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Korean Idols are Leading the Hallyu Wave

Korean Idols are Leading the Hallyu Wave

JUNG Tae-Soo

Oct. 28, 2010


Welcome to our video program. I’m Tae-Soo Jung, Research Associate at the Management Strategy department.

Hallyu, or the “Korean wave,” is the phenomenon of high popularity for Korean pop culture in overseas markets. The phenomenon was formerly led mostly by Korean television dramas like “Winter Sonata” or “Jewel in the Palace.”

Now, however, “idol groups” have taken the lead in the Hallyu craze. Idol groups were once considered disposable pseudo singers catering to the teen market, with little more than their looks to trade on. Despite this, Korea's singers have maintained performance and popularity that has far exceeded expectations.

In fact, some say that there is now a “Korean Invasion” much like the “British Invasion” of the US in the 60s, when British rock groups led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominated the American charts.

Market shifts for Korean pop culture show some notable trends. First, the main consumer base for Korean pop culture content is shifting to teenage girls and women in their twenties. Second, the target market for Korean entertainment is expanding beyond China, Taiwan and South East Asia to North and Latin America and the Middle East.

Let’s take the song “Gee,” from the group “Girl’s Generation.” This song was viewed more than 25 million times on You Tube, and analysis of the viewers’ IP addresses indicates that viewers were spread across the globe, including Japan, South East Asia, the US, Europe, Oceania, North Africa and the Middle East. This is in marked contrast to the market for Japanese idol band AKB48, whose debut song got 3.5 million views on You Tube, and whose viewers were concentrated in Japan.

It is now easy to find videos on Youtube where teenagers across the world.in countries like Romania, Brazil, Chile, and Qatar.upload videos of themselves, mimicking

Korean idol bands. This is a surprising new development in the appeal of Korean cultural exports.

Three key ingredients have contributed to the increasingly global success of Korean idol singers.

First, Korean pop culture integrates contributions from multiple cultures. Undeniably, the instruments and techniques of Western pop music are now the mainstream for almost all popular music around the world. The appeal of young Korean singers lies in their ability to absorb Western pop and repackage it in a way that embraces the values of Eastern consumers. This is why people in both Western and Asian cultures can easily embrace K-Pop. Many producers of Korean idol groups base their music on American pop music, furthering its appeal to listeners from different cultures.

The second success factor is the training system in Korean pop. Korean teen singers boast high levels of dancing, vocal, and performance skills. If this sounds spurious, take a look at their videos and compare them with idol groups from other countries. Behind their success is a highly regimented training system that takes years to complete, and includes training in dance, foreign languages, and self-discipline.

The extent of Korea's professional training courses can be a surprise to other countries.

Kazu Koike, President of Universal Music Japan, said in an interview that Korean idols provide a “perfect package”.song, vocals, dancing, and looks, which is hard to find in Japan.

Korea’s training system was originally established as a long-term investment by entertainment agencies, and has since been sustained by the large pool of hopefuls created on the back of the surging popularity of idol groups.

This is well reflected in “Superstar K,” a talent show on Mnet, for which more than 1.3 million people auditioned.

The third secret to the success of young Korean singers is the spread of social media and the global Korean network. Social media, represented by You Tube, enables the world to consume Korean content whenever and wherever they wish. Viewers could only watch highly produced music videos in the past, but now this has changed. Clips recorded when singers were still trainees and during live performances can be accessed via social media, and these showcase the real talent of the singers.

Idol group content spread thru social media has captured the eye of overseas producers, choreographers, and singers, and can serve as a spring board for the young singers to reach out for a broader fan base.

Will I Am, leader of the Black Eyed Peas and one of the top producers at the moment, came across 2NE1’s music video and sent a video message saying he was impressed. He is currently producing 2NE1’s debut album in the US market. In addition to social media, Korean networks across the world of overseas Koreans and students abroad spread Korean content.

Looking at how the new Korean wave is spreading, Korea definitely has a potential to be an Asian culture hub. But, complacency should be avoided. It is certain that the gap between Korea and other countries will narrow going forward.

Networked media and globalization, which has helped boost the new Hallyu wave, can just as easily undo the work that has been done.

The key to sustainable Hallyu is to create distinctive features of Korean pop culture on a continuous basis, and to do that, diverse cultural content should be in place. We need to keep in mind that the sun set on the genre of film noir from Hong Kong because its quality failed to improve while the quantity increased.

Korean idols would not be where they are now if it were not for long-term strategic investments. In this respect, their success is similar to that of global companies based in Korea. Korean companies likewise will need to display a spirit of challenge, while managing risks and engaging in careful planning that leverages their experience.

Thank you for watching. I’m Tae-Soo Jung.

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