Inside the K-pop hit machine: how South Korea’s music industry has gone global
From Kim Jong-un to the United States, South Korean pop music’s worldwide fan base is growing fast, thanks to bands like BTS. We look at the reasons behind the phenomenon
Much like the chiselled physiques of the male performers and the slim waists of their female counterparts, the K-industry is something of a construct – all part of an intricate system meticulously designed to push South Korean pop music onto the world.
The popularity of South Korean pop culture in other parts of the world is nothing new. In the early 2000s, Chinese journalists were so baffled by the local obsession with South Korean television shows such as Winter Sonata and singers from that country that they dubbed the phenomenon the “Korean wave”.
The term has been widely used by Western and Eastern media since then. But K-pop – the genre that practically dominates the entire South Korean mainstream music industry – has amassed such a global following that it has outgrown the general term and become a phenomenon in itself.
The K-pop act with the biggest global success so far are BTS. The seven-member boy band have managed not only to have two tracks certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America – a first for a Korean act – they also became the most retweeted musical act on Twitter in 2017. Last year, the BTS EP Love Yourself: Her – containing the hit US single Mic Drop – also hit No 7 on the US album charts, the highest ever for a Korean act.
So why is K-pop achieving a level of worldwide fame denied to other Asian pop scenes? The educated guess – according to Professor Lee Dong-yeon, who teaches cultural theory at the Korean National University of the Arts and has written a book on the industry – is that South Korea’s relatively small music market results in telecom companies controlling a large proportion of revenues, meaning they have extra incentive to look abroad for profits.
“The K-pop industry reflects cause and effect,” Lee says. “Major Korean popular music productions have high production values and require huge investments. It cannot survive alone on regional profits. It must expand outside the country to sustain itself.”
Lee believes that K-pop’s international popularity can be traced to a concentrated effort to expand and export. For example, many K-pop bands record both Korean and Japanese versions of the same song, signifying a willingness to adapt to other cultures to widen their appeal.
But there are other popular opinions on why K-pop holds more appeal than, say, Canto-pop.
“K-pop idols are just flat-out sexier and hotter,” says Vivian Lam Pui-sze, a member of the Girls’ Generation fan club based in Hong Kong. “And I’m talking about both sexes. [K-pop’s] men are much better built physically, and the women have so many more curves than the Hong Kong starlets.”
There’s a correlation between these two theories. Part of the “huge investments” Lee mentioned refers to the record labels’ factory-like system of grooming and training stars in areas not always related to music. “The major companies – such as JYP, SM and YG – are record labels, and entertainment and management companies all in one,” says Lee. “They have this system most of us call the ‘idol farm system’.”
Lee explains that this system trains stars for three to five years. Besides working on music-related skills, they’re taught foreign languages (usually English and Japanese) and are put on strict body-shaping regimes and – in some cases – undergo plastic surgery.
A 2009 report on the industry by Korean-American Edward Chun for MTV Iggy – a US division of the music giant that focuses on foreign music – revealed that pop idol trainees often follow an arduous daily schedule that includes two hours of exercise, four hours of dance and choreography classes, two hours of vocal training, followed by three hours of language studies.
While talent agencies in other parts of the world, including the US and Hong Kong, also groom and manufacture stars to a degree, few industries are as full-on and open about it as the K-pop machine. Every year, the “big three” companies – JYP, SM and YG – hold auditions for potential K-pop stars, and Lee says up to 50,000 teens turn up each time. SM Entertainment – the label behind major stars such as BoA, Girls’ Generation and Shinhwa – has a dedicated idol training school named the SM Academy.
But the work isn’t done when an idol “graduates” and becomes a star.
According to Frances Cha, a Seoul-based journalist who’s written on the industry, K-pop stars are constantly coached on how to act in public, and are contractually required to remain, or at least appear to be, single. “When Jonghyun, a member of boy band Shinee, was revealed by a newspaper to have a girlfriend, the backlash was immediate and vicious,” she recalls. The singer committed suicide in December 2017.
It is all part of a system, Lee says. “With the way K-pop has become South Korea’s chief export, the machinations will only become more intense.”
Fans of K-pop seem to be equally systematic. Cha says K-pop fan clubs often pass out business cards at multi-bill concerts, with hopes of recruiting fans who have yet to form allegiances. “K-pop fandom reaches heights seldom attained by other genres,” she says.
While music critics and indie rock fans worldwide have a tendency to dismiss manufactured pop music – Canto-pop may be omnipresent in Hong Kong, but it’s also a source of mockery among many locals – K-pop seems to be mostly immune to criticism.
“I don’t think K-pop ever tried to be anything other than highly enjoyable entertainment that is easy on the ears and the eyes,” says Stawski. “Yes, these artists didn’t get together as teens in their dads’ garages to play guitars, but I don’t believe that makes them any less worthy as musicians.”
Jose Wendell Capili, a professor of creative writing and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines and a scholar with a range of degrees from universities in Britain, Japan and Australia, also defends the legitimacy of K-pop.
“Critics may say K-pop stars are manufactured or they’re all based on looks, but those accusations have been thrown at some of the greatest figures in pop music, from Elvis Presley to The Beatles,” says Capili, whose long-standing interest prompted him to research the industry. “Looks can only do so much; the stars who’ve been around for a while are talented and skilled at what they do.”
Interestingly, Capili believes the emergence of the wave – and by extension, K-pop – can be traced to South Korea’s economic collapse in 1998. “The government looked to music and TV dramas to promote South Korea and boost tourism and exports,” he says. “As the country’s economy went up, they put more resources into promoting their cultural products worldwide.”
“I think Korean pop is going to be around a long time,” he adds.
This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in SCMP publication The Review under the headline “Special K – idols unlimited” on January 22, 2012