The Real Reason Behind K-Pop’s Success

The debate is over K-Pop is big.  Now that industry heavyweights have embraced K-Pop as a legitimate player, the new debate is identifying exactly how the genre penetrated the masses.   Focus is rightfully on Gangnam Style, however it only represents the tip of the K-Pop iceberg.  Before swimming under the iceberg to explore my personal views, it’s important to consider other arguments emerging about K-Pop’s success.

Saturday, November 24th 2012, Gangnam Style officially surpassed Justin Bieber’s “Baby” as the world’s most popular music video on YouTube.  The particular article I read introducing this news seemed shocked by the achievement.   Shocked?  Personally I’m shocked that we’ve all embraced The Biebs to begin with, nonetheless, Gangnam Style’s mauling of Baby wasn’t necessarily shocking but was newsworthy.  Actually I’m more shocked K-Pop accomplished global domination using a male artist but that’s neither here nor there.  Regardless, ChannelMeter predicts Gangnam will hit the billion views mark by December 16th which naturally has many discussing the key to its rapid expansion.  One component (as addressed in the article I read) suggests Gangnam Style is successful “because K-Pop is really big + YouTube is really big” therefore K-Pop’s Gangnam is flourishing.  Wow. I like peanut butter, and people who like peanut butter likely use a computer, therefore if I write a song about peanut butter and put it on a computer, big things will happen for me!  Seriously, the suggestion was “K-Pop is big and YouTube is big” which must equal success.  Unfortunately most industry veterans likely share this reasoning.  Okay, it’s pretty clear none of the old industry veterans know what’s going on from a business standpoint (damn “internet”), so let’s look at the viable alternatives to Gangnam’s triumph. Copyright opponents suggest Gangnam’s achievements have been generated because of Psy’s failure to copyright the video or choreography, therefore encouraging sharing, parodies and remixes.  This could be true but extremely hard to verify.  Personally, out of the all arguments presented by industry folks, Emily Gonneau suggests the most logical (via MIDEM BLOG), breaking down the video from a creative standpoint.  In dissecting the video, its likely Gangnam attempted to manufacture the perfect viral video storm; but Emily also suggest Gangnam Style (as an individual track) lures all audiences.  The ambiguousness of K-Pop as a genre is the starting point for its mainstream success.  By definition, K-Pop is dance/electronic/electropop/hip hop/rock/R&B, which I can assure, is vague by design.  It’s a shape shifter, whatever the listener wants it to be, catering to whomever, wherever, whenever.  This nugget of genre indirectness fueled my curiosity almost one year ago.

Last year, I wrote a blog suggesting K-Pop would experience huge success in 2012.  Partly generated by my enjoyment of the genre, I’ll be the first to say the prediction was nothing short of a bold guess based upon trends.  To me K-Pop’s success has nothing do with music, copyright law, creative content or new genres in the industry – its sole success traces back to tourism, more specifically music tourism.  Asian countries have appropriately constructed a way to bring Asian culture to everyone no matter the geographic location.  This is no different than the United States using intellectual property as its chief export, which in return spreads culture, interest, and eventually tourism back into The States.  K-Pop is a well-organized tourism machine using music as the hook.  It’s brilliant (and effective).  Did we ever talk about Chinese, Japanese or Korean artists before?  Never.  Now these discussions take place everyday all over the world.  People suggest K-Pop exploded because of the massive U.S. viewing exposure, regardless, it happened by design.  Currently 5.8% of the United States population is classified as Asian American.  Additionally, they have the highest education and personal median income level over any other American ethnic group according to the 2011 Census.  Instead of being drowned out by manufactured American pop cultural, K-Pop provides Asians and Asian Americans with a pop culture voice, a collective cultural linchpin to embrace and call their own.  This alone drives interest to the Asian countries and increases tourism.  Do you not find it odd that the most ideal demographic (an untapped ethnic group in terms of music sales, who also has the highest median income level) has suddenly embraced an ambiguous genre that incorporates damn near 47 musical styles into 1?  I do.

I’m fully aware a majority of readers will shoot holes in my theory.  How is K-Pop connected to tourism, and if so, who cares?  If so, allow me to present this question -what impact do you think the British musical invasion had on vacationers looking for a unique travel experience?  What about the German boy band, Tokio Hotel single handily increasing the number of females (outside of Germany) enrolling in German language classes?  Do you not think Germany saw a massive uptick of interest in German culture?  I’m not delusional in thinking other factors don’t come into play.  I accept that.   I’m simply presenting another viewpoint, an analysis rooted in statistical arguments rather than creative ones.  Additionally, I happen to know something about the international music scene, I’ve worked on musical tourism campaigns, studied niche markets and work with clients on six continents so I’m not generating my thoughts out of thin air. However, for the naysayers who think tourism + music + K-Pop aren’t interconnection, allow me to leave you with something to consider.  Music conferences continue to be the engine behind ideas, trends and industry deal making.  Conferences are everywhere, large and small, some thrive but many fail.  Rarely to people pay attention to sponsors who host such events, but they should.  One of the largest conferences this year, Mu:Con Seoul 2012, was recently held November 1st – 3rd.  Did anyone pay attention to the sponsor list?  Assuming that answer is “no” let me rattle off the sponsors who so graciously invested in the conference to make it a success:  South Korean Government, Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Korean Foundation for International Culture Exchange, Korean Creative Content Agency.  These sponsors are a far cry from the traditional sponsor list consisting of musical equipment companies, labels, law firms and venues.  Did anyone see a government identity listed there?

K-pop isn’t a new trend, a new creative concept or simply a new genre.  K-Pop represents a new business model.   It represents a brilliant business model, a model used to drive geographical interest and spawn tourism.  Regardless if Gangnam Style falls off the map in the next 6 months (and chances are it will), K-Pop will not leave anytime soon.  The success and failure of the genre is far larger than label profits because its core foundation is built upon something different- government interest, marketing, pride and culture.

K-Pop has my attention because it’s allowing people to see the tourism model working on a global scale.  The trend is tested on a regional level almost daily, yet often undetected.  Currently in the United States, individual states use music as a tourism mechanism to drive prospective traveler into their region.  Has anyone noticed the growing number of stations promoting “Texas Style Country Music, “ or the amount of radio stations referring to Mississippi born artist such as Faith Hill, Elvis, or B.B. King hailing from “Mississippi, The Birthplace of American Music.”  Doesn’t stop there, Hawaii and Louisiana have also embraced similar musical branding campaigns to distinguish them from the masses.  Artists appear to be taking more pride in their birth region as opposed to their genre fraternity. 2013 will likely bring additional fragmentation to the already niche driven marketplace, taking listeners further and further away from what’s been conveniently branded as “mainstream.”  Couple these shifting business models with what’s taking place with non-traditional labels, and the industry as we know it will be drastically different within the coming years.


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