Learning how to straddle the line between ministry and business is just another step in the Good Fruit Co.’s journey to follow how God wants them to be used in the kingdom.
Starting a record label or, in our scenario, rebranding and releasing a record label, is not an easy process. Becoming Good Fruit Co. meant operating more like an actual business, not just as artists releasing periodic projects. The reality of contracts, legalities, codes of ethics, bylaws, and gaining an understanding of how the music industry works was daunting — we still feel like we’re adjusting and learning today.
One of our main struggles in all this was determining whether the record label was a ministry or a business. What we do is ministry; we want to encourage, bless, and lead people to true hope in Christ. At the same time, we need to make money in order to continue producing music, projects, and events. We spent months wrestling with this idea, talking, discussing, and praying through these realities. It’s not so much that we disagreed with one another — our struggles came from how each of us applied the theological truths we clung onto while running a business. It was all new territory and we wanted to be sure that we did things with integrity and honored the Lord. What were our views as believers on collaborating on a song with nonbelievers? Do we only work with people who agree with our theological viewpoints? How do we work with those whose views may differ from our own?
Two books that helped our understanding of the intersection between business and the arts were “Imagine” by Steve Turner and “Business for the Glory of God” by Wayne Grudem. We realized that we do operate in both realms, and that both realms are important — not just one or the other. As believers, we struggle with ideas of money, success, doing things for the glory of God, and not placing our own ambitions or dreams above what God has called us to do. The common notion is that believers do things for free, especially in music. But we began to learn that Good Fruit Co. needed to operate as a business and that our lives were the ministry.
In the same vein, I also struggled with the idea of marketing, because I felt like I would be promoting myself, when I should be promoting Christ! The Lord spoke to my heart about this during one of my prayers: “If you don’t market or promote, how will people hear the message you want to bring?” At that moment, things clicked and I saw that marketing wasn’t inherently a bad thing. When we did shows and people gave us encouragement or compliments, I would always respond, “Praise the Lord.” It was my way of reminding myself that all glory belongs to God. One of our mentors, Pastor Jon Choi of Global Harvest Church in Dallas always told us that the greatest way to glorify God through our music is to live faithfully and obediently to Him. This was the best advice we’ve ever received.
Proverbs 27:21 says, “A man is tested by the praise he receives” (NLV). This isn’t to say that we should never receive praise, but how we receive it and are affected by that praise is the real issue. Will it puff up our pride, or will it humble us and remind us of the Lord’s grace in our lives? One of the hardest things I’ve learned — and am still learning — is to wait on God, which requires a great deal of strength and courage. Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord” (NIV). All these lessons reminded us that life as a whole is ministry and that the various aspects of business and music are just different paths where we learn how to apply the truths and wisdom from the Lord. As believers we sometimes forget that and box “ministry” into one specific category when our entire lives should be ministry; the way we live should exude Christ so that others can see the love and hope we have in Him.
After those initial struggles, it was onto structuring and forming the pillars of the business — such as code of ethics, by-laws, and contractual agreements — and forming a team to handle different aspects of label operations. All in all, it took almost a year to change our workflow, adjust our staff needs, and learn how to release projects and keep deadlines. We made mistakes, learned from what worked or didn’t, and brought on and trained people to ensure we could navigate the ins and outs of the music business. Our vocabulary began to include terms like producer rates, royalties, licensing, and publishing.
We even began negotiating contracts with Sony Music in Korea, Goon Trax in Japan, and Sony ATV for Publishing in Asia — thanks to Sam Ock’s solo music gaining steam overseas. In all of this, God continued to open doors and provide for our team’s needs. When I realized that marketing was needed, I began searching for marketing outlets. One night, I saw on my Facebook news feed that retired NFL wide receiver Hines Ward had just won “Dancing with the Stars”. As I uncharacteristically scrolled through his fan page, I noticed his marketing agency and contact, Andrew Ree, on the side of the page. On a whim, I reached out to Andrew, not expecting anything to come of it. But a couple weeks later Andrew responded. I found out that he was also a Korean American and a devout believer. Later, he told me that he got tons of emails every day because of his NFL clients, but for some reason, he felt like he should read my email. It was an instant connection, and we began to see Andrew as an older brother. He helped us through all the contract negotiation processes, which were time-consuming and stressful for us, as we attempted to understand all of the contractual lingo. Without him, we wouldn’t have understood the technicalities and legalities of the business — he protected us when we didn’t always know what we were getting ourselves into.
Sam Ock’s music continued to gain momentum in Asia, and we found ourselves on tour in Korea and Japan. He was invited to some major shows and events like Grand Mint Festival with over 8,000 people, SBS Radio, KBS Radio, and Sketchbook with Yoo Hee Yeol. He nearly sold out his first concert in Hongdae, Korea. Around the same time, Good Fruit Co. hosted our first tour called the Fearless Tour featuring AMP, NAK, Gowe, Mickey Cho, and MC Jin, with other artists like Hillary Jane and Heesun Lee joining the roster. We were expanding into new territories and doing new things — everything felt like it was going in the right direction. James Han also started to gather a following in Korea, and as a company, we were networking and meeting more and more people. We signed a distribution deal with Syntax Creative, were introduced to more people within the Christian music industry, and connected with the Gospel Music Association, Christian Festival Association, The Gospel Coalition, and others. These relationships began to help us branch out from Asian American circles, into other cultures.
At the same time, the realities of the music world were continuing to creep in. We were doing a lot of work, but receiving very little financial payback. It was tough to continue working on projects and planning events when we did not have financial backing to do so. Thoughts of providing for family and living expenses became harder to envision as the music industry was changing to an online streaming industry. Traditionally, sales have served as the bread and butter of the music industry, but this became harder with streaming. There were times where we asked ourselves, “Is this where the Lord still wants us to be? Is it wise for us to continue? Did we have enough faith?” We needed to be able to make enough to eat and live, and there were many times where doubts and thoughts of leaving all this behind became heavy. As I’ve mentioned before, being in the music industry didn’t mean financial success. We were struggling and having sincere doubts of whether or not this was something we should be doing — and we were afraid that we were losing sight of the mission and purpose God had put in our hearts when we began Good Fruit Co.
When we returned in late January 2015 from another Korea tour, we realized that in order to continue building the label, we had to move. Although the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area was our home, there was no music scene. Instead, it was mainly government, consultant, contractor, IT, and other related professions. Despite this, we had accomplished so much over the past five years because of God’s grace and because we were each other’s support, strength, and inspiration. It was now time to move, and all the signs were pointing to Atlanta. The music industry was thriving there, and Atlanta is the biggest hub for Christian hip hop music. A lot of artists were also moving there, which meant that we would have more networks and resources. During our first visit to the area, James was invited to a producer retreat with some prominent Christian hip hop producers — he even ended up at Reach Records studio with Andy Mineo! The cost of living was more affordable as well.
So, after months of prayer, we decided to make the move to Atlanta. My wife was happy because we were able to find Korean restaurants and grocery stores in the area, and she was excited for the new adventures that would come with this move. The Lord continued to provide for me — the American College of Cardiology was willing to let me keep my job and work remotely from Georgia. We’ve begun proceeding with these plans and taking it as a step of faith in moving forward, despite the challenges we know we will face.
We’ve been reminded over and over again — despite our doubts and an unstable music industry — that God has provided whenever we were in need. Whenever I found myself filled with anxiety, stress, or frustration, I was reminded of Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (NIV). Whenever I cried out, “We’ve come this far and this is it? Don’t You want to have a greater impact?” I’ve caught myself trusting more in my own ability and plan and chasing my own ambitions rather than pursuing God and His plan. This hasn’t been easy, since I can be a very task-oriented person and want to see Good Fruit Co. become successful. I’ve often focused on trying harder rather than praying and bringing it all before God. At the end of the day, I know the Lord will provide, even if it may not look the way we want. God has been teaching us to trust, rely, and rest in Him. While I’ve been caught up in trying to chase financial stability, I’ve slowly begun to realize that God is truly all we need. He always provides, open doors, directs, and leads us through all the struggles we face. God is the one guiding and teaching us during those times. And we would not be able to grow as a strong team or company if we hadn’t gone through those seasons of hardships and learning to trust in Him. If we had achieved the success we wanted early on, we would not have been ready for it. I know that I would have become extremely prideful and distracted by my success. These times, difficult as they may be, have taught me to trust even when it seems like nothing was going to pan out.
Today, we still struggle financially as a business. We still pour everything we can into what we do, but the difference is that we are now more at peace, knowing that everything is in God’s hands. The music industry is not a place to achieve certain things overnight; it’s a long and trying process. The conviction that God has called us to pursue this and our mission to engage culture through media that presents a biblical outlook are the driving forces that give us the strength to keep fighting. We know the Lord is using our music to reach people’s hearts. We trust in God’s provision for the future, just as He has provided for us so many times in the past five years. We know He is working through the music and our company, and it is a privilege to be used by Him. Don’t get me wrong — we hope to become sustainable and continue to grow within the music industry, but if that is not God’s plan for us, we are fine with that. We will continue to strive for excellence day in and day out. We know that through it all, God will do what He does. And in the end, whether Good Fruit Co. becomes a successful record label or not, this story will always be a testament to His work through our music and His work in us through this process.