Seoul Music: The Secret World Of Asian Pop
There’s a whole other pop world out there that most of us don’t even realise exists, which is surprising, because the world’s Korean and Japanese pop fans are so passionate and crazy about their idols that the screams of Beliebers and One Directioners alike are less than a mere whimper in comparison to the young teens who pour squillions of dollars into this often unheard-of music scene.
K-pop and J-pop stars are the Asian equivalent of teen idols, from not only today, but years past. They can dance in synchronisation, sing about the opposite member of sex and dictate the latest fashion trends just as well as their western contemporaries – if not more so.
They’re followed by cameras constantly, if not from a fan’s iPhone, then for their very own reality TV show.
Littered with autotune, R&B beats, and large dollops of bubblegum pop, these K-pop and J-pop stars accelerate teenage hearts with their irresistibly catchy and incredibly corny brand of music.
Their YouTube hits alone rival the world’s biggest pop stars and their record sales would have any label executive green with envy.
Despite being relatively unheard of by the majority of music lovers in Western society, these Asian idols are definitely not lacking in popularity.
South Korean group Girls’ Generation hold the record for the most watched K-pop video on YouTube for their song ‘Gee’, with over 80 million hits.
The video for South Korean rapper PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ (see above) went viral just over a month ago and at the time of writing has already surpassed the 70 million mark.
To give some context – that’s bigger than Lady Gaga’s video for ‘You and I’ which currently sits on just over 58 million views.
Cringe as much as you want, but the only difference in popularity between J-pop and K-pop’s biggest stars and the likes of One Direction, is that it hasn’t originated from a Western country.
These two respective scenes are widely regarded as having been birthed out of the 90s, when popular Western music styles started to be adopted by large entertainment companies in the East.
Now in 2012, the scene has become a well-oiled machine that churns through local talent and turns the entertainers of their area into cash-cows.
In South Korea companies such as JYP Entertainment and SM Entertainment put talented youngsters through what is regarded as an ‘apprenticeship’.
Over two or more years the ‘trainees’ are transformed into a marketable pop star, normally as a member of a boy or girl band, ready to join the burgeoning Korean Wave of acts infecting not only Asia – but the world. Simon Cowell doesn’t look so bad by comparison after all.
They’re often signed to long-term contracts which has, in the past, lead to disputes. Han Geng, a former member of Super Junior didn’t want to stick around for the full 13 years of service he had signed on for, telling the media at a press conference as he launched his solo career that he left the pop group “for his pride.”
His attorney also stated that his contract with SM was unlawful, that he was forced to do things against his will and among other issues – that the entertainment company’s refusal to give him a day off in two years had lead to the singer developing gastritis and kidney disease.
It demonstrates just how ruthless the K-pop treadmill can be. It’s also commonplace that most K-pop acts will record albums not just in Korean, but in Japanese and sometimes even Chinese. This has the potential to essentially triple their market share, rather than being resigned to their home countries as many foreign language artists are forced to.
Not only that, but each act usually churns out a slew of EPs, live albums and singles.
For example, since their inception in 2005, Hip-hop group Big Bang have released six studio albums, five live records and seven EPs.
If those releases weren’t enough for the fans to get their paws on, some acts - such as the 12 member strong boy band Super Junior – even split off into ‘sub-units’ to record even more material.
The trend towards recording albums in English is a more recent one though, as entertainment companies are increasingly looking towards Western markets for a further slice of the pie.
SM Entertainment toured its prized stable of acts – such as Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and SHINee - internationally, selling out New York’s 18,000 capacity Madison Square Garden in 2010.
Just last November, Sydney’s ANZ Stadium was flail central as ‘K-pop Music Fest’ – unbeknownst to most – brought out acts like Girls’ Generation and SHINee to our shores for the very first time.
Even more recently, K-pop aficionado Jay Park announced a tour for September, taking in Sydney’s Enmore Theatre and Melbourne’s Dallas Brooks Centre. VIP tickets – ranging from between $119 and $159 – sold out in minutes.
This all happened with little interest from news outlets (us included), but with social media and YouTube as a springboard, K-pop and J-pop will never have to beg for attention.
J-pop has had less of an international rise in comparison to its Korean counterparts as the Japanese popular music industry is more concerned with its domestic audience than the allure of the international dollar.
One company, Johnny’s Entertainment, even went as far as to actively delete every promotional video of their artists from YouTube. A mind-boggling action, yet when you consider the country’s biggest act’s success relied on physical sales, it’s a little less surprising.
That’d be AKB48, so named for originating from Tokyo’s Akihabara district – who generated a staggering $200 million intake from record sales last year. Mostly likely sold from the all-girl group’s own personal store located in the district.
To put things in perspective, look towards Forbes list of the highest paid musicians in 2011.
U2 sit at the top with $195 million in earnings. Sure, the 64 members of AKB48 wouldn’t be getting paid anywhere near as much as Bono and friends, but consider that the pop group achieved those figures in Japan alone – without even factoring in earnings from merchandise or concert revenue.
Who needs Lady Gaga, One Direction or Justin Bieber when there's a whole breadth of unashamedly catchy pop music coming from our Asian friends in Japan and South Korea. We’re talking about K-Pop and J-Pop and the following bands and solo artists are the stars of their industry. They have fan bases that would put Directioners to shame and make money that rivals the world's biggest acts. Here are the biggest and best of the oft-forgotten K-pop/J-pop worlds. Watch this slideshow »