In the widely circulated video, Lee said:
“My income in January was 420,000 won (US$ 370). Not just from my music sales, but the total. Thankfully, I made 960,000 won (US$ 850) in February. It is difficult to make a living as an artist. It would have been great if there was some prize money to this award, but it is not the case. So I think I’ll have to sell this trophy.”
To everyone’s amusement, Lee’s acceptance speech quickly turned into a sales pitch and an auction.
“If you look at this item closely, this is a cube-shaped Korean Music Awards trophy with metallic design and it will make a great interior prop. My name and my album’s title are engraved on the surface. I don’t know how much it cost to produce this item, but since my rent is 500,000 won (US$ 442), we’ll start the bid from there.”
A man in the audience eventually raised hand and bought the trophy on the stage, paying Lee in cash.
Publicity stunt or not, Lee’s speech was playful yet telling. While the life of an artist is difficult anywhere, notable artists have actually passed away in South Korea in part due to financial difficulties.
In 2010, indie musician Lee Jin-won a.k.a Moonlight Fairy The Grand Slam Homer died from brain hemorrhage because he had not received proper care on time. Doctors estimated that he was found 30 hours after his initial collapse. Lee was a vocal advocate of musicians’ rights, and his criticism of how then-popular social networking site Cyworld was paying music fees with Acorn, cyber currency used on the site, resonated with many fans. In 2011, film director and script writer Choi Go-eun’s alleged starvation to death, caused by financial hardship, shocked many; it was later reported that the direct cause of the death was complications from hyperthyroidism.
The notion of copyright and fair compensation for artists is still immature in South Korea. The share that musicians get from online music sales after the distribution companies’ chunk is ridiculously small. The market price of a single mp3 file is 700 won (US$ 0.62), and the creators get an average of 300 won after fees. Whenever a song is streamed, the musician gets 4.2 won, something like a third of a cent.
According to a 2015 survey by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the average annual income of an artist was 12.6 million won (US$ 11,150).