Monday, December 12, 2016

So you want to be a k-pop songwriter - Kpopalypse's 7 steps to certain success*

I've written before about people wanting to become k-pop idols, and how realistic (or not) that is... but what about people who aim to be songwriters?  Is k-pop songwriting a realistic goal?  Can it make money?  How to best approach pitching your songs to the k-pop market?  Never fear as Kpopalypse has all the trufax!


This post has appeared by popular demand in response to questions from caonimas who are both k-pop fans and budding songwriters seeking assistance.  Even though I haven't run a record label or worked in music management for quite a few years, I oddly still receive song submissions almost daily.  I also continue to work at a radio station where people send their songs in all the time for possible airplay.  I'd say without any exaggeration that excluding a few African and Asian countries and some pissy micro-states where about five people live I've received/seen music submissions from every country in the world, including South Korea (but sadly not North Korea).  I'm uniquely qualified to tell you how to get a song submission noticed, what to do and what to avoid, and you probably won't read better (or ruder) advice than Kpopalypse's advice about this topic - at least not for free and in English.

Firstly, let me talk you out of it

Before we begin, let's make this clear.  The South Korean music industry is quite small, and it's also really oversaturated, which means high competition.  That doesn't mean that there aren't opportunities, but it does mean that consistently finding opportunities is not something you can bank on, especially if you're an outsider.  For any songwriter even within Korea to pursue Korean pop exclusively I think would be crazy, and most professional songwriters don't tend to pursue anything exclusively, they get in where they can fit in.  If you're writing songs for people to potentially use, and someone buys one, who gives a fuck if it's for a k-pop group or a children's TV show or an advertisement for some artery-hardening breakfast cereal or a corporation's promotional video.  If you look at the resumes of any songwriter who has had their songs used in k-pop, you'll find that the majority of them have shopped their songs all over the place to western artists and other places as well, so if I were you I wouldn't get too fucking precious about this shit - the pros definitely don't.

Okay, so you still really want to be a k-pop songwriter?


1. Make lots of friends

The boring cliche we've all heard - "it's not what you know but who you know" is sadly true.  Obviously if you're already a big name, if you send your shit to a label they're going to sit up and take notice, but if you're already a big name you're probably not going to be wasting your time reading shitty blogs like this one.  Everyone else will need a little help, songwriting skills alone will only get you so far.  Laura Brian, the American girl who wrote "Closer" for Oh My Girl only got that opportunity because she knew and had worked with someone trusted with connections in the k-pop world.  Yes, she could have tried her luck and submitted her songs without that connection but there's a good chance her great song would have been ignored.  Labels are getting song submissions all the time from everywhere, and they need a reason to listen to your submission specifically - "this came through a trusted person who has recommended it" is a really good reason that often trumps all others.  Have you ever noticed how people who are successful and famous in any field all seem to know each other, at least as acquaintances if not friends?  That's because it's that network that helps these people survive and thrive.

Having said that it's not wise to go on some big "oh gosh I'm really networking" drive as that can be a turnoff, most music industry people hate cheesy overt "marketing-yourself" bullshit.  Don't make up glossy business cards and thrust them in people's faces, people in the music business hate that shit.  Just be open to people, make friends naturally and don't turn down invites for social stuff, even if you're a natural recluse (and most songwriters are) - force yourself to go to social functions where other people who work in your field are at, and talk to people a bit.  I feel funny writing this as I'm the most antisocial cunt ever, but then I'm not trying to break into songwriting so I don't really give a fuck.  You can always split the party early after you've talked to a couple people, eaten all the free chicken wings and peed in the punchbowl.  Also while it's important to be friends, you don't have to be friends with everyone.  The music industry is big, so if getting some connections happening means sucking up to some insufferable dickhead, maybe don't bother and try another route, because that dickhead is probably going to shaft you somehow down the track anyway, either literally or figuratively.


2. If you wanna submission, every wanna submission

If you find that valuable friend with "connections" then do work through them, but also try and get a direct contact with whoever they are connected to, so you can go directly to the source and follow up if necessary.  A well-connected friend should be able to get your foot in the door but be wary if they want to do ALL the dealings themselves, that's a sign that they might be faking you out with the ulterior motive of getting into your pants, or for their own ego, or any other number of nefarious reasons - they may not even know who they claim to know so be careful.  Unfortunately if your friend is connected with k-pop and you're not because he speaks Korean and you don't then there's an additional barrier here so you might have to make do and trust them.  A polite email saying "my friend sent you x, did you receive it?" a week later can work wonders for verification, but if you no know Korean you'll need to luck out that someone at the agency speaks enough English to not misinterpret anything you send them.  It's a lot easier to just be a good enough judge of character to find someone that you can trust in the first place however.

Apart from the above exception, it's unwise to make follow-up contacts after you submit material.  You can safely bet that if you don't hear back, they didn't give a fuck.  The music business has some weird cultural aspects to it, and one of them is that nobody wants to be the person to formally reject you.  If pressed for a response, people will always prefer to say "I'll listen to it later" or "it's on my pile" or "we don't know yet" or "I'll call you back" and then never return your call, rather than "sorry your song is shit, not interested".  So following up for a response is always a waste of time, don't attempt it.  However if you're sending something out of the blue it doesn't hurt to send an email before you send the thing, asking if it would be okay to send something, agencies really appreciate this and if you get a positive response, the chances of whatever you send being actually listened to are much higher (but far from certain)... and if they say no or don't reply, they were no doubt going to reject whatever you sent anyway, probably.

3. Submit the right type of musical content

Are you selling yourself as a songwriter, who is writing songs for other people to produce, or as a songwriter/producer, who is writing AND producing your own material?  Obviously if you're selling yourself as a songwriter/producer with a song as a complete package you'll want to give the song the best production possible, but if you're selling the song as "the song only" for someone else to completely re-record and produce, then the production doesn't matter quite as much - as long as all the important elements can be clearly heard, that's all you need, it doesn't even matter that much what instruments you use as they can always rework that stuff later when they go to make their k-pop group's hit single out of it.  Lyrics don't matter either if you're aiming specifically at k-pop, they're nice to have but whoever you sell the track to might be putting their own (probably shittier than yours) lyrics over it, however it IS vitally important to put vocals of some kind on it and you'll ideally want something for that vocalist to sing.  There are two - and only two - situations where submitting a song without vocals is acceptable:
  1. Submitting a rap beat to a rapper or rapper's agency for someone to rap over
  2. When the client specifically requests instrumental tracks with no vocal or guide melody
In any other circumstance, if you submit just a backing track or just a few beats or a bunch of riffs, they won't care, they'll just bin it.  Don't ever send unfinished shit.  However you also want to avoid the other trap which is "musician's procrastination" - don't fuss forever and ever and ever making it absolutely perfect, if you spend a year writing and putting together one single fucking song, sorry but that's way too long, if you can't churn out a song in a few weeks absolute maximum you need to work on refining your creative process so it's sustainable from a business perspective.  Ultimately tiny little details won't matter in the final analysis of whether they want your song or not, because they can ask that you change those details anyway.

Other points to remember when submitting pop content:
  • Don't send anything too long.  Maximum four minutes for an upbeat song, five for a ballad, but less is better.
  • Don't send more than one track unless specifically asked to do so.
  • The song should get straight into the good stuff - "bookend chorus" arrangement style is preferable, unless you have a killer first verse that's better than the chorus (and if you do, what the fuck did you make it the verse for, consider rewriting the song so that killer first verse IS the chorus).  No long intros, if you're not into the meat of the song by the ten-second mark your intro is too long, as most people listening to your submission will take about ten seconds to decide if they want to listen further or not.

4. Present well - and succinctly!

If you're sending copies electronically yourself, attach it as a file and in the email itself write a short introduction, a few sentences will do.  A sentence for who you are, one for your resume (if you've worked with anyone impressive etc) and one for the "please listen to this awesome song I wrote because you guys are the best" part, then some contact details for how they can reach you if they're keen - that'll do.  Simple is best, don't send a massive fucking essay or some bullshit.  A good guideline is that if it doesn't fit onto one A4-sized piece of paper with medium-to-large font size, it's too long.  Also don't send photos of yourself, even if you present amazingly well and are thoroughly boneable - this can still backfire as it can give whoever you're sending the shit to a reason to be prejudiced against you for whatever petty reason.  Maybe you're black or white and they don't like black or white people.  Maybe you're incredibly fugly and they only want attractive people submitting songs.  Or maybe whoever is reading the mail sees that you look hot and has genitals as barren as the Sahara and hates you for all the sex they think you're getting, they don't know that you're a lonely virgin too.  Don't give them a reason to hate you, even a shitty reason.

When sending physical copies, the same rules apply.  Do not send big-ass biographies, or spend money on fancy folio-type shit, nobody cares.  Do not send photos.  Include a business card if you want, but the disc plus a one-pager is enough.  Make sure you label the disc itself as well as its case on the front, rear and spine, because that shit will get separated, filed, put into dusty cupboards, etc, you want it to be easily findable should they decide that they need it.  Don't forget to add your contact details to the disc itself and the packaging.

If you're really struggling to write a little about yourself, the short bios that come with YouTube videos of k-pop that we're all familiar with are sometimes actually really good templates to work from, because these mini press releases follow much the same format that a good song-submission bio does: a quick bit about the artist, something that puts the song in context and some links to get in touch.  Let's look at this one for Oh My Girl's "Closer":
OH MY GIRL is releasing the 2nd mini album [CLOSER] and coming back with a mysterious and dreamlike look
The title ‘CLOSER’ talks about a pure girl who doesn’t know anything. It is a song that talks about her desperate feeling towards someone with a dreamlike code and instrument structure, along with a touching melody. Sean Alexander, who made many hit songs in Japan and Korea such as Girls’ Generation’s Lion Heart, SHINee’s AMIGO, TAEYANG’s Sinner, SS501’s Love Like This, worked with the United State’s sentimental ballad top liner Laura Brian for three years to make EXO’s Growl FX’s Electric Shock. This time the special lyric writer Seo Ji eum joined to make the song even more perfect.
1theK FB :
1theK TW :
1theK G+ :
Okay so some of the English is a little bit comical but it's short and effective, which is what you want.

5. Become a riatch biatch (or not)

So your song got accepted - great!  Now how are you going to get paid for your song?  As a songwriter, there are three basic possibilities:
  1. You receive a flat fee for the label purchasing your song and/or your work as producer
  2. You receive ongoing royalty payment for the song's continued use (aka a residual)
  3. A combination of the above
Note that this is a massive oversimplification and a full discussion of royalties, payments and how this shit works is beyond the scope of this blog, I have people whining that my shit is tl;dr enough without tackling that crap head-on, there's plenty of other resources available on the Internet anyway which break all this down.  However know that as a general rule, you will make more money from the royalty if a song is a big hit or is played often (especially on commercial TV and radio), and you will make more money from a flat fee if you're submitting to some nugus who are never going to get anywhere.  As a result, naturally the big music power-brokers will try and talk you into the flat fee and the smaller ones will be more willing to do the royalty payment, and unless you've got a track record as a kick-ass songwriter or they really really have fallen in love with your specific song, you're not going to have a lot of negotiating power here.  This is what Chris P. from Korean Indie was talking about in my interview about the Korean songwriters getting fucked over when they submitted songs to TV drama and only got $200 flat fee and no royalty, as a song repeatedly played on a TV show would generate significant royalty returns if the songwriters actually retained their rights to the material.  Obviously there's an element of gambling here when dealing with nugus too because a nugu can turn into overnight stars very quickly, so even if you are lucky enough to get a choice you may be forced to weigh up whether you want a little bit of money now, or no money now but the very slim possibility of more money later.  If you're a competent songwriter and have other streams of income besides music that you can comfortably live off, you're almost always better off going with the royalty option when available, because the lack of $200 probably won't break the bank for all time, but in the unlikely event that a song does become a huge money-spinning national hit you'll be kicking yourself that you only got paid that initial $200 for it.


6. Protect yourself

Are you worried about a nasty k-pop label using your submission without paying?  Here's how you can protect yourself.

For songwriter/producers: when sending audio out for someone else to buy, it's a good idea to "audio watermark" your creation in some way.  Just put something in the sound that isn't intended for the final mix and/or that clearly identifies you and send them that.  If you've ever wondered how some well-known k-pop producers got into the habit of saying their name at the start of their songs, now you know.  It doesn't even have to be something audible though if you don't want to be that cheesy or if you're worried that they'll sneakily edit it out, just something secret that shows up on an audio waveform or spectrograph will do.  Also don't put it at the very start or end where they can easily chop the end or the tail off, have some song audio play first.  Most importantly of all - when you're sending your submission to a label, don't send them the final .wav file until they formally agree to buy it, and preferably after the money hits your bank account!  Submit a low/medium bitrate MP3 instead, something where the listening quality is acceptable enough but not amazing to the point where they would just run with it, and make sure you mention to them that you have the better quality .wav version if they want to make a deal.

For pure songwriters: if you struggle with the tech side, get an audio engineer to do the above for you.  As per above, absolutely definitely don't submit your best files before you've seen money, and if stamping the audio is too much hassle or cheesiness remember that you ARE still protected by copyright.  Copyright applies automatically to work that you create yourself in most countries, you don't usually need to buy "copyright kits" or any of that stuff.  If you ever feel that you may need to prove ownership of a song in a courtroom, the most reliable way to do this is to mail a copy of the song to yourself, and when you receive your own package in the post, don't open it.  Now you have a postmarked, sealed copy that can be opened later with a judge and lawyer present if it has to come to that.

Of course, people in k-pop might use your shit anyway, and there may be little you can do about it.  Taking legal action against cunty k-pop agencies still costs a lot of money and time even if you win, so you also have to think about whether it's worth pursuing your legal rights just to have some corrupt Korean court say "you're probably technically in the right, but you're not Korean so go away lol" or just cutting your losses.  However it's good to know the possibilities and to be prepared for what might happen.


7. Keep trying

Just like Wiz Khalifa when he wasn't pretty enough as a black person to share a stage with Taeyeon had some technical problems preventing him from performing a duet with Taeyeon, never accept rejection as a failure.  Do get a part-time job though, so you can afford to keep failing being rejected.

That's all for this post!  Thanks for reading, and feel free to add any personal knowledges or helpful wisdoms below!  Kpopalypse will return soon!

* Note that according to Wiz rejection is not failure, therefore rejection is also success, therefore your success is certain!  Yay!


  1. Thanks, I already have several songs lined up for Lee Hyori's new album that are totally all my own work

  2. What if I just want to skip to part 8 where I get to meet the singers?

    1. Then too bad for you as the majority of non-Korean songwriters never meet the artists they write for. You'd have better luck going to a fanmeet.

    2. But then I'd have to share them with those disgusting wota!

  3. Real question - does SK use BMI/ASCAP for royalty stuff or do they have their own variant that you need to join..??

    1. Korea have an organisation called KOMCA that performs a similar function. (Australia have APRA).

  4. You missed step 8.

    Step 8: Be a Jew or an Asian Jew. Slightly relates to step 1. Get plastic surgery to get a big nose if you don't already have one and rub your hands together while your assistant whips the behinds of your little slaves--I mean kpop performers.

    1. I've seen Japanese Jews, you know those Japanese with number 6 noses.
      Hani is a Korean Jew I think.

  5. Find out how 1,000's of people like YOU are earning their LIVING from home and are fulfilling their dreams right NOW.

  6. "Mail a copy of the song to yourself, and when you receive your own package in the post, don't open it" - That's a poor man's copyright.

    From what I heard in videos/read, You don't need to mail it to yourself. You can email the file to yourself because it show's the date when the song was sent. In my opinion, if you want legitimate protection the best choice would be to register your song(s). If you're really cautions or unsure about copyright just ask questions to a Music Lawyer.

    - Great read!

  7. This was very educational! I knew being a kpop star was tough work, but the poor songwriters, the reason for kpop stars' fame, get shit on. That's a damn shame.

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