K-pop : the story of the well-oiled industry of standardized catchy tunes

Article  by  Jennifer ROUSSE-MARQUET  •  Published 29.11.2012  •  Updated 29.11.2012
The impact of K-pop is today felt beyond the borders of its native South-Korea. Let’s have a closer look on this musical genre, which has become the newsoft power tool of Korea.


In early 2012, the South-Korean group Girls' Generation performed "The Boys" on Late Show with David Letterman and on Live! with Kelly, becoming the first Korean musical act to perform on syndicated television in the United States.

Girl's generation

A few days later, a made-for-TV movie about the Korean five-piece Wonder Girls was aired on channel TeenNick. Two years before, many groups under Korean record label SM Entertainment went from South Korea to the USA and France to perform on a four to six hours long concert[+] NoteKnown as the SMTown World Tour.X [1]. The Japanese business journal Nikkei has even referred as this cultural export as “The Next Samsung.” 
Thanks to innovative and meticulously planned promotional strategies, South-Korean pop - or K-pop-seems to be slowly infiltrating the western markets and spreading across the world. What is K-pop, and what are the specificities of this genre ? How can its popularity be explained, and what strategies were put into place to popularize this genre ?

K-pop : a cultural standardized production ruled by the “Big 3"

 K-pop is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines and fashionable and colorful outfits Defining K-pop as just South-Korean pop would be simplistic : K-pop is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines and fashionable and colorful outfits.  NoteK-pop is synthesized music with choreographies measured down to the last millimetre, performed by attractive singers wearing the latest fashion, and is a highly standardised cultural product.X [2]
The catchy music in itself could be described as sanitized bubblegum pop with a fusion of electro, disco, hip-hop, R&B, and rock sound. The genre seems to focus on bands rather than on solo acts, as the average size of a K-pop band is of 4.47 members for boys and 4.21 for girls. While the songs are mostly in Korean, a few words of the repetitive choruses are sometimes in English for more international appeal, and a rap verse might be included.
K-pop borrows from the Japanese pop culture and the late 90s American pop : Korean singers are cute and innocent - but project stronger personalities than their Japanese counterparts - and sexually teasing, - though not as provocative as the American pop stars in order to appeal to conservative Asian markets
K-pop is part of the Korean Wave, the spread of South-Korean culture and entertainment known as the “hallyu”. It started in the 1990s in Asia, and more recently in other parts of the world.
In the mid-90s, then South-Korean President Kim Young-Sam was shown a report showing that the export revenue of the Steven Spielberg movie Jurassic Park was equal to the export sale of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. The government then identified the cultural industry as the next growth driver. Numerous state research agencies were created and some projects were subsided in an attempt to boost the nation’s cultural industry.  
 The spread of Korean culture was first driven by South-Korean TV shows - the “dramas”  The spread of Korean culture was first driven by South-Korean TV shows - the “dramas”- , which first became very popular in Asia. The wave then gradually spread to the rest of the world thanks to internet. The popularity of dramas helped draw attention to South-Korean culture. Moreover, music is a key part of dramas, and the main songs are usually repeated heavily during the episodes - like SHINee's Stand By Me, in the drama Boys Over Flowers.
In order to understand this increasing popularity of K-pop around the globe, it is important to understand the key role played by the management agencies.

Management agencies - or ‘talent agencies’- SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment are the main actors of the Kpop industry, and are usually referred to as the Big 3 because of their strong market shares and international operations.
Each agencies has its own style and focuses on a certain type of music : while YG mainly produces Hip-Hop and R&B image, SM specializes in pop and dance, and JYP R&B, dance and pop.

YG Entertainment was founded by former member Seo Taiji & Boys[+] NoteA 90s R&B Korean band.X [3], Yang Hyun-Suk. YG recording artists include Big Bang, 2NE1, Seven and PSY and the company has partnerships with various labels to manage overseas releases such as in Japan, China, Thailand, or in the Philippines. For the first quarter of 2012,YG Entertainment recorded a sales revenue of 17.8 billion Won ($15.1 million USD).

Founded in 1995, S.M. Entertainment has artists like solo singerBoA, boys-band  TVXQ[+] NoteFive-member boy group.X [4], Super Junior[+] NoteA boy group of thirteen members at its peak.X [5], SHINee[+] NoteA five-member boy group.X [6] and girls-band Girls' Generation[+] NoteA nine-member girl group.X [7], or f(x)[+] NoteA five-member girl group.X [8] in its stable. SM gross sales revenues for the first quarter of 2012 were of 38.4 billion Won ($32.6 million USD), a 198.71% increase from the previous year at the same period.
Super Junior
On the other hand, JYPEntertainment recorded a sales revenue of 1.1 billion Won ($934,000) in the first quarter of 2012. JYP Entertainment’s revenues are less compared to the other members of the Big 3 due to the fact that many of its popular artists are signed to some subsidiaries of the agency. The founder and current CEO of the company is singer/songwriter/producer/pop personality Park Jin Young.
Once the home to artists such as Rain and G.O.D., the label's recording artists includes Wonder Girls, 2AM and 2PM. The company has been very active in trying to expand into the foreign market, especially in the US: an American branch was opened in 2007, a Chinese one in 2008, and a Japanese one in 2010.
In 2011, the Big 3 partnered with other entertainment agencies KeyEast, AMENT and Star J Entertainment in order to create United Asia Management, a global management agency whose goal is to develop and promote Korean pop music internationally.
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Auditions and “boot camp” training : the star-making process

These management companies are in charge of the entire star-making process, which is as thoroughly manufactured process: it goes from casting to training, to producing shows and promoting globally.
In order to ensure the genre’s competitiveness in the music industry, every Kpop singers have been carefully been selected and had to go through several years of a rigorous training regime conducted by a team of experts.
The first selection is made through auditions, and students are recruited from all over the world. Trainees can be recruited through public auditions, Internet auditions or recommendations from existing celebrities. For example, JYP Entertainment opens public auditions every 1st and 3rd Sunday of every month, in which candidates are selected based on various criterias in addition to dancing and singing skills, such as passion or star quality.
Large-scale auditions are also regularly held in various countries. SM Entertainment is for instance holding the “2012 SM Youth Star Audition” from July 28 to September 1, 2012 in seven different countries and 12 cities in Korea, USA, China, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

During these global auditions, out of the more than 10 000 initial applicants usually only a few dozen manage to reach the finals, and only a handful become trainees.
But being selected is only the first step, as training is the real challenge. If talent may help, hard-work is the first prerequisite for a young unknown to break through as only the best can be selected to ‘debut’ as artists. Nothing is left to chance, and each trainee has to go through vocal, dance, acting, as well as personal development lessons, physical trainings and even foreign languages, which is meant to prepare them for a career not just in Korea, but overseas as well. They are trained to be «  multi-purpose stars », able to sing, dance, act in dramas, and be models.
These trainees are viewed as major investments: in SM Entertainement, it takes between $2.5 and $5 million USD to ‘create’ a SM artist. For example, the training of each Girls Generation member costed around $2.5 million USD.
Training periods vary, but they usually last between 3 to5 years, though it can also take longer - such as in the case of TVXQ, whose members had to train for seven years before being allowed to make their debut.
The teenage aspiring artists are often housed together, and are required to practice 10 to 12 hours, from six to seven days a week and, and are expected to balance school with this demanding schedule.

Lip-syncing is not an option for Kpop artists, and every performances need to be perfectly executed.
Moreover, the training period allows the agencies to see if their trainees show enough motivation and mental and emotional maturity to endure the life as an idol.
The artists’ images are also carefully crafted by the entertainment companies, and it is not unusual for aspiring singers to be asked to surgically enhance their looks or to go through heavy diets in order to be more commercially appealing. The artists are also usually banned from dating during their trainee period.
Each members of a group try to set themselves apart by revealing their personalities and highlighting their particular abilities, and each has its own fan club. They are also encouraged to compete between each other in order to become the “leader” (the one who dances at the head of the formation). Everything is done to make sure they become masters at their craft.
However, being a trainee guarantees my no means that the teenager will ever be allowed to debut, and in order to maintain the competition between them,  performances are regularly held. These periodic evaluations allow to point out the strengths and weaknesses of each members, out. And if one of them lags behind, Korean teenagers are lining up to become trainees at leading management companies, and a replacement is immediately brought in.
  "It’s pretty cutthroat," “It’s pretty cutthroat,” Jay Park, a former 2PM singer, says of the training : “You have a bunch of guys who are trying to debut, and you don’t know who’s going to make it or who they’re going to choose. You could be placed, but then they might feel like someone else fits better and swap you out. You always have to be on top of your game.”
Sometimes, the rejected trainees are picked up by other agencies for another group - such as the members from BEAST -, but most of them aren’t so lucky.
When their training is thought to be completed, the artists are offered a ‘partnership’ : a contract can last as long as 15 years. This can be particularly difficult for boy bands, as every Korean must fulfill a two-year military requirement between the ages of 18 and 27.

The volume of the obligations and the length of the contractual agreements have also been widely criticized, and are sometimes referred to as slave contracts”. 
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K-pop : taking over the world ?

 BoA became the first Korean artist to top the Japan-based Oricon chart  When the drama Winter Sonata was aired on Japanese television in 2003, it became an instant hit. The same year, the “Queen of K-Pop” BoA, with moderate success in Korea, she entered the Japanese market and became the first Korean artist to top the Japan-based Oricon chart. Although BoA was promoted as a J-pop singer - japanese pop singer - , her success in the country set the path to other Korean idol groups.
La chanteuse BoA

Since then, K-Pop has become a main competitor of J-Pop in terms of popularity. Korean girl groups such as KARA and Girls' Generation are regulars on Japanese television since 2010, and both of them have released songs in Japanese exclusively for this market.

The success of K-pop in Japan can be mainly be explained by the fact that K-pop is hugely influenced by Western music. The sex-appeal displayed by K-pop idols is also a change of the cuteness displayed by J-pop stars. 
In South Korea, K-pop accounts for 80 percent of Korea’s national music market[+] NoteFrédéric MARTEL, Mainstream. Enquête sur cette culture qui plaît à tout le monde, Flammarion, 2010, p. 266.X [9]. With a population of 48 million, the domestic market in Korea is of limited size, which explains the reason why the country is striving to export its K-pop groups overseas. On the contrary, Japan is the second-largest music market in the world after the USA. It accounts for most of K-pop albums’ overseas sales. As of 2008, Japan accounted for 68 percent of Korea’s total music industry exports in 2008, while the Chinese and U.S. markets accounted for only 11.2 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively.
In order to boost the popularity of K-pop in other countries than Japan, in recent years the emphasis has been put on live performances overseas, and the entertainment agencies are trying to dip their toes into the American end European markets.

In 2008, BoA became one of the first idols to attempt an American release, with an English album and even a remix featuring Flo Rida. 8,000 units of the album were sold – a fiasco which prompted the star to quickly refocused the first South-Korean group to enter the American Billboard Hot 100 Chart with their English single “Nobody”. 

« Nobody »,by the Wonder Girls

In 2011, Wonder Girls performed on Earth Wind & Fire’s 40th debut anniversary opening stage. More recently, idol groups such as Girl’s Generation and 2NE1have also been eyeing the American market : Snoop Dog has appeared on a remix of the Girls Generation English single "The Boys", and Will.i.am have been working on 2NE1 debut album.

 From the very start, the Korean record labels aim for the international market  From the very start, the Korean record labels aim for the international market : foreign composers, choreographers and stylists are hired, and trainees are required to learn foreign languages. 
Albums in the local language of the country targeted as well as exclusive songs are released to overcome cultural barriers. For instance, girls-band Wonder Girls has recently collaborated with American singer Akon on the song « Like Money », specially written to appeal to the US market. But while struggling to appeal to the US market and adapting to its codes, K-pop bands seem to be losing their Korean identity and their cultural uniqueness in the process. « Like Money » is a blatant example of this tendency: the song is rather generic, and doesn’t sound particularly Korean.

« Like Money », by the Wonder Girls
In order to facilitate the entry of Kpop groups in foreign markets, the bands often include non-Korean members who are accustomed to the local language and cultureThis marketing technique was already used in the 1990s, as some groups already included overseas Koreans, such as Korean-Americans or ethnic Koreans from Japan.
For example, some of F(x) members are Chinese and Taiwanese-American, and members from Miss A are Chinese. The boy group Super Junior had a Chinese member.
One of the most famous examples of this formula is the success in Thailand of Nichkhuna member from 2PM Born in Southern California to a Thai-Chinese family. Fluent in five languages, he is credited for having completely altered the way Koreans view Thailand, and was even appointed as goodwill ambassador of the country.
«  Hands Up », by 2PM
Sometimes, members of a band are split, allowing the agencies to launch a new group in two markets simultaneously. For example, while the Korean members are touring in their native country, the Chinese members are tackling the Chinese market. They only reunite for special performances. For example, boys-band Super Junior can be split in three bands, all devoted to the promotion of Super Junior in a different area: « Super Junior M » can for example be performing live in mandarin in China, while « Super Junior J » and «  Super Junior K » are promoting the band in Japan and Korea.
Finally, to produce the bands overseas, the agencies partner with foreign labels.
As a consequence, from the very start the production of a K-pop band is thought as a product tailored for the global market. The groups are produced overseas by using the labels’ global network, recognized foreign music composers and choreographers are involved in the production, songs are sung in different languages and foreign members are included in the band.
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New technologies : a pivotal role in the success of K-pop

The use of new technologies is also an integral part of the agencies’ strategies to spread the K-pop wave around the globe, as social networking services (SNS) such as Youtube, Facebook or Twitter have proven to be very effective means for idols to gain popularity overseas.

South Korea is one of the most connected countries in the world, and according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry[+] NoteThe international music industry association.X [10], the music scene was deeply impacted by digital piracy: sales of CDs by units dropped 70.7 percent from 2000 to 2007. The Korean music industry therefore decided to focus more on touring and digital distribution, and as of today, digital service comprises 80 percent of the music industry in Korea - the world’s highest share.

As the development of digital medias and the use of SNS spread globally in recent years, labels started to rely heavily on the internet for worldwide exposure: the use of new technologies allowed them to significantly reduced the time and expense of entering the overseas markets.

The Korean idols also use social and digital media to communicate with their fans and appear more ‘approachable’ by sharing pictures and footage from their private lives on Facebook and YouTube — often live or before being released anywhere else.

SNS sites allows K-pop to reach a wider audience and to become popular overseas - sometimes without any particular promotional activities. The groups can be launched entirely online, offering free content that becomes widely shared before making any live appearance anywhere – as exemplified by the recent staggering success of South-Korean singer PSY with « Gangnam Style ».
Twitter and Facebook users word-of-mouth allowed the song to become a worldwide phenomenon : in a little bit more than a month, the YouTube video was viewed more than 200 million times, and half of these views came from the US[+] NoteOn the 25th of August, 47 per cent of the 50 million views came from the US, 7 per cent from the UK, 6.8 per cent from Canada and 4 per cent from Korea.X [11]. The Korea Times even called it “the most successful U.S. debut in Korean music history.
As of 31rst October 2012, the song had been listed as Number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven consecutive weeks, and had been mentioned by major U.S. media such as The Huffington Post, CNN, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. The viral hit also became in November 2012 the second most-watched YouTube video of all time, with more than 620 million hits.

« Gangnam Style », by Psy  
At the end of 2011, YouTube officially added the ‘K-Pop’ genre to its Music category, making it the first country-specific musical genre to be added to the list, and the videos of the most popular idol groups have topped dozen of million views.

According to the Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo, at the beginning of 2012 K-Pop videos on YouTube had been viewed more than 23 billion times.
Moreover, K-pop benefits from an active community of online K-pop fans, constituted of young, tech-savvy and culturally curious consumers, who are used to communicate and get information from these social media outlets.  
The Facebook group ‘Kpop France’ has more than 12 000 followers and the Chinese-language group ‘Kpopn’ has around 720,000 followers, an impressive number considering the fact that Facebook is blocked in China.
And this is a well- organized fanbase : during the 2011 MTV European Music awards, K-pop group Bigbang won the Best Worldwide Act Award, beating Britney Spears with more than 58 million votes.
BigBang - Tonight
« Tonight », by Big Bang
According to YG Entertainment between December 2010 and May 2011, Big Bang’s YouTube channel had been viewed around 5.8 million times in Europe, with France, England and Sweden making the most of the hits. 
When K-pop bands held concerts in Europe and the United States, tickets sell out within minutes, and fans relied on social websites to organize flash mobs demanding more shows.
 In 2010, some of SM Entertaiment K-pop groups joined forces to tour around the world. When the “SMTown Live World Tour” was held in Paris - making it the first K-pop concert ever in Europe - the 7 000 tickets sold out in 15 minutes, and fans began demanding additional concerts through Facebook and through flashmobs held in front of the Louvre. The additional concert sold out in 10 minutes..
According to a survey conducted by the Korean Culture and Information Service, there were around 460,000 Korean-wave fans across Europe in 2011, concentrated in Britain and France, with 182 hallyu fan clubs with a total of 3.3million members.
Homemade videos from K-pop fans covering their favorite K-pop songs or imitating the dances moves of their idols are also numerous on YouTube.
The enthusiasm for K-pop seems to be spreading from one country to another; the South Korean government is seeing an increase in the cultural and entertainment exports.
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K-pop : a soft power tool

According to the Bank of Korea, exports of cultural and entertainment services – such as films, TV dramas and K-pop content - accounted for US$794 million (890 billion won) in 2011, up 25 percent from $637 million in 2010. This is the highest overseas profit since overseas sales began in 1997[+] NoteIn comparison, the figure was of $5 million in 1997, and it jumped to $268 million in 2005. X [12].

NoteEn comparaison, ce chiffre atteignait 5 millions $ en 1997, et 268 millions $ en 2005.X


But according to CJ E&M, another South Korean entertainment company, record sales account for about 40% of the major management companies’ revenue. The other 60% comes from auxiliary merchandise. The limited revenue coming from record sales alone is part of the reason why the agencies have been trying to enter foreign markets.
According to the Overseas Economic Research Institute, the overseas popularity of Korean pop culture has a positive effect on the export of consumer goods made in Koreaa $100 increase in the export of cultural and entertainment services increases the nation’s consumer goods exports in products by an additional $412.
In short : the spread of Korean cultural contents helps improve the image of Korean products and boosts sales. As a consequence, K-pop stars frequently endorse various types of products from processors to chicken restaurants. Girls Generation have for example partnered up with such companies as Intel, LG, Nintendo, Domino’s  Pizza, Christian Dior, 7-Eleven or Lipton tea. Collectively, the band generate a revenue of $50 million a year.
2NE1 promotes Nikon cameras. According to Nikon Korea, since the launch of the campaign, the company has reached the second place in the market just behind Samsung, with a 23% share.
2NE1 - I am the best
« I am the Best », by 2NE1

 As K-pop is becoming the newsoft power tool of South Korea  As K-pop is becoming the newsoft power tool of South Korea, the success of the entertainment industry is affecting the way Korea is seen overseas, and cultural tourism is on the rise.
As a consequence, everything is done to foster hallyu tourism. The Korean Tourism Organization regularly use K-pop groups to promote the country as an attractive tourist destination, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism plans to spend 33.5 billion in 2012 to promote Korean culture.
Several tourist agencies in Korea, China or Japan specialize in pop-culture tours, and recently, a 85,400 sq ft  museum dedicated to Hallyu opened in Incheon Airport in Seoul. Talent agency SM Entertainment has acquired one of the biggest travel agency in the country BT&I[+] Note Renamed SMTown Travel.X [14] 
South Korea is also becoming the new destination for medical tourism, with an increasing number of foreign tourists, many of them Chinese, coming to the country for plastic surgery to look more like their favorite idols.
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K-pop : just a phase ?

However, the imports of foreign cultural products are still higher than the exports of South-Korean cultural products, the country still faces a trade deficit of $224 million in the cultural sector, down 42 percent from 2010's $385 million.
Is K-pop nothing more than an internet-based phenomenon with an active fanbase? Is it really “taking over the world”? 
The emergence of K-pop communities in Europe, Latin America or in the Middle East is impressive, but K-pop is not ‘taking over the world’ à la Madonna or Lady Gaga-style. What remains clear is that although Kpop is enjoying success in Asia, this remains clearly marginal on a global scale.
Moreover, in this competitive industry, the well-oiled system of the labels is still vulnerable to the unpredictability of the public reaction. The song “Gangnam Style’’ is a great example of this unpredictability: unlike other Korean groups such as Girls Generation or Wonder Girls which are specifically targeting the U.S. market and adapting their songs to appeal to North America, PSY managed to become a worldwide hit without even trying.
A plethora of new idol groups emerge each year, all of them more or less cut from the same cloth, and the formula might get old and the audience might grow weary of the genre. For instance, some of JYP most well-known catchy songs have been created by the head of the company, Park Jin Young himself, thus sounding inevitably similar. Even in Japan, the music audience grows increasingly aware of a saturation of K-pop groups trying to enter the market.
Furthermore, the emphasis is clearly put on the catchy melodies rather than on the lyrics, and the lyrics aren’t really elaborate: for example in T-ara four-minute song “Bo Peep Bo Peep”, the phrase “Bo Peep Bo Peep” is repeated no less than 110 times. In this fast-paced music industry, the lack of originality and diversity may take its toll. 
Finally, some agencies are also highly dependent on one popular band, such as YG Entertainment and Big Bang: in 2010, the band accounted for 70.1% of the label’s total sales.
Regarding the US market, not everyone is convinced K-pop will be able to make it in the United States (see for example, the BoA fiasco). Appearances on talk shows and Billboard charts have “very little significance” according to Morgan Carey, a US music consultant who has worked with Korean pop labels since 2007. For him, “the way into American pop culture is through fashion and film”.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Foundation for International Culture Exchange (KOFICE), 60% foreigners believed that the recent appeal for Korean culture would decline over the next few years.[+] NoteThe survey was conducted on 3,600 people from nine countries, including China, Japan, Thailand, the United States X [15] . The standardization of the content was the main reason cited by respondents.


Photo credits :
- Main image : Korea.net / Flickr
- Idolx2 / Youtube (Screenshot)
- sment / Youtube (Screenshot)
- 플라비오 ><! / Flickr.com
- BIGBANG / Youtube
- 2NE1 / Youtube (Screenshot)

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