The Factors Of The Rise Of K-pop Industry

Korean pop, also known as K-pop, is the biggest music genre in South Korea, and with its unique attributes, has firmly engraved its mark and consolidated its position globally. K-pop may have been a foreign concept to Westerners previously, but recently, it has been recognised and appreciated worldwide with its combination of influences and themes both Eastern and Western. K-pop’s marketing and expansion techniques have made K-pop iconic. Such that the seemingly flawless idols’ singing, paired with creative choreographies and eye-catching outfits, put on display in their vivid and colourful music videos have become a more than recognisable, trademark image. Thus, being able to entrench such graphic and evocative imageries within the memories and minds of audiences, K-pop has been able to expand their brands and thereby also assist in growing the economy of entertainment companies and even South Korea. 

K-pop is not just a music genre but is a major part of the music industry and provides a workplace for those who are involved in it, generating a significant proportion of music industry income in Korea. The seeds of the K-pop ‘culture’ began to blossom in the respective entertainment companies that conduct their own entertainment businesses including record label services, talent agency services and artist development. These companies also operate the recording and distribution businesses - making, reproducing, advertising and distributing the recordings. Through competitive auditioning programs, children aged as young as 11 years old to 16 years of age are recruited by the companies and undergo thorough training and development to become prepared for life as an “idol” or a star. During this time, these trainees are managed by the talent managers of the companies, scheduling the trainees’ timetable and monitoring them as they progress in their development stages. Ultimately, it is the CEO of the entertainment company who makes the executive decision and determines the artists they would like to officially recruit. This process is extremely rigorous and it is not guaranteed that every trainee is able to proceed in their career as a K-pop artist. This is because ultimately it is an investment decision, and renowned companies such as SM, JYP and YG entertainment in their profit maximisation, only invest in those they believe are most suitable and worthy of representing the company and its label. After all, an artist is an expense to the company, and they will want to maximise their revenue generated from the artist relative to the cost associated. Entertainment companies have outreaching connections and they work together with famous songwriters and producers to produce songs that is trendy and appealing to the consumers, and having done so, distribute it to the trainees. Songs are normally bought or licensed by the company and the cost goes into the trainee’s debt where they must break-even to start earning profit. The music is recorded and published in the studios with the artists and producers, and the marketing begins. K-pop does an amazing job at connecting the creators of music with the consumers of music. The consumers are captured by the unblemished artists and their elaborate dances and storyline, catchy melodies and engaging music videos. The entertainment companies spend at least $100,000 USD on one music video, which accounts for the costs of production and its team, stylists, make-over and filming crew. Ultimately, this is an expense to market the song, artists and the company. Often, music videos with aesthetic visualisations and touching storylines tend to capture the consumers’ attention and hearts and they soon join to become fanatics and support the artists’ brands. Choreography alongside the addictive music can be seen as an indirect way of promoting music. More often than not, do the dances and routines that are associated with songs become recognised and ‘viral’, helping in propelling K-pop to its international stature it has currently. 

K-pop utilises the growth of technology and social media in the past years to accelerate their global presence. When the artist uploads the music videos on YouTube, thousands of people around the world make cover videos which get posted on YouTube and Instagram accounts, further inflating the reaches of K-pop. Through these choreography videos, more people are exposed to the music which assists the artists and K-pop in popularising their names. The copyright law protects the songwriters and recording artists when cover songs are posted, and licenses such as mechanical and synchronization are needed by those who do post cover videos on YouTube. However, it is unlikely that Korean entertainment companies as copyright owners take action against those who use the song without the appropriate licenses, as the increase in a song’s exposure may introduce new audience and thus result in the expansion of the fanatic base. As such, the decision to allow freedom in re-distribution and re-enactment of the K-pop songs and videos has allowed K-pop to garner such a large fanbase and market. K-pop artists, although of different origin and ethnicity to Westerners, still manage and aim to imbue their works with some sort of relatability, and their lyrics are wrought with emotion, singing of sorrow and joy, detailing feelings of the average person. This allows consumers to be emotionally connected and portray the artists as relatable. Therefore, despite the different background of K-pop to that of the Western consumer, the very essence of K-pop is a celebration of the human spirit, and experience, and rings true and relevant regardless of country. This is an example of music marketing and a successful technique in growing the number of fans and promoting K-pop, where the artists are able to extend their brand and deliver authentic messages to their listeners. Performance in this industry is paramount in showcasing the art of K-pop, and the entertainment companies operate event management and concert production meticulously. Fan meetings and annual concerts occur in South Korea, but for the very few, more widely known bands or artists, their companies organise tours so fans outside of Korea are able to enjoy their favourite bands’ performances and to gain more exposure. K-pop entertainment companies work effortlessly to produce fan-engagement events with the artists and their fans. This way the artists don’t seem to be untouchable, and disengaging, rather they become realistic ideals and actual people alike any other. 

The bigger the fanatic bases grow, the bigger success for the artists/bands, mainly due to the streaming revolution. Streaming gives fans a larger voice and they make K-pop an hot issue for the world to find difficult to ignore. BTS may be widely acknowledged for their song-writing or their performances, but without the extensive work of the fans, BTS would not have been able to achieve such great success. This is evident when looking back at a couple of generations in the K-pop timeline; when the streaming culture was not well developed, despite some Korean groups having almost the same popularity as BTS within the Korea internally, they were not able to extend their fame further and failed to catch the global attention. Streaming definitely helped K-pop reach farther and be prominent in media for longer, allowing accessibility outside of national borders, and enabling different countries the same ability to consume their product. Just like streaming, the development of technology has also greatly and positively influenced the success of K-pop. The majority of Korean artists use all available social media platforms to promote, upload and display their work. Unlike the American pop culture, it does not always end with a tweet and a few posters on Twitter; a K-pop band or a solo artist may release numerous trailer videos on YouTube showing 30-second sneak-peaks of their upcoming release. This generates anticipation for the grand release which forces the fans to have a greater and more active engagement and response for the actual release. Additionally, they would upload different version of the music video, such as a movie version and a performance version, to provide more content for the fans who have been eagerly waiting for their idols’. With these various posts on different social medias, fans are provided with a community-platform where they are able to communicate with their artists. Subsequently, it is abundantly transparent the role of technology in propelling K-pop into mainstream consumption. Unlike the earlier generations of Korean pop, agencies try to look beyond Korean borders to look for an audience, and evidence of these strategies show in the names of the artists and songs where English words and phrases are predominantly used. This enables K-pop to be easily recognised and understood by the Western culture. Usually, agencies target specific countries (for example, the US) and thus try to pursue a more Westernised concept for the artists since that would make gaining audience for a concert in the United States an easier process. However, of course, K-pop still retains its own natural identity and Korean flair, and such image and culture has extended to be pervasive even amongst countries such as Australia and America, where K-pop has even ingrained itself within fashion, whereby imitation of the superfluously and exaggeratively styled clothing featured in K-pop music videos are now common-sight. 

It is true that K-pop was never internationally popular at first. In 1997, before the establishment of the current K-pop, there was a catastrophic financial crisis which pummelled Asia and it greatly affected South Korea. As a result, the South Korean government pushed for culture to be the country’s next big export industry hoping it would improve the country’s economy. The government passed a law for the promotion of cultural industries and vowed to dedicating at least 1% of the state’s budget to culture. The push for the music industry included plans which focused on the physical capital, such as building concert halls and recording studios to support the growth of K-pop, energising consumption and increasing income in the process, enabling for a higher growth in the Korean economy. The significantly improved technology, such as high-speed Wi-Fi in almost all public places in the capital city enabled a more effective streaming capability, which ultimately assisted the sales of albums, K-pop concert tickets and merchandise. This was the perfect opportunity for the entertainment companies to grow their brand and from these high expectations and demand of the Korean music culture. 

Soon after came the Korean wave, which refers to the international growth of Korean culture, music and entertainment across the globe. This wave has made great contributions to South Korea’s economy, especially K-pop stars who have made a significant impact on the Korean consumer culture including make-up trends, food and fashion. Since then, tourism has propelled, having 796,000 foreigners visit the country annually to experience the concerts and culture for themselves. It is estimated that the export of K-pop has boosted the South Korea’s music to a 5 billion dollar industry in 2017, which is thought to be a great economic success for the government and the country since 1997. Although this success may seem flawless from the outside, there is a financial burden for K-pop artists inside the Korean music industry. Ground-breaking fame BTS has achieved in the name of K-pop is an anomaly for Korean artists. The majority of K-pop artists do not even reach national fame and are forced to spend rest of their career paying debt off the companies, especially those artists who are recruited in minor companies. These agencies sign contract with the artists where they must break-even during debut, paying the training, album producing, recording and marketing costs. These contracts can be as ruthless as 90:10 where the 90% of the profit goes to the company and 10% to the artists, before it is split between band members and used to pay off the debt. The majority of the unnoticed artists involved in this industry only start making profit 2-3 years after their debut, which is inequitable considering the 4-5 years of resilient and arduous training they endured to experience success. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that there is no formula for success in music business and it requires a degree of luck to success. 

Although being involved in the Korean music industry may not be a stable career for all artists, they have contributed to the impact K-pop has made to the global music industry. Psy, who wrote and 1079628 performed the smash-hit “Gangnam Style” is considered as the precursor for uncovering music from Korea and making it across the globe. Since the manifestation of K-pop, emphasis on a greater appeal to more demographics has been introduced to the music industry. This is something that American pop does not push enough and it is K-pop that clearly exhibited that there are connections between countries in terms of global music interests. Korean talent agencies have been looking for non-Korean members to recruit to gain interests of more people around the world – recruiting members from Australia, Thailand, China and more. Often, companies would produce two versions of the song or music video in different languages, or collaborate with foreign artists. These measures strengthen the notion of connecting the creators of music with the consumers of music and also demonstrate that K-pop is not exclusive, despite what its name may suggest, and rather, is a genre of music for all. 

Indeed, the rise of K-pop has been an eye-opener for all musicians and performers around the world. All different participants who are involved in the K-pop industry work collectively and cleverly to continuously establish a new formula to shape what K-pop is today. All the different ways of marketing music, further providing ways of growing the fanatic base and producing and creating art are all business ideas that cannot be easily thought of and is definitely ahead in the global music industry. 


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16 December 2021
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