Korean pop’s giant leap with ‘Gangnam’ steps

South Korea’s pop scene rakes in billions while the horse-galloping PSY video becomes most viewed in YouTube’s history.

South Korea K-Pop group Shinee
K-pop group Shinee pose before the 'Smart Exhibition' in Seoul last August [Al Jazeera]

You know you have a hit on your hands when your song breaks a Guinness World Record for the”most viewed” video ever on YouTube.

Now watched more than 805 million times, “Gangnam Style” has catapulted South Korean rapper PSY to global stardom, thanks to his horse-riding dance moves and silly, pastel-coloured attire.

His soaring popularity has got him signed with the management of Justin Bieber – whose video “Baby” he surpassed as the most-viewed ever – and PSY is quickly on his way to becoming  one of South Korea’s most successful artists.

“Gangnam Style” has become K-pop’s biggest-ever international hit, as the industry continues to capture the attention of music aficionados worldwide.

In light of its growing global popularity, YouTube has even launched an exclusive channel dedicated to Korean pop music, marking the first time a national music genre has its own category on the video-sharing giant. 

What is K-pop?

“PSY’s global hit, ‘Gangnam Style’, has helped lead to more investment, both in music and in developing legitimate services.

– Frances Moore,  International Federation of the Phonographic Industry

The music genre may be new to some but “K-pop”, the abbreviation for Korean pop music, has been around for years. The lively Korean mix of electro, dance, hip-hop, rock and pop is particularly popular in Asia, even developing a teenage subculture. With highly stylised Western dance moves, airbrushed good looks, and trend-setting fashion, K-pop music has overtaken Japanese music as the most popular genre in Japan. 

According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, a body set up by the government to project soft power abroad, South Korea’s biggest overseas market for K-pop is Japan with an 80 percent share. 

The K-Pop craze also has spread across Southeast Asia, with local entertainers imitating the Korean music style.  

The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has reported K-pop’s influence on everything from films, games, books, and the fashion industry was worth more than $5.5bn in 2011, with predictions this year of it almost doubling to $11bn.

In 2011, K-pop added an estimated $3.8bn of revenue to the South Korean economy, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency.

Attempts to gain traction in the United States, the world’s largest music market, have been a challenge, however, although a six-hour concert in October 2011 at the mecca of American pop culture, Madison Square Garden, helped ease the genre in.

The spread of K-pop and Korean film and television – also known as the Korean Wave or Hallyu – has come partly as a result of the removal of strict domestic censorship laws in the late 1990s.  According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), digital piracy devastated the South Korean music scene with CD sales dropping dramatically.

A decade later, social media websites changed all that, boosting global interest as K-pop and hugely popular South Korean soap operas became easily accessible.

South Korean ‘soft power’

“South Korea was once a country notorious for piracy and an under-performing music industry,” says Frances Moore, chief executive of IFPI.

In 2007, the country was ranked 23rd in the global recorded-music market. However, the South Korean government invested in policies to help bolster culture and creative industries and because of that, K-pop is now the 11th largest market, says Moore.

The genre has also been aided by the portly rapper and his record-breaking video. “PSY’s global hit, ‘Gangnam Style’, has helped lead to more investment, both in music and in developing legitimate services,” Moore says. 

Digital distribution and touring have turned Korean artists into cash cows. In fewer than five years, for example, a nine-girl band called Girl’s Generation has recorded sales of more than 30 million digital singles and 4.4 million albums.

Music agencies keep a tight rein over K-pop stars
[Al Jazeera]

K-pop has been fully supported by the government with artists’ images gracing billboards and appearing in tourism campaigns. South Korea’s pop industry alone is worth more than $3bn a year, and is dominating rivals China and Japan internationally.

Dugeundugeun Hangugeo, a Korean-language learning programme that uses TV dramas and K-pop for teaching, was launched by the government in October and is simultaneously aired in 73 different countries around the world.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has planned to invest millions of dollars over four years to showcase K-pop. The plan has included the construction of arenas and auditoriums designed specifically for K-pop concerts.

Popularity has its price

Despite all this, K-pop has been embroiled in several legal battles with some bands being denied a fair share of profits. Some of the biggest K-pop acts have been caught up in contract disputes. The ministry’s contents policy division has acknowledged stricter enforcement must be implemented to prevent illegal practices by unscrupulous management agencies. 

Simon and Martina Stawski operate a popular online blog in South Korea called Eat Your Kimchi that follows and analyses Korean culture.

Simon Stawski tells Al Jazeera the industry has a dark side with young artists being driven to exhaustion to produce and perform.

“There are bands that have published eight different singles this year alone, and not just in Korean, but in Japanese, Chinese and English as well,” Stawski says. “K-pop companies work their artists to the bone, and there are lots of articles about artists passing out on stage from working too hard.

“They work incessantly:  no weekends or breaks, sleeping in cars or on changing room floors, being shuttled from one place to the next, performing at two-three concerts in the same day. Being a K-pop artist isn’t a rock-and-roll lifestyle. They work harder than anyone I’ve ever met, and I wouldn’t trade places with them for double what they earn.”

‘Stalker’ fans

Another concern is sasaeng – or stalker – fans who are exclusive to K-pop, most likely female and obsessed with its artists. High incidents of stalking and invasion of privacy are common. There is even a taxi service catering specifically to these fans that offers to chase the vehicles carrying their idols.

Junsu, a member of the JYJ boy band, became a hot topic after sasaeng fans went as far as planting GPS tracking systems under his car to monitor his every move. At a press conference, his band talked about the pressure they face of fans breaking-and-entering their homes to take photos and steal items and memorabilia. Some have been accused of installing CCTV cameras to capture videos of their favourite stars. 

“Last year, we established a support centre for the entertainers. Its role is to offer a counseling service to relieve them from any psychological stress.

– Jemma Ji, Korea Creative Content Agency 

Sasaeng fan is the Korean term for stalker but without the negative implication,” Stawski says.”People find sasaengs creepy, but why are there no restraining orders?  Where are the police to get involved?  It almost seems like it’s accepted that if someone’s a K-pop artist, they’ve abandoned their rights to privacy. It’s hard to make laws against sasaengs as well, since they affect such a small per cent of the population, just K-pop artists.”

A spokeswoman from the Korea Creative Content Agency says a new clause was added to the Minor Offenses Act last February to protect K-pop stars from stalker fans, and it has also made other efforts to help artists cope with their fame. 

“Last year, we established a support centre for the entertainers. Its role is to offer a counseling service to relieve them from any psychological stress and provide them with an education service and legal support to advise emerging young artists or managers,” Jemma Ji tells Al Jazeera.

Music journalist Kevin EG Perry has written a beginners guide to K-pop. Perry says PSY’s success has been a surprise among K-pop circles, with his unorthodox style earning him the nickname “Bizarre Rapper” before “Gangnam Style” began to gallop online.

With K-pop now prominent in the international spotlight, Perry says its influence will only grow among fans and other performers worldwide. 

“The increase in K-pop fanbase on an international level doesn’t surprise me, particularly because of the ease with which music videos are shared between fans,” Perry tells Al Jazeera. “Lots of global stars, from Nicki Minaj to No Doubt, have been influenced by K-Pop videos with over-the-top neon fashion.”

Source: Al Jazeera