South Korea

K-pop Music Goes Global

The business of making an idol

As the camera pans across to a boxing-ring-like blue stage, a 35-year-old Korean man wearing a white suit, fur stole and dark glasses stands in the center, smiling, hands on his hips.

Dancers emerge from the shadows behind, and he launches into a song and dance routine, bouncing from foot to foot while horse-whipping the air with his right hand. You’d be forgiven for thinking from his stuck-on grin that he can’t quite believe what’s happening.

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2012, and more than a million people have flooded into a bitterly cold Times Square to watch the annual crystal ball drop to herald in 2013.

Earlier that same year, Park Jae-sang (known as “Psy”) had seen the video for his energetic Korean-language song “Gangnam Style,” which he is now performing before the throng of revelers, become the first in history to reach one billion views on YouTube.

It topped the charts in more than 30 countries; it was screened at baseball games; Psy appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Saturday Night Live and The View. He performed it with Madonna, and it was parodied and covered by NASA astronauts, soldiers and politicians.

For the first time, the entire world was talking about Korean pop. Then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon heralded it as a force for world peace; that in an “era of instability and intolerance, we need to promote better understanding through the power of music.” And Barack Obama said it illustrated how people across the globe were being swept up by a cultural phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave”— the exporting of Korean drama, music and other cultural forms abroad.

Since then, “Gangnam Style” has ratcheted up more than 3.5 billion views on YouTube. It wasn’t the first time a Korean pop act had made inroads into the hard-to-tap American market. In 2008, the single “Nobody” by Wonder Girls debuted at number 76 on the Billboard Hot 100—the first South Korean group to enter the chart.

Back home in South Korea, though, the birth of K-pop can be traced to the release of “Nan Arayo (I Know).” In 1992, Seo Taiji and Boys performed their song on a weekend music TV show; the song rocketed to number one, remaining there for 17 weeks, and Seo Taiji and the Boys went stratospheric.

K-pop can be a confusing concept to grasp. It isn’t solely a musical genre. Talent competitions—the South Korean equivalent of shows like The X Factor and America’s Got Talent— are part and parcel of how K-pop “idols,” as they’re known, are formed. But there’s one fundamental difference: this isn’t homegrown talent vying for a chance at stardom; these are individuals who have already been recruited by production companies that have spent thousands of dollars training them in song and dance, curating their looks and calibrating their
every move.

Then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon heralded it as a force for world peace.

Following the success of Seo Taiji and Boys, band member Yang Hyun-suk founded the label YG Entertainment in 1998. It would join SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment to become known as The Big Three—labels synonymous with the biggest K-pop successes, establishing a production line in which they controlled every step of the process to stardom.

Musicologist Keith Howard, a professor emeritus at SOAS in London and a visiting professor at Texas Tech University, says the birth of K-pop coincided with South Korea becoming a democracy. Censorship and control were weakening, and small recording companies sprouted up. “March 1992 was when rap was first broadcast,” he says. “That doesn’t mean nobody had heard it before, but before then, it wasn’t allowed.”

Howard says that over the next few years, young Koreans who hadn’t experienced the hardships of Japanese colonialism, the Korean War or the struggles of modernization absorbed pop styles from outside. And for the first time, the government allowed it.

With the economic crisis in Asia in the late 1990s, which hit Korea hard, came the opportunity to export Korean products abroad. Initially, Japan, Taiwan and China embraced Korea’s TV shows and pop music, but they soon spread to Singapore and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

“People began reassessing westernization,” Howard says. By the mid-1990s, Hollywood accounted for around 80 percent of the South Korean movie market. The term “glocalization” described the reaction against the shallowness of Hollywood and its stereotypical take on Asian culture. “So when the economic crisis hit, there was this sense of ‘why buy that expensive stuff from Hollywood or Europe when you can have something more local?’”

“In 1998–99, the Korean government decided that soft culture would be a way to brand itself; that it might be a way forward to get back on its feet. So the government started putting money in and helping getting all these different aspects of Korean culture get out there.”

Girls’ Generation (SNSD) playing live at Madison Square Garden, NY
Photo credit: Angela Zhao / Wiki

The government fronted the cash for K-pop bands to perform abroad and covered the cost of hiring venues and publicity. “There’s still a statistic the government uses—I’m not sure how realistic it is—that for every dollar it puts into Korean soft culture, it gets five dollars back in sales of Samsung refrigerators or Korean cars,” Howard says.

Then there are the K-pop fans, who have a unique part to play in the industry. “Fans need to be recruited,” Howard says. “The industry has developed “fan passports,” and they’re invited to gigs or to the studio to see a new song being recorded. And they become part of the recording itself. They film the experience on their mobile phones and post the clip to their social media channels, and so they end up doing a lot of the promoting for the pop star.”

“If you think [about] how much it costs to train someone for three years—to clothe them, feed them, house them—it’s phenomenal. So to get the money back when you can’t sell albums in the old way,

you have these add-ons: merchandise, product placement. And the fans help with that promotion, persuading people to buy a Korean car, a Samsung refrigerator.”

K-pop’s biggest success story is BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys—a seven-member boy band that formed in Seoul in 2010. With lyrics that often embrace social commentary, touching on themes of mental health and the youth experience, BTS has sold over 20 million albums and has become the best-selling artist in South Korean history. They were also the first Asian and non-English speaking act to headline and sell out Wembley Stadium in the UK.

This exporting of Korean culture—which was eventually embraced by the West too, is known as Hallyu, or “the Korean Wave.” And it wasn’t just TV drama and pop music. Korean fashion, cosmetics, plastic surgery and tattoos were also commodified as must-have objects.

But the training process that production companies put their would-be stars through soon found itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

Howard explains that large sums of money were involved in turning ordinary people into “idols”—a process that involved restrictive multi-year contracts in which they would learn dance and singing, have elocution lessons and—most controversially—be forced to lose weight and undergo plastic surgery to fit an expected look.

“But it’s all rationalized,” Howard says. “It’s incredibly expensive and a massive investment. It’s reckoned that about three percent of those who get recruited will ever get a debut. So there’s a lot of wastage there … so payback has to be phenomenal, too.”

What you end up with, he says, is a beautiful-looking group, that dances in perfect synchronicity.

‘It’s reckoned that about three percent of those who get recruited will ever get a debut.’

The success of an industry that generates upwards of $5 billion a year has paved the way for unscrupulous “academies,” which charge hundreds of dollars a month to teach children as young as 11 to dance and sing in the hopes of being picked up by a production company and becoming the next K-pop idol.

But the math doesn’t add up. One legitimate academy, which recruits for SM Entertainment, estimates it holds thousands of auditions a year, and yet less than 10 people get chosen annually to become trainees.

The K-pop image is squeaky-clean and family friendly, but of late the industry has been plagued by scandal.

In the spring of 2019, the K-pop world was entrenched in a sex crimes scandal that saw four stars “retire” from the industry. A member of boy band Big Bang and another singer-songwriter were accused of supplying prostitutes for businessmen at a Seoul nightclub, and police said K-pop participants in an online chatroom shared hidden camera footage of sex with drugged and unconscious women.

Contracts are exploitative—so much so that South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission has intervened in the past. There have been lawsuits, and YouTube is filled with former K-pop “confession” videos, detailing the punishing lifestyle they were forced to endure.

There have been suicides, too, although Howard says that isn’t unique to K-pop. “The rates [of people taking their own lives] are high in Korea, partly because the young generations don’t have the security that previous generations did with jobs for life. It’s no longer clear how they’re going to establish their career. And celebrity culture feeds into it. The idea of plastic surgery is widespread in Korean society—more than 40 percent of Korean women have had plastic surgery.”

Production companies have been known to take away mobile phones from their trainees and stars and stop them from seeing their friends or from having relationships. “That’s the bargain,” Howard says. “You bargain with the devil. Unless you have that dedication on both sides, you are not going to get this perfect choreography, routine or look that’s going to sell your product.”

Despite its controversies, the K-pop industry has something to teach the music industry in the West—an industry that has struggled with declining album sales. “The rest of the world is waking up to this different industry model,” Howard says. “We’re seeing record companies transform into media companies that can make money from all these add-ons.”

Meanwhile, with the spread of the coronavirus, K-pop faces its biggest challenge yet. Big Hit Entertainment, the company behind BTS, is facing an imminent future in which live concerts—a major revenue generator—have been thrown into uncertainty. Tickets have been refunded and concerts rescheduled to future, albeit uncertain, dates. And BTS, whose eight-month world tour in 2019 pulled in an estimated $196 million, instead launched BANG BANG CON, a weekend in which old concerts would stream in full on the internet.


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