What Yoo Hee-yeol’s fall from ‘musical genius’ status after plagiarism scandal means for K-pop
- Yoo Hee-yeol stepped down from his show ‘Sketchbook’ that showcased South Korean talent after plagiarism accusations arose about the host’s songs
- K-pop has an image of being ‘OK’ with plagiarism, as numerous South Korean artists have been accused of passing off others’ music as their own
He started the band Toy in 1994, and would soon have chart-toppers with love songs Remember I was Next to You and Good Person. He is also known for producing iconic hits for legends like Yoon Jong-shin, Sung Si-kyung and Lee Seung-hwan.
But he will undoubtedly be known to younger people as the host of his self-titled music talk show, Yoo Hee-yeol’s Sketchbook, which aired for 13 years.
While most South Korean music programmes on major TV channels tend to invite only the most popular groups, Yoo’s show introduced the public to independent artists and provided a stage for up-and-comers.
That was until Yoo’s prominence and fame suddenly struck the wrong note.
Social media posts, and emails to Yoo’s music label Antenna Music in June pointed out that the composer’s song A Most Private Evening was blatantly plagiarising Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto’s song Aqua.
Yoo went on social media himself to offer a formal apology, “admitting that the main themes were similar” between the songs. He explained that he “unconsciously composed similar chord progressions that were left in his memory by a musician he has been highly influenced by and respects.”
Sakamoto later wrote in an email to Antenna Music, founded by Yoo, that “the music has similarities, but it’s not in the level of requiring any legal actions to protect my piece ‘Aqua’ ”.
After declaring his influence from musicians like Bach and Debussy, the Japanese composer stated that “every creation is influenced by existing arts [in the public domain]”.
That was just the start of Yoo’s problems, as netizens found 17 more songs he composed had similar melodies to Japanese and American songs. Many of Yoo’s musical peers appeared on the talk show 100 Minutes Discussion as panel guests to discuss the controversy.
During the programme, the country’s top music critic Im Jin-mo said that “it’s undeniable Yoo, who is a composer major, knew exactly what he was doing for so long”. Some have called for tougher legal parameters in plagiarism cases.
The daily Sports Seoul quoted a broadcasting official saying that Yoo “completely collapsed after seeing his peers depicting him as an unscrupulous plagiarist.”
A month after the initial accusations, Yoo again went on social media to announce that the 600th episode of Yoo Hee-Yeol’s Sketchbook on July 22 would be the last, and he could not agree with the plagiarism accusations.
During the 100 Minutes Discussion episode, Im continued that it was a “good thing that [the plagiarism controversies] happened at this moment” as South Korean artists needed to focus more on the music and be more cautious as they sought to overturn the image that K-pop was “OK” with plagiarism.
Culture of referencing
K-pop stars like G-Dragon, JYP and Girls’ Generation have all been accused of plagiarism at least once in their careers. But, using the excuse of referencing, along with the passage of time, has been their best medicine in rebounding from plagiarism cases.
Kim Shin-woo is a singer and producer for the band EtsHaim and also works as a professor of creative composition at Busan Arts College. In his opinion, “it’s difficult to put all the blame on Yoo as it feels like he took the hit for everyone else”.
“I don’t think there are too many artists in the country who can criticise him,” he said. His explanation was that most producers turn to referencing when receiving requests to compose a song.
“Making melodies out of thin air is harder than one thinks. Everything that should be out is, really, already out,” Kim said. “So, realistically speaking, existing melodies from other artists may enter the mind of a composer unconsciously.”
But, as many other experts have recently said, Kim acknowledged that there was a fine line between referencing and referencing too much.
“Before the mature partnership pact between South Korea and Japan in 2008, it wasn’t easy to hear a lot of music from Japan,” he said. “So, a lot of South Korean artists got away with directly copying songs from Japanese artists as the South Korean public wouldn’t have heard the melodies before.”
Since its popularisation in the 2000s, K-pop has followed in the footsteps of pop, R&B, hip-hop, jazz and other music genres from all over the world. Its eclectic nature however has given rise to numerous plagiarism allegations.
“As these K-pop labels are existing within a 200 trillion won (US$15.3 billion) industry, they have become more systemised, they also systemised their music production so that songs that can make a lot of money could be mass-produced,” said Woo Hyung-yun, the dean at the Department of K-pop Music at Dong-ah Institute of Media and Arts.
“Big labels like SM Entertainment have partnerships with music composition academies that host veteran to novice hit composers while the label also runs a high school that teaches young students to produce hit songs quickly.”
It is in these composition academies where, according to Kim, who also runs an academy of his own called Apex Applied Music Academy, “it’s hard to instruct students to make something out of nothing.”
“I know of some academies that forget about teaching new materials and rather teach students to make the chords the same but changing the melody a bit differently [to avoid plagiarism].”
Kim also issued a stern warning to K-pop.
“Just as J-pop, or Japanese pop, received worldwide recognition before K-pop, K-pop can’t be forever,” he said. “Producers in the country only want to become a K-pop composer as that is where all the money is. But, if our music genres, songs and fans don’t become more diverse than now, the level of music in our country can’t develop.”