Did K-pop have its 15 minutes, or is this just the beginning?

Even before "Gangnam Style," K-pop talent agencies were making deals with American labels, and now more is to come. How far can K-pop go?
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor

Last weekend, South Korean singer Psy released a new single, "Gentleman," his follow-up to "Gangnam Style," the phenomenon that topped charts in 30 countries last year and became YouTube's most-watched video ever.

While many are curious to see whether Psy can become a viable star outside of Korea, his story is part of a wider attempt by Korean music acts to succeed in the United States. After all, Hallyu, the "Korean wave" of music, television dramas and other cultural products, has come to dominate Asia in recent years. Why not the American market?

Even pre-"Gangnam Style," K-pop (as Korean popular music is commonly called) had shown solid U.S. growth. In August 2011, Billboard launched a K-Pop Hot 100 chart. The same year, K-pop bands sold out venues such as Madison Square Garden, Newark’s Prudential Center and the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. -- all of which seat nearly 20,000 people.

Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based K-Pop creative agency, says from 2009 to 2012, the Korean music export market increased more than sixfold, and for good reason. "The reality is that it’s hard for Korean artists to make money in Korea," Cho says.

Up until a couple months ago, a digital download in Korea would only net a performer two cents; now it’s four cents. In 2012, an artist could have earned 35 times more profit overseas; now he or she can earn 18 times more. Additionally, all three of K-pop's top talent agencies are publicly traded companies, creating pressure to expand outside of Korea. (On Monday, the release of "Gentleman” pushed shares of Psy’s agency, YG Entertainment, to a six-month high.)

While insiders say Psy's success built on the groundwork laid by other K-pop acts, they also credit him with showing them what it takes to break through. As Nick Park, a lawyer in Korea specializing in entertainment, says, "Some of the Korean singers I represent told me that Psy showed them the road. And when you ask them what the road is, they say the social networks -- Facebook, YouTube. They're becoming aware that there's more value in becoming famous online than ever before."

Park says the "road" boils down to four points: First, market well online. Second, speak English well enough to make jokes. Third, there's no need to sing in English -- just make a good song. And fourth, have a catchy dance. As Park says, "Once you have that song and the dance, it can go viral, because everyone is going to try to emulate it."

So now that Psy has shown the way, what's next?

Park says some K-pop agencies are building alliances with U.S. talent agencies. "They're saying, 'We're YG or SM [another top K-pop talent agency]. We have Big Bang or Girls' Generation [two K-pop acts]. We're willing to give you the rights to the U.S. market on a 50/50 or 60/40 or 70/30 basis, and you guys do whatever you can with them and see how it goes.' And when you're talking about the big agencies like William Morris or CAA, they wouldn't handle an artist if they were only to make 30 grand."

But other K-pop observers believe the genre will only ever be a niche in the United States. Mark Russell, author of Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music, and Internet Culture, and a journalist who has specialized in Korean culture since the 1990s, notes by email: "K-pop is a significant and growing niche in the West... but it is still a niche."

Part of the reason for that is because the United States is a more insular market than, say, Europe and South America, where K-pop is achieving more success. But Russell does think K-pop could become a sizable niche, because it gives people an alternative to mainstream Western pop without being too different.

"In a weird way," Russell says, "it reminds me of what the goth music scene was like in the 1980s or so, giving people a chance to be different in a group -- with K-pop having the added bonus of not requiring fans to dress up as unemployable weirdos."

And given that the United States is the world's largest music market, being a substantial niche may be enough.

Girls' Generation (Courtesy of SM Entertainment)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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