Korean Music Industry Embraces The Future While US Counterparts Fight It

from the getting-beat-at-their-own-game dept

The awesome folks over at Planet Money recently did a podcast about why Korean pop music (K-Pop) is taking over the world, using (obviously) Gangnam Style as exhibit number one. Of course, you could argue that one faddish song is not proof that they’re taking over the industry, so there’s a bit of journalistic hyperbole at work here — but the larger point comes clear in the podcast: the US’s music industry was built for the 20th century — a world of scarcity, limited distribution channels, hyperfocus on music and a strong reliance on copyright — but the Korean pop music landscape is focused on a much more 21st century strategy.

They focus on “industrializing” the production of music, with hit factories and star making academies. They focus on a multimedia experience. Korean pop music is released on TV. New debuts are released on TV with a video… and, of course, via YouTube. And that’s the third point: Korea is incredibly wired. It was the first country with 3G networks in place and one of the first to have super high bandwidth broadband widely available. The end result? The industry, mostly built up in the past two decades, is built for the modern digital world, while the US industry still pines for the way things used to be. And that has some people worrying that, like many other products that the US used to lead in only to see foreign countries take them over, Korea might supplant the US in cultural exports over time. I still think there’s a long, long way to go before that happens, but it is a scenario worth considering. It is still held back somewhat by the language barriers, but that’s hardly a complete game stopper.

Of course, we’ve written about this before. Nearly four years ago, I wrote about seeing Korean music mogul JY Park speak about the K-Pop industry, of which he’s a leading player. The points he made back then fit nicely with what Planet Money’s report noted, but take it even further. One point he made was that the K-Pop world really took off as an industry once broadband became common. I’m reaching back 4 years into my memory banks, but I’m pretty sure he said the tipping point was when 70% of the country had high speed broadband connections. At that point, the business of just selling music was no longer the real business he was in. Instead, it was all about building up multimedia stars for the global stage, with a diverse set of revenue streams that rely little on using copyright to get royalties. He talked about the academies where they train artists — picking those who are bilingual and who can act as well as sing. Basically, the K-Pop world expanded what it meant to be in the music business, changing the definition to suit the times… and it’s working.

There is no reason to think that the South Korean music business is about to surpass the US’s any day now, but there’s no set rule that the most popular music has to come from the US forever. And those countries who encourage efforts that embrace the future and what the technology allows would seem to be in a much better position to go after the big opportunities.

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Comments on “Korean Music Industry Embraces The Future While US Counterparts Fight It”

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Machin Shin (profile) says:

"Korea might supplant the US in cultural exports over time."

I think there is a pretty good chance Korea might supplant the US in time.

A while back I was looking a movie to toss on to kill some time and saw “The Man from Nowhere”. I saw it was Korean and figured it would be silly and low quality but figured why not give it a chance. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a movie that had production quality to rival anything from Hollywood. Not only was it great production quality, it was a great action film with good acting and down right amazing action sequences. This movie in fact quickly jumped into my favorite movie position. All this despite the fact that it is in Korean and I had to read the subtitles.

Due to that movie I started watching other Korean films and have found them to be better than anything the US is putting out lately. It is a little annoying to read subtitles, but at this rate I’m tempted to learn Korean just to watch their movies.

Danny says:

Re: "Korea might supplant the US in cultural exports over time."

Check out what Korea (and Asia in general) has to offer in the way of horror movies. Seriously US ain’t got nothing on what they are doing over there. They are making real scary stuff while here in the States we keep rehashing hold classics and doing American remakes of foreign hits.

Ever see the American film, “The Uninvited”? Yeah that came from the Korean film “A Tale Of Two Sisters”.

The Real Michael says:

There’s some truth to this article but also a bit of hyperbole. For one thing, I recall hearing about some music bloggers from Korea being shut down (thanks to US labels, no less). For another, I don’t particularly like the notion of “hit factories” and “star-making academies.” While it seems good on the surface that they’re actively rearing their next wave of music, all it’s really doing is streamlining rhe star-making process, like assembly line singers/idols. Is that really a good thing? I don’t think so. The best music is created by the artists with passion, determination, skill, imagination and hard work — things which cannot be manufactured.

As far as the Korean TV and film industry is concerned, I’m not too familiar with it but I am watching a Korean TV show right now (TV Novel: Dear My Love) and it’s very good, easily eclipsing any of our domestic garbage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood is keeping tabs on the asian film market, looking for stuff to plagarize (and then deny it later; think Kimba/Simba).

Right now Japan has some good music if you know where to look, although they seem to be following in our footsteps with copyright maximalism. The rest of it is just lousy idol/teeny-bopper stuff, including (very) young girls dancing around in skimpy get-ups to generic techno-dance pop filler. For awhile Brazil was producing incredible music, approximately from the 70’s through the late 90’s, but they’ve gone downhill since then. China of course has its own music artists but much of it seems kind of wishy-washy and there’s a rather noticeable sameness to it. I don’t know much about other makrets such as some of the middle eastern stuff and nor do I care to. They do this weird ornamental sound with their voice, almost like a trill, and it gets really irritating hearing it song after song after song without reprieve.

Right now here in the US, the good stuff is rather limited: Donald Fagen’s new album Sunken Condos just came out, The Bird & The Bee have a new album on the way, and some of the independent stuff sounds good. But there isn’t nearly enough great new music to satiate my appetite and it sucks having to dig and dig in order to find something good.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Japan has similar “idol factories” where they manufacture (sometimes literally) pop stars, and I think I agree with you in that the execution makes me a little uncomfortable. But the measure of “goodness” here is in the article headline, in that those industries are finding other business models that make sense in the world we now live in. Ours, meanwhile, is increasingly insistent on propping up a past they can’t get back.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’m personally not a big fan of K-Pop/J-Pop either, but it does have a point in terms of marketing. I’ve noticed that in Asia, whether you are talking about Ayumi Hamasaki from Japan or BoA from S. Korea (old I know), that it’s not just the music being sold. The idol factories tend to stress marketability over music, unlike the EU/US. It’s sort of like our Brittany Spears or Backstreet Boys, in that the music is a side business of selling gimmick products.

The good thing is, that this is just main stream radio music. There are still plenty of bands through Asia that play in local bars with a wide diversity of styles. Another interesting side note, is that the physical record companies are still very much alive even with the emergence of digital stores.

TroutFishingUSA says:

Sounds Fairly 20th Century to Me...

Am I missing something? I can’t listen to the podcast at work, but the transcript doesn’t look anything like a business model for the 21st century. It looks a lot like the ’80s in the US from where I’m sitting. From TFA:

Korea decided to produce pop music like it produces cars… music moguls in the country created hit factories, turning young singers into pop stars and sending them on tour around Asia

Menudo, Jackson 5, Monkees, NKOTB, Tiffany, etc. Also, the forgotten “hits” from Patrick Swayze, Bruce Willis, and all those celebrity albums from the ’80s; those were basically boilerplate muzak recordings with a celebrity vocal. And the term “hit factory” was coined to describe Motown, who was pushing out new #1 singles on a weekly basis over forty years ago.

released. From the beginning, new songs debuted on national television, not on the radio, like was done traditionally over here.

Who wrote this and in what year were they born? Did they miss the entirety of the ’80s and ’90s and a little thing called MTV?! Artists who debuted songs on TV before radio, off the top of my head: Bjork, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Bush, Timbaland, Missy Elliot, Limp Bizkit, Metallica… etc. I’m sure this list would go on for awhile (Hell, even The Simpsons did this with that “Bartman” song). Premiering singles on MTV (or sometimes even FOX) was pretty routine for a good while back when.

Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. So early on in their development, record labels had to get good at YouTube. And they kind of perfected it.

This doesn’t even make sense according to the article’s own timeline. The claim is that the labels had to get “good at Youtube early on,” which would have been twenty years ago. Youtube is what, seven years old or so?

What’s next? Are K-Pop labels going to start putting out “enhanced” CDs?!

Liz (profile) says:

I wonder how much of the spread of K-Pop is due to the influence of J-Pop. Japanese pop music has been popular around the world from the spread of various Anime and Japanese video games for close to 30 years now.

Plus these days the “Free to Play” MMO game has much of it’s spread due to Korean companies like Nexon, DevCat, and NCSoft. Many of their games feature music from Korean artists.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s a bit of a weird numbers game, because Korea (like Japan, Hong Kong, and perhaps Taiwan) are actually very small markets, which have developed high turn over systems to TV, music and movies.

The unfortunate problem is much of the stuff produced is formula pap, the sort of stuff that the western world got over for the most part a while ago. Girl bands / boy bands, typically with 4 – 8 members, selling not really music but a look and a style.

K-pop also has a real issue with the sexualization of young girls, with many of the hot k-pop bands featuring girls in the 14-16 year old range. There are many discussion about this, as well as the problem of the almost exclusive power granted to a small number of producers, such that many bad things happen:


Basically, it’s a system that would make the RIAA labels wet their pants with joy. Closed market, narrow selections, radio stations and such almost directly under control, and an entire media system built up around creating the newest K-pop idol. Just like Japan, most of them have a shelf life of about 20 minutes, as the country is generally too small to support big touring.

The best acts get to travel around Asia if their music gets picked up at all, some of them appearing even on China State TV shows (CCTV).

If this is the future of music, then perhaps you should demand a return to the past. This makes Justin Beiber look entirely unplanned and unproduced.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Re:

Excellent post and all so very true. The fact of the matter is that asian territories do not make for good role models for the future of entertainment. While some of their products may be comporable in quality to western stuff, it’s a very corporate-controlled environment from top to bottom.

The old model is struggling to remain afloat as is; their only solution is to consolidate, merge and attempt to turn back the clock. This top-down apporach solves nothing, nor is looking towards the asian markets. The only way things are going to improve is if we tackle the issue from the ground up with a new business model.

Not an Electronic Rodent says:

Re: Re: Re:

The unfortunate problem is much of the stuff produced is formula pap,

While some of their products may be comporable in quality to western stuff, it’s a very corporate-controlled environment from top to bottom.

If the former is true then that makes Korean stuff different from mainstream (label) produced western music….. how exactly?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“If the former is true then that makes Korean stuff different from mainstream (label) produced western music….. how exactly?”

The level of control in Korea, Japan, and other asian countries is pretty much an RIAA wet dream. They control it all, from what is on the radio and video channels to who is on TV, what is in the karaoke bars that week, and the whole marketing juggernaut of image materials and “look” support.

The “acts” generally have an incredibly short shelf life. The material is all created by small hit factories, with the music turned out not by the named artist, but by these behind the scenes people. The artists are really more about image and appearance, and less about actual content. It’s a brutal system with almost no outsiders in the game at all, the control of the system from end to end is complete.

They turn out incredible amounts of material, and nearly all of it is as forgettable as you can imagine, literally used up in a week. They say in Japan the music in the Karaoke bars is changed weekly, otherwise they fall behind. It’s fast forward, and all about selling group image and material as quickly as possible, burning them out, and starting over again with another group.

The intense sexualization of K-pop is a massive issue as well. In simple terms, they sell music with tits and ass, and sadly, many of the girls involved in this meat grinder aren’t even of legal age. The skirts are short, the t-shirts tight, and the shorts are super tight. It’s not subtle, that is for sure.

Basically, it’s as far from the western model as you can get. You might think the American model is all T&A, but you really need to go and check out the k-pop to 20 videos to understand a whole different level of “selling it with sex”.

Zakida Paul says:

The problem with the US and UK industry is that they treat the public as wallets with arms and legs, and they treat musicians as commodities, cash cows to be exploited at every opportunity. That is why there is so much crappy music coming from the major labels these days, as well.

Musicians should be treated as artists and creators of culture, and ‘consumers’ should be treated as fans and enjoyers of culture. This will never happen as long as monopolies are protected and these ‘get famous quick’ schemes known as reality TV are kept going. I must say people are incredibly stupid sometimes. They are content to listen to the tripe coming out of X Factor and in the charts but have no idea of the absolute wealth of creative awesomeness that comes from independent musicians and labels.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You just describefd the k-pop system perfectly. They treat consumers was walking wallets, and try to jam as much stuff through the system as possible, with full on promotional products, t-shirts, posters, and all the crap that goes with it, for stars with almost no actual shelf life.

Then they do it again, over and over.

The musicians? Hard to identify, because you rarely see them. You get to see some performers singing the song (usually as a group of guys or girls), but the actual music is made anonymously by studio people turning out the pap of the week.

You need to really go look at the system to understand why Mike’s post is absolute high end comedy.

Anonymous Coward says:

like all ‘developed’ countries, the businesses in the US and elsewhere want customers to pay maximum money for minimal service. even worse, the customer is expected to buy something that businesses want you to buy, but then not use it after it has been bought. typical example? buy a Sony blu-ray/dvd/cd burner, buy the blank discs, buy the movies and music, but never back them up. in other words, just make Sony more profitable by wasting money on their products but never use them (unless wanting to risk internet cut off, fines and jail time, that is)!

Argag says:

You fail to mention that in an effort to “industrialize the production of music,” Korea has industrialized and commodified culture, erasing any trace of diversity in the process. All you find on TV is the pre-packaged, factory-built K-Pop you mention, and to find music that doesn’t subscribe to the “shake my ass alongside scantily clothed backdancers” mantra, you either go to state-funded EBS and it’s 0.5% ratings, or try looking for it on Youtube. If you’re lucky.

They’re doing the same to movies and TV Dramas, and it’s killed diversity in both industries, not to mention average quality. It’s a horrible turning point the corporate fascists on top have initiated in 2008, so hardly something to praise or take input from.

Lark (profile) says:

Pro KPop

I’m pro KPop, I’m for Scooter globalizing Psy, even bring HYuna over – they can give her English lessons. It’s tough to buy some of your favorite KPop artists here in the U.S. We’re stuck with watching them on YouTube.
As for giving Scooter Braun so much creed… PSY studied here in the U.S. He speaks English, he’s had other top hits in Asia, and he’s fun to watch.
KDrama – their addictive miniseries and movies? Follow Seung Bak’s story with DramaFever, which now has great backing, and now has American influence on Korean programming.
We want more positive music. We want programming with substance and not gimmicks of sex, innuendo, kids being disrespectful in attitude, language and attire, and families who care.
It’s all good, I can’t wait for the Hallyu wave to wash some of our American crap away.
And just for the record – not Korean, never been, just a fan. Way more enamored with anything I’ve seen over all that I’ve seen American style.

Andrew says:


Lark, you must be new to this type of articles. You wrote “Pro KPop” as if you were part of a minority?? Everyone is Pro KPop, so you should definitely stop thinking that you’re part of the minority.. You’re not. We all love KPop. What happens is that these articles are full of butthurt japanese people who always try their best to give the false impression that the world is Anti-KPop, hehehe. But just look at the ratings on Youtube: the Like bar is always almost full green, while the dislike bar is almost nonexistent. It’s always 200.000 likes VS 9000 dislikes, or something like that haha. Heck, a KPop song is the most LIKED video in Youtube history. Everyone knows that KPop sounds better than JPop or American Pop, so don’t you worry ;).

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