While South Korea is a vital part of the growing economic boom in Asia, the country of nearly 50 million people is exporting more than just consumer electronics and cars these days. Its native popular music, universally known as K-pop, is also finding a growing international audience in places such as the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. And in other Asian markets, including Japan, it's already big business.
In major U.S. cities such as Chicago, Atlanta and Houston, K-pop concerts have sold out venues seating 1,700 to 2,500 music fans. In 2011 the nine-member dance-pop group Girls' Generation performed to a sold-out audience, along with other K-pop acts, at New York's hallowed Madison Square Garden. And in Los Angeles, the Korean Music Festival has been a part of the concert season at the 17,000-plus capacity Hollywood Bowl for the past 10 years. Held this year on April 28, the festival featured performances from Korean artists such as Brown Eyed Girls, Im Tae Kyung, Kim Kyung-Ho, and Lena Park, among others.
Christine Ha, a reporter for Los Angeles' The Korea Times, presenters of the annual Korean Music Festival, says the festival now attracts approximately 30 percent non-Koreans.
"We noticed [the growth in audience diversity at the Hollywood Bowl shows] about two or three years ago," says Ha. "It includes the Hispanic community, the Chinese community [and] other Americans … We always sell out."
The sizable Korean-American population in cities such as Los Angeles is certainly helping to fuel the popularity of K-pop in the United States, but the stateside K-pop audience stretches beyond Asian-American demographics.
"When we performed in Los Angeles, New York and Paris, we were shocked and surprised to see that the majority of our fans were non-Asian," says Sunny of Girls' Generation. "That is when we realized how big and influential K-pop was [becoming] around the world."
Joon Ahn, executive vice president for the music business division at Korea's CJ Entertainment & Media, says K-pop first emerged in the '90s with ballad crooners such as Kim Gun Mo and Shin Seung Hun. The first decade of the new millennium has seen the emergence of new stars such as Girls' Generation, Big Bang, Super Junior, and Wonder Girls, with the latter opening for the Jonas Brothers in 2009.
As the international audience for K-pop has broadened, so has its stylistic boundaries, says Ahn. Hip-hop, rock and techno are now freely embraced by some artists in the movement. Snoop Dogg performed on the title track of Girls' Generation's 2011 album, The Boys; Kanye West appeared on JYJ's "Ayyy Girl" in 2010; and the Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am will reportedly produce the U.S. debut album by K-pop group 2NE1, an all-female hip-hop group.
Today, many K-pop artists are setting their sights on the international market right away. And while the preparation that some go through is reminiscent of the rigorous artist development practices employed by Barry Gordy's Motown Records in the '60s, Ahn believes this attention to detail has contributed to the success of many of these groups.
"In recent years, Korean artists have planned their overseas activities as soon as they make their local debut," says Ahn. "Therefore, vocal training, dance rehearsals and physical workouts are only the beginning. Lessons in foreign languages and etiquette are given as well."
Some K-pop performers are recruited from other countries such as Thailand, China, Japan, and the United States. Tiffany of Girls' Generation was born Stephanie Hwang in San Francisco. NichKhun of K-pop boy band 2PM, who was born and partly educated in Southern California and is of Thai-Chinese descent, feels it's a benefit to have members in a group that can fluently speak and sing in other languages, particularly English.
"It is a big advantage having two English speakers in our group," notes NichKhun.
"It's Taecyeon and me. To be able to communicate with the fans is very important. So if 2PM ever makes a debut in English-speaking countries, we can connect with the fans better."
Ahn believes the growth in digital media is a major reason why K-pop has become a global entity. The video for the Girls' Generation 2009 single "Gee" has been viewed more than 73 million times on YouTube. The song became the longest-running No. 1 song on the Korean Broadcasting System's chart, and their self-titled album, released in Japan in June 2011, went double platinum, a first for a Korean girl group.
"The channel for movement of music is now very simple with digital," Ahn observes. "Even the file size is convenient for it. Compared to movies, musical theater, or TV series that have a bigger language barrier, music's appeal is communicated through rhythm and visual impact. YouTube and other social networks have contributed the most to spreading music of all kinds and allowing them to be heard [by] a greater audience."
With commercial success comes increased competition. It's been said that even a few months out of the spotlight can spell trouble for a successful K-pop group because there are many artists clamoring for attention.
"The K-pop scene is very competitive because there are so many people who are talented and younger who also want to be a part of the scene," says NichKhun. "Recently, we have been away working on our album in Japan and we're already starting to see so many new young groups. So we have to make sure to maintain our popularity in Korea while expanding to other markets, which doubles or triples the work. It is not easy."
Adds Tiffany, "Now with most groups trying to expand and break through into other markets and territories, the competition is that much stronger. So we are so thankful to our fans for supporting us."
Questions remain regarding K-pop's potential for growth and influence. Will the scene be able to generate artists for the ages similar to the Beatles and Michael Jackson, who both moved from being teen idols to timeless international artists? While that remains to be seen, K-pop artists are certainly reaping the benefits of the genre's current success.
(Jon Matsumoto is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.)