Su Lee is a singer-songwriter and producer with more than 173k subscribers on YouTube. Her music video “I’ll Just Dance”, released on May 8th, 2020, blew up on Reddit. The video has 2.2 million views on YouTube so far and was featured in the Netflix original movie All Together Now.
In the music video for “I’ll Just Dance,” she dances in her small room of less than 10 square meters with her possibly unbrushed hair, a microphone wrapped in an orange sock, and a T-shirt with a cartoon lion’s head printed on it.
She grew up in Korea, went to England for college, and studied graphic design. After graduating, she decided that the 9 to 5 office life was not for her. Her savings at the time could support her for about a year, so she gave herself a year to do what she wanted to do, and in September 2019, she embarked on the journey of being a musician.
All of her songs, from the lyrics to the video editing, are entirely her own work, talking about her own experiences that most of us have experienced but rarely speak out about.
In addition to posting her songs on YouTube, she also has a video podcast series called Overthinkers Society where she discusses some very real issues, such as aesthetic standards, eating habits, overcoming fear of embarrassing oneself, etc, sometimes by herself, sometimes with guests.
The moment I saw Su Lee on Zoom, I laughed a little bit inside. It was a strange feeling. Even though I had never met Su before, I felt very close to her when I saw her bedroom wall which appeared so many times on her YouTube Channel.
Before “I’ll Just Dance” became a hit, she spent most of her time working in her bedroom, and that didn’t change much after “I’ll Just Dance”.
She lives with her mom in South Korea. In her room tour video on YouTube, she showed her fans her tiny room filled with her stuff. She sleeps on her foldable mattress during the night and folds it during the day to create enough space for her to work on her desk.
She eats, sleeps, writes songs, writes diaries, records, arranges and mixes her songs, shoots music videos, edits music videos, communicates with her manager in the United States on the phone, interacts with fans on Discord, designs merchandise, and watches cartoons all in this tiny room.
It must be a painful life having to stay in a tiny room all day honing your craft. But she’s still able to produce funny songs, funny videos, and funny emojis.
It’s a lonely life. She said she has always been a more reserved person but since choosing this career she has spent more time with herself than at any other time period in her life. But it’s also not lonely, because there are times like when she announced to her fans that she was going through some hard times and kind words like “it’s ok, we will wait for you,” or “take a break for as long as you need” flooded her comment section.
She is so young, yet she seems to have thought about everything she needs to think about. She has a crazy high standard for the effort she puts into her work but also has very realistic expectations for the outcomes.
Some people may think that it’s too hard to be a musician and I’d better give up after reading this article. But for someone like me, who got lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, she reminded me of what dreams look like.
CMBN: How do your parents think about your career choice? Because I know Korean parents are very conservative.
Su: Korean parents, Korean moms, especially, are very strict and conservative. I can’t speak for all Korean parents, obviously. I think they are getting a little bit more liberal and a bit more open to possibilities in careers as creatives, but they are still very focused on education and getting good degrees, and having good majors and such.
I’ve got a slightly different case than other Korean kids. Because my parents were very education-oriented when I was growing up, but my parents split up many years ago. The moment they split up, their focus shifted to things other than my education. They were still very caring, but they’ve become a lot more preoccupied with things other than my education. Before my parents split up, my mom’s sole focus was to get me the best education possible. I needed to get good grades, I need to go to a good college of her liking. But after my parents split up, my mom’s focus shifted from just getting me a good education to trying to figure out her own relationships, her family life, her personal life, and her own career as well. I would say they become a lot more open for me to make my own decisions starting from that point. In a way, I hated that my parents split, but it’s also kind of sweet that I became more free in choosing what I want to do.
CMBN: Did they worry when you went on a whole different path?
Su: It was a gradual thing, but we all became accustomed to me being quite independent. We’ve all gotten used to me making my own decisions to a point where they now trust me to fully devote myself to the choices that I’ve made. So when I came out and said, by the way, I’m gonna do music for a year, they were quite surprised but they knew I wouldn’t make stupid decisions without thinking about it.
CMBN: What about you? What did you worry about before you started?
Su: I wouldn’t say I had a lot of concerns prior to starting. It was a completely uncharted area. I knew so little about the industry that I was almost in this sweet oblivion of “oh it’s gonna be chill and fun, and I’m just gonna dive into it.” I wouldn’t say there were too many concerns as I was jumping in. But as I started the journey, there were a lot of ups and downs.
CMBN: What are some difficulties and challenges you’ve encountered?
Su: I think this is the only difficulty or challenge that I encountered. And it doesn’t lie in a single event. It’s more of a perpetual underlying thing. There’s still a level of that going on and it’s that kind of unsettling uncertainty of not knowing what’s next. There’s no security in this.
In a way, there’s no security in anything I guess. And especially when you are still, really, really small and have close to zero audiences. It gets lonely. I didn’t know how long that was gonna last. And I think that uncertainty and that loneliness of not knowing how long this uncertainty is gonna last was the most difficult thing to endure.
It’s so difficult. The loneliest thing is that you pour your heart and your soul and blood and sweat into this thing that you’re so passionate about and nobody’s listening to it. Nobody. It’s painful.
CMBN: How long did that last for you, the phase where you put out songs and close to zero audiences was listening to it?
Su: So close to zero people didn’t last long. There were still five people, ten people, fifty people who are listening to my music monthly. After a month or two of posting on Instagram and socials, I had 50-100 followers on Instagram. There were still people around watching and listening to my work. They were just very little. 500-1000 people range of audiences throughout all platforms lasted around five months to six months.
I’m in no position to give out advice as a guru or anything, but from my own experience, I think my tip for people who are starting out in the creator’s life devastated that they haven’t gotten much audiences would be, never ever take for granted the people you already have. Those ten, fifty people, a hundred people who were listening to my music and watching my videos when no one else was, those were the people that kept me going. Those were the ones who made me realize there is somebody who’s listening to me. It may not be a lot, but there are people listening to me and encouraging me to keep going. Those are the people who believe in my work, believe that I’m gonna grow, that I’m gonna get bigger. I’m so, so, so grateful for these people. If you have five followers on Instagram right now, do not take them for granted at all because they are something. That got me through these kinds of uncertain moments.
CMBN: So what did you do to get those very encouraging initial followers?
Su: A couple of them were my friends and family. I was just like, hey, I started an Instagram account for my artistry, so come follow me. They took a good portion of my followers. The rest of it was built organically by me liking random posts on Instagram, or using hashtags and stuff.
CMBN: What hashtags did you use?
Su: I was experimenting with a lot of different styles when I first started out so I’ve used tags like “bedroom pop” or “psychedelic art” or something. It was just all over the place.
CMBN: I know “I’ll Just Dance” went viral on Reddit. How did you know to post on Reddit? How did you come up with all the marketing techniques for yourself?
Su: I don’t really like the word marketing because, for me, I’m just trying my best to put myself out there as much as possible, posting as much as possible, commenting on people as much as possible. I had a phase where I was emailing a lot of labels as well, but I quickly got over that phase and decided that I’m going to focus on the people, not the labels.
CMBN: You mean your audiences?
Su: Yes, which I think is a wise decision. Reddit, for instance, was about my desperate attempt to be as publicly available as possible. I’ve never expected much from it. I’ve run ads on Facebook. I didn’t enjoy it, I find it so complicated. I tried a few things and it didn’t work out too well. But it was always about giving myself the peace of mind that I’ve done my best putting myself out there. It wasn’t so much about getting viral or getting the numbers up, up, up, but it was more about my dignity as somebody who is just hustling and putting my work out there.
CMBN: How much hustling do you have to do before you have that peace of mind of “I did justice to myself”?
Su: I would say all day. I was obsessed. I still am, but I think now I’m obsessed with different things other than spamming away on Reddit or whatever.
CMBN: So what are you obsessed with now?
Su: Now it’s more about getting my work quality up and making as much content as possible that’s not shitty content, but good content. Quality, yes, quantity, yes, I want both. It’s getting harder, but that’s something that I’m obsessed with. I’m just constantly hustling away trying to achieve my own expectations. At some point, I also pitched to a lot of Spotify playlist curators as well, because that’s what indie musicians are supposed to do, apparently, according to these indie music blogs or whatever. I would just spend hours after hours writing my pitch and be like: “listen to this song, it’s a song about blah, blah, blah, blah.” That took a lot of time. And Frankly, not fruitful. It’s not something that I would recommend people to spend too much time on. In hindsight, I’d rather have spent those hours working on my craft.
CMBN: So how did you decide to focus on your audiences instead of the labels, the influencers, and the curators and stuff?
Su: It was something that happened naturally because I enjoyed getting feedback from the people who are enjoying my work so much. I loved getting DMs from people saying that my music has helped them get through some hardships, or that it’s made them smile for the first time in their day. I loved getting those comments and messages. And that’s something I realized I’m very passionate about, and I want more of it. I want to nurture the people who are already there and give back to them. I didn’t think it was useless to send these business emails or whatever, but my attention just shifted naturally because I had found something that I truly enjoyed and made my time feel like they were well spent.
I love that sense of community when people go off on their own and have their own little discussions either in my comment sections or on my Discord. And that just brings me so much joy that they are having these little mini engagements with each other without me even having to be there. That’s the most fulfilling thing.
CMBN: Is there a particular conversation that really impressed you?
Su: It wasn’t a particular conversation about a particular topic. But there’s one time when I was doing my DJ set on my Discord server where I would play my favorite songs and invite people to listen. And then there’s a separate chat room where I can also chat with people while I was DJing. And I was like, “Hey guys” in the chat. There were quite a few people there. They’re like “Hi Su”, and then they started going off on their own. They were having their own conversations and I texted something and it just got buried in the conversations. I was like, okay, I’ll just go there and just play more tunes, you guys have fun. It was so it was weirdly heart-warming in a way. I was so happy that I got ignored and my message got buried.
CMBN: What’s your number one goal for the future right now?
Su: I would love to bring this craft that I’m doing in my room alone, digitally to something more tactile and more physical. So that could include going on tour, meeting fans in real life, meeting fans in real life, being able to finally give them hugs, not air hugs via text.
That could also entail being able to try different forms of collaborations with other artists, maybe getting into a physical studio with other artists, having writing sessions with other artists. I want to still be able to do music and make stuff that I enjoy making, and maybe take that out to a bigger world outside of this room.
CMBN: Since when did your management company Global Positioning Services start to help you? What do they do for you now?
Su: They came on board around the time ‘I’ll Just Dance’ blew up. They are fellow Redditors as well. They saw my work and they reached out to me and asked me if I had management. And after a lot of discussions, we ended up working together.
I would say the biggest thing would be the business part of things. I’m still not signed to a record label yet so there isn’t too much business-related stuff that needs to be taken care of. They give me a hand in negotiations or potential collaborations, emailing, keeping in touch with people and stuff so that I can focus on making music and the creative side of things.
CMBN: What kind of company are they?
Su: They are heavily music management. I think they are basically a producer/mixing engineer-oriented management company. I think I’m the only person who’s got this YouTube thing going on and the only one that’s content-focused.
CMBN: Many people probably don’t know producers would have management as well.
Su: I didn’t know either, but now that I think about it, it’s not much of a surprise because they must have loads of contracts to review and negotiate all the time because they are always working on so many projects with so many collaborators. It would drive them crazy if they try to figure that out on their own. So it makes sense that they have management.
CMBN: I know you have YouTube, Spotify, Patreon, and your own merchandise, which one is your most important revenue stream right now?
Su: I think they are quite evenly distributed at the moment. It shifts sometimes just by the nature of these platforms. Listeners go down at times. Sometimes people can’t afford to keep supporting me on Patreon. And YouTube, obviously, the viewers and the subscribers go down and up and down and up. It’s still very unstable by nature. But in terms of the distribution of these income streams, I think they were quite equal.
ΔSu’s merch design
CMBN: Are you thinking about getting other revenue streams right now?
Su: Not really. I think in the future, I might wanna try to work with brands and companies that I think would be fun to work with. I think that’s the catch. I can’t work with sponsors just for the sake of it. I need to know that there are some collaborations involved and it’s fun for both parties, and it brings value to people. But for now, I think it’s enough for me.
CMBN: What kind of content do you share on Patreon that you don’t share on public platforms. What are your Patreon members paying for extra?
Su: It’s kind of random in the sense that I share stuff that I don’t really share on social media only because they just don’t fit the narrative. The other day, I posted a voice note of an idea of a song that was recorded back in the summer. It was just lying around on my phone recorder so I uploaded it and shared a little story behind it and a picture I took on the same day that inspired that song idea. Just little bits of ideas and inspirations and my thought processes that I don’t really share on social media, I share on Patreon. Sometimes I share snippets of stuff that I’m working on in advance of them actually getting published. Sometimes I post polls for people to vote on. Right now, I have a poll out for people to vote on a merch idea. I have decision issues sometimes so it’s always nice to hear people’s opinions on things.
CMBN: How does putting out covers on YouTube work? Do you need to worry about copyright issues?
Su: As long as you don’t straight up use someone else’s work to make money, you don’t need to worry. I think YouTube does a really good job in detecting what kind of work it is and it flags a cover song as a cover song and automatically shares the revenue with the original creator.
CMBN: Does Spotify do the same thing?
Su: With Spotify, I think you need to get proper licensing rights when you release a cover, which you can get through distrokid quite straightforwardly.
CMBN: Why did you choose distrokid as your distributor?
Su: I did hours of research on what kind of distributor I should use and I just ended up choosing distrokid because it’s so cheap. It’s somewhere along the lines of ￡50 or $50 a year and you can upload as many songs as you want. distrokid is known for its cheapness but there are some hidden fees as well. For example, the YouTube Content ID, which allows covers of your songs to be automatically detected.
But I’m currently moving my library to TuneCore because it covers a lot more platforms in the Asian territory, like Korea’s Melon.
CMBN: Are you happy with how much Spotify is paying you per stream because I know it’s a big controversy and a lot of people are not happy.
Su: Yeah, they say that artists deserve to be paid more. I’m not sure if I’m super happy with what I get now. I wouldn’t say no to more. That’s my take on it.
CMBN: How did you come up with your current style, with the freestyle dancing and funny captions?
Su: Just trial and error, and constantly trying new things. If I do something and it feels like I’m enjoying it and like I’m owning it, I would keep going. If it doesn’t, I would quit that and just start fresh. I would repeat the process until it becomes a refined version of something that has developed without me even realizing that it has.
I think ‘I’ll Just Dance’ was the first music video that I ever danced in. It was organic because ‘I’ll Just Dance’ is literally about dancing all the worries off. I just danced and added whatever graphics and captions that came into my mind and it became something that people resonated a lot with and I had a lot of fun with it as well. So it stuck with me and I’m still having fun with it.
CMBN: How much consideration do you take from your audiences? If you have something that feels right to you, but people don’t take notice or even actively dislike it, would you still go ahead with it?
Su: I think I’ve been fortunate enough that there hasn’t been a piece of work that I put out that has gotten a massive negative response. My listeners and viewers have been really supportive of the stuff that I’ve put out. When I first made Overthinkers Society, I was a little bit scared because it was a format that I’ve never tried before and it wasn’t music-related but I just took the plunge anyway and that actually gave me the confidence to just keep on trying new things. If it gives people value, then people are gonna be supportive of it. It doesn’t matter how views the video gets. It’s really about how much value that piece of content has brought to that each individual viewer. I want to bring value to people individually, not as many people as possible if that makes sense. I think that’s the philosophy that I base my content on. And it’s almost like I am part of the audience looking at and listening to my work. I want to make stuff that I think I would find refreshing as my listener and my viewer so I try to spice things up and do what feels fun and right.
CMBN: Why did you start this podcast series Overthinkers Society?
Su: I initially started it because I just needed to ramble about this thing that worries me so much. It’s not going anywhere so I got to vomit it out somewhere. I needed that outlet and then I realized other people resonated a lot with the things I said and the thought process that I was going through. It made me realize that I’m not alone in this as well. It has helped me as much as it helped a few people.
CMBN：How do you do interviews looking so natural and get all the great information out from people?
Su: I do get butterflies in my stomachs though. I get really nauseous when I’m nervous. I feel like throwing up. For real.
CMBN: How much do you prepare for your overthinkers society episodes? Do you write out all the questions and script out everything or is it more spontaneous?
Su: It’s not scripted at all. But in terms of preparations that I do when there are guests around, I think I try to do the best I can do with the research. I try to educate myself with the basic knowledge of who I’m talking to and what their expertise is and the kind of notable things that they’ve done, but really it’s just a chill conversation that I let flow as freely as possible.
It is what it is. It’s a conversation. And I don’t wanna script out anything in advance or prep really specific questions. I do have topics I lay out that I want to touch upon potentially. But most of the time I don’t end up talking about most of it.
CMBN: It’s amazing to me that you manage to fill that one hour to two hour time with good information and you don’t even need to do any editing.
Su: That’s the power of over thinkers, isn’t it? We can just go down the rabbit hole about everything and anything. And I find that people actually love having those conversations where we don’t know where it’s going, but we just keep on talking about whatever that comes up.
CMBN: Were you ever afraid that people are not going to answer your deep questions and you’re gonna scare them with your overthinking tendencies? I’m personally very scared of that when I talk to people.
Su: I don’t think I’ve ever been fearful of people thinking my questions sound stupid, because I kind of come to a conclusion that I do ask a lot of stupid questions. And once I admit that to myself, ironically, I got a lot more confident about asking whatever questions that comes in my mind. I like to think that it’s part of my strengths and my quirks. And I think that ability to just hold conversations about whatever I want is something that I take pride in. Just own it.
CMBN: You are so relatable.
Su: I’m glad that I’m relatable because I don’t feel relatable. I just feel like shit most of the time. Maybe it’s a universal thing that people just kinda feel meh and shit most of the time, with a few moments where they feel exhilarated and they just wanna dance and sing. Maybe that’s humanity. I think finding humor in pain is something really powerful and people resonate a lot with that.
The last few years have been so bizarre on social media. We’re so used to seeing the prettiest things, the best of the highlight reels, the most polished of the polished stuff, the most perfect vacations, the most perfect bodies, everything has to be perfect, and everything has to be exaggerated and extreme. These things are so saturated to a point where people are getting tired of them. I think we’ve come to a point where we not only realize that it’s like there was a point where it was like people were wondering why they were feeling so shitty after being on social media, it’s like, I’ve watched all these like content creators and the Instagrams posts. Now I’m feeling so shitty. Why am I feeling so shitty? I think people are past that point where they see these glamorous posts on Instagram and they are like “I feel so shitty, why do I feel so shitty.” I think people nowadays are well aware of the fact that they feel shitty because the stuff they see on social media is always perfect and always polished. With that awareness, they are in desperate search to seek something more authentic and human, and natural and actually real. I’m glad that shift is happening.
If the stuff you see on social media gives you a hard time, then what’s the point of it just? Get it out of your life.
You gotta be selfish when it comes to social media. If my content is giving you a hard time, unfollow me, because you gotta be that person for yourself to take care of your own mental health.
Be authentic, be honest, be resolved. It’s not gonna do any good long term for you to put up a facade or try too hard to be something that you’re not. It’s not gonna last. So why try in the first place?
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