'Every big label wants to sign a K-pop act,' experts say

Girl group Viviz performs at the Shinhan pLay Square in Hapjeong, western Seoul, as a part of the annual music get-together MU:CON on Friday. [KOCCA]

Is K-pop really as successful as we’ve been saying it is? Yes, say experts from around the world.

Koreans have always taken K-pop with a grain of salt, even as K-pop acts started making headlines worldwide in the late 2010s, lest it all have been a big fuss built upon false hopes of an industry seeking growth and expansion.

But according to speakers at Korea's largest music industry get-together MU:CON, the plethora of news reports and chart dominations from the last few years are proof that K-pop is in fact lucrative — and it’s time to stop being suspicious and believe the stories that the numbers are telling us.

MU:CON is an annual pop music festival hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Creative Content Agency (Kocca), aimed at bridging the gap between producers, artists and audiences alike, while also providing a space for communication and business opportunities for various players.

Music experts speak at the annual music convention MU:CON, hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korea Creative Content Agency (Kocca), which ran from Tuesday to Saturday. [KOCCA]

This year the festival focused on the globalization and localization of K-pop using the best of technology and data to target the global market that has become enamored with K-pop and K-music in the last few years.

During the five-day run from Tuesday to Saturday, executives from some of the world's biggest music tech companies spoke on different topics surrounding K-pop, but with the same message: K-pop is indeed successful.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with three speakers at the conference to talk more about the globalization of K-pop through the lens of songwriting, data and tours: Robin Jenssen, Norwegian songwriter and CEO of music tech company Sparwk, Chaz Jenkins, chief commercial officer (CCO) at Chartmetric, and Daniel Ha, founder and CEO of tour agency Kohai.

The cool kid of the town

“No one understood what I was doing 10 years ago, but I’m the cool guy now,” said Jenssen, who has been working with K-pop artists for over a decade.

Robin Jenssen, Norwegian songwriter and founder of production platform Sparwk, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Grand Hyatt Seoul hotel in central Seoul [KOCCA]

His first-ever K-pop song was a 2009 hit that led a craze not just in Korea but influenced hundreds of young Asian girls to join K-pop agencies as trainees in subsequent years — "Gee" by Girls’ Generation.

Just 10 years ago, his colleagues were confused by his decision to work with lesser-known K-pop singers halfway across the globe. Now, they’re asking him how he did it and how they can jump on the trend.

Jenssen has taken part in producing some 700 songs for K-pop acts, especially those signed to SM Entertainment. Of his songs, 160 have made it to the U.S. Billboard charts, leading to 60 million copies of albums sold in total, according to Kocca.

“The value of K-pop is very high; every big label out there wants to sign with a K-pop act and we’re talking about the biggest music companies like Republic Records, Universal Music and Sony,” he said.

“Labels either want a deal with a K-pop act or they want to have a K-pop act to feature in their U.S. or U.K. acts so that they can get a bigger audience in Asia. They see the value of actual listeners and fandoms in the region and they want to utilize the fandom that the K-pop acts have.”

The success of K-pop comes both ways, according to Jenssen. For the producers, K-pop pays more than any other genre. And for the fans, K-pop is more than just a music genre but a group of all the cultures that allows them to engage beyond just listening to the music.

“You have to spend money to make money, and K-pop has done that,” Jessen said. “What the Western world spends on the whole album, you spend on just the music video. Then there’s money you spend on choreography, the song and more. That’s why you win and they lose.”

Girls' Generation [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

“K-pop is not a genre of music, it’s a culture,” he continued. “It’s just a name of a cultural wave that you have that includes all genres. It’s an entertainment package that has everything in it. The food, movies, TV, fashion — it’s a whole group of cultures around it that makes it super interesting for the young people. You simply can’t not like K-pop.”

Businesses tied to K-pop have also become role models in recent years, especially through the pandemic, Jenssen said. Online concerts were attempted in the early stages of Covid-19 distancing guidelines, but K-pop was the only market that succeeded in making money out of the online concerts.

Virtual singers and metaverse projects taking place in the Korean pop entertainment scene were also trailblazers, he said, adding that the 15-second short-form videos on TikTok are in fact a challenge for everyone — but that it can also be an opportunity if done well.

“It is a challenge because it’s like making a commercial on TV,” he said. “It has to be catchy and understandable at the same time. It has to be cool but also relatable. What you need to do is build a concept around it, whether that be through a dance routine like Girls’ Generation’s ‘Genie’ [2009] and its leg-kick dance or EXO’s ‘Wolf’ [2013] and the wolf-ear merchandise.

“It’s hard to come up with and it’s totally different from what we’ve been doing in the past. A Beetles song would never have worked on TikTok, even though it’s an amazing song. It’s just now right for the market. You need a concept and a format. It’s hard, but once you understand, you will be very good at it.”

Chaz Jenkins, chief commercial officer (CCO) at Chartmetric, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Grand Hyatt Seoul hotel in central Seoul [KOCCA]

Numbers don’t lie

One thing that K-pop has done especially well compared to other countries’ music is targeting what are called “trigger cities” around the world to get a head start, according to Jenkins.

Chartmetric is a music tech company that offers an all-in-one data service by gathering and analyzing data from different online platforms including Instagram, Facebook, X - formerly known as Twitter - YouTube, Spotify, TikTok, Pandora and more. It is used by musicians to figure out where their consumers are and for investors to put a value on an artist or a music company.

In 2019, CCO Jenkins introduced an idea called trigger cities where certain markets tend to “trigger” the global streaming streak for music and start a trend faster than any other region in the world. Get heard and shared in these trigger cities, then your music will be much more likely to ride the international wave.

“Korea has been very successful with K-pop and a lot of that success comes from always putting a lot of effort into reaching the bigger audience outside of Korea,” he said.

Boy band Trendz performs at the Shinhan pLay Square in Hapjeong, western Seoul, as a part of the annual music get-together MU:CON on Friday. [KOCCA]

Contrary to artists in English-speaking cultures, namely the United States or the United Kingdom, who took it for granted that their music will be heard elsewhere, Korea geared up its export engine by creating songs in different languages and touring overseas, slowly building up the market that we know today.

“K-pop has been particularly trying to reach Southeast Asia and the Latin American countries,” he said, pointing out that major triggers are located in these cities in the southern hemisphere.

“If you reach the Latin American countries, then you get the Spanish-speaking audience. One-third of the people in the U.S. speak Spanish, so they naturally grow into the U.S. market as well.”

According to Kocca, the export volume of the Korean music market came in at $664.3 million during the latter half of 2022, which was 121.4 percent higher than the first half of 2022 and 23.6 percent higher than the same period last year.

Increasingly K-pop groups are debuting with Southeast Asian members and releasing songs with Spanish titles or lyrics — and this needs to keep on happening, Jenkins says.

“In the southern hemisphere, people share much more with their friends on social media,” he said. “They listen to a new song or an artist because my friend shared it online, not because I necessarily like the song or the artist but because I like my friend. The countries in the southern hemisphere are the big marketplaces where people can discover more music and lead to the growth of the music.”

Daniel Ha, founder and CEO of U.S. concert and tour organizer Kohai, during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the Grand Hyatt Seoul hotel in central Seoul [KOCCA]

Take it on tour

After all the analysis is done online, artists ultimately need to tour and see the fans for themselves, according to Kohai’s Ha.

Although K-pop has mastered the art of building fandoms in the online space, it’s crucial for artists to go on tour to put an actual face on the digital presence, especially for up-and-coming artists who wish to grow their fan base.

Kohai is a concert agent that specializes in organizing U.S. performances for Korean artists including Jay Park, Paik Ye-rin, pH-1, DRP and more.

“If you want to build a fan base, you have to be there in person,” he said. “You can’t just do video calls and social media all the time. There comes a point in time where you being there physically amplifies everything else.”

The sheer cost of a tour is exponential, especially since K-pop acts require a bigger number of stylists, promoters and managers with them to put on a stage compared to other pop bands. The increased cost of logistics and labor has led to the increase in global ticket prices, a phenomenon that Ha says is inevitable for both companies and consumers amid global inflation.

Still, money needs to be invested to truly expand a fandom, Ha says.

Concertgoers await outside the Rolling Hall music venue in Hongdae, western Seoul, on Friday ahead of the free concert held as a part of the annual music get-together MU:CON. [KOCCA]

“Fans flock to live events,” he said. “Right after Covid-19, we found out that we couldn’t replace that human interaction you get at a gathering like a concert. Humans instinctively want that closeness to each other, to their idols and to their music.”

Getting a good agent is also crucial, Ha says. The subtleties that are overlooked during the organizing process can lead to bigger problems, starting from knowing where the bathrooms are at the venue to visas and tax receipts.

“This is true for anybody who wants to do business in the U.S., it being one of the most difficult countries to get a proper visa, with rules continuously changing with every administration,” Ha said.

“A visa is one of the biggest investments for any artist, whether you’re in K-pop, indie or hip-hop. It should really be a priority but it’s difficult to think of it. You can rush it in two months but it’s always best to start six months in advance.”