A couple of months ago, Red declared on social media she would no longer write for K-pop bands because, according to her, she is paid significantly less to write songs for those groups than she is for American artists. Red’s Instagram videos about this went viral, which inspired her to start a social media campaign called “the 100 Percenters” to lobby for higher pay for singers, songwriters, producers, and engineers.
On June 2, thousands online participated in #TheShowMustBePaused, a day of observance for the music industry to recognize racism and inequality. That same day, Red said she received an email from a K-pop record label telling her she would be given $66 as part of a licensing fee for her work on the song “Go” by NCT Dream. According to Red, that $66 is the only payment she has ever received from the song, despite the fact that it has 120 million views on YouTube.
For Red, it was a breaking point. She felt the label was completely ignoring what was supposed to be a day of reflection, and that it was her “duty as a Black woman to correct these people when they're wrong.”
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“I've been in this standoff with them and, like, trying to find the money for years. It just got to a point where I just felt so disrespected,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Red decided to speak out on Instagram. In her first video, she said there was a lack of support for Black writers and that she won’t be writing K-pop songs anymore.
In another video Red posted on Instagram the next day, she spoke about her part in writing “Boss” by NCT U, asking why she had not received any money from its success. The music video for “Boss” was said to be the most expensive one filmed by the label at the time; it has amassed 120 million views on YouTube and 63 million streams on Spotify.
Her videos went super viral, with many people expressing shock that she had made so little from what seemed to be such popular songs.
Although #TheShowMustBePaused inspired Red to speak out publicly about inequality in the K-pop songwriting industry, she said she has been fighting for more money behind the scenes for years, and that it’s an international industry-wide problem.
Over the years as she worked toward her dream of songwriting full time, Red said, she has struggled financially and has even been homeless at times. With her new Instagram campaign, Red is hoping to change the entire pay structure for songwriters.
“The reality is that poor royalty rates are across the board,” she said.
Here’s how it works: When songwriters write a song, they typically sign a deal with an “advance” — but they don’t get paid in advance. To actually receive any money, they must first generate a share of profit for the song that matches — or sometimes even doubles — the amount of their “advance," in a process known as “recouping.”
For example, even though Red has generated almost $10,000 so far in profits from sales of the song “Boss,” she hasn’t been paid a dime. Red was under a “copublishing agreement” with Ekko Music Rights, which owns the publishing rights to “Boss,” “Go,” and other K-pop songs Red has written. An Ekko representative told BuzzFeed News that these songs were not hits and did not chart in the top 100 in either South Korea or Japan — and did not make enough for her advance to pay out.
“Top K-pop songs can generate in excess of $150,000 within Korea alone,” the Ekko spokesperson said. “‘Boss’ made under $30,000 within Asia for all of the writers and publishers combined.”
The Ekko spokesperson said Red’s advance was approximately $22,000 and that she had so far earned $9,499 in royalties for “Go'' and “Boss.” Red stopped writing songs for the company earlier this year after acknowledging she didn’t reach 50% of her advance within 18 months. If she had reached 50% by then, she would have received the money she had made so far.
George Howard, an associate professor of music business management at the Berklee College of Music, told BuzzFeed News that “recoupment” is “a nice way of saying ‘usurious loan.’”
Howard explained that these kinds of deals also depend on the “rate” given to the songwriter. For example, a songwriter could get a 50/50 deal from the publisher, meaning they only earn 50 cents for every dollar the song makes. That only makes it harder for songwriters to earn their advance.
“To recoup a $100,000 advance, you have to generate $200,000 in income,” he explained.
Howard believes that the time for change is long overdue.
“It is unconscionable,” he said, “and but for very, very, very few songwriters, [it] does not come close to representing a livable wage.”
Red’s campaign has attracted other songwriters who have also been fighting for more pay behind the scenes for years.
Bianca “Blush” Atterberry has been a songwriter for about 13 years; she has worked with K. Michelle and Meghan Trainor and provided vocals for Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s “Stuck With U.” Blush said that over the years she has never made enough money from a song to receive her advance, meaning she has “never seen a publishing check.”
Blush said that a lot of writers feel they deserve more, but they’re scared to challenge the status quo. “They're afraid to lose relationships and speak out,” she said, “because they've been taught to be quiet.”
Red and Blush believe that songwriters should be paid hourly for their time in addition to their advance. They said other creatives who work in song production, such as producers and engineers, are paid hourly — but songwriters are not.
Bonnie Hayes, chair of Berklee’s songwriting department, told BuzzFeed News that now is the time to discuss how songwriters are paid. The pay structure now is much more of a problem than it was in the past, she said, because so many of the revenue streams for songwriters, such as people buying albums, have “dried up.”
Blush said she believes the industry is making it hard for people to survive. She said she knows many fellow songwriters who need to go to the dentist or see a doctor but can’t afford to. “Yet our songs are around the world," Blush said. "People know our lyrics. People are living by these lyrics. People are healing by these lyrics.”
“They're probably homeless,” she added of other songwriters. “They [were] probably sleeping on a couch when they signed their publishing deals. And we know that, but you designed these deals not to make them [money], to put them in positions to have to work on a level that you didn't pay them on.”
Susan Cattaneo, a songwriting professor at Berklee, told BuzzFeed News that the struggle to make money is commonplace across the music industry.
“I know so many artists who are living hand to mouth, gig to gig, and who are forced to support their art through non-music-related day jobs,” she said, “just to make enough to survive.”
Red hopes that with this campaign she can help her peers make more money and find better living situations. So far, she has raised $1,669 from the campaign, which she believes she can turn into five grants for other creatives. She has set a goal of 20 grants.
Red said that more people are starting to speak out since the campaign started. “There’s been progress with creatives having the courage to stand up for themselves,” she said. “We’re starting to come together as a community in a way we never have.”
On Friday she released a song called “We Matter” featuring Mickey Shiloh and Ella Wylde. Half of the money the song earns will go to the "100 percenters," and the other half will go to Until Freedom, an organization that fights for social justice.