Global K-pop boom beyond rise and fall of individual bands

Park Sae-jin Reporter Posted : 2016-05-12 09:22 Updated : 2016-05-12 09:22
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G.Dragon, a member of South Korean boy group 'Big Bang' [Courtey of YG Entertainment]

The global popularity of Korean pop music has always been the biggest concern for South Korean investors who wondered whether the phenomenon will be a lasting one.

Some mainstream criticisms revolve around the notion that "no idol is young forever," pointing out that idol groups that have a relatively short lifespan are a major driving force, and also risk, of the industry.'

However, after a decade of observation, K-pop industry experts are now confident that in the music scene, the Korean Wave, also known as "Hallyu," is real and lasting, no matter how short-lived any individual K-pop star or band may be.

"The generational shift of K-pop idol groups has become shorter, but as a whole, K-pop culture has never lost its fizz," said Kim Gi-hyun, a public relations official for South Korean entertainment giant CJ E&M.

One of the distinctive features of the present Korean Wave movement in K-pop is the increased number of groups and their diversity in styles, which benefit both K-pop agencies and customers from different cultures.

"Monsta X may not be a killer here, but it is one of the hottest K-pop bands in Japan. The French would die for Hyoyeon of Girls' Generation when she visits Paris. Likewise, the Chinese love well-defined faces like Kang Ta's," Kim added.'

Since 2004, CJ E&M has run MCountdown, a K-pop music show on CJ E&M's cable network Mnet, which has bore witness to the rise and fall of numerous K-pop stars. Over the decade, the international audience of the show has only increased.

"Now, slightly less than half of the MCountdown audience is international," said Lee Sang-hoon, a senior analyst at CJ E&M in charge of MCountdown.

The Thursday show starts recording on Wednesday evenings at the earliest and Thursday morning at the latest. Some of the most passionate fans wait from Wednesday morning for just a brief peep at their favorite idol stars, said Lee.'

The booming K-pop market has created new opportunities for music marketers in the Western hemisphere as well.

"We began supplying K-pop at home and to the global market about seven, eight years ago, when K-pop thrived as an established culture," said Kim Ji-min, a public relations official at Universal Music Korea.

"As a commercial recording company, we are closely following up on K-pop which takes up more than 80 percent of the Korean music market. K-pop has shown surprisingly fast growth in the past 20 years, and one of our major jobs here is to present (K-pop) to the global market," Kim said.'

Universal Music Korea is the Korea-based branch of French multinational mass media company Vivendi Universal Group, which holds a more than 30-percent global market share and network spanning 77 countries. Vivendi Universal Group runs multiple regional headquarters in major cities around the world, such as London, Santa Monica, Tokyo and Hong Kong. These headquarters control a number of labels that sign promising local artists.

Some of the K-pop artists under Universal Music Korea's wing are R&B singer-songwriter Dean, who was the first Asian singer to perform at "Spotify House," a main music show at U.S. music festival South by Southwest, and popera star Lim Hyung-joo. K-pop world star Psy, known for his song "Gangnam Style," signed a contract with Universal Music Korea through his management label, YG Entertainment.'

But the K-pop boom did not happen overnight. After a decade of testing the waters, the industry has learned many lessons and gained much know-how in broadening its horizons to reach the global level.

Though local critics remain divided over who was the first K-pop act that ignited the Korean Wave, most agree that it was widespread among Chinese media in the early 2000s with the rise of TVXQ, a once five-member idol group that debuted in December 2003.

The name and concept for TVXQ was created in a way to appeal to both Korean and Chinese fans. The group's launch was a fresh move in the eyes of management agencies, since overseas activities of K-pop artists were considered either a "special event" or "addendum" to promotion that was mostly centered on the home market.

This "home first, overseas later" formula is still dominant in the K-pop scene, as seen in some of the most recognized groups such as Girls' Generation, BigBang and CNBLUE.'

Then came a new trend in K-pop -- adding non-Korean members. International members had existed in many of the first-generation idol groups, such as Circle, a K-pop girl group that debuted in 1998. But the move became a lasting fixture after boy band 2PM of JYP Entertainment. The group debuted in 2008 and gained immense popularity at home and overseas, thanks to the popularity of Thai member Nichkhun.

On the other hand, hiring foreign members had its own unpredictability and some have become the subject of political rows and legal disputes.

One of the more dramatic cases involved Tsuyu of JYP girl group TWICE, which debuted in 2015. After the 16-year-old Taiwanese girl waved her country's national flag on a South Korean reality show, mainland China waged fierce protest, and JYP and TWICE were accused of supporting Taiwanese independence. After Tsuyu's public apology was broadcast, Taiwanese fans then blasted JYP, alleging the agency forced the teen singer to make the apology.

S.M. Entertainment, the country's largest K-pop management company, has gone through a series of legal battles with its Chinese idols, including former Super Junior member Han Geng and former EXO members Kris and Luhan, over their exclusive contract with the agency.'

A recent significant move in K-pop is the increase of Korean-Chinese joint entertainment businesses.

Mid-sized K-pop labels Pledis Entertainment and Starship Entertainment have forged business partnerships with Chinese entertainment giant Yuehua Entertainment to get the upper hand in the Chinese market. Starship and Yuehua took it a step further by jointly launching a Korean-Chinese girl group, Cosmic Girls, in February 2016.

A month after that, Yedang Entertainment, a small label that signed girl group EXID, launched the joint venture company Banana Culture in Seoul with Chinese media group Banana Project, which is run by the son of a Chinese real estate tycoon.'

Apart from Chinese entertainment magnates, K-pop labels have become ever more obsessed with gaining more Chinese fans. Similarly, competition among Chinese media over K-pop coverage has become so fierce that many are eager to go the extra mile to get exclusive news.

"We have been getting the highest level of attention from the Chinese media these days (since the band's launch)," said Choi Seon-jin, the team head of Woollim Entertainment in charge of K-pop boy band INFINITE.

"Now Chinese news reporters come to the press conferences and ask questions in Korean," she added.