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.