K-pop fans cancel Spotify memberships after songs disappear

Girl group Mamamoo was among the K-pop groups affected by the licensing dispute between streaming platform Spotify and distributor Kakao M. Instagram: @mamamoo_official

Fans of several popular K-pop groups and other South Korean artists have expressed outrage after many of their favourite tunes disappeared suddenly from Spotify on Sunday.

Music by K-pop outfits such as Mamamoo, HyunA and Monsta X, as well as popular Korean hip-hop and R&B artists, was pulled from the platform because of the streaming giant’s dispute with Kakao M (often known as KakaoM). The South Korean company distributes songs by many South Korean artists and also runs the country’s biggest streaming platform, Melon.

Spotify launched in South Korea on February 1 in a highly anticipated roll-out in the competitive streaming market, where Melon dominates and various other music streaming apps, including local ones as well as Apple Music, are already popular.

“Spotify can confirm that starting March 1, 2021, Kakao M’s catalogue will no longer be available to our listeners worldwide due to the expiration of our licence,” a spokesperson for the Swedish streaming service confirmed after fans discovered the music missing on February 28.

Tablo, the frontman of Korean hip-hop trio Epik High, tweeted about the issue after midnight on Monday in South Korea.

“Apparently a disagreement between our distributor Kakao M and Spotify has made our new album Epik High Is Here unavailable globally against our will,” he wrote. “Regardless of who is at fault, why is it always the artists and the fans that suffer when businesses place greed over art?”

The removal has hurt artists and pitted consumers in between two media giants duelling for dominance in South Korea, where the situation is felt the least; South Korean listeners by and large do not use Spotify.

Many international fans were angered by the move, bemoaning the loss of access to their favourite music and playlists they had curated featuring the artists in question. Many took to social media to protest and some even cancelled their premium Spotify memberships.

Many other popular South Korean artists whose songs are distributed by Kakao M, including IU, Seventeen and Nu’est, also had their music removed from Spotify. South Korea-based acts whose songs are distributed by other organisations remain on the site.

Many artists, such as HyunA and Epik High, have been working to get their music back on the site through new distribution deals, likely taking on a loss while seeking a new partner and sidestepping their now-defunct global distribution deals with Kakao M. Some of Epik High’s music returned to Spotify on March 2.

The loss of the music came as a rude awakening for many Spotify users – not just fans of Korean music – and served as a reminder that cloud-based streaming services can cut access to their favourite tunes without any warning.

Some fans said they would reconsider their music listening habits, with many saying they would look into buying more music, either digital or physical versions.

However, others raised concerns that the move might lead to a resurgence in illegal downloads among global K-pop fans. This was a common trend before the rise of Spotify and Apple Music as popular international streaming platforms, after which K-pop music became more accessible to fans outside South Korea.

Both Spotify and Kakao M blamed each other for the loss of access to the music and neither took responsibility for the artists’ loss of revenue.

“We have been working with Kakao M over the last year and a half to renew the global licensing agreement,” said Spotify. “Despite our best efforts, the existing licensing deal we had with Kakao M (which covered all countries other than South Korea) has come to an end.

“The fact that we have not yet reached agreement on a new global deal is unfortunate for their artists, as well as for fans and listeners worldwide. It is our hope that this disruption will be temporary and we can resolve the situation soon.”

Kakao M said in a statement: “Kakao M and Spotify have been discussing licensing agreement for the Korean market, in addition to the existing global licensing agreement. As Kakao M’s global licensing agreement with Spotify neared expiration on February 28, 2021, Kakao M has asked Spotify to separate the two agreements so the global agreement can be renewed.

“However, Spotify currently requests a licensing agreement which included both global and domestic markets and this has extended our discussions. In the meantime, Kakao M’s previous global licensing agreement with Spotify has expired.”

The discussions are said to be continuing, but neither company has addressed the loss of revenue caused by pulling the songs from the platform.

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