Let’s start with the conceit that Kpop music shows judge the performance of the idols that appear each week. To my knowledge, none of the shows we’re discussing actually make this claim, but the insinuation is almost overwhelming. Week in and week out, we gather the top artists in Kpop and, after seeing them perform, subject them to a system of ranking whereby a “winner” is chosen. This sounds very performance-based. However, a closer look at the system of judgment will show that the majority of points assigned to the performers in all six shows are awarded prior to the “competition” ever taking place. Passing judgment prior to the performance, as you might be able to guess, does not make for a very strong competition.
But aren’t we forgetting about live voting? Yes, it’s true that several of the music shows incorporate live voting into their results by assigning it a percentage of importance, each in their own arbitrary fashion: Inkigayo (10%), Music Bank (0%), Show! Music Core (15%), M! Countdown (10%), Show Champion (0%), and The Show (30%). Obviously, The Show is a huge outlier at 30%. Consider that in Inkigayo and M! Countdown, 90% of the results are pre-determined. And given that only the top three artists are eligible for live voting, this method can only ever hope to determine the winner in an extremely close contest. For Music Bank and Show Champion, the winner is known before the show even begins. At best, this is premature. At worst, this is the apotheosis of meaningless competition.
Where the Points Don’t Matter!
All but one of these shows uses what is called a majoritarian voting scheme (i.e. voting for your favorite, rather than ranking each choice in order of preference). Majoritarian schemes are weighted heavily in favor of the largest source. For example, since there are so many millions of views on YouTube, this site would be overwhelmingly important in comparison to album purchases, where a strong showing for the entire year might net a group 80,000 purchases. Which leads to the weighting system that every music show uses, a complex scale designed to proportionalize votes, views, and purchases that is absolutely and completely arbitrary. How much more important is a stream than a YouTube view? 5% more important? How about 7.2%? Why not 14%? The truth is that any weighted system is organized under the bias of its creator.
Show! Music Core is the only show using something other than majoritarian voting, with viewers required to vote for two artists at once, not just their bias. It’s a nice idea, that the second vote might actually be an unbiased indication of who deserves to win. But, of course, fans have learned a way around this system: they don’t vote for the better artist for their second vote, they vote for the one less likely to beat their bias. Or, they coordinate and split their votes between the other artists to mitigate this effect. It is, once again, an imperfect system which only serves to make the margin of victory much narrower.
To be fair to music shows, a perfect voting system does not exist, the proof of which fact earned Kenneth Arrow a nobel prize in 1972. But that tidbit is not meant to excuse music shows. There is always an element of error in any contest, whether it be in judgment or application of the rules. But the arbiters of the contest are not expected to throw their hands in the air and give up. The onus is on them to create a meaningful contest that performers want to compete in and fans want to watch.
Music Show or Music Chart?
It would be much more appropriate to label music shows as hosting live performances of the top songs on the Kpop music chart. In other words, no competition involved. After all, each of these shows are, without exception, tracking two things: sales and fan engagement.
Music charts, just like search results on the internet, are a form of rank aggregation, the social welfare function of which is precision and recall. When you search the internet for Chicago Bulls, you’re not likely to be seeking the history of meat-packing in the early industrial midwest. Google and others have reviewed the millions of other searches for this term to determine the most relevant information. Similarly, music charts are not designed as a competition. They are designed to quickly and precisely tell us which song has the most plays, purchases, or hashtag mentions. Competition is irrelevant.
The True Nature of Hallyu Economics
If you’re living in Korea right now, you’re probably not reading this. If you’re anywhere else in the world, there’s a portion of some music shows that you simply cannot participate in (e.g. voting in Inkigayo or Music Bank), and an even bigger portion that is extremely cumbersome.
All music shows use the Hanteo and Gaon charts to measure album and single purchases and streams. And the only vendors which report their sales to the Hanteo and Gaon charts? You guessed it, Korean vendors (along with some various Asian vendors). While many of these sites are not accessible to foreigners, some are, albeit in Korean. Signing up for an account on Melon, for example, requires the help of a step-by-step tutorial and a whole lot of patience. I’ve tried.
It might surprise you that even with the huge popularity of Kpop in the international community, none of these music shows have made any movement to get the global community involved. They are surprisingly unwelcoming to non-Koreans. That’s not necessarily a reason not to watch, but it does raise an interesting question. Given the popularity of Kpop abroad, why do these music shows not want to reach out to the international audience?
The answer is economics. First, international viewers are unlikely to be able to watch the live broadcast inside of Korea. If you’re not watching live, then the broadcasting company isn’t making money off of advertisements. And if they’re not making money off of you, they really don’t care. There’s no incentive for KBS and MBC and the rest to encourage international participation in the show. And second, this is all part of former President Kim Dae-Jung’s initiative to make Korean culture a major export. That initiative laid the foundation for today’s Kpop, and it’s hard to imagine that President Kim Dae-Jung did not have economics in mind. In terms of export, selling a single on Melon is a lot different than selling it on iTunes (and, no surprise here, iTunes does not count in the Hanteo or Gaon charts). Whatever influence the government holds over major entertainment and broadcast companies in Korea, that influence is likely wielded to ensure that as much foreign money as possible is brought into the country in exchange for the Hallyu export. Apple’s notorious 30% cut isn’t what President Kim had in mind.
Opacity and Lack of Oversight
Oh, there’s plenty of other issues with the voting system of Kpop music shows. They are notoriously opaque when it comes to disclosing how the votes, views, purchases, etc. are counted and weighted. Many shows do release a weekly count of the points at the end of the night. However, they do not release anything close to raw data.
Instead of showing how many SMS votes they received, how many YouTube views, etc., these shows release adjusted numbers with no explanation as to their relationship with raw data. Proprietary information, maybe. But for viewers of the show, it means that there is no check against corruption. There is no openness. And that ruins any chance at positive competition. When the performers and fans cannot be assured of a fair contest, there is no reason to compete.
This opacity also lowers the importance of these shows as music charts. If we can’t understand what these charts are measuring, then they lose their usefulness as barometers of success. If I can’t understand how Big Bang’s Inkigayo win on August 23 (11,000 points) compares to INFINITE’s July 24 win on Music Bank (6,770 points) or to Exo’s June 18 win on M! Countdown (9,238 points), then of what use are these shows?
Inkigayo, Music Bank, Show! Music Core, M! Countdown, Show Champion, and The Show are all desperately trying to create drama to entice us to turn on the TV. They all deliberately obscure the results of what should be a fairly straightforward music chart. In attempting to turn these music charts into a faux competition they’ve created an unwieldy beast that, if we’re not careful, might just gobble Kpop whole. Please, I beg you, let’s not feed the beast.
Join me next week as I take a look at the format of music shows. That can’t be too bad, right?
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.