Can K-pop prove it’s got staying power?

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Can K-pop prove it’s got staying power?

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On the Fourth of July near a pier in San Francisco, many people gathered to enjoy the crisp weather by the sea or find a good place to see the fireworks. To entertain them, street performers brought their gigs to the bay, with one of them dancing to Psy’s globally familiar tune, “Gangnam Style.”

After the record-setting song, which became the first video to surpass 1 billion views on YouTube, celebrated its first birthday on July 15, Korea has tried to make the most of the spotlight that has been shed on Seoul’s Gangnam District.

Whether Psy can maintain his popularity with his second EP, “Gentleman,” or whether he is just posing as an international party boy or a serious musician might not be a factor in evaluating the effect that the rapper’s fame has brought to Korea.

Rather, it can be argued that the success of “Gangnam Style” helped put other Korean celebrities on the map and paved the way for non-idol groups to appeal to international audiences.

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Big Bang

Even those who are skeptical about Hallyu becoming part of mainstream culture overseas admit that the trend that Psy created with “Gangnam Style” is different from what other K-pop idol groups have been trying to achieve.

Before Psy, individuals enjoyed K-pop mostly on their headphones; now it can be heard almost anywhere in public.


Changing K-pop scene

Because Psy became famous through his videos that feature Korean celebrities and idol stars, many local music groups have been seeking to promote their songs and other gigs online.

“No one is saying that Psy became a hit only because he is not so good-looking, and no one is saying that he got fame despite his looks,” said Sohn Byung-woo, a communication professor at Chungnam National University.

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Girls’ Generation [JoongAng Ilbo]

“He embarked on a journey in which Korea’s pop music can become the target of global attention as many experts will continuously watch the market from now on.”

The first beneficiary of that attention is the new girl group Crayon Pop.

The group, which is “neither sexy nor cute” but “straight-out absurd,” according to descriptions by Billboard last week, suddenly rose from obscurity after its first single, “Bar Bar Bar,” stayed at the No. 1 spot on the K-Pop Hot 100 chart for two weeks, leading to many parodies online of the group’s dance moves.

Just like Psy had nothing but a horse dance to attract global audiences who had never heard of him, Crayon Pop was virtually unknown to local audiences. The barely promoted group, which released “Bar Bar Bar” in June, made it to the top of the global chart in August after their music video of the song went viral.

“The K-pop market has been varietal,” said Bae Sun-tak, a music critic.

“Before, for the girl groups, only the sexy concept was considered working, but now industry officials often say that it is old school.”

Bae added that it is crucial to develop a concept that has yet to be tried in bigger music markets in the United States or elsewhere - and Psy has proved that such a strategy works.

As creating a new trend, concept or music taste became more important, many have emphasized the importance of fostering singers with a distinct music style.

“Music talents might not play a crucial role when making instant buzz for K-pop, although their sustainability cannot be guaranteed,” said Sohn.

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B.A.P [JoongAng Ilbo]

“The fact that G-Dragon and his group, Big Bang, can last long and garner continuing popularity from fans overseas shows that idol stars should have some musical potential on top of the garnish they earn from having been trained by the management agency.”


Will the post-Psy effect last?

Although Psy undoubtedly put Korea on the map of the global music scene, some local experts are skeptical that the attention will last.

“First of all, Psy can speak English and has confidence in communicating with global fans,” said Hong Seok-kyeong, a communication professor at Seoul National University.

“Psy chose to mock himself proposing the mind-set that he knows he is ridiculous but he also knows people out there think that what he’s doing is funny. So he is suggesting why don’t we have some fun together.”

However, she said many other idol singers don’t really know what idea they are presenting and sometimes don’t even know what to say in front of a microphone when they’re asked to talk about their music.

That being said, Korean songs also have no political or social agenda and usually contain well-coordinated dance moves and catchy beats that are likely to attract youngsters in overseas markets.

“From the parents’ point of view, there is no harm to their children when they listen to K-pop songs and they think it is good exercise that their children mimic the dance moves,” said Hong.

“There have been almost no global pop icons that can catch youngsters’ attention since Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls - and that attention in the Europe and elsewhere has fallen to Korean idols who are beautifully presented by their management agencies.”

While Hong is skeptical that Korean music is not yet enjoyed by a wider range of the global population she believes that there is a chance for it to grow its presence further.

“After Psy’s arrival, K-pop presentation is still in a status where they are being tried out, like a pilot program, to see if this works with the market,” she said.

“As they are superior in looks and talents as they are trained well, we just need to wait until there is another global hit like ‘Gangnam Style’ to continue the momentum started from one of Korea’s own entertainers.”

The business angle

Local CEOs have also shown their worries over the sustainability of K-pop.

According to a Samsung Economic Research Institute survey of 246 CEOs in Korea, only 40 percent of them think that the K-pop scene will continue to prosper after five years.

“Consumers can get sick of dramas that have similar endings and idol singers that bear similar concepts,” according to the institute’s report, “Six Strategies to Make New Hallyu Sustainable.”

Psy shook up Korea’s pop-culture scene and its potential, but whether that trend can be sustainable and further developed are based on whether the country can grow a second or third Psy, with content equivalent to what he made.

“Back in 2011, we defined the new Korean Wave as fostering idol singers, but now we are expanding the concept to include overall Korean culture that may include some literary works or pure arts,” said Seo Min-soo, a research fellow at the institute.

“The idea that businesses should be able to see some immediate profit among CEOs made them skewed to the collapse of Hallyu, but other industry researchers, including local professors, have argued that as Hallyu has over a decade-long history it may last longer than the businessmen think.”

Thanks to idol singers capturing the attention of youngsters overseas, Korea’s exports of cultural content totaled $85.5 million in profits in 2012, the first time that figure has been in the black since the Bank of Korea started collecting data in 1980. This was seen as a signal that cultural content could help propel the local economy in the future.

While many worry that K-pop is still not widely enjoyed in countries overseas and is only found in Asia and some places in Europe and the Americas, others say it’s a sign that Korea still has many potential markets for its cultural content.

Because Korean culture isn’t readily available in Africa and India, Korean companies are providing content for free as a way to build the foundation for future markets, said Samsung Economic Research Institute in the report.

To this end, local retail giant CJ Group hosted an overseas event in which fans of Korean culture got a chance to experience food, cosmetics, or even cars made by Korean companies and learn about Korea-made products.

In the event named KCON, which completed its two-day run Sunday in Los Angeles, not just music labels like SM Entertainment, but also other local companies, including carmaker Hyundai Motor Group, processed food maker Nongshim, and fashion accessories maker MZUU operated several booths that over 20,000 people visited.

Visitors were able to kill two birds with one stone as they listened to live music performed by Korean singers including G-Dragon, f(x) and others, while getting some free Korean food and test-driving cars.

The group estimated that the aftereffect of this promotion will reach up to 40 billion won ($35.8 million), and plans to hold similar events in Japan and China.

“By opening business opportunities through the Korean wave, Korea can create more jobs and grow its exports,” said manager Kim Hyun-soo of CJ E&M’s convention business team.

“We are also expecting to bring in young consumers who are mesmerized with Korea to the motherland to boost local tourism industry.”

Gangnam District Office, home to Psy’s hit song, has announced plans to make a “K Star Road,” where visitors can walk along a path and learn more about their favorite celebrity when visiting Seoul.

SM Entertainment, home of many popular K-pop stars, including Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and SHINee, will open its agency building once a week so that foreign visitors can take a look at where their favorite artists are being trained.


BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]
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