Reservoir Media Management - K-POP GOES WEST
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When Reservoir added "Blink," an animated, futuristic dance-pop by Kpop duo TVXQ, to its catalog this past year, the team knew something special was happening.  Obviously, a new addition to the catalog is always met with some level of excitement--what's more invigorating or inspiring than new music?  In this particular instance, though, there was an added allure to the typical 'newness' factor.  This was Reservoir's first K-Pop song.

K-Pop, as described in the hallowed reference Wikipedia, is a "musical genre originating in South Korea, which comprises a wide variety of musical and visual elements. Although in a larger scope K-pop may include any genre of South Korean popular music, outside of the country, it is often used to refer to songs produced by K-Pop idols and their respective management agencies."

While music in Korea is as deeply rooted as any culture's, K-Pop is a relatively new moniker and movement, and as with any rising trend, it's exciting to be on-board early.  Also as with any trend, it begs the question--will this ever catch on at a mainstream level?

The fact of the matter is, even though K-Pop isn’t as ubiquitous as mainstream Western pop (think Rihanna or Lady Gaga), K-Pop artists have been recording songs intended for English-speaking audiences for many years.  And while not everyone you speak to will know much about the genre, which is still considered a niche in the West, the bigger songs do break through to international consciousness--see "Gangnam Style" and its relentless success.

And that brings us to where we are today. Just how big is K-Pop, as a niche genre, in the West?  For starters, last year, two of K-Pop’s biggest acts, Big Bang and 2ne1 each went on a world tour and visited over a dozen countries, including the U.S. and the U.K.  Selling out the Prudential Center in New Jersey and the Honda Center in California, Big Bang was estimated to have played to over 800,000 fans in total for their tour, a huge portion of which were imaginably non-Koreans. Meanwhile, their female label mates and counterpart, 2ne1, won MTV Iggy’s Best New Band in the World award in 2011, and performed a setlist of their hit Korean songs in Times Square (just for context, some other acts who have had the priviledge of performing in the famous square include Mariah Carey, The Backstreet Boys, and Justin Bieber).  Another girl group, Girls' Generation, became the first K-Pop group to perform on major American television when they performed their hit “The Boys” on the Late Show with David Letterman and Live! With Kelly.   In 2012, of the 2.28 billion annual K-Pop Youtube video views, 240 million were generated in the United States alone. Put the success of "Gangnam Style" creator Psy on top of all of that, and you have a considerable list of achievements for K-Pop artists as far as penetrating the Western music marketplace.

While these successes are impressive, it's easy to look at the genre’s past (failed) attempts at Western saturation and be doubtful that it will become as successful internationally as Korean labels hope it to be. However, K-Pop has a lot of things going for it that  some people perhaps don’t realize. In particular...

1. K-Pop artists have mastered blending nostalgic genres with new and modern musical elements. K-Pop primarily draws its influence from the '90s boy band sound. In fact, many people see acts like Big Bang and SHINee and think, “This is Asia's take on *Nsync or the Backstreet Boys.”  While Western acts like The Wanted or One Direction have intentionally worked to modernize the boy band sound of yore, Korean artists have immersed themselves in the sound, and developed it into something new by mixing it with elements of hip-hop, EDM and other contemporary touches for a much more evolved sound. Today, many K-Pop groups have a designated rapper, and a K-Pop song could be anything from an electronic club bopper with a dubstep drop to a folky acoustic ballad with a reggae feel.

2. K-Pop artists have a satisfactory grasp of English, and they use it to the fullest.  In the past, many of K-Pop’s biggest stars including BoA, Se7en and the Wonder Girls released English-language albums to American audiences, featuring top American artists and producers. None of these initial attempts were particularly successful--mostly, one would think, because of the simple fact that English isn’t any of the aforementioned acts' first language, and as a result did not come off as authentic or natural, the way they do when the acts sing in Korean.

Record labels quickly realized their mistake and turned from trying to emulate natural English speakers to incorporating just a few English-language touches into K-Pop songs sung in Korean and/or Japanese.  The result was a compromise that both embraced the niche appeal of the K-Pop genre and made advances toward engaging Western audiences.

Now, K-Pop songs often have English-language lines in their chorus, and might throw in random English phrases and slang throughout a song if it feels right. These brief English phrases are key to communicating with broad audiences and keep language barrier issues to a minimum. Take, for example, Big Bang’s “Bad Boy,” one of the group's biggest hits. While the song is mostly in Korean, the few English lines in the chorus “Sorry I’m a bad boy”, “You a good girl,” as well as the Western slang that leader G-Dragon drops (“ayo choice, drop it on me”) give non-Korean listeners a good idea of what the song is about.  2ne1’s “Ugly” even has an all-English chorus with lyrics that  exemplify the adolescent struggles with self-esteem a lot of girls--Eastern and Western--could likely relate to.

The relatability is no coincidence.  K-Pop labels often take time to coach their artists in foreign languages like English and Japanese. Also, many of the creative talent on K-Pop records are actually Korean-Americans who spend large portions of their lives in the States, like Psy and 2ne1 songwriter and producer, Teddy.

3. The Korean record label system works differently than it does here in the U.S. Here, as we've all heard, piracy and Napster dealt a big blow to the traditional way of managing music, and many labels either went under or drastically changed the way they do business. While in the past, labels did everything for a new act, today they mostly provide financial support and promotional visbility; most everything else is, or can be, DIY.  What's more, many Western major labels rarely want to sign truly new artists haven't already established a following, and artist development is often an afterthought, if that.

In Korea, it is the opposite. There, labels are still partially operating as in the past, but, like the music itself, in an evolved way. The average K-Pop artist is found through an audition process at a very young age, and trained for years in singing, dancing, performing and appearance. By the time an artist's label is ready to build hype for an album, where they often use the same practices of releasing teaser photos, videos pre-debut Youtube videos, and community building through social media as in the West, the act has been groomed, polished, and poised.  This combination of long-term, deliberate label support and typical music industry fan-building practices gives K-Pop an extra bed of support that some Western artists may not have enjoyed in years. The label system is so efficient that K-Pop artists normally release several projects a year, where as in the United States an artist drops an album every 1.5 years on average.

Looking at so much opportunity, in addition to K-Pop’s growing popularity in the West, it looks like international success in the stars for K-Pop.  But there is one aspect of the genre that may be a clue as to why it hasn’t blown up already.

When looking at K-Pop Idols, as easy as it is to be captivated by the interesting visuals, catchy vocals, and mainstream beats, one could be turned off by what can be best described as a manufactured and overproduced image. Even when a K-Pop artist has a big role in writing all their own songs and conceptualizing dances, videos, and outfits (like Big Bang’s leader G Dragon), the manner in which it's presented is so aggressively bright, shiny, and pop-y, that many Western viewers, now accustomed to the hands-off label practices mentioned above, can't relate, and instead see the entire project as disingenuous and overproduced.  In the rare instances when a K-Pop song is a major success, as, again, Psy's "Gangnam Style" has proven to be, the artist is atypically minimalistic as compared to his overproduced counterparts.  Maybe that's the reason that Psy found his way through the West's pop culture filter.

K-Pop still has quite a way to go before it's certified mainstream fare in the West, but overall, success seems to be within arm's reach.  If acts of the genre commit to embracing their own languages, paring down the sacchirine delivery for Western audiences, and continuing to put out great new music, we're sure we'll see more and more "Gangam Style"-sensations in the years to come.

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