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Tons of K-pop artists have been purged from Spotify. It’s part of a much bigger problem.

Artists such as IU, Epik High, Seventeen, Loona, and many more were affected by a distributor dispute.

Epik High’s DJ Tukutz, Mithra Jin, and Tablo hold mics and sing on stage.
Epik High’s DJ Tukutz, Mithra Jin, and Tablo perform at K-Pop Night Out on March 19, 2015, at the Elysium night club in Austin, Texas.
Daniel Boczarski/Redferns via Getty Images

If you’ve noticed some of your favorite bops missing from your Spotify playlists, you’re not alone. On February 28, hundreds of K-pop artists — encompassing a huge range of genres and styles, from older hits to brand-new albums — were purged from the music streaming service.

The reason involves a complicated licensing dispute between Spotify and a South Korean distributor, Kakao M, which is now one of Spotify’s direct competitors thanks to the latter’s recent launch in the country.

Amid public backlash over the music’s removal, the companies have blamed each other for the breakdown in negotiations. And while some of the affected artists have since been able to return to Spotify thanks to relationships with other distributors, the vast majority remain sidelined, with all of their Spotify streaming data erased as well.

The debacle is a case study in both the perils of the entertainment industry’s trend toward centralized (even monopolistic) streaming platforms and the way territorial music industry practices can so frequently rebound directly upon the artists and the public.

Spotify’s South Korean launch should have expanded the possibilities for Korean artists. Instead, it hurt them.

Spotify may be the largest music streaming service in the world, but despite the abundance of Korean pop music on its servers, it didn’t have a platform in the country until recently. On February 1, Spotify launched in Korea with a promise to bring positive change to Korean artists. “This launch presents a massive opportunity for us to not only further our mission of bringing new and quality content to more audiences, but also help local Korean artists tap into Spotify’s 320 million listeners worldwide,” Alex Norström, Spotify’s chief freemium business officer, said in a press release. “We hope to create more opportunities for Korean artists across all genres to be discovered by listeners around the world.”

But Spotify’s expansion into Korea featured a glaring omission: No artists distributed by Kakao M were added to the platform. A music distribution company and talent agency, Kakao M is a subsidiary of Korean tech giant and media conglomerate Kakao; it is perhaps best known for buying South Korea’s largest music streaming platform, Melon, in 2016. As a distributor, it also handles promotion for many of Korea’s biggest artists, including IU, scores of major K-pop groups such as Seventeen and Loona, and many others. According to NME, Kakao M controlled distribution for nearly 40 percent of the songs featured on one popular “Top 400” Korean chart for the year 2020.

In other words, a huge proportion of Korea’s most popular artists have their albums and songs distributed by this single company.

K-pop fans noticed the music’s absence from the platform, but since Spotify’s Korean launch was still new, it wasn’t yet clear whether the omission was temporary. At that point, Kakao M artists were still available on Spotify globally. On February 28, however, Spotify users around the globe abruptly realized that many of their favorite Korean artists — everyone distributed by Kakao M — had disappeared completely.

The purge appeared to be massive, impacting established artists, newer groups, indie artists, and everyone in between. Bill Werde, the former editorial director of Billboard, called it “red wedding territory for global K-Pop,” a reference to an infamous Game of Thrones scene involving the slaughter of multiple characters.

The outcry from fans was immediate: #SpotifyIsOverParty started trending on Twitter, and users reportedly canceled their Spotify subscriptions in droves. The streaming service took down the entire platform temporarily for maintenance, though some fans believed it was done to prevent them from canceling their accounts en masse. (Vox has reached out to Spotify for comment.)

Although it’s difficult to garner an accurate measurement of the size of the purge, I have a bird’s eye view thanks to the “intro to K-pop” playlist I curated last year for the podcast Switched on Pop, which featured 100 iconic songs and covered a broad range of genres and artists, from studio groups to independent artists.

Since the purge, however, fully 20 percent of the songs are now missing, and most of the titles, artists, and other details are now simply blank. Among the vanished artists are major names in K-pop: IU, Hyuna, Mamamoo, Monsta X, Loona, and Verbal Jint, as well as songs by other artists such as Rain and Vixx.

That 20 percent doesn’t even include previously purged artists (like Block B) who’ve since restored their music to the platform by working with other distributors of their content; if I count them, the percentage of impacted songs climbs to nearly 30 percent. And since the playlist leans toward established acts, it’s likely that the rate of purged music is far higher among less famous, less powerful artists, who are at a greater disadvantage in industry negotiations and so are less likely to be able to restore their music.

The purge also appears to have affected streaming data as well, erasing billions of streams for Korean artists. (Some artists, but not all, who’ve returned to the site have since had their streaming data restored.) That’s a huge blow to artists of any size on several fronts. Since an artist’s Spotify streams are a major contributor to weekly music charts, they’re also a major performance metric in K-pop fan culture. That is, streaming their favorite artists on Spotify is one of the ways fans show their support.

For example, on February 24, just days before the purge, the new K-pop group Oneus hit a minor but important milestone: The third single from its first studio album, Devil, released in January, topped 10 million streams on Spotify. Less than a week later, to the anguish of the group’s fans, all of its streaming metrics on the site had vanished.

New bands aren’t the only ones experiencing upheaval because of the purge. Epik High, a well-established and critically acclaimed Korean hip-hop group, has been heavily promoting its new album, Epik High Is Here 上 , Pt. 1. But it, too, was impacted by the Spotify purge, and the reaction from Tablo, the group’s front man, went viral as an expression of the frustration felt by both fans and artists.

Faced with little alternative, K-pop artists have spent the week regrouping. Some artists, who were reportedly able to negotiate with Spotify through other distributors, have since found their way back onto the platform. Hyuna and Epik High, among other high-powered acts, have had their music restored — but the music catalogs of other important and groundbreaking artists, such as IU and Rain, are still missing from Spotify, either in whole or in part. And among those who have had their music restored, streaming data is still incomplete.

So what actually happened to cause all of this? With both Kakao M and Spotify pointing fingers in the other direction, it’s difficult to know. But the introduction of a competitive aspect to their relationship may have played a part.

Spotify and its Korean competitor became entangled in a licensing dispute

According to various statements from both Spotify and Kakao M, the latter’s previous licensing agreement, which covered global distribution on Spotify outside of Korea, expired February 28 (March 1 in Korea) — the day all of this chaos began.

The two companies have very different interpretations of the root cause. In a statement from Spotify sent to Korean media that same day, a spokesperson insisted, “We have been making efforts in all directions over the past year and a half to renew the global licensing agreement [with Kakao M].”

This statement implies that a new negotiation process for global distribution had been taking place. But according to Kakao M’s statement on the issue, Spotify may have oversimplified things a bit.

In Kakao M’s version of the dispute, Spotify had the option to simply renew its previous global distribution agreement. But since Spotify was launching in Korea, the company had to negotiate two licensing agreements with Kakao M — its global distribution license and a new domestic distribution license. Because the two companies were still negotiating the domestic license, Spotify didn’t renew its global distribution contract.

“Due to Spotify’s policy that they must proceed with the domestic and global contracts at the same time, our global contract has currently expired,” Kakao M said, according to a translation of the statement by Korean outlet Soompi. “We are currently continuing our negotiations about the supply of music.”

It’s unclear whether Spotify’s refusal to renew the global distribution contract was a way of pressuring Kakao M to agree to its terms for the domestic contract. Given that K-pop fans reacted to the purge by generally raising hell, any advantages Spotify reaped would no doubt have been a hard-won victory for the platform.

Still, K-pop is a huge industry — South Korean newspaper the Hankyoreh reported that K-pop generated $5 billion for Korea in 2018, a number that has undoubtedly risen since then — and Spotify’s Korean launch seems too important for the platform to self-sabotage. Spotify has claimed in press statements that its current contractual dispute has nothing to do with its expansion into South Korea, telling Soompi, “The matter of our global licensing agreement is unrelated to the launch of our service in South Korea.” Yet it seems difficult to believe that it didn’t play a role in the breakdown of its negotiations with Kakao M.

What does seem clear is that whatever the terms under dispute, musicians and consumers are the real losers.

Reminder: Consolidated streaming platforms hurt artists and fans

The Spotify/Kakao M conflict is ongoing; both companies have stated they are committed to coming to an agreement. Still, this issue is just another reminder that the convenience of consolidated, cloud-based streaming comes at a cost.

On the positive side, the rise of streaming platforms means an increased ability to access more content from around the world, more easily than ever. But it also means there’s more opportunity for corporations — which increasingly serve as content gatekeepers that maintain control over what we access and how we access it — to exploit artists and consumers.

The Spotify purge demonstrates this gatekeeping in multiple ways. Not only were users who had signed up for Spotify Premium not allowed to listen to the music they paid for, but they weren’t even given a heads-up that the purge was coming — and neither, it seems, were the artists.

Then there was the huge financial loss to artists who missed out on royalties from streams on the platform. This cost impacted Korean artists far more than it did the corporations that were holding their music hostage, as Billboard’s Jeff Benjamin noted:

The fact that not even massively popular artists have been able to control their fates in this high-powered game of licensing ping-pong is a painful reminder that the majority of artists promoted under Kakao M are smaller, independent acts with fewer options for getting their songs back in front of international fans.

And for most of those artists as well as their fans, there are limited fair and equitable alternatives to Spotify for hosting and listening to music — again, due to the consolidation of music distribution across the web. That fact in itself is a reminder that the state of music distribution and ownership on the internet is dramatically different than it was even a decade ago.

The globalization of the music industry and other types of media means more people are regularly discovering artists and stories from around the world. While that’s a big bonus for music lovers everywhere, the Spotify purge has shown us that it can also be a double-edged sword. And with Spotify and other platforms only continuing to expand, it’s likely that this won’t be the last time a major streaming platform’s competitive business practices ultimately wind up hurting the very artists and fans it purports to reach.

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