This article written after an interview with Lee Kyu Young was edited by Philip Gowman and first published on London Korean Links.
I know I’m not alone in feeling frustration over the digital singles concept; artists releasing music only available through paid downloads – a not too uncommon way for Korean artists to get a few songs out before the next CD. Sure, in this day and age most people don’t treasure CDs like I do (it’s not just the materialist in me, I love flipping through the booklets and, especially when it comes to little known artists, feel good about supporting good music) and it is a very environmental friendly way of distributing music, but what to do when there’s no way for you to actually purchase the music you so want to hear?
Last time this problem surfaced for me was when I came across Jelly Boy’s “space travel project”, Birdy Bitz Alien (left), and since I really really wanted to hear it I decided to contact the label behind this digital single, Ruby Salon Record. As it turns out, this was a great thing to do – not only did I get to listen to Birdy Bitz Alien but thanks to Ruby Salon’s overseas marketer, Jihee Lim, and The Hi-Lights (below right) leader and Ruby Salon founder Lee Kyu Young I was able to learn more on the digital singles phenomenon from the perspective of a small label.
In 2004, Lee Kyu Young did all the work behind the first The Hi-Lights album himself and ended up creating Ruby & Cadillac Record. The name changed to Ruby Salon Record in the following year and the year after Ruby Salon Club opened its doors. The bands playing at the club don’t necessarily belong to Ruby Salon, but might release an album through the records department anyway. As such it’s not easy to say that there are any typical musical styles among Ruby Salon bands, but they have seen an increase in the number of garage rock bands. The Ruby Salon Club serves as a platform for cooperation with other labels, but Ruby Salon’s main business is still records. Lee Kyu Young is still the only full time employee, but he’s now got 4-5 other people doing what they can part-time to make the company run smoothly.
From the perspective of an outsider that never set foot in Korea, The Hi-Lights seems like a fairly big indie band. Ruby Salon questions this claim of mine, but agrees that it does help in drawing attention to their even smaller bands to have artists like that. What might help even more, however, is the curiosity of music fans – if one small label has a popular band it is likely that other bands on other labels that pursue the same genre will recieve some additional interest. Staying within Ruby Salon, this is applicable for bands such as Galaxy Express (left) and The Moonshiners (below right), that both can be placed in the rock’n’roll category with The Hi-Lights.
Ruby Salon releases both CDs and digital singles and is satisfied having both options available. With a digital single, just one song is enough before release and the economic burden of making a CD can be neglected. Going all digital is also a powerful marketing tactic – it’s common for new bands to get their name out through a digital single before proceeding to release something on disc. On the plus side for consumers, digital releases are not limited to a certain number so the risk of missing one because it’s already sold out is minimal. Music sites use their own player systems and thus DRM is frequent, but that doesn’t keep digital releases from showing up on unauthorized places.
When it comes to illegal downloading and sharing of music, however, the people behind Ruby Salon have taken a pragmatic stance: while they don’t really think it’s okay they cannot help but accept it and hope that it’ll make people recognize their bands. It is something of a trend in Korean music to release digital singles right now, and big artists doing so seem to increase people’s overall interest in the format. While physical media tend to sell better than its digital counterpart, the CD market is definitely decreasing. The prediction from Ruby Salon is that digital singles will eventually take over the market; “Besides music, on-line is the main trend in all other areas.” Even so, Ruby Salon wants to keep releasing CDs, even though there is a worry that CD players might stop being produced.