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Spotify Removes K-Pop Songs in Licensing Debacle

If you’re a big K-pop fan with a Spotify account, you’re probably not too happy today.

Thanks to a breakdown in licensing talks, songs from some of the world’s biggest K-pop stars have vanished from Spotify’s music library after talks between the streamer and Korean distributor Kakao M hit a brick wall. Some of the acts affected include many of Korea’s most popular acts, including Seventeen, MonstaX, Mamamoo, (G)I-DLE and IU.

The issue was first noticed on March 1 (Korean time) as Spotify users around the world first noticed that many K-pop songs were no longer available to them on the platform. Some artists’ entire catalogs disappeared without warning from Spotify, while other artists saw some of their songs remain.

Later the same day Spotify announced that its licensing agreement with Korean music distributor Kakao M had expired, meaning that all music distributed by the label would no longer be available on the service.

A spokesperson for Spotify explained, “Due to the expiration of our original licensing agreement with Kakao M on March 1, 2021, we are no longer able to provide its catalog to fans and listeners all over the world.

“We have been making efforts in all directions over the past year and a half to renew the global licensing agreement so that we could continue to make Kakao M artists’ music available to fans all over the world, as well as our 345 million users in 170 different regions,” the company added in its statement. “However, in spite of this, we were unable to reach an agreement about renewing our global license.”

K-pop boy band Seventeen is among the many South Korean artists whose works have been removed from the global streaming service Spotify, due to a licensing dispute with distributor Kakao M.

The breakdown of talks led some to believe the issue was over streaming rights locally. Spotify recently launched its service in South Korea, but Kakao M also has its own streaming service in the country called Melon. Spotify denies that’s the problem, saying “The matter of our global licensing agreement is unrelated to the launch of our service in South Korea.”

“We feel that this situation is deeply unfortunate for many artists, as well as fans and listeners all over the world, and we sincerely hope that we will be able to quickly resolve the current situation,” Spotify says. “We will continue to do our utmost so that we can keep working with Korean rights holders, including Kakao M, and help both the Korean music market and overall streaming ecosystem grow together.”

Kakao M quickly responded with its own version of the events leading to the removal of its music from the world’s largest music streaming service. It says Spotify is the party that chose not to renew their agreement, even after a request by Kakao M. The company also clarified that it was still in the midst of negotiating whether its catalogue would be made available on the South Korean version of Spotify, but agreed with Spotify that the expiration of their global licensing agreement is not related to the breakdown of talks over the global license.

“Unrelated to our preexisting global licensing agreement with Spotify, Kakao M has been separately negotiating with Spotify regarding a domestic contract for the supply of music,” stated Kakao M. “Unrelated to the domestic contract, which we are still negotiating, we separately received notice of the expiration of our license on February 28, and we requested a renewal of our existing global contract.

“Due to Spotify’s policy that they must proceed with the domestic and global contracts at the same time, our global contract has currently expired,” they continued. “We are currently continuing our negotiations about the supply of music.”

The licensing expiry is a big deal for K-pop fans. Kakao M is a giant in the Korean music scene. The Gaon Chart, which is the South Korean version of the Billboard charts, showed 37.5 per cent of the country’s Top 400 Songs for 2020 came from artists published by Kakao M. A partial list of the artists whose catalogs have been eliminated or partly affected include: IU, Seventeen, NU’EST, MAMAMOO, Epik High, CL, GFRIEND, MONSTA X, Apink, THE BOYZ, Sunmi, (G)I-DLE, LOONA, SF9, HyunA, 4Minute, VIXX, INFINITE, Dreamcatcher, MOMOLAND, ASTRO, Zico, Block B, BEAST, Jessi, WJSN, AOA, BTOB, Golden Child, VICTON, Lovelyz, PENTAGON, ONEUS, Hyolyn, KARD, Brave Girls, CNBLUE, DIA, Younha, and SECHSKIES. The full list is much longer.

The dispute is already having a dramatic effect on South Korean K-pop groups. On Twitter the fan account for the popular boy band Seventeen said the number of streams had dropped by close to a billion streams, from 1,260,197,540 prior to the licensing breakdown, to 297,069,572.

K-pop fans also are not reacting well to the dispute, as many saw a large percentage of their playlists evaporate overnight. “I literally just woke up and 80% of my playlists on Spotify have been wiped out because of kakao m,” said one fan on Twitter. Another called for licensing peace, saying, “Kakao M and Spotify, that is NOT the way to go. Many artists, including khh and krnb artists, and their fans have been seriously affected because of your petty disagreements. Stop thinking about yourselves and give us our songs back.”

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