The recent sajaegi controversy that swept the K-music industry began with just one singer’s sharp, sarcastic critique. When Park Kyung, a music producer and a member of the boy band Block-B, sarcastically remarked on Twitter that he wants to “hoard”, or sajaegi, his songs like “Vibe, Song Ha-ye, Lim Jae-hyun, Jeon Sang-keun, Jang Deok-cheol, and Hwang In-wook”, public attention to the music chart manipulation scandal reached its peak. Some artists Park named in his post swiftly sued him for defamation, to which Park responded with his own set of lawsuits. In 2018, SHAUN’s “Way Back Home” and Nilo’s “Pass by” became subjects of major accusations when they, despite the artists’ obscurity from the public, beat out songs of popular K-pop groups and topped real-time charts.
What is Sajaegi?
Sajaegi is the illicit practice of manipulating songs’ play counts through illegally-purchased IDs and other algorithmic means in order to boost their online music chart rankings. By inflating the number of times a song has been played and thus increasing its ranking on music streaming platforms, artists gain mass exposure to the public, which comes with a handsome sum of money and spots at sought-after festivals and shows. Lee Gyu-tag, the Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at George Mason University Korea, explains that sajaegi is executed within a triple, quadruple structure in which a label pays an advertising fee to a Public Relations (PR) agency which subcontracts the work of raising an artist’s chart ranking out to a broker. In such a multi-dimensional arrangement, not only are the labels in the dark, but so are the PR agencies about what exactly is being traded at the lowest level of the transaction. Furthermore, agencies that used to be sajaegi brokers often change their names and function as normal viral marketing agencies while hiding their past identities. They receive a commission from the label under the pretext of viral marketing but conduct much of the same illicit work. The root of sajaegi dates back to early 2010 when online music streaming began to position as the primary method of music consumption, followed by a dramatic uptick in the number of streaming service users. The “lining up” of songs within an album upon its release by a popular artist was a common sight by 2012 and 2013, and the influence of music streaming platforms, especially that of the top 100 charts, began to expand. This gave rise to passive individuals comfortable with playing the “Top 100” songs over and over again, bringing about a structure that induces inactive music consumption and automatically rewards chart-toppers. Meanwhile, labels whose artists have been implicated in the recent chart manipulation scandal clarified that certain songs’ unexpected success on the charts has been the result of nothing but viral marketing. Online viral marketing is a legal marketing technique that utilizes social networks to extensively promote a product, profiting off of SNS users’ tendency to spread information about a product with other users in much the same way that a “virus” spreads from one person to another. Marketers upload diverse content with engaging titles on relevant channels of Facebook and YouTube, expecting it to generate a chain reaction of praise and recognition, which improves songs’ immediate performance on charts in the end.
How Has the Korean Music Industry Become a Fertile Ground for Sajaegi?
Kim Do-heun, the Editor of IZM Music Webzine and a music critic, explained that the number of active users of streaming service platforms has slowly yet consistently declined, and that this has helped maximize the effect of sajaegi. “Melon Music has seen an overall decline in the number and the age range of people using its site as the primary means of music consumption. This means that an effect that in the past could be generated with 400,000 play counts can now be duplicated with only a fraction of the effort,” he stated. Another problem lies in music streaming platforms’ profit incentive. Editor Kim stated, “The actors that generate the largest profit from the competitive spirit of real-time charts are the streaming platforms themselves. This seems to be disincentivizing chart reform of any kind.” Professor Lee expressed a similar view: “Digital music sites are paid according to the number of music plays, so they suffer no financial loss but rather a greater profit from fake IDs repeatedly streaming songs. This causes them to gloss over sajaegi accusations without actively investigating the facts of the cases. They have been keen to increase sales by inducing real-time chart competition without fully disclosing their ranking methods and data.” Sajaegi is legally restricted in Korea by Article 26 of the Music Industry Promotion Act, and those caught committing such malpractice can face up to two years in prison or fines up to 20 million won. In chart manipulation scandals, however, there is always a question of who the victims are. In the absence of obvious victims who would normally bring formal charges against the assailants, it is unclear how to investigate, and for whom. The result of this has been a rampage of suspicions and accusations but a complete lack of corresponding legal effort.
How Can We Prevent the Endless Attempts at Chart Manipulation?
Editor Kim viewed the abolition of hourly real-time charts as the first-level defense against digital chart manipulation, though acknowledged that streaming service companies would firmly oppose such an action. He pointed to foreign music charts that are based not on hourly updates of play counts but on a variety of factors during a wider tracking period. The Billboard Hot 100, for instance, gathers data on sales, radio play, and streaming on a weekly cycle to assign rankings. The Oricon Chart releases daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rankings based on physical singles’ sales, not online download sales. Professor Lee spoke on the importance of establishing a reliable, comprehensive chart system, and emphasized the role governmental agencies can play in outstripping the profit motive that leaves real-time charts intact. He asserted, “Abolishing real-time charts may not be a panacea, but it can have some tangible effects. Once songs are charted on a weekly or a monthly basis, the cumulative number becomes more important, and manipulation loses its efficacy. At a time when the slightest movement in charts causes instant alternation between joy and sorrow for the artists, the abolition of real-time charts may ease needless pressure and create a more ideal music culture.” Kim Kyu-tae, a Sophomore at Kyung Hee College of International Studies, believes that sajaegi is an unethical act that betrays the legitimate effort of many in each painstaking stage of the music production process, and spoke about the need for a change in the way listeners consume music. “I listen to music of my own preference, not what pertains to popular public taste – for this reason, I utilize YouTube Music, a platform that does not provide real-time charts. There is a clear need to eliminate real-time charts that encourage excessive competition and are easily altered by external pressure. It is a question of whether the charts, which do not represent the sentiment of the public, are really fair.” Professor Lee expanded on this point: “The uncritical and passive reception of the Top 100 makes the manipulation of consumer tastes easier as seen in the recent chart rigging scandal. Though not manipulative in nature, fandom acts such as infinite or an all-out streaming attack may also need to be avoided in the sense that they cause various forms of chart distortion.” Editor Kim stated that a diversified approach is needed to combat chart manipulation. We must put in place a clearly defined legal standard with which to identify the victim and the assailant in a sajaegi scandal. We must also create an institution that professionally manages data on music consumption - one akin to the Korea Film Council (KOFIC) that reveals the number of viewers for each film every week in order to prevent ratings and viewership manipulation in the film industry. He said, “Increased public understanding of the malicious nature of sajaegi is crucial, and sajaegi brokers and viral marketing agencies must be thoroughly scrutinized on every legal front. Furthermore, in raising the issue of sajaegi, one should ask serious questions about the era in which music has become, in a sense, a commodity. A healthy music culture where everyone can practice and consume music freely and ethically is what everyone must work together toward.”