Songwriting

[ZOOM KOREA] Meet the K-pop collector who lost everything and started over


Pop music critic Choi Kyu-sung examines his collection of vinyl records, CDs, cassettes, songbooks, posters and more at Jori-eup’s K-pop Database & Research Institute in Paju, Gyeonggi. [PARK SANG-MOON]

“A tree with deep roots does not fall easily. That’s why I try to find the roots of Korean pop music,” said pop music critic Choi Kyu-sung, who is also director of the K-pop Database. & Research Institute. .

“The historical K-pop archives are scattered in pieces. Finding and rearranging them is like putting together a puzzle. My goal is to find the roots of 100-year-old K-pop history and set the record straight. on time.”

Choi owns more than 100,000 vinyl records, CDs and cassettes of mainly Korean pop music. Its extensive collection also includes gramophones, radios, posters, costumes, songwriting competition trophies, and even merchandise of K-pop idols. Museums and broadcasting stations come to Choi to request a consultation or to borrow rare items.

Choi keeps a meticulous record of the documents he has collected regarding Korean pop music. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Choi keeps a meticulous record of the documents he has collected regarding Korean pop music. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Choi has had a collector’s mentality since he was young and was particularly interested in Korean pop music, long before it was known to the world.

A 1930s radio with the logo of the Office of the Japanese Governor General of Korea on it [PARK SANG-MOON]

A 1930s radio with the logo of the Office of the Japanese Governor General of Korea on it [PARK SANG-MOON]

Choi’s passion ignited in 1973, when he was in sixth grade and visited a friend’s house. The friend’s brother was playing “Highway Star” (1972) by British rock band Deep Purple on his record player. Choi, who had only listened to the radio before, says he got goosebumps when he heard the music and fell in love with vinyl records. He began to collect them, although most records by foreign artists at the time were illegal copies known as casserole bback.

As Choi’s family was financially well off, he was able to collect the rather expensive records one by one. However, his father was against Choi’s hobby, fearing that he would neglect his studies. So Choi hid his collection in the attic.

    The first LP of The Kim Sisters, considered Korea's very first girl group, released in 1955 under the aliases

The first LP of The Kim Sisters, considered Korea’s very first girl group, released in 1955 under the alias “Aija, Sue and Mia”. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Its collection consists mainly of Korean pop music records, as well as a few foreign records. Back then, Korean audiences viewed classical music or English pop songs favorably, but looked down upon Korean pop music. Choi didn’t care what other people thought and focused on collecting what he loved most: K-pop records.

He took it one step further and began to study pop music in general, browsing songbooks and booklets, such as the magazine “Pop Song Monthly” (1971-1987). As a result, his collection of books and magazines also grew and his attic became so full that he had to start renting a storage unit. By the time he entered college, he had collected around 3,000 records over a seven-year period.

The first issue of the magazine

The first issue of the magazine “Pop Music Life” (translated) in 1966, specializing in pop music. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Around this time, Choi’s father opened a restaurant that sold simple dishes like pork chops and omelets. In 1970s and 1980s Korea, these restaurants typically hired disc jockeys to play customers’ song requests, so Choi’s dad moved all of his records to the restaurant. The disc jockeys who worked there were impressed with Choi’s collection.

But one day, Choi received devastating news; his father had given away all the vinyl records when he closed the restaurant. Choi fell into despair and became filled with rage. He was angry with his father since then and until his death in 1998.

Traumatized by the loss of his entire collection overnight, Choi told himself he would never collect anything again. But when he started working as a photojournalist at the Hankook Ilbo newspaper, his resolve began to falter. His natural inclination was to collect, and working in journalism gave him access to things that others could not easily see. It quickly started collecting various odds and ends again.

A collection of lyrics to hit songs by colonial-era singer Kim Jung-ku (1916-1998), produced in 1938. [PARK SANG-MOON]

A lyrical book of hit songs by colonial-era singer Kim Jung-ku (1916-1998), produced in 1938. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Choi officially resumed collecting articles related to Korean pop music when he began writing a column series titled “Nostalgic LP Journey” for Weekly Hankook magazine in 2001. While writing the series for six years ago, he visited antique stores and second-hand bookstores. all over the country, and even stop drinking to save money and buy expensive vinyl records. Its collection of rare items has started to accumulate again.

In 2006, Choi quit his journalism job and began methodically organizing K-pop history. He has organized photo exhibitions and published books including “Korean Indie Musician” (2009), “LP Collector Guidebook” (2014), “Golden Indie Collection” (2015), “Ancestors of Girl Groups” (2018) and ” Heydays of Bback Pan “(2020).

Collection of songs from broadcast station KBS broadcast on television, in manual form. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Collection of songs from broadcast station KBS broadcast on television, in manual form. [PARK SANG-MOON]

He eventually caught the attention of Korea’s biggest search engine, Naver, who asked him to compile Naver’s “Encyclopedia of Pop Music” (translated). In the span of four years, Choi has compiled an undying record of Korean pop music. The encyclopedia was launched in 2016 and currently displays 11,360 articles.

Nowadays, Choi collects information about the singers who performed in the camps of the US Eighth Army based in Korea in the 1960s and 1970s. These performers have played an indispensable role in the history of Korean music because their experiences on US military bases led to the influx of Western musical influences – rock, folk, and other genres – onto the Korean music scene.

Very few photographs or lists of artists on U.S. military bases remain today, but Choi is determined to find them no matter what. Almost all famous Korean singers of this era have performed at some point on an American military base.

    A silk scarf that the United Nations coalition troops took away as a souvenir after the end of the Korean War (1950-1953).  The Score of Korean Folk Song

A silk scarf that the United Nations coalition troops took away as a souvenir after the end of the Korean War (1950-1953). The score of the Korean folk song “Arirang” classified by Unesco drawn on the headscarf gives it historical value. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Boy band BTS took home four Billboard Music Awards last month, and the music video for their latest song “Butter” surpassed 100 million views on YouTube within 21 hours of its release, breaking its own record.

K-pop has already become more than music; it is an internationally recognized national brand of Korea.

The 1962 debut album by singer Ha Chun-hwa, who is still active in the industry.  It was the first album in Korea by a child singer. [PARK SANG-MOON]

The 1962 debut album by singer Ha Chun-hwa, who is still active in the industry. It was the first album in Korea by a child singer. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Despite his accomplishments, some in the Western world see the global success of K-pop as a fad of the nouveau riche. Choi thinks this is because the history of Korean pop music has not yet been properly established, and therefore there is a lack of recognition of the richness of K-pop history.

The very first disc containing the singing voice of a Korean was released in 1909, which means that the history of K-pop already has more than a century. It is only natural that modern K-pop flourishes on this rich soil of musical history.

Choi believes that collecting lost and scattered historical documents to establish a cohesive history of Korean pop music is his calling.

BY SANG-MOON PARK [[email protected]]



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