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Making it in the big time: K-pop wants U.S. air play

Feb 16,2006

Producers of Wheesung, left, and Big Mama, a female group, right, are considering a record debut in the U.S. music market in the near future, according to a spokeswoman at EMI Korea. BoA, an Asian superstar who is working mostly in Japan (center), was one of the first Korean pop singers to win fans abroad. [JoongAng Ilbo]

It took a lot of sweat and hard cash to turn teenage K-pop singers like BoA and Rain into Asian superstars. But years after their debuts in Asia, everyone in the music industry knows what the next big step for Korean musicians must be. What will it take for them to break into the American music market?
Rain, now 23, got off to a good start.
He had two sold-out shows in New York’s Madison Square Garden earlier this month and will make his U.S. recording debut in the fall. Chung Wook, a spokesman for JYP Entertainment, who was primarily responsible for arranging Rain’s concert in New York, said, “We are satisfied with the outcome. We wish we’d had more time to prepare, but we’ve learned our lesson and we are setting up new strategies suited for the U.S. market.”
Rain is ahead of the game in planning a serious debut in the U.S. music market. What are his chances of success? Nobody knows, but the question demands a deep look at the prospects of Asian musicians in general in the United States.
“If Rain really wants to make it here, he’ll have to toughen his style and hire a hipper producer, someone on the order of Scott Storch or The Neptunes,” wrote Jim Farber, the pop music editor of the New York Daily News, who called Rain’s music “soft and dewy.”
For years, overseas debuts have been just a dream for many Asian pop musicians. Major producers in Asia have desperately tried to crack large markets. A very few have gotten some attention, like Hong Kong’s Coco Lee or Japan’s Seiko and Puffy, but they were still far from grabbing some mainstream success.
In fact, the only Asian artist to top the Billboard charts within the past few decades was the Japanese singer-songwriter Kyu Sakamoto, whose song “Euo Muite Aruko” became an international hit in 1963, on an album titled “Sukiyaki”.
“This is a question that has been asked for many, many years and if we knew the answer, I doubt many of us would be working in Asia,” wrote Hans Ebert, the executive director of EMI Music South East Asia in an e-mail interview. “Some Asian acts have done very well in the United States ― but very, very few. As for Asian acts trying to make it today? Good question but a very difficult one to answer, and probably one that involves a great deal of luck, the right act, the ability to sing in English and a person to provide the right musical direction.”
Language seems to be an obvious barrier to having a hit record in the United States for any Asian musician wanting to crack that market. There are hundreds of Asian classical music artists who release albums through major international labels, but very few in pop. In fact, one of the main points that was brought up in the New York Times’ review of Rain’s concert was his use of unrefined English, which often failed to connect to a mature audience. For example, the paper scorned Rain’s gesture of standing up between songs and saying things like, “I’m lonely and I need a girlfriend.” Jim Farber also pointed out Rain’s halting English, noting his tendency to shout, “I love you” when he was at a loss for other words.
Many other critics agree that language is a major barrier for Asian musicians, saying there ultimately will be no “connection” if the English lyrics sound too forced to American audiences. But, Mr. Ebert added, “If it is good, if it is recorded in English and if it is properly promoted and marketed, there is no reason why an Asian act cannot be a hit in the west.”
A more urgent issue, and one commonly cited by Western industry experts, is that there is not much originality seen in the songs of Asian pop musicians. Many of those industry insiders are doubtful that K-pop music is an experience that’s something new and different for audiences who look for non-mainstream chords in world music. They say artists in many parts of Asia seem too “manufactured.”
Mark Russell, a Seoul correspondent for Billboard, says Korean musicians simply have trouble “crossing over.” “When Latin music came to the United States, did those artists try to sound like Puff Daddy or Boyz 2 Men? No,” he said. “They were true to their own sound, with just some improvement in production values. Even Japanese pop has its own quirky style. But what is Korean about Korean pop? Nothing ― in the melody, the singing style, instrumentation or harmonies. It is all just a rehash of American pop with a little J-pop glam thrown in.”
One Korean music critic begs to differ. “Originality is not always a requirement in pop music,” said Shin Hyun-jun. “The issue is ‘how’ you’re going to make a hit. In the case of Rain, the target audience is vague. It’s unclear whether [his managers] want to use singers like Rain to represent the branch of world music based on elements of the Korean musical heritage, shape him into an Asian-American pop singer or simply make him an American idol. If they don’t choose the path of world music, they’ll have to put a lot more effort into marketing him, because there are a whole lot of people in the mainstream U.S. pop market who aren’t yuppies traveling around listening to other countries’ music.”
Or could the problem of “crossing over” simply mean that there is a lack of talented marketers who are capable of hiring the right people to shape up local musicians for a successful debut in the West?
Park Jin-young, Rain’s producer at JYP Entertainment, recently commented that a major barrier to an American debut for Korean musicians is the lack of Korean producers and composers who understand the U.S. market.
Nah Youn-Sun, a Korean jazz singer-songwriter, was probably the best example of a Korean musician who paved her way to success in Europe by a combination of unique music and strong production values.
In Jae-jin, a producer at AMP, who has worked on the world jazz scene for many years, says Nah’s success was made possible partly due to the nature of the world jazz industry, which is much less commercial than the pop genre, but relies more on people who have an eye for good musical selection. In general, however, he noted that the “network” serves as a critical channel for international debut.
“Musically, Nah was verified by people in the industry,” Mr. In said. “But it’s just as important in jazz who is producing the album ― who backs the artist. It depends a lot on whether the producer has the right international connections. You probably won’t need those connections at all with artists like Keith Jarrett, but you do with the rest of the mid-range artists.”
In the end, however, other traditional barriers may be the key issues: those of culture and race. “The fact that people look for originality from Asian musicians means something,” says Mr. Shin. “It means they expected originality, just like they expect country or rock musicians to be white and hip-hop artists to be black. And this may be the greatest racial barrier in the U.S. music market today.”


by Park Soo-mee


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