How South Korea Is Disrupting The Modern Music Market7 min read


An opinion piece by CEO Klaus H. Wilch

Historic Times For K-Pop And The Music Industry

Most of you reading this probably haven’t picked up on it yet, but we’re currently witnessing and experiencing a noticeable shift in the modern global pop music scene. The rise of South Korean seven-member boy group BTS(Bangtan Boys/Bangtan Sonyeondan) perfectly illustrates this.

Interestingly enough, they only recently reached the №1 spot on the US Billboard 200 Album Charts in June 2018 and their Album ‘Love Yourself: Tear’ is the first foreign-language album to top the Billboard 200 in a 12-year consecutive period.

Even the South Korean president congratulated and lauded that the songs, dances, and enthusiasm of the group energizes and gives strength to young people around the world.

Given this huge achievement, one can easily, without exaggeration, state that K-Pop has now finally come into mainstream attention all while growing an unstoppable fan base.

When compared, all of this is actually quite the contrast to the first time a K-Pop artist received global attention, namely the mega-sensation hit “Gangnam Style” by Psy. Which really was just more of a one-time viral internet phenomenon, whereas BTS is now gradually becoming an international household artist name.

Surprising? Not that much at all methinks.

In my opinion, this was only a matter of time. Almost a year ago, we already anticipated that a K-Pop group like this would emerge and achieve a major international breakthrough. After all, timing and circumstances have never been better than in 2018.

The Power Of “The K-pop Approach”

So how exactly did this group get to where they are today?

Talent? Good looks? The awesome fans? A mixture of everything?

Yes, all of the above of course. However, you have to look very closely at the origin of how these groups were actually built and how they became so accomplished.

First, all of them, are the result of a well organized, well-oiled machine and framework, namely the “entertainment houses” with the likes like SM, YG, LOEN, Big Hit Entertainment and many more. These systematically cast the best young talent in singing and dancing and provide everything required for success in one place.

There they guide and develop this raw talent into a sexy, cool & also commercially viable “product” that possesses all kinds of different traits crafted to fascinate and excite huge audiences.

Furthermore, the ambitious goal is to be on point in all aspects. This is done by having the best-of-the-best coaches, experts, and instructors from diverse fields like performance, skills, branding, marketing, psychology, business, etc. operations ready in one place.

Looking Into The Past

Let’s move away from what the industry looks like now and travel back in time to the late 90s, where the very first “Generation 1.0” of these entertainment houses existed. Back then the whole industry was frequently — not purely unjustified — heavily criticized.

Critics especially commented on the lack of innovative artists and how the “soulless” or uncreative marionettes were forced into slave contracts; resulting in talent being forced into doing things that weren’t coherent with their character.

It came to nobody’s surprise when inevitably the result of this was burnout, groups disbanding and also a commercial failure in the long run.

Be the past as it may, the golden second generation and era of “Manufactured Talent 2.0” from the 2000s onwards, have made some crucial adjustments. Entertainment companies like Big Hit Entertainment with BTS, realized early on that long-term sustainability is about further developing this initial approach into a collaborative platform system, where the talent and management work together hand-in-hand as one cohesive unit.

I invite you to read more about what Big Hit Entertainment’s approach is here.

How To Make These Systems Work

I know that some of you reading this are probably thinking that setting up a system like this, let’s call it “the K-Pop approach”, is relatively simple. Maybe some of you actually even think that this is what your regular management or label does for you period.

However, I’ve got some disappointing news…

Creating and making these systems work requires an incredibly high level of maturity, trust, understanding, discipline, effort, attention to detail and dedication that needs to be shared by both sides.

For instance, the “management” needs to understand the individual needs, strengths and also weaknesses of each of their artists/performers and should not lead by force but by great guidance (mentoring and coaching). The management should also provide the basic framework, roadmap and direction but should still allow enough creative freedom and input of the talent itself. It’s the art of fine balance and silver lining.

On the other hand, this ONLY works if the talent is actually “coachable” and has proper trust in the process as well as the creative and strategic capabilities of the management.

To improve any skill requires humility and a good chunk of self-awareness.

Again, this might all sound so simple and prevalent. Unfortunately, especially in the music/entertainment business, it really isn’t. The defaults for instance very often are:

  • Huge Egos and unstable personality traits
  • Lacking self-awareness, drive or discipline
  • “Megalomania“ coupled with “I’m a star already“ = entitlement
  • “The others are here just to serve me“ = diva mind frame
  • “I’m already an artist who knows everything“ = not coachable

and so on…

Things of that nature really make it impossible to work together; especially in a trusting and constructive manner. And, for those individuals, I’d recommend to walk the path alone and see where they end up.

Becoming A Great Artist Over Time

Going beyond that I would actually argue that one should always consider themselves an entertainer first, and perhaps only later, others may start to call you an artist.

I believe that having the mindset of calling yourself an artist right away creates this delusional pedestal that one then tends to put themselves on.

Even worse is when one tries to defend their mediocre “art” from critics because “if the others don’t like it, then they don’t get it.”

I know that opposing opinions will exist, but in my honest opinion, only if others start calling you an artist, only then should you carefully adapt this word into your vocabulary.

Notably, within the K-Pop talent approach, most young talents also start out predominantly as brilliant performers. However, throughout the years of following the systematic support, training, development, and consistently performing, these talents will then eventually also find the sweet spot and their own true artistic identities.

Eventually, the evolution from “just” being a “performer“ to real “artist“ will happen. But as already mentioned, this takes time, patience and dedication.

Also, as a side note, most people don’t even know that the Beatles, maybe the most successful boy band of all time, were good performers first. Before any label would even touch them they played cover songs for years as a group, thus gaining experience and self-confidence before starting to find their own artistic identities.

Where Else This System Can Be Found

To make this concept easier for people to understand, I occasionally compare “the K-Pop Approach” to professional sports; namely soccer, basketball and so on.

This is also really one of the only areas where this approach is widely supported and a perfect example to demonstrate how effective it can be. Similarly, talent is also discovered and scouted at a young age and following that, systematically developed up into “debuting”.

This system has been perfected and proven to consistently spit out the best of the best, with most of the athletes having incredible careers. Of course, as with most things, there is also a dark side of the moon. But overall, the comparison really demonstrates how effective an almost identical approach can truly be.

How Is The West Keeping Up?

I’d argue that the times of the last real pop stars have vanished to a very high degree over the last few years or so.

Sure, you still have a handful of artists that I would consider fit to take on that term. Yet nothing overly groundbreaking has really been established from the West over the last 2–3 years or so.

I mean, with predominantly antiquated processes and outdated systems, it’s not really all that surprising why that’s the case. If you look at the entertainment houses in Asia, they’ve really perfected this approach of artist “grooming“ and developing talent from great performers into strong artists.

The Western music industry, however, is really stuck in an old process that’s very inefficient, time-consuming, often based on luck and chance all to hit some quarterly sales target.

Especially the component of “luck” can be systematically minimised by adopting principles of “the K-Pop approach”.

And thus our thesis is pretty straight-forward:

“…a well-organized system that provides access to key resources and consists of daily structured management and long-term development as well as a professional core team will in most cases beat a loosely organized and distributed group consisting of poorly aligned incentives/clarity.”

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