Memos from Asia

Kpop Music and its Success at Conquering the World

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Seoul, South Korea – Jul 23, 2018 : Kpop goods selling stall at Myeong dong in Jongno-gu, Seoul city

If anyone said several years ago that the Korean pop music would be recognized and awarded by global charts, and that the Korean music artists would have sold-out world tours and song collaborations with popular American artists, then people would call that person crazy. It seemed like an impossible feat to achieve that time, and for years it proved to be difficult. For decades, the international music charts and awarding bodies have only recognized English singers and songs because of the obvious language constraints that were present between the artists and the audience. It was hard to imagine that Asian music, especially those that were not in English, would be enjoyed by people who did not understand the language.

This past decade, however, has broken this stigma. If you tune in to radio stations, watch musical television shows and listen to music streaming sites and applications, you would see many Korean songs regularly present in the top 100 songs. You would also probably see a couple of song collaborations they have with popular international artists. And just recently, the impossibility of reaching the number 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart was breached by BTS’ latest single Dynamite. (Billboard,

The Korean Music Breakthrough

Korean music has been widely popular outside of their country even before the immense international recognition they are receiving in recent years. Korean idol groups like Super Junior, Big Bang, 2NE1, Wonder Girls, and Girls Generation are some of the few groups who’ve had an international following in the early years. They were able to do concert tours outside of Korea as early as 2008 and has produced a lot of albums over the years that were sold worldwide. In fact, Wonder Girls’ Nobody (English release version) was the first Korean song to enter the billboard top 100 in 2009.

However, although people outside of Asia have been intrigued by the new music genre, the interest had come and gone repeatedly. It was not sustained enough to breakthrough and to open the world fully to their type of music. It was only until Psy’s Gangnam Style where the interest was consistent, and the impact was truly undeniable. Gangnam Style had made it to the top 2 of the Billboard charts and was in it for 31 weeks. At a point, it was also the most viewed music video on Youtube and could be heard everywhere. Even when people did not understand what the song meant, it was funny, catchy and it made the listener happy and entertained.

After this, it was followed by 3 more songs from Psy that made it to the charts in consecutive years. What this success did for the other Korean artists was immeasurable. More people all over the world started to get curious about Korean music. Not only those that were like Psy’s, which would be considered a novelty song, but also those from idol groups that already had scattered followers then. Two of arguably the most popular idol groups today would be BTS and Blackpink. Both groups have had numerous songs trend worldwide, sold-out concerts, music videos that garner a hundred million views in weeks, and a few song collaborations from international artists as well.

The Kpop Idol Journey

The Korean music industry works quite differently from the rest of the world. Although some successful artists were not scouted from schools and there are a couple who won their ticket to the industry through talent shows, most of the artists are not as lucky to have had this route available to them. To even have a shot at becoming an “Idol”, a term widely used to call music artists in Korea, you must put in years of practice, dedication, and patience.

Seoul South Korea – October 19, 2016: Korean pop star idol shop in downtown Seoul South Korea.

Ideally, when you start your idol career, you should begin it in choosing an Art or Music school. Opportunities are available there since it is where talent scouts and agencies would first look. This is not a sure way to get to the next step, but it would increase your chances more than if you were just hoping to get scouted by pure luck. If an agency sees your potential, you would be invited to be a trainee. And true to what it means, they will train you in singing/rapping and/or dancing. Only when they assess that you are ready will you be able to “debut”. Some trainees train for years and never even get a chance to step on stage.

Seoul, South Korea – April 2017: SMTOWN Coex Artium in Seoul, an entertainment space full of meetings and various experiences of SM entertainment stars.

To “debut” in Kpop means that you will be introduced as artists of the agency. You will be recording and performing your debut songs in music channels and do promotions around the country. The agency will then assess how the country reacts to you. If the Korean netizens like you or your group, then they will most probably launch your career. However, if you do not elicit the necessary reaction, your debut might be your first and last chance you have on your dream.

There has always been an interest in the Korean performing and visual arts over the years, may it be in movies, songs, or television shows. The mere effort, artistry, and gamble with time for success that they put in their craft are worthy of praise. The products they produced also proved to fit the taste of a variety of audiences from all over the world. Although it took years, it seems almost inevitable that they would reach this peak.

For a non-English speaking country, like Korea, to produce music that can be appreciated by international audiences, shows how much we have slowly broken language barriers all over the world. That even if we were taught to express ourselves in different languages, we can still communicate our art through other means like music. It is also exciting to think that this just shows us that there is a wide variety of arts, music, and cinema that is available from all over the world that are waiting to be explored.

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