[WHY] All I want for Christmas is… festive songs playing at local stores
Christmas is just around the corner, and cafes, hotels and shopping malls in Seoul are decked out with holiday decorations to celebrate the season.
But beyond the gigantic ornament-laden trees and dazzling light displays at department stores, an essential element of the season appears generally absent in the air: Christmas songs.
“I remember hearing Christmas songs everywhere, down the streets and in stores when I was a kid,” said Aaron Kim, a 34-year-old Seoul resident attending a Christmas market in the city earlier this month. “It’s not the same anymore, since there was the huge copyright row.”
As Kim spoke, a man was singing on stage at the front of the market — not a Christmas song, but a well-known Korean ballad.
Millennials and older generations in Korea can recall busy shopping streets bustling with crowds and vendors blasting Christmas music in and outside their stores when they think of past Christmas seasons.
However, a 200 million won ($155,630) lawsuit against a department store that streamed Christmas music without paying royalties, as well as a few other factors, has left Christmas sounding a little different.
Sued over songs
Hyundai Department Store was sued by two music associations for streaming music across its branches from January 2010 to December 2011 without paying performance royalties.
There are different types of performance royalties owed to a song’s publisher, writer or artist whenever the song is performed or played publicly in Korea, including via streaming platforms such as Spotify or YouTube.
These royalties are collected by specific organizations entrusted to do so, which in Korea’s case include the Korea Music Copyright Association and Federation of Korean Music Performers.
The department store was streaming music via a contract with KT Music Corporation at the time, but not paying performance royalties.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court ordered Hyundai to pay 235.28 million won in overdue royalties.
The ruling came on Dec. 10 of 2015, hence the close association with the Christmas season.
“Somehow people seem to associate that ruling with Christmas songs, even though the case was not just about such songs,” said Park Sang-min who works for the Korea Music Copyright Association. “But here’s the thing: it is a basic right of the musicians and publishers to receive the performance royalty for their music played in public.
“Korea’s copyright law has a very outdated approach to this right,” he added. “The law says that no one needs to pay royalties except a few facilities. It should be the other way around, like everywhere else in the world, and have all facilities to pay the royalties and then make exceptions where needed.”
Music copyright associations have worked to require more facilities to pay the relevant royalties.
In recent years they filed lawsuits not only against Hyundai but also Starbucks and even BGF Retail, for playing music without paying royalties across its CU convenience stores.
As they won the cases, laws changed to require more facilities to pay performance royalties.
The list grew from department stores, karaoke bars, clubs and large-sized supermarkets before 2018, to include cafes, pubs and gyms, as well as shopping mall complexes like Coex in southern Seoul and Starfield in Hanam or Goyang, Gyeonggi.
“It is generally estimated that Christmas songs have been played less over the years in cafes and restaurants because relevant copyright laws have strengthened,” said pop culture critic Jung Min-jae, speaking with the Korea JoongAng Daily recently. “It can’t be said it was the sole factor behind the phenomenon, but people have definitely grown more aware of the legalities involved with playing music in a shared space.”
Catchy Christmas songs boosted business
Economists think changes in marketing strategies and consumer behaviors could have boosted the practice of vendors playing, or sometimes blasting, Christmas music on speakers outside of their stores during Christmas seasons gone by.
“Until the late 2010s, we heard Christmas music being played quite loudly outside stores,” said Kim Min-jeong, professor of consumer economics at Sookmyung Women’s University. “There isn’t a scientific study to prove that this practice could draw more customers, and I think the vendors themselves were trying this as a seasonal experiment.”
Today, the practice of vendors blasting music on speakers outside their stores is still visible on the main streets of Myeongdong shopping district, but not all choose Christmas songs to draw in customers.
“I use a streaming service called Biz Melon which automatically includes payment for all the relevant royalties,” said a man surnamed Park who runs a clothing store in the district. “But this also means I don’t get to choose individual songs but have to choose a playlist they offer, and the ones they offered for Christmas songs just didn’t seem to pop or were upbeat enough, which is what I think will draw the attention of potential customers. So I just stick with K-pop to be safe.”
Park and four other stores on either side of a 100-meter (330-feet) street in the district were playing music outside their stores via speakers on the evening of Dec. 15. Only one was playing Christmas music.
In recent years, it’s also become clearer that the more visual aspects of the season — such as lights and decorations — have become the new tools to attract consumers.
Shinsegae Department Store in central Seoul ran a pilot project of decorating its façade with an elaborate multimedia display last Christmas season. It drew thousands.
The façade, back for this season, has become a pit stop for young Koreans, couples and friends looking for some Christmas spirit.
“This place is all over my feed on Instagram,” said a woman in her 20s surnamed Kim, who was posing with two of her friends in front of the façade on an evening in December. “So I came with some friends to leave our own mark with a photo and also to just make good memories.”
Her friend, a woman surnamed Lee, added that there aren’t too many places in Korea that feel as festive.
“It’s just bam, in your face, kind of thing,” she said. “Almost immediately you feel it really is Christmas.”
The trio admitted that they were aware these decorations were part of the conglomerates’ marketing plans to draw more foot traffic, but added they were happy to go along with it if it meant seeing such festive decorations and lights.
Braving the subzero temperatures on that night were dozens of others, holding up their phones in unison whenever the façade’s three-minute video started again.
“There’s definitely a greater need among the younger population to see something dazzling and glamorous about Christmas,” said professor Kim. “That’s why you see them flocking to the Hyundai Seoul in Yeouido, Shinsegae Department Store, and Lotte Department Store.”
The Hyundai Seoul in Yeouido opened a 35,580 square-foot Christmas market this season, which houses uniquely decorated wooden cabins, drawing queues of people waiting to take selfies inside.
Lotte Department Store in Myeongdong area installed a 100-meter long, three-story high Christmas façade which is turned on every night.
All-time favorites in Korea
Koreans’ love for Christmas music might not be visible in collective settings, but there are avid individual listeners, say some music critics.
“I run a radio show regularly and more than half the song requests these days are Christmas songs,” Jung said.
There are a couple of songs that Koreans are particularly fond of, such as Sia’s “Snowman,” IU’s “Merry Christmas Ahead,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” as well as the holiday charts dominator, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey.
It can take a while for these festive tunes to show up on the local charts, however, which partly has to do with some differences in the ranking system.
Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 by the second weekend of December.
The same week, not a single Christmas song made it to the top-10 on local streaming charts including Melon, Genie Music and Bugs Music. Carey’s Christmas classic made No. 37 on Genie’s weekly chart and Sia’s “Snowman” came in 24th on Bugs.
“The charts in Korea don’t take into consideration the songs streamed on radio or on YouTube,” said Jung. “Songs by Carey, Sia and others will climb to the top of the local charts, it just tends to happen a little later here, closer to Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.”
K-pop artists also release special Christmas albums around this time of year. Artists including Le Sserafim’s Huh Yun-jin, AKMU’s Lee Su-hyun and ph-1 got together this month to release an album titled “2022 Christmas,” which is free to listen to on Naver until Christmas day.
Among performers at the Christmas market in Seongbuk earlier this month, there was a group of K-pop trainees who sang a few classic Christmas songs at the end of their performance.
“The setup was electronic techno-ish versions of Christmas songs with keytar, violin, cello and vocals, and the performers had a K-pop vibe to them,” said Aino, a Finnish student studying at Seoul National University. “The whole performance was very high energy, they engaged people to, if not dance, at least clap and move, which was nice in the cold weather. I think all countries and cultures, that celebrate Christmas at all, have their own Christmas traditions […] it’s natural that the holiday becomes an extension of an already existing culture.”
On one evening of December in Myeongdong, a Christmas song could be heard coming out from one of the speakers installed outside a line of stores.
It was “Like it’s Christmas” by Jonas Brothers.
“I haven’t really thought about what type of music could attract more customers,” said the owner of the store, a contact lens shop that’s survived the pandemic-stricken years. “But this time of year, it’s Christmas songs non-stop for me. Why not? Everyday can feel like Christmas.”
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]