Happy Friday! I’m vibing out to the new Black Panther soundtrack
as I type. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a fresh yet cohesive amalgamation of the film, music and comic-book worlds in a single project with such wide and positive reach, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.
To my pleasant surprise, there’s been a surge in new Water & Music followers over the past week. If this is your first-ever issue, please introduce yourself simply by replying to this email—I’d love to get to know you better!
A few letters ago, I linked to a New York Times
op-ed about the pitfalls of Internet subculture tourism
—of dabbling casually into online communities that many younger Internet users treat as their serious identity and reality, not merely as an outfit or experience one can try on for size. Today’s letter is about how I accidentally became one of those tourists
, and what that experience taught me about the music industry.
I was listening in on a panel about the Latin music market at NY:LON Connect
, as part of the conference’s International Track. Colleen Theis (COO of The Orchard) and Ricardo Chamberlain (Digital Marketing Director for Sony Music US Latin) were among the featured speakers on the panel, following an optimistic, data-packed keynote by Jesús López (Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Latin America and Iberian Peninsula). The overarching consensus was that 2017 marked just the beginning of a vibrant journey of mutual education and exchange between Latin artists and all other corners of the world.
At one point during the panel, Theis brought up K-pop group BTS, for whom Brazil is surprisingly their third-biggest market (behind Korea and the U.S.) despite no proactive Spanish-language marketing or lyric translation. In Theis’ eyes
, the fusion of Asian and Latin bands and scenes are poised to “bypass America and Europe altogether … Those two cultures are going to continue to cross-pollinate, and we’re going to see some really exciting things around it.”
At another point, Chamberlain, who executed several tech-savvy marketing campaigns for Latin boy band CNCO, said he was keen on following the local growth of K-pop, J-pop and other Asian music styles. Both Theis and Chamberlain then agreed onstage to try to make a BTS x CNCO collaboration happen, to launch this cultural fusion into cyberspace at full speed.
As I am one of the few crazy people in the world who actually likes live-tweeting conferences, I penned a tweet
about this hypothetical BTS/CNCO collab, intrigued by the possibility of cross-promotion across two distinct but similarly enthusiastic fanbases. To my fault entirely, I had no idea what delicate territory I was about to enter.
That tweet has since received over 1,100 replies from angry BTS fans, ranging from GIFs of individual BTS members expressing shock and outrage to written rants woven with hashtags like #BestBoyBand and #iHeartAwards.
In fact, those hashtags were really helpful for me in unveiling the reasons behind all this fury: The iHeartRadio Music Awards are taking place this March in Los Angeles, and both BTS and CNCO are nominated for the Best Boy Band category. Ahead of the awards show—and just two days after the NY:LON panel—CNCO recorded an interview
on iHeartLatino during which the interviewer, Enrique Santos, referred to BTS as ”the Korean version of CNCO" before asking the latter group to try singing their own songs in “mock-Korean.” The end result sounded like gibberish, and was pretty disrespectful to the language.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time someone openly mocked
BTS and/or Asian culture at large on TV in Latin America, nor is this the first time that BTS’ own “fan army” (which is nominated for its own category at the iHeart Awards as well) mobilized on the Internet en masse in defense of the band.
But there’s another, more corporate complication behind this issue: both BTS and CNCO have deals with Sony Music. In September, Billboard reported
that Sony-owned The Orchard would handle not only physical distribution of BTS’ latest album Love Yourself: ‘Her’
to Target and other large U.S. retailers, but also digital distribution of all of BTS’ prior releases (BTS’ South Korean label Big Hit Entertainment previously handled these releases itself). CNCO is locked in a five-year contract with Sony Music Latin, which they won from Spanish-language singing competition La Banda
, so will most likely stay with the label through 2020.
What this means to BTS fans is that, if Sony Music really wanted to, they could probably orchestrate and execute a BTS x CNCO collab at their own will. This compelled one Twitter user to write a reply
to my tweet that inspired the title of today’s newsletter: “Technocrats, having no idea of the fan culture
In this case, I think replacing the word “technocrat” with “corporations” more broadly might be more appropriate; Theis and Chamberlain are tech-savvy for sure, but their mutual interest in a BTS x CNCO collab was arguably more about the power of corporations to activate new types of culture than about having technology take precedence over culture itself. Plus, they made those remarks a few days before CNCO ruffled the BTS fan army’s feathers over the air, so probably could not see what was coming.
Nonetheless, the ensuing Twitter storm revealed to me how the typical NY:LON attendee (myself included) remains rather detached from the fan communities that will exert more and more influence in the near future. In particular, what seems like a no-brainer to corporate execs—two boy bands on one record! oh what jolly glee!—is often an insult to diehard superfans (aside from all the references to CNCO’s comments, “BTS is not just another boy band” was a frequent reply to my tweet).
All this also reminded me of the Billboard 40 Under 40 dinner
I covered for Grammy Week, during which Marsha St. Hubert (Senior VP of Urban Marketing at Atlantic Records) discussed the perils of trying to lead a productive debate about emerging cultures with a room full of older executives stuck in their own, baked-in sense of reality. It’s not that these older executives are “dumb"—they are really bright and talented and efficient in a specific
cultural area or means of doing business, not so much in others.
Trying to reconcile and draft a strategy around this embedded difference within an hour-long conversation simply won’t cut it; you need to hire and engage employees at all levels who are not just casual fans of a label roster, but who also have an intimate knowledge of the mechanics behind the relevant, up-and-coming fan cultures. As bigger labels like Sony continue to internationalize their clients and offices, and as trend cycles, release schedules and the pace of virality shorten over time, I predict that such a feat will only get more, not less, difficult.