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The AOMG 101: How One Label Became the Leading Name in Korean Hip-Hop

Charles Kwon, AOMG’s Director of International Business, tells us about the label’s core principles, prioritizing creative freedom for their artists, and the journey to global domination

Oysmita Majumder May 23, 2022

Charles Kwon. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

This story appears in Rolling Stone India’s K-Music Special Issue, on sale now. Buy your copy here.

Founded in Seattle circa 2013 and headquartered in Seoul, Korea, AOMG – aka Above Ordinary Music Group – is no ordinary music group. It is infact, the world’s leading South Korean hip-hop and R&B label. Formed by Jay Park, who recently stepped down as its co-CEO (a position he shared with DJ Pumkin) the label currently boasts an impressive roster of 19 prolific musicians like Loco, Gray, Lee Hi, Devita, Hoody, Code Kunst and Punchnello. Additionally, the label also houses globally acclaimed UFC fighter, The Korean Zombie.

AOMG has a track record of nurturing top-notch musical talent and delivering artistic excellence, all while also organizing an array of pan-label concerts, soloist tours, brand tie-ups, survival shows, industry partnerships, special event appearances, television plus digital media content, and more. At the core of a sizable chunk of these marketing and content strategies is Charles Kwon, the Director of International Business for the record label. The secret formula to their success? “Simply by letting our artists make the music they want to make, and then helping them share their music with the rest of the world,” claims Kwon.

“How do we put my role into one sentence… Let’s just say: ‘Anything overseas, I oversee.'”

The story behind the inception of the record label has a long history, one based on dance, music and a whole lot of hip hop-ing. Its origins can be traced to the Seattle-based B-Boying group, Art of Movement, [abbreviated as AOM] which Jay Park became a member of in 2003. Precisely ten years later, Park founded AOMG in September 2013 – and one of the first artists to be signed to the label was his Art Of Movement teammate, singer-dancer and producer Chase Vincent Malone, aka Cha Cha Malone, followed by producer Jun Goon and singer-producer GRAY. Following this, AOMG’s artistic roster expanded over the next nine years to include musicians like Elo, Loco, Ugly Duck, DJ Wegun, DJ Pumkin, Hoody (their first female artist), Woo Won-jae, Code Kunst, Punchnello, DeVita, Sogumm, Lee Hi, Goosebumps, YUGYEOM and most recently, Coogie. On the executive side of things, the label has experienced a series of key administrative changes, starting in 2014 with Jay Park as the label’s first CEO, a role he co-executed with South Korean hip hop maverick Simon Dominic. On Dominic’s departure from the company in 2018 – DJ Pumkin was roped in to share the chair with Park, and they shared this responsibility until late last year when in a surprise decision, Park too, announced his resignation as the CEO of AOMG. 

Charles Kwon. Photos: Courtesy of the artist

In addition to delivering a host of award-winning albums, iconic collaborations and sold-out global shows, AOMG became the face of innovation when it came to ground-breaking industry moves. “We’ve always tried to set our standards at a specific level, and upheld those standards through all the art that we’ve put out to date,” Kwon says regarding the creative principle that AOMG has followed through the years. “For us, music and the artist always come first,” he adds.

“I just consistently kept trying to give my absolute best, from wherever I stood, irrespective of what tasks or roles were assigned to me. “

To enunciate, AOMG’s strategic partnership with media company CJ E&M ensured that the label continued to receive substantial support with regards to the distribution and marketing of their music, while still having complete control over the production of the same. Thereafter, the label successfully expanded its niche of specialization from being just a music group to covering sports management, by signing world renowned UFC fighter Jung Chan Sung, a.k.a The Korean Zombie. In August 2019, AOMG became the first ever Korean hip-hop and R&B record label to launch their own survival show called Sign Here. The winner, singer-songwriter and hip-hop collective Balming Tiger member Sogumm won the show and consequently signed to AOMG in November 2019.

Kwon during show directing. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The biggest development in the label’s executive machinery came on New Year’s Eve, 2021 as founder Jay Park officially decided to step down from his role as the co-CEO of AOMG, a role that he had executed diligently and to the best of his abilities, since 2014. Though the news made global headlines and shocked many fans, Kwon claims that within the label, not much has changed. “Actually, [the resignation] does not change anything,” he states. “Jay is still Jay, and AOMG is still AOMG.”

Currently en route to Germany for the Berlin leg of the ‘Yugyeom Meets Germany’ tour featuring R&B artist YUGYEOM of GOT7, Kwon catches up with our journalist Oysmita Majumder for Rolling Stone India‘s K-Music Special Issue 2022, to discuss his journey with AOMG, the aftermath of Jay Park’s resignation, the label’s plans for global expansion, and more.

Kwon behind the scenes. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Firstly, I’d like to know all about how you started out your career in the music industry?

I was working in the hospitality industry initially, and that’s when DJ Pumkin [our current CEO] came to visit San Francisco with his DJ crew, Back N Forth, for a performance. Their promoter had ended up booking a hotel far away from the city where there was practically nothing, no proper amenities. So I provided them with an employee rate [of discount] at our hotel in the city.

Ever since that incident, DJ Pumkin started to ask me for some small favors pertaining to AOMG. It started out as translating a couple of words, which then became sentences, that changed from emails to business calls and finally, I helped with legal disputes. After I helped them win, he asked me to join AOMG on a permanent basis, and I was happy to accept the offer.

DJ Pumkin. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

What was your childhood like? Can you share the backstory into your past?

I was born in the U.S. but moved to Korea when I was about six. I was attending school in Korea, and that was when I started to pursue dancing as a hobby. I then went back to the States for college and chose to major in hospitality, which helped me land a job in the hospitality industry and eventually brought me to where I am today.

Now, can you define your role at AOMG as the Director of International Business?

How do we put my role into one sentence… Let’s just say: “Anything overseas, I oversee.” Starting from tour negotiations, contract reviewals, tour management, global A&R, global PR, media content, working with any company that has its HQ overseas, and so much more.

GOT7’s YUGYEOM. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Thank you for breaking that down for us so beautifully! How long has it been since you first started working with AOMG? Please tell us how you went from joining the label to becoming their Director of International Business.

It’s already been almost five years since I was first affiliated with AOMG. My journey with AOMG so far has essentially been about walking the path together with the label, hand in hand. I took baby steps one at a time, and never tried to cut corners when it came to the label’s activities and welfare.

I initially started out with small tasks like translating emails of collaborations and other opportunities for our CEO, and gradually moved on to bigger projects like building Jay Park’s first solo world tour spanning across 31 cities, getting our artists to feature on big festivals, and more. I just consistently kept trying to give my absolute best, from wherever I stood, irrespective of what tasks or roles were assigned to me.

DeVita. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

You’ve shown remarkable perseverance at every step of your journey, and that is truly commendable. So what’s the core principle of AOMG as a label that’s primarily involved in creating art? 

That’s a tough question, but at the same time, very simple to answer. We’ve always tried to set our standards at a specific level, and upheld those standards through all the art that we’ve put out to date. Even if we came across a project that could churn out massive profits, if it didn’t match the stringent creative standards we’d set for our label, we’d always choose to forgo such opportunities.

Setting and maintaining extremely specific, high standards with regards to the working of each of our departments would best describe AOMG’s brand spirit.

We’ve just given our artists absolute creative freedom and let them do whatever they would like to do with their music. In turn, their art spoke for itself and achieved everything else of its own accord.”

Despite mainstream Korean pop music being in the limelight, AOMG chose to stay focused on highlighting and promoting South Korean hip-hop and R&B. Why this specific direction?

Ever since AOMG was founded, this was what we stood for, and even today, this is what we are and we’re proud of it. So, it’s safe to say that we don’t have plans to change our course any time soon. We believe in ourselves and our brand, and would like to keep continuing and furthering our legacy.

GRAY. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Let’s now discuss AOMG’s artist roster. The first singer to be signed to the label was the uber-talented Gray, and his album Call Me Gray was also the first album to be launched under AOMG. How did the company decide that Gray would be the right fit for their brand image, given that there were no previous yardsticks to quantify the artist recruitment process? Also, from Gray to your latest addition, rapper-songwriter Coogie, how has the process of scouting new talent evolved?

This actually happened quite naturally. Jay Park believed in Gray, and Gray proved his worth with his music. In my opinion, this move in particular was remarkably sensational because through his work, Gray showed the world how producers could get this far ahead in their careers, back in the early days when there were not many producers who could play the ‘player’ or the focal role.

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Our current talent-sourcing process is quite unique, in the sense that new artists are required to join and blend in as a part of the pre-existing team seamlessly in order to fit in with us.

Ugly Duck. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Gray definitely played a massive role in highlighting the role of producers as the linchpin of the industry. That apart, in order to enable musicians on your roster to explore and embrace their unique artistic identities better, what degree of creative liberty does AOMG guarantee artists with regards to the conceptualization, lyricism, composition and production of their own music?

AOMG artists have complete freedom over their artistry. They can take years and years to make an album, and conversely they can choose to drop a new track every month; they have complete control of their music. We do, of course, provide advice and often discuss with them what they’d like to try next with regards to their music, but otherwise, all AOMG artists are free to do whatever they want with their art.

Lee Hi. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

With regards to my last question, are you personally involved in undertaking any proactive measures to ensure that AOMG’s artists continue to grow musically and creatively while under the label? 

I always try to stay focused in order not to miss out on any potential growth opportunities that the artists could be landing. It really doesn’t matter if it’s a live show, a collaboration with another artist, content shooting, or any other work projects – I just do my best and oversee how all of these activities fare, keeping in mind the best interests of our label and our artists.

“At AOMG, we are all like one big family.
We work together, we eat together, we hang together, we party together.”  

While working towards a comeback, how does the label usually go about prioritizing the three core elements of (a) music (b) concept and (c) performance? In your opinion, which aspect plays the biggest role in marketing your artists?

For us, music and the artist always come first. We are a music label, hence we do our best to help artists release and promote their music. We don’t really limit our strategy to the three basic components, as these aspects are ever-changing depending on the artist we’re focusing on.

For example, this one artist wanted to focus more on live performances, hence they wanted to limit their performance routine to only incorporate facets that could enable them to highlight their vocal abilities while performing it live. On the other hand, this other artist wanted to be everywhere and promote their music via different avenues – hence we did our best to land them different schedules and opportunities for the same. 

Korean Zombie. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

That makes a lot of sense. The company has successfully expanded its scope of business to sports management as well, by signing UFC Fighter The Korean Zombie aka Chan Sung Jung. What was the strategy behind this innovative move?

From what I know, this also happened super naturally. Jay has been training with The Korean Zombie for years and years, so when he asked Jay one day if he could help him out with a couple of things, Jay said, ‘Why don’t you just sign with AOMG?’ And the rest is history.

ELO. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

AOMG is unquestionably the leading record label in the South Korean hip-hop and R&B space. What’s the pioneering technique that the label has utilized to stand out among contemporaries, while maintaining originality and expanding at an exponential rate within the domestic market?

We’ve simply given our artists absolute creative freedom and let them do whatever they would like to do with their music. In turn, their art spoke for itself and achieved everything else of its own accord. We just help them a little here and there, to spread their music out to the world.

CHA CHA MALONE. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Now, coming to the international market, AOMG has had a solid track record of certified excellence herein too. The label has truly proven its essence as a global brand via the success of various international events, concerts and world tours. As the Director of International Business, can you enlighten us on how you aided the label to make its breakthrough into the international music space?

Dedication and greed. We might have more overseas offers nowadays, but it’s not like we got a million offers overnight. Our CEO Pumkin saw the booming scope for opportunities in the international market and hence gave me a chance to explore that territory, and, in turn, I did my best to seal those deals. At one point, I think I had about 40 projects ongoing simultaneously in a single month. But I always maintained my focus and followed through to ensure the completion of every single one of them.

Truth be told, our CEO never actually instructed me to ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ For me, it was always the greed to undertake as many projects as I could, to help accelerate the expansion of our label. Pumkin would always guide me not to fail. He would, without fail, show up on site for our new and ongoing projects [including tours, content shootings and many other activities] and just quietly oversee those fronts, providing me with advice if needed to guide me through. In case he felt that the project was going well enough, he would leave the set, which meant that he trusted my capacity to handle them all by myself.

Our CEO believed in me first, and that was why I was able to spread my wings and dedicate myself to the process. Now our artists and teams also believe in me, so I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I don’t want to let anybody down, and would only like to do better.

“I would love to build some shows in India and let our artists do some stages, set up contacts with the local media, collaborate with Indian artists, and so on.”

Hoody. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

And you’re definitely doing a stupendous job thus far! AOMG’s impact in spreading awareness about K-hip hop, K-R&B and K-culture as a whole, both domestically and globally, has been truly remarkable! How has the label been successful in sustaining this movement through the years?

Simply by letting our artists make the music they want to make, and then helping them share their music with the rest of the world.

Loco. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

You’ve previously mentioned that AOMG prioritizes their artists’ individuality and freedom of creative expression above all other factors. Now, we know that every artist possesses a distinct creative canvas, no two are the same. With regards to this, does AOMG follow a standard A&R strategy when it comes to promoting all the artists under their roster, or are the marketing plans fine-tuned and curated to cater to the individual artistic vision of each artist? 

We always let our artists drive their own boats. That’s why our marketing strategies are a little bit different from what other K-music labels would follow. As I’ve mentioned before, we are an artist-focused, artist-driven company and because of this, our marketing strategies change every time.

For example, we have an artist who does not wish to appear on televised shows and releases their music without any TV promotions. Although we will typically advise the artist that it’s astronomically more effective to be on those shows, or provide them a list of alternative promotional ideas – things the artist could do to market their music – if the artist ultimately does not feel comfortable doing those things, we always respect their decision and call it off.  On the other hand, when we have an artist who would like to do dance challenges, appear on TV, and perform on music shows, we also respect that and do our best to help the artist with such stints. At the end of the day, we always let our artists take the steering wheel, and that’s the reason why you see us apply different marketing strategies to different artists’ music.

I have always wanted to answer this question, as fans often ask us why an artist does or doesn’t do something. I’ve finally found the right opportunity to demystify this, and I would like to thank Rolling Stone India for that.

punchnello. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Thanks to social media, music marketing is ever-evolving. For example, one of the latest trends in the K-pop space are the catchy, short-format dance challenges that promote artists’ latest comebacks by employing global media platforms including TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. According to you, is there a method to break this continuity and introduce the industry to fresh, newer forms of social media-based marketing strategies?

We’ve always tried to stay in close touch with all forms of media, including–but not limited to– social media, and we were never scared of trying new things. We continuously make it a point to follow news and articles about the latest social media trends, products and features, following which we reach out to the respective company’s teams to try those updates out. 

To highlight just a couple, AOMG was the first hip-hop label in Korea to test out the following media marketing tactics. 

  • Instagram: First to use the ‘challenge’ sticker feature, first to utilize ‘filters’ for artists’ music releases, and many more.
  • Twitter: First to use ‘Twitter Blueroom LIVE’ for a full performance instead of the usual interview format, first to use the ‘Spaces’ feature to hold an official listening party.
  • Club House: First to hold an online listening party on the label’s official handle, for the artists’ music releases. 

Besides these, there are many more such notable instances, and we shall regularly keep trying to incorporate new and updated social media practices into our marketing plan. 

“BTS has undeniably played a huge role in the spread of K-culture. There were also many others who contributed to this rise, including our very own Jay Park.”

sogumm. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

That’s quite impressive! Recently concluding the ‘Above Ordinary USA Tour’ (2022), the label has conducted many more successful, cross-continent world tours in the past. We have had shows in the USA, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Canada and numerous more countries. What’s the standard operative procedure for the label when it comes to planning and implementing large-scale, international tours? 

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If I try to answer this question categorically, this shall end up revealing a majority of our procedural know-how and key operative secrets! But to enunciate a little bit, instead of selling many different cities and countries to one big company and consequentially, substantially lowering the artist fee, we instead choose to work with local promoters–at times, even big-shot promoters– who believe in our artists and get them paid exactly what they deserve.

After these deals are sealed, we try to micromanage everything by ourselves, starting from hotels and flight bookings to event marketing and production.

CODE KUNST. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

What is the one biggest challenge when it comes to permeating potential markets in new countries? 

Data will always be the most pressing concern, because lack of sufficient, credible data for new markets often makes the process of penetrating and expanding into those countries immensely difficult. However, nowadays there are a lot of resources and tools readily available, which show us how our artists are faring in different markets, and this is the parameter we’ve been trying to utilize for studying potential markets.

For the markets that do not provide any data whatsoever, we initially try to play it safe by taking small calculated steps, and from thereon, go bigger and bigger depending on our success rate. 

GooseBumps. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

With regards to this, how do you plan on growing your business in a massive, booming music market such as India?

COVID-19 stopped the world for a while and brought international promotional activities to a standstill. Now that we have started to fly again, I would love to build some shows in India and let our artists do some stages, set up contacts with the local media, collaborate with Indian artists, and so on. 

 “We always let our artists drive their own boats. That’s why our marketing strategies are a little bit different from what other K-music labels would follow.”

Woo. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

On December 2nd, 2018, AOMG announced that the profits made from the record “119 Remix” would be donated to organizations related to firefighting and fire accidents. In September 2019, Gray donated the song revenue (worth 25 million won) to Seoul Metropolitan Fire And Disaster Headquarters on behalf of all the artists who had participated in the track. How integral is philanthropy and humanitarianism when it comes to the message that AOMG stands for?

“One helps one another.” As I quote from Jay, he called himself a “citizen of the world.” We are all one and the same, just human beings trying to simply live our lives. This life becomes much more beautiful and meaningful when one looks out for one another. Our artists are all very warm-hearted and passionate people, hence these kinds of charitable and philanthropic incidents have occurred many a time under our label’s wing. 

Jay Park. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Speaking about Jay Park, his announcement last year stating his resignation as the CEO of AOMG had stirred up quite an industry storm. What does this resignation mean for the future of AOMG, and how has it impacted the label’s executive machinery thus far? Also, has the label taken any decisions yet with regards to the appointment of a new co-CEO?

Actually, it does not change anything. 

Jay is still Jay, and AOMG is still AOMG. 

He can make a comeback literally any time he wishes to, or he can choose to stay right where he’s at and keep trying new things while simultaneously walking his own path. I still see him often, and he stops by the office regularly. In fact, I just saw him doing a meeting on 3FL right before I got on this flight today! 

AOMG has numerous dedicated people working round the clock, who’ve always supported our artists from behind the scenes, such as our CEO, Pumkin, who handles all business-related matters for AOMG; our head A&R director, Aram Hwang, who manages all our artists’ musical releases and solo concerts; the management team lead, SangEun Lee, who looks into the artists’ Korean schedules; head of A6ove, Mije Kim; the accounting team; the legal team; and my international business team that leads anything and everything overseas. 

Right now, I’m also controlling a newly built department called the ‘concert department,’ formed with the purpose of doing more solo artist concerts here in Korea. Finally, there is our latest addition, the media department with 102 [Kihwan Bae], who oversees all of our media content as of now. 

As far as the next CEO is concerned, Pumkin was already our co-CEO with Jay, and we’ve decided that we won’t be appointing someone new to fill Jay’s position, and have Pumkin retain his role, as the sole CEO of the label. 

“We are all one and the same, just human beings trying to simply live our lives.”

With language still being the biggest deterring factor from new audiences consuming K-content, how does AOMG hope to offer opportunities for fans coming from different economic and physical backgrounds to enjoy the content seamlessly? 

We try our best to provide proper, quality subtitling on a lot of the content that we put out, and we will continue to work on that aspect in the future as well. However, as the renowned Korean movie director Mr. Bong [Joon Ho] once said, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Hence, if we can just break down on that stigmatic subtitle barrier, there is a whole new world that lies right before our eyes, simply waiting to be explored. So please, keep your eye out for us. 

Simon Dominic. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

What are your thoughts on the massive, widespread wave of K-culture that’s washed over the globe in recent years, especially during the pandemic where we experienced a steep hike in the consumption of South Korean content with regards to music, movies, sports, food, beauty trends, and so on?

BTS has undeniably played a huge role in the spread of K-culture. There were also many others who contributed to this rise, including our very own Jay Park. I personally thought it was awesome to see stars like BlackPink, Bong Joon Ho, Son and The Korean Zombie go viral globally.

I think that this just goes to show how there are no limits or barriers [pertaining to race, linguistics, etc] when it comes to the concept of cultural exchange. 

Kwon at work. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Now tell me, how does AOMG strive to nurture an enduring, lasting bond between their artists and the behind-the-scenes production/management teams in the long run? 

At AOMG, we are all like one big family. 

We work together, we eat together, we hang together, we party together, and do many more things together. Our employees always speak openly to our artists to share their thoughts and creative visions, and our artists in turn genuinely listen to them and take those ideas into consideration while deciding how they’d like to proceed from there. Honestly, this is such a rare thing to see within the industry, and hence a lot of people tend to get surprised when they first join our label.

For example, I literally had the staff members from our concert department ask me thrice if it was really okay for them to approach or speak directly to the artists regarding work. The artist in question both acknowledged and answered them right away, and my new team members were genuinely amazed.

DJ Wegun. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

That’s such a refreshing change, really nice to know! So what’s next for AOMG?

We are currently in the midst of planning a lot of new things. Pumkin has created an all-new concert department [concerts previously used to be planned by A&R team, executed by an outsourced company] and appointed me as its head since I run international business, to help bridge the gap between Korean and overseas shows. Our CEO also appointed 102 [Kihwan Bae] as head of the media department and developed a new team for the same, to expand the territory of our media content.

Besides these, there are many more developments to come. Like I said, just keep your eye out for us. 

I really enjoy my work, and I believe that it shall eventually lead me to where I want to be in life.

Coogie. Photo: Courtesy of AOMG

Putting aside the business aspect of things, let’s discuss a little more about you. How do you usually like to spend your free time, whenever you’re not working? 

[Laughs] Super-easy question to answer. I work hard, and play fuckin’ harder! We have a track called “Ain’t no party like an AOMG party” and I actually happen to be the one at our label who parties the most. I wasn’t able to go all-out for the past two years, due to COVID-19, which was why I started to smoke a lot of hookah to pass my free time instead. But now I’m more than happy to go back to the good ol’ partying days soon!

Kwon in the Green Room. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Finally, we’d like to know a little bit more about your personal goals and aspirations for the future. Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

I have many different plans and goals on my mind right now, and I’d like to say that I’ll just keep on doing my best to achieve those dreams and turn them into reality. There is a saying by Gongja: “The person who knows, cannot be better than the person who likes. And the person who likes, cannot be better than the person who enjoys.”

I personally love this sentence and maintain these words as my motto. I really enjoy my work, and I believe that it shall eventually lead me to where I want to be in life.

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