepared to leave somewhere.”
Q: A person symbolizing twentysomethings?
“Umm… Big Bang? [The reporter laughs and claps.] Why not Big Bang? It’s an honest answer. Big Bang is like the twentysomething generation, and among them Daesung is most like it. He’s not completely grown up yet, but it seems like he wants to try everything fearlessly, and enjoys whatever he does. Twentysomethings usually don’t know what they want to do.”
Q: What would you like to tell them?
“I’d like them to go to our site, mapthesoul.com, take a look around and make a site like that themselves. And please listen to our music. This album contains music and a book that I hope will entertain people with dreams of their own, even those who aren’t interested in Epik High.”
After the interview ended, I carefully asked about his relationship with movie actress Kang Hye-jung. He answered with an expression that wasn’t bashful, but happy and full of confidence: “The person I’m seeing now is really like my other half. I think I’ve lucked into meeting a person who matches my soul perfectly.”
Note: Personally, I love Tablo and I love Epik High, but my love has been tempered lately with mixed feelings the more I read and see from them. Tablo’s idealism is to be commended, and I truly think he believes in what he’s doing. His passion is evident, and more power to him. I also think (and hope) that their model will succeed — and succeed wildly, because the higher the success (by whatever measure we use to designate that), the more that the “system” and the “machine” must take notice. And respond.
On the other hand, Epik High likes to point out how Serious and Meaningful they are, when they could just trust that their fandom would figure that out. I could also do without the constant refrains — literally, it’s even in their lyrics — that imply how much Better They Are than everyone in “the system.” (Yes, I know, hubris and posturing are an inevitable facet of rap/hip-hop, but I think they’re at their best when they avoid that.)
I think there are certain elements of Tablo’s personal philosophy that ring of privilege (and having an orphan father doesn’t mitigate that), and I’m not sure his message is as universal as he’d like to think it is. For instance: Dreams are great, but not everyone has the same worldview and list of priorities that, for instance, a musician or artist does, and this “Follow your heart’s desire!” mantra works really well if you fall into that particular — but narrow — purview. But it alienates those whose inner lives resemble something wholly different, and the “you’re part of the problem” point sounds like it’s flirting with intolerance, masked safely as tolerance. It sounds like he’s talking to a small subset and applying it to everyone with a broad brush — and worse, seems vaguely condescending of those who fall outside of those lines.
But what do I know, I’m no revolutionary; I’m just one person who’s “thinking for myself.” On the whole I think the goal and driving force behind Epik High’s newest venture are something to keep an eye on. And root for. And buy. (Once more: mapthesoul.com.)