The success of Nan Arayo released in 1992 by the boys band ‘Seo Tai-ji and boys’ marks the beginning of the Korean pop music style, commonly known as the ‘K-pop’.
The K-pop is a very diverse music style, with the particularity of mixing musical elements coming from other countries with Korean ones: it involves dance-pop, pop ballad, electronic, rock, hip hop, Rn’B… Basically, all the « popular » music from Korea are K-pop style, the most famous representative of K-pop worldwide being Psy. His song Gangnam Style got more than 2.4 billions views on Youtube, which makes it today the most viewed video on the website.
In 2012, the Time magazine presents K-pop as ‘the most profitable exportation from South Korea’, and it is difficult to say the opposite: in 2012, the K-pop market worthed a $3.4 billions (coming mainly from the « BigThree », the 3 biggest South Korean record companies: SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment).
The South Korean government is completely aware of that success and implements what the Ministry of Culture calls ‘한류‘ (pronounced ‘Hallyu’), the ‘Korean surging‘. It is a governmental strategy, meant to increase the South Korean soft power all around the world by dedicating $10 millions of the country’s budget to the promotion of K-pop. For example, the Ministry of Culture organizes each year the ‘K-pop world festival’, a TV show with people invited from all over the world to sing like a K-pop star for one night. And actually, this policy works: in 2011, of the 10 millions tourists who visited South Korea, 1 million first discovered the country thanks to the K-pop.
As we can see, South Korea was not big enough to satisfy the ambitions of the record companies: they started to export K-pop in other countries.
First, they conquered Japan: it was the perfect target due to the geographical proximity of the 2 countries and the situation of the Japanese music market being the 2nd biggest in the world (after the USA). South Korean record companies made agreements with Japanese ones (like Avex Trax) and that is how bands like TVXQ (literally meaning ‘the rising gods of East’) or singers like BoA (‘Beat of Angel’) arrived to Japan in the early 2000s. The artists meant to enter the Japanese market even had to learn the local language in order to do so. Eventually, it was a huge success: in 2012, the K-pop represented a 7.8% of the turnover of Japan’s musical industry.
Another country targeted was China, with bands like Super Junior. This large boys band of 13 members has its own strategy: the band is made of different subgroups and one of them called Super Junior-M is especially made for the Chinese market and composed of Chinese singers.
The boys band EXO uses the same strategy, being composed of 6 South Korean members (« EXO-K ») and 6 Chinese ones (« EXO-M ») meant to be « twins » and exchangeable.
But where do this continuously renewing bunch of stars come from? It’s simple: the record companies train them to be the new K-pop idols in institutes such as the ‘SM Academy‘ (affiliated to the SM Entertainment; it closed in August 2013). After tough auditions, the chosen ones subscribe to a 3-to-5-year formation in singing, dancing and even languages.
Moreover, these future idols have to take care of their image as they often appears in the ad campaigns of clothes, cosmetics or even alcohol brands.
But this well-rounded industry also has its own problems, the main one being the coercive contracts linking the artists with their companies. For instance, they cannot be seen with alcohol –paradoxically-, cigarettes, boyfriend or girlfriend. That is why K-pop singers often sue their company because of the terms of the contracts.
Besides, and that is a taboo in this environment, they also have to respect physical standards. It is not a coincidence if South Korea is the first plastic surgery market in the world: the artists often (not to say always) have to go through an operation, paid by their company, in order to respect these standards of beauty so their image can be used at commercial ends.
K-pop is a true benediction for the South Korean economy and soft power since the beginning of the century. But this perfect-looking world has a dark side, especially for the artists who have to put their private life and free will on hold.