An American In KPop: The American Breakthrough

In case you missed it, here is an easy-peasy link to my introduction for this special. I'll be honest -- this is a long post. FYI.

The proper term for it is Hallyu, or in English The Korean Cultural Wave. That's how sociologists are defining the marketed increase in popularity of Korean exports since the turn of the century. Now ten years into the New Millennium, and in an increasingly tech-saavy global economy, the thirst for the newest, coolest thing is at an all time high. South Korea is officially ranking in the Top 10 of the World's Prominent "Culture" Exporters, due to the global interest in such entertainment as television shows, movies, animation, and, obviously most important for this discussion, music.

South Korea's influence has already had a significance throughout the Southeast Asia area, in particular in China, Japan and Malaysia. While the genre has seen a slight decrease in dollar amount since its vibrant all time high back in 2005 (with an estimated $22 billion gained from exports around the world), overall interest continues to grow at an interesting rate, not just here in the United States, but in South America, India and Europe -- in countries where very few Korean artists have stepped foot to promote themselves.

The question is, is there a sizeable business market for Korean music in the United States -- in particular, music that is not recorded entirely in English and "tweaked" to fit US trends? At the last estimate, South Korea has a population of around 48 million people (the 25th largest population in the world). Compare that to that of my native land however, and the difference is staggering. The United States has a population of almost 310 million (the 3rd largest in the world). For this reason alone, the mere fact that there are more people to potentially sell to should prove an enticing reason to attempt to "break" into the United States. It should be obvious why any musician, from any nation would want to attempt this. South Korean artists in particular have an interesting leg up, as some of their music is already appreciated and celebrated in the country with the largest world population -- China.

Therein, lies the rub. As a music fan, particularly of pop music, the thought that there are markets in the world that are, for all intensive purposes, larger than the US market that are already exposed to this product  makes the wheels in my head turn. Why shouldn't a KPop artist attempt to break here? Plenty of arguments can be made for timing, promotion, image, etc., and I hope to touch on a few of them over the course of this special.

As for timing, I personally feel there is no better time than the present. So much of the KPop music I've been introduced to and enjoy has an inherent pop feel that isn't afraid of heavy production, verging on "electro". It's more than arguable that this niche genre has grown in popularity in the United States in this year alone, thanks to the success of more synthesizer based music (regardless of the artist's true genre) and the shift we are currently experiencing on the Hot 100 away from the pop/rock of the 1990's and pseudo-hip hop of the early 2000's to a new and exciting fusion of many different genres. With the prevalence of Lady Gaga, and the intrigue of the overnight sensation through television programs like American Idol and America's Got Talent (to just name a few), not to even mention the impact of the YouTube, Twitter and electronic world-of-mouth, there is no better time than the present.

That said, to say that what works commercially in South Korea (and indeed Asia on the whole) will absolutely work commercially in the United States is ridiculous -- we all know that isn't true. The Asian market on the whole is much more accepting of more bubblegummy, saccharine pop music, much more so than the United States wants to admit to (the "failure" of V Factory's "Love Struck", anyone?). However, the Disney Effect has proven itself time and time again since it's big Hot 100 breakthrough with the beginning of the High School Musical franchise in 2006 (although it can be argued it started even earlier with Lizzie McGuire and Hilary Duff's musical success) -- and this type of market demographic (read: tweens, young teens, parents and "older" folks like yours truly) has a large potential to embrace the more saccharine versions of pop if it was promoted correctly. More on that later.


The wheels are already in motion for this genre to gain a true footing in the United States -- indeed, a footing already exists, once you know what you're looking for. The London based music social networking website (and my BFF) Last.FM, although arguably has users from around the world, is seeing a buzzworthy number of "scrobbles" (or song plays) by artists under the KPop genre, with an impressive number of songs available for free listening when listening to the "KPop" tagged radio stations. Several artists already have established worldwide fanclubs with an impressive number of US-based fans, despite never performing here. The interest is gaining, not waning, however how this interest will be translated into an American release still seems to be a bit of a working enigma.

The first tangible effort for an American breakthrough by a South Korean artist brings me to discuss Rain (see the above picture to your left), popular as not just a musician, but also as an actor and a model. He was initially brought to worldwide buzz thanks to a mention in Time Magazine as an influential part of our "world" in 2006, which led to a handful of live performance dates in New York and Las Vegas (as well as a relatively unremembered duet with  Omarion, that was unceremoniously left off the US release of Omarion's sophomore solo album) -- and tickets for both sold out in record and astonishing time. The following year, he was included in People Magazine's "Most Beautiful" list. Awareness was out there, but I suppose the awareness on a general consensus level was less about his music and more about what he represented. His career got mired down with issues with his representation, JYP Entertainment, as well as difficulties of promotion and release in the USA due to the name "Rain" being trademarked by an already established and signed band under the same name. Despite the issues, Rain has released five albums in his home country, and various versions in other countries, and recently played a part in the mentoring of current KPop boy band MBLAQ, who debuted last fall.


To this day, none of Rain's music made much of an impact in America in a chart-sense, and for now, he is more known for his acting work (he had large roles in Speed Racer, and most recently Ninja Assassin -- although even with that, his work as a performer/actor is not appreciated on a name-only basis) and being a recurring subject of irritation (and hilarity...in a positive way) of  comedian Stephen Colbert on his parody news show, The Colbert Report. Take a look at this video of Colbert briefly discussing Rain on The Today Show in 2008 (toward the end, around the 4:45 mark). And to truly wrap your head around the disconnect between the Asian popularity of KPop and America's vague understanding of it, I invite you to laugh yourself silly with the below video, again from The Colbert Report. Who'd have thought KPop would find an ally in a comedian specializing in politics? ::shrugs:: Whatever works.




Around a similar time, rumors began swirling of a US album release by female KPop-star BoA, one of the flagship artists for Korea's SM Entertainment, under a newly formed US-based label subsidiary. I'll be discussing her next.

As always throughout this special, I highly suggest you visit Pop Reviews Now for more indepth analysis. I would also like to point you to these sources for more information: here, here and here.

1 comment

Nikki said...

That's sort of why DBSK were so different when they started a career in Japan - they didn't go as Hallyu stars. They were just another 5 guys in a sea of Japanese acts, when they were selling 20,000 tickets in Korea they were performing for 200 in Japan. If they had went as Hallyu stars they would've been known much quicker but without the respect and popularity they have right now.

And I like that China point. Hahah.

And the former Rain fan in me is coming out. It's 5 studio albums in Korea, 1 in Japan. As far as I know he didn't have issues directly with JYP, he just left. JYP just let him go and I heard something about him actually giving Rain advice on MBLAQ (who suck. lol.)

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