How Sustainable is the Korea-Pop Music Phenomenon?

Among the many topics that have surfaced during the past two months as I traveled about Ireland and the US West Coast, I settled on the below, current report as I have been thinking for months of writing a column on just what the Korea Wave or Hallyu may actually be or not be.

Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) does a decent job in describing what are the results of Hallyu around the world.  The analyst provides a decent account of how these boy and girl acts succeed, but there is no real attempt to explain why Korean pop (K-Pop) has been so popular or at least appear to be so successful.  My initial impressions from many observations and discussions have provided me with some very tentative conclusions.

The most obvious and least surprising success factor for any kind of adolescent or young adult phenomenon is sex appeal or the thinly veiled offering of being seductively attractive to the other young people.  As I have stated in prior KER messages, Hallyu is a thinly disguised rip off in many cases of Japanese boy and girl bands but with upgraded versions of being what we once called “prick tease” sexy rather than simply cute, as in the case of the shy Japanese.

Of course, this does not address why Korean cinema have done so well, but there are some major common denominators.   Both the music groups and the cinema feature remarkably beautiful women and handsome men – many cosmetically enhanced by some of the world’s finest (i.e., Korean) cosmetic surgeons.  These entertainers literally embody what many other Asians wish all East Asians to appear like.  On top of that, many of the movies are well made. But even if the songs are not quite up there or the films less than what one may wish to see, the actors and signers look fabulous.  But what is not so clear is how genuinely popular is Hallyu in sustainable ways.

There have been some big flashes in the pan concerts and television appearances abroad, but I have yet to see major trends outside of the Korean diaspora centers.  Many first, second and third generation Koreans regularly check out Hallyu YouTube videos – and so do their non-Korean ethnic friends. There used to be a saying in Hawaii that one would never see a group of Koreans, but always a Korean in every group.  As Koreans move out of their first generation overseas ghettos, they have become remarkably integrated.

According to my observations in LA’s Korea Town and my conversation with a son who lives there, many non-Koreans who are into Hallyu have or have had an ethnic Korean partner.  All of which brings me to the SERI analysis’ conclusion that implies one should not try to over leverage Hallyu in unnatural promotions, such as promotion of relatively stodgy traditional Korean culture, etc.  Hallyu is essentially about young people and older people reminiscing of what is was like to having once been young.

The challenge is where does Hallyu go from here? According to a long-term Japanese pop cultural observer who will soon be retiring as a university lecturer at a women’s university in Tokyo, when Hallyu first appeared, it really caught the Japanese young people off guard in a very positive way.  But after a couple of years, enthusiasm has begun to wane as both early and newest Hallyu groups stick to the tried-and-true success formulas with little, genuine innovation.   Meanwhile, Korean private and public sector marketers are feverishly promoting Hallyu – often without adequate appreciations of just why the trend has been successful and what challenges Hallyu faces in order for its industry to achieve lasting success.

For Hallyu to have real legs that can promote not only itself as well as other aspects of Korea into the future, Korean artists will need to be more creative than what they have so far exhibited.  While we may debate if that may be possible in corporate controlled entertainment anywhere, ultimately it will be up to Korean artists to act more like the Beatles and less like the Monkees if they are to make a lasting contribution to global pop culture.

Lessons from K-pop’s Global Success
K-pop has entrenched itself as a bona fide phenomenon in Asia and is rapidly extending its reach to new markets. Companies in other industries can benefit from its success by deploying K-pop based products and tourism packages, using K-pop stars as spokesmen, and piggybacking on K-pop’s transnational appeal. Companies can also learn from K-pop’s system of rigorous training and long-term planning.  Report may be found at: Samsung Economic Research Institute (SEO Min-Soo).
You will need to login to SERI Quarterly to see the report.

Post by Tom Coyner.  Senior Commercial Adviser for IPG.

Sean Hayes may be contacted at:

Sean Hayes is co-chair of the Korea Practice Team at IPG Legal. He is the only non-Korean to have worked as an attorney for the Korean court system (Constitutional Court of Korea) and one of the first non-Koreans to be a regular member of a Korean law faculty.

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