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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Korean pop is a music genre originating in South Korea. It is distinctly known for the vibrant melodies and audiovisual elements. In terms of “popular music” K-pop regards to most western genres like rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, electronica & techno. Some may simply describe K-pop as familiar sounding melodies with a string of the Korean language making up the lyrics. K-pop's frenzy of colours and clean cut choreography presents a disordered scene but behind all the three minute audiovisuals are years of work and calculation. Whilst Psy's “Gangnam Style” became known seemingly overnight, it was only after he had spent years cultivating the fame at home along a mass team marketing campaign to break the UK & US. Within this dissertation I will be discussing how K-pop came to be, the Korean wave, the rise of the likes of Psy as well as questioning the future of K-pop world domination.

The history of Korean popular music can be traced to 1885 when Henry Appenzeller, an American missionary began teaching American folk songs at school. These songs were introduced as Changgu, in Korean, and were based on western melodies sung with Korean lyrics. During the Japanese rule from 1910-1945 in Korea, Changgu rose as the Koreans expressed their feelings and stories from the Japanese oppression. After the Korean war US troops were in South Korea for protection, for this reason American and worldly culture in South Korea became more accepted and common. The United Service Organization made it possible for big artists of that generation like Marilyn Monroe and Louis Armstrong to visit stations and perform for the troops in Korea. In 1957 the American Forces Network radio allowed American music to be broadcasted spreading the sound and gaining popularity for Western music, because of this American music influenced Korean music and popular Changgu started to be modeled after American ones. Just as each decade has a prominent genre and sound K-pop very much followed the way. For example, the 1970's iconically known for the hippie and folk songs, the 1980's with the era of ballads and the 1990's for the development of modern K-pop introducing styles like rap, rock, jazz, electronica and techno. It was in the 1990's where K-pop musicians not only gained recognition in the motherland but reached the global scene.

South Korean pop culture has been on the rise in the West for the same time k-pop music rose in the 90's. This rise is specifically called the “Korean Wave” or otherwise known as Hallyu, a term coined by Chinese journalists referring to the significant increase in popularity of South Korean entertainment since the late 1990's. Hallyu is an umbrella term for all things entertainment and beauty encompassing music, movies, drama, online games to Korean cuisine and beauty. Hallyu has hallowed the businesses, culture, and country image for Korea. The Hallyu effect has been extraordinary, contributing to 0.2% of Korea's GDP in 2004, amounting to approximately USD 1.87 billion. More recently in 2014, Hallyu had an estimated USD 11.6 boost on the Korean economy Over the last two decades, South Korea has become extremely rich and beyond it's time. In 1965, Korea's GDP per capita was less than that of Ghana. Today, South Korea is the world's fifteen largest economy.

Some say the pinnacle and height of K-pop so far is Psy's Gangnam Style, the song was released on July 15, 2012, a short 5 months on December 21, 2012, “Gangnam Style became the first ever YouTube video to reach a billion views. The song currently stands at 2.8 billion views. The back story of “Gangnam Style” influence is the place in Korea itself, the Gangnam District of Seoul with the song, in Korean lyrics, referring to the lifestyle in Gangnam where people are trendy and exude a high class persona. A way people of the western world understand this is by comparing Gangnam to Beverly Hills. Gangnam Style has received mixed reviews with praise to the catchy melody, beat and Psy's comical dance moves. By the end of 2012, the song topped the music charts of more than 30 countries including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the UK According to The Wall Street Journal, T-pain was among the first to have “send the video into the stratosphere” when he tweeted about it on July 29. It was then picked up a day after T-pain by Neetzan Zimmerman from the social blog Gawker, who blogged “Did this underground Hip Hop artist from South Korea just release the Best Music Video of the Year”. This soon followed by the likes of Robbie Williams, Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Tom Cruise who either commented or shared the video through online social media.

Despite very many foreign songs becoming viral such as the “Macarena”, Gangnam Style was no organic natural hit with little if any false manipulation of traffic volumes and online mentions. Overall, rather than just celebrity tweets driving the popularity, it was well structured and meticulously executed campaign by the South Korean label behind the song, YG Entertainment.  Paved by the record company behind Psy, YG Entertainment, the video was part of a larger business scheme and goal to break the UK and US music industry. Before the song came to existence, YG set up an office in America finding partnerships with valid artists such as Will.i.Am. A deal between Justin Bieber manager, Scooter Braun also happened preceding the release and was strategically planned to give the music campaign a boost. Pre-Gangnam, YG had over 2.5 million subscribers on their multiple YouTube channels along with a total 1.6 billion combined views of all music video's already released under YG. As YG had the right platforms and audiences to seed a viral campaign, when the best opportunity came along, they alongside Psy, focussed on the song and the video. The video and melody too would have factors to become an online hit, but a hit reaching all genres and territories. Gangnam Style was an eye catching hit, for all ages to be attracted to. Beyond this, language was not a barrier instead like many songs, encompassing a catchy chorus.

Asking the question why a white american would listen to k-pop is like asking, why would a born and bred Russian listen to Justin Bieber. Although when taking into account statistics and history, both questions do not amount the same. English is the 2nd most spoken language in the whole world behind the Standard Chinese language by 548 million people (officially 359 million speakers)  This can only strike up the question why a mere 77 million Korean Speakers (71% less speakers than English) globally can create history with Psy's K-pop hit Gangnam Style. Because of these statistics we can assume that music can cross cultural barriers and induce the same emotions in people despite upbringing and location. As Gangnam Style broke records, the hit became a household name throughout the world despite being sung entirely in Korean. A study in 2015  provided huge insight as to why the song gained the recognition it has, alongside the marketing behind it. The Frontier Journal stated that music was able to escape all lingual barriers and extract the same feelings in individuals. To prevail the language barrier, listeners chose an emotion most closely communicated the feelings the music elicited in them. According to Dr. Hauke Egermann, a researcher taking part in the study to prove so, released a statement to broke it down to

“Certain low-level aspects of music such as tempo (or beat), pitch (how high or low the music is on the scale), and timbre (tone colour or quality)”

Egermann's results help conclude why music is emotional for us, thereafter using his research to help understand the different factors and mechanisms that are at play when music impacts on us. Further on, how music can be used functionally for communication, therapy and marketing.

Although we can ultimately conclude and justify why Gangnam Style became popular through the likes of YG, Scooter Braun and perfect timing, we can only question if K-pop will do so well in the near future, or if it has done so since Gangnam Style. Through a conducted research on 46 people, I myself sought out the percentage of what 18-35 year olds thought about Gangnam Style, there take on it's success and their willingness to listen to music of Korean music alongside other major territories. With 17% of under 18's and 83% of 18-35 year olds, 80% of which are white, we can assume they are monolingual meaning they willingly choose to listen to music they cannot understand. Over 69% listen to foreign music and those of which didn't, explained that they not only connect less with the lyrics but also don't come across foreign music, due to it not being mainstream. This reason in itself is two situations where it proves the point that the 69% who choose to listen to foreign music actively search. Establishing the major music territories / foreign language countries (excluding the UK & US) France, Japan, Korea and Latin, Korea came last in the study of willingness to listen music with 12 votes (26.1%) Although this study does not cover the world and can be London biased, it can be justified that the young adults of London still do not choose to listen to K-pop and for them is merely a passing viral trend.

Despite the study, it doesn't account for the chart topping and sales success. Gangnam Style entered the UK Singles Chart at 196 on September 1st 2012 and in it's fourth week broke top 40 with sales rising 126% week on week. A week later reached top five, eventually the song peaked at number on the week of October 6 . Within the UK the song was the sixth biggest selling single of 2012 with 878,000 sales. Not only was the song the 129th track to sell over a million copies in the UK but also the first million seller by an Asian music star

A more recent success for k-pop was BTS also known as the Bangtan Boys that consist of a 7 piece Korean boyband. They are the first ever Korean band/artist to be nominated a Billboard Music Award and win a Billboard Music Award in 2017, which is a highly acclaimed award show in the US surrounded on the Music Business, known globally. Not only is this accolade big for the K-pop scene but it was a category including the likes of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande and Shawn Mendes.Their nomination for the “Top Social Artiste” award came as no surprise, seeing as they have a total of 9.27 million followers on their two accounts on twitter. BTS is also a strong contender on YouTube, as they currently hold the record for fastest K-pop  music video by an idol (surpassing Psy's Gangnam Style) to reach 11 million views within 24 hours.  Unlike Psy who can be clearly represented as a moulded act who reached stardom, BTS is a one of a kind act in Korea. The k-pop industry is brutal and most of all, manufactured. Those who want to become a star can take an average 5 years of constant training, only of course if you are resilient and are lucky enough to afford training. Before you earn the title of a trainee, you must undergo a strict audition process where all voice, dance moves should be showcase. Not to mention, physique and facial features are strictly commented on. Once successful,, training commences and pre-teen trainees undergo a ton of criticism day in and day out. BTS's music mainly distinguishes themselves from their competition and predecessors. BTS unlike most korean idols, write, compose, produce and remix their own music. This is a rare occurrence in Korea as idols are not involved in the process and only perform. Again, behind the manufactured fact. Due to the very recent accolade picked up by BTS, K-pop being known as a one hit viral song may be stomped over the success and BTS can only be argued that the height of success that Psy reached has been overturned.

The future of any musical region and genre is always unknown but anyone can assume its success thus far and can determine and measure, with valid reasoning. Some may be for Gangnam Style being the pinnacle of K-pop thus far or with BTS being the latest success overriding Psy. Using media coverage, Gangnam Style faced both positive and comical media coverage ranging from blogs, broadsheets all the way to live news stations such as CNN. The average song, despite making the top 10 wouldn't reach the scale of which Gangnam Style was. It's arguable to say that Psy broke the internet and news not just as a audio but for they dance moves involved in the audiovisual. BTS media coverage regarding the Billboard Music Awards was media coverage in itself. The Billboard music awards are watched by millions all over the world and served as great recognition for the band as the award is the band's ground for social acceptance and honour over Psy's only one hit wonder since 2012. Other factors of which can be measured and analysed is money made through sales and publishing, social statistics across all social media and longevity of career. It may be the question of not will someone reach the success of psy but rather has BTS already done so and overrided Psy. We can conclude that both acts are successful and in some ways cannot be pit against or be combined into a category other than just k-pop stars, although my opinion is that the difference between successes was Psy's Gangnam Style was a well constructed marketing campaign which was pushed into the music stratosphere of which people could not escape. BTS was a social award chosen by the people and fans that they thought deserved it. People, in their own right can decide what has been the the best success between both artists although, there can never be a definitive answer as it can all be deemed subjective. For both acts, they each have their strong points regarding the factors mentioned. Whether or not in the future k-pop will be a reoccurring norm in the top 40 can only tell although looking at both BTS and Psy's track record, it can be said that k-pop viral hits or viral news may only ever be “viral” for a hot second.

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