South Korea’s most popular cultural export is a genre of pop music known as K Pop. The industry’s revenues reached $5B in 2017. The number of fans increased from 30 million in 2013 to 70 million in 2017 with 35 million of those fans coming from outside of South Korea. The Chazen team got a fascinating insider look at the industry through two company visits this past week.
The Korean pop music scene was historically operated by two major television studios under tight state control. In the early 90s, experimentation with a combination of American style pop music and traditional South Korean cultural elements led to unexpected popularity. The industry subsequently shifted to a Hollywood-esque studio system in the mid 90s where today’s three major K Pop players, SM, YG and JYP emerged. These companies develop and introduce new groups to music fans in Korea and abroad. The packaging of dance moves, high production value, and catchy songs is not new. What is slightly different from what readers may be familiar with is the complete personal and artistic control studios have over performers, the integration of fans into a community revolving around band members’ lives via content outside of performances such as interviews, reality shows, and social media, and finally the consistent generation of new bands. In my view, this combination allows the studios to create on-trend boy and girl groups that can appeal to the shifting intra-generational tastes. K Pop studios have seemed to master this process. To pop music fans, the K Pop genre is reminiscent of bands in the U.S. such as NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys.
On Thursday, we visited two studios – an up and coming label called Rainbowbridge World and the entertainment arm of the established conglomerate CJ (part of Samsung until 1996). Rainbowbridge World was a fascinating presentation because of the candor from the head of operations. We learned the audition process is intensely competitive and groups are formed as early as age 15-16. The bands then practice an average of five years before they are ready for their public “debut”. We got a chance to ask a RBW group in incubation (their term for artist training) about their experience. Two things that stood out are the amount of time they spend practicing, and reinforcement of the idea that hit-making requires a healthy dose of luck. 12-hour days seem to be the norm, and the group’s working name is literally 365 Practice. Second, despite the non-stop preparation, group failure is always a risk. The COO could not hide his disappointment and skipped a slide about a group that failed to become popular. The term “washed-out” was constantly used by both the artist and the management team in a matter of fact way to describe individuals or groups that do not achieve commercial viability.
During the second part of the day, we visited CJ Entertainment and a live taping of M Countdown, a weekly TV show where several K Pop groups perform. I think for most of us this experience was unique – fans were lined up to get a glimpse of the stars and during the performances the passion and energy (at 5pm in the afternoon) was clearly displayed through incessant screaming. While my sense was that most of our group did not know what to expect, the formula of high production value, catchy hooks, and great dance moves proved to be thoroughly entertaining. RBW’s most successful group, Mamamoo won the show, closing the loop on our K Pop day.
K Pop has been unquestionably successful in South Korea and has shown significant crossover appeal in markets including the United States. Going forward – I wondered if K Pop will have to evolve beyond its tightly controlled approach / product to reach older audiences / generate broader appeal. I think the narrow scope of music means it does, however the global teen / young adult age range is a large enough market to stay busy in for many years to come. Finally, as a major scandal involving K Pop stars made headlines just before our meetings took place, a re-evaluation of the education and personal development of young K Pop stars in the hands of studios is warranted. The singular focus of training programs could create challenges for the young group members when facing choices outside of the recording studio. It will be interesting to monitor how much power the studios voluntarily or involuntarily cede going forward, especially if global popularity growth reverses trend.
Vincent Su (CBS ’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School