Infinity Challenge (무한도전)'s 1990s music gala and what it means to Korean music in 2015

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I don't watch a great deal of 무한도전, but their last episode of the year turned out to be a particularly revealing one.

Just to explain what the program is about before I begin, it's a group of comedians that go around doing...things every week based on a single theme. One week they will play a game where they play a kind of city-wide tag (something like The Fugitive), another one they will be dressed up as Marvel super heroes (I forget why for that episode), etc. A little bit like those 5- or 10-minute parts of late night shows like Conan O'Brien where he'll do something like deliver Chinese food, except it's a full hour and a bit in length, and a lot more people.

And it's also a really popular show.

So now that the introduction is over with, here's what this week's episode was about: an event where they recreate one of the music programs from the late 1990s, programs like these:

with the singers themselves who are now somewhat older and long since retired (most of them). The idea was to have them each perform a few of their songs, dress up in the exact same clothes as before, film it in the same way (like with the sudden 180 degree camera rolls), basically recreate the whole thing in as close to a time machine feel as one can get. They rented out a hall for that, the same size that one sees used at all the other weekly music programs, so something for about 600 people, then told viewers to submit their names if they wanted to get a ticket to the event.

Surprisingly (to them), some 75000 people applied to get tickets, so only one in twelve got to see it in person. Yu Jaeseok (유재석) said they had underestimated the interest and after doing it were sorry to all the others that wanted to come that couldn't.

After that the program aired, Infinity Challenge got the highest viewership they've seen this year:

and next week's episode where the second half of the concert takes place will certainly have a larger viewership, as there is a lot of excitement about what they did after the first half aired.

What makes this interesting: careers in the Korean music industry are generally quick, fiery, short-lived things. Lots of training goes into groups which are then carefully put together by record companies, they release a few albums, and then a few years later are gone. They disappear because 1) the record company sees sales and interest start to decline, and 2) they get 'old'. Old as in mid-20s or so. So the record companies focus their energies on new and up-and-coming groups, and the rest are tossed to the wayside. For the most part, in any case.

This is where the sudden interest in this program has come from, since cutting the lives short of these groups just five or so years into their debut means there is still a lot of fan support for them. This support / interest isn't obvious at first glance because when a major record label drops its support for a group they will more or less disappear from view, even if they attempt to maintain a career afterwards, and fan interest alone can't keep a group alive. It's why a lot of former starts will be seen playing at nightclubs since they will pay fairly good money for an 'old' singer.

And by old, well...this guy is 38:

(don't forget they're using the same style as before, so they don't dress like this in 2014)

And these girls are around 34.

And here's one of their members in 2011 without the 90s garb (apparently couldn't make it this week due to pregnancy):

So old here is like figure skater or gymnastic champion old. Not actually old.

(Come to think of it, I wonder if Tsunku and his never-ending group Morning Musume are to blame for a lot of this singer recycling in Asia or if he was just following and expanding on an existing trend.)

When I started learning Korean in 2001 a lot of these singers were still popular but in the latter half of their short careers, so about half of the singers in this episode were really familiar to me. 김건모 was in one of the first Korean textbooks I ever bought, SES was still popular in 2002 during the World Cup when I lived in Korea long-term for the first time, and I had an 이정현 album or two in 2001 to listen to in the car when driving from school to school in rural Kyushu.

So what will this do? I don't believe it'll change much in the industry, but I think for the next few months we're going to see a lot more of these events both within and outside of Infinity Challenge and similar shows. Maybe a large event over a day or two or three in a few months at a much larger venue attended by people in the tens of thousands (remember 75,000 wanted to see them this concert they broadcast this week), and perhaps a new album or two by groups that have been out of the limelight for a long time but whose members really want to release another album again.

Even though this has never been my favourite kind of music (see the link two paragraphs above for what it is), if a sudden surge of interest in these groups causes a bit of a rethink in how long careers in the industry last and what old truly means, then I'll be happy with that. We'll see soon enough whether next week's culmination of this project and whatever folllows results in the tremor, however minor, in the Korean music industry I'm hoping to see.

Also, here's the show itself - no idea how long the video will last but it's still up as of today, at least.


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