[Interview] Yang Hyun-suk, CEO of YG Entertainment - Part. 1
PSY recorded number 2 on the Billboard singles chart and G-Dragon was at the forefront of the K-pop music scene this year. For the past few months, YG Entertainment has been at the center of the Korean music scene. The total value of YG stocks rose to 1,000 billion won [approximately 938 million U.S. dollars] and is still well over 634 billion won.
However, Yang Hyun-suk, CEO of YG Entertainment, still stays up all night, mixing audio for the albums of YG artists. Even as a CEO, he says he wants to keep on working as a producer, discussing music with artists and producing their music. That part of his job, he says, is as important, nay, more important than the business side of the whole of YG Entertainment.
While every single aspect related to the firm is geared toward producing high-quality work, Yang says YG's output is produced according to the company's "absolute standard," something akin to "telling right from wrong." As he stressed this point, we felt that Yang is more like a perfectionist artisan, not an entrepreneur who heads one of the biggest firms in K-pop.
Q PSY's "Gangnam Style" was a phenomenal international success. A lot must be going through your mind these days.
Yang: I have always dreamed of being the best in the world because I believe in dreaming big. No one can predict who will follow in PSY's footsteps but I have this hope that the next person may be from YG. I also think a tenth of PSY die-hard fans across the world may become interested in other YG musicians. Big Bang drew in a total of 700,000 people to their 2012 world tour concerts. YG is already powerful in Asia although not quite yet in the U.S. and Europe. Both Big Bang and 2NE1 had world tours for the first time this year. I'm sure they'll do better tours after this year.
Q With the initial offering of the company, YG is getting bigger and you've gone through a lot of new experiences, such as the world tour events. You also recruited PSY and he is unusual in that YG doesn't normally recruit musicians who are already known.
Yang: PSY has been around the block so he and I are on the same wavelength. I also was hanging around clubs since middle school, too, you see (laugh). It's important for people in entertainment to have that kind of experience. PSY and Epik High are very different, though. PSY is like a friend and Epik High is like my stepparents (laugh). For example, Tablo is someone who goes deep into his own mind, so I would take him out a bit when he withdraws too much. As PSY and Epik High were fans of Seo Tae-ji and Boys, they see me as their senior in the industry. But I don't force my views on them in any way.
"I don't interfere with my musicians' creativity in any way."
Q What do you think attracted PSY and Epik High to YG?
Yang: The attraction was mutual, you could say. PSY and Epik High had gained so much popularity as artists. However, when things outside of their music got tangled up, they didn't handle it that well. They both suffered a lot. I think the fact that I can communicate with them is important. Artists usually find it difficult to communicate with the rest of the world and there is also a huge chasm between musicians and business people. Artists also have this tendency to take things too far. That's where I come in. I handle things like that quite well. I tell them when to move ahead and when to stop regarding those external matters.
Q What do you tell them exactly?
Yang: I don't interfere with their creativity. I signed on PSY and Epik High because I respect their music. It's not my aim to change their music. They told me they wanted to sign with YG because they wanted the high quality which they felt only YG could produce. When Epik High started collaborating with composers and staff at YG, their music became much more upgraded, as I expected. At YG, they can create new music using a new system and the know-how of sound technicians without any kind of interference. We also don't set any particular goal in mind. The output is produced and during that process the musicians also become friends with the composers and the staff.
Q Then it must be very important for everyone to share their philosophy on music.
Yang: Any artist can misjudge what is right and wrong if they're not part of a supportive team. When I meet Big Bang and 2NE1, I always learn new things from them. To them, "having fun" isn't about going somewhere to drink. For them, it's all about coming into the office and talking about their favorite artists and music, 20 days a month. So they can't help but influence each other.
Q Then the system of the entire company must be focused on its musicians.
Yang: For example, employees in the business part come to work in the morning and leave at the regular time. On the other hand, those focusing on the creative side come in later and work late into the night. I am also a night owl so we all talk about music together and decide what's good and what's not. My work is to make an environment where such people can all work well together.
Q Everyone at YG works exclusively for the company. You don't bring in anyone from the outside for a short period time for an album cover or to edit a music video.
Yang: That's one of the unique things about YG. I don't mean we're right and people outside are wrong but it's much better to work with people who understand you straightaway than with those who you have to give lengthy explanations to. I want good people who get each other to work together here. The producers haven't signed exclusivity contracts with us but it's my aim for them to feel like they belong here, like members of our family.
Q But in terms of business, only working with in-house personnel has to come with many risk factors. Since you produced Jinusean, you have maintained the system of working with producers who only write for YG musicians.
Yang: Working with hit makers from outside YG may be good in the short term. But I think the YG model is more competitive in the long run. The first condition of a good musician is good music, which can only be created by a good producing team. At YG, there are 15 producing teams now. We did not bring in established producers from outside but have developed the teams in-house. Each team has their own studio, they work and develop together. Choi Pil Kang and Choice 37, who produced Epik High's album, also went through that process. If someone is lucky, he or she could succeed a few times but it cannot always happen like that. You need a good foundation in the shape of an excellent producing team and that's what I've been aiming for since the early days of YG.
"I'm proud of our sense of creativity."
Q Recently, YG's business has been quite similar to its unique producing method. YG is collaborating with business partners such as Hyundai Card and Naver Music. You must all be influencing each other in the process.
Yang: We just teamed up with partners who can do some things better than us. Hyundai Card is a finance company but it's a firm with some very unique ideas. Naver is the leading company amongst Korean portal websites. We can't work with a company who we don't have respect for.
Also in the fashion business we have started with Cheil Industries. Preserving our creativity is important. Our focus is on sales but creating fashion in our own style. This fashion business is something I've been thinking of for the past 10 years. It's not about making money for me. All musicians here at YG are interested in fashion and they express themselves through fashion off-stage as well. It's not about making money by opening 500 to 600 stores all over Korea. We could just open one or two stores. It's all about competitiveness on a global scale. I'm looking into the world.
Q What do you mean by "looking into the world"?
Yang: Before, it was about becoming the number one in the Korean market but the domestic market only counts for 30 percent of the overall figures. Korea's popular contents are very powerful but we're relatively weak at side businesses. It's hard to come by home-grown brands overseas. Korea has one very well-known building, the 63 City Building, but there are countless 50-story buildings abroad. I'm proud that YG has a sense of creativity that may not be better than that of the West but I believe we're on an equal footing as them in that regard.
Q You seem to do business in the same way YG's musicians make their music.
Yang: That's right. Both Andy Warhol and Mozart were great artists and they also had the public's approval. I also want to be an artist who is recognized by the public. That is why I consider Steve Jobs a great artist. If you create something great, you should make it available to everyone.
Q But it must be easy to get lost at times if you insist on doing things your own way.
Yang: It is important to be half a step ahead of the mainstream. For example, when I was tired with all the Idol groups, I worked on Big Mama and Wheesung and the public liked them as well. The public's likes and dislikes change by the minute and it's important to cater to their wishes. Life is like that, too. Patterns come and go. In general, pop music producers either target the mainstream or they aim at small niche markets but we at YG are always trying to get both of those markets. It's extremely tough, I admit, but that is what I want. I want to provide the public with a sense of creativity and, at the same time, stay with the public, loving what they love.
Source: Lennon @ TenAsia