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American independent music eyes South Korean market

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Published : 2012-09-11 20:20
Updated : 2012-09-11 20:21

Despite K-pop’s formidable hold on local music scene, demand for wider variety growing


Much of the focus has been on the South Korean music industry’s ability to go abroad, with singer Psy’s unprecedented global success bringing the buzz to a fever pitch.

While the press was zoning in on Psy’s history-making moment, the American Association of Independent Music’s 16-member delegation boarded a plane for Seoul.

A non-profit trade organization representing around 200 U.S.-based indie labels, the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM)’s decision to visit South Korea last week marks a broader shift in the nation’s playing field.

As with any globally successful market, exchange flows both ways.

Having a major U.S. organization seek out business opportunities here signifies the diversification of the domestic South Korean music market, not just overseas, but on home turf as well. 
Ultra Music artist Steve Aoki brings the house down at Asia’s first edition of the global, electronic Ultra Music Festival in South Korea in August. (UC KOREA)

According to A2IM president Rich Bengloff ― who was listed 97th on this year’s Billboard Power 100 ― the association elected to visit Seoul as part of a three-stop, federal-and-state-funded Asia mission from Seoul to Shanghai to Hong Kong for several reasons.

“We talked to a lot of our members,” Bengloff, 58, said. “Most of them weren’t doing anything in Korea.”

In addition to being a somewhat new territory, Bengloff listed South Korea’s relatively high position in the digital music market, the large percentage of smartphone users and the pre-existing niche for overseas music as factors in the decision to make Seoul a part of the trip.

Delegates from prominent independent labels like ATO Records (artists include Alabama Shakes), 335 Records, Inc. (Grammy-award winning artist Larry Carlton) and VP Records (Sean Paul) met with Korean buyers on Friday in Seoul.

“We have introduced our members. Now we are going to spend 15 minutes to see if there is a match.” Bengloff explained how delegates would be meeting with local labels, distributors, mobile companies and other buyers for 15-minute sessions.

“I’m a little bit familiar with K-pop and thought that the industry as it turns out is locally based with just a lot of local acts,” said Stephanie Alexa, 28, of ATO Records, “but I’m surprised and encouraged to know that there’s still a market for outside music and that the fans are wanting to ingest as much as possible, whether it be local or imported.”

A2IM member Ultra Music, in fact, has already seen success on South Korean turf, with Seoul-based performances by label artists Benny Benassi, Calvin Harris, Deadmau5 and Steve Aoki.

Despite the foothold Ultra Music has in the Korean music market, international licensing and business affairs director Adriana Sein, 27, said, “Asia, that sort of market, has been sort of slower for us to tap into and I feel like now it’s the time for us to sort of aggressively start working more with the different label partners in each territory.”

Is now the right time?

“Demand is not big, but there is demand,” said Korean Independent Music Association CEO Kim Min-gyu, who took part in the A2IM Asia Mission to Seoul as a representative for member buyers.

“Their music is in Korea, and music buffs do know their music,” Kim, 41, said of American independent acts.

Record Label Industry Association of Korea president Chan Kim, who also participated in the A2IM Asia Mission, provided some further insight into the matter.

According to Chan Kim ― who also heads his own label, Fluxus Music ― overseas music only takes up around 20 percent of Korean record sales, but there is high demand for live gigs and increasing demand for a more eclectic selection of music.

If K-pop idols formed a huge chunk of the domestic market until 2010, says Chan Kim, then now there is increasing interest in a more diverse array of songs, one that is swiftly becoming apparent through the rapid spike in festivals, club performances and concerts like this year’s first Korea-held edition of the global, electronic Ultra Music Festival, which brought in overseas acts.

“Concertgoers get to experience something new” through these music festivals, says Chan Kim, who credits the current trend embracing live music to the boom in Hongdae’s indie performance culture two years ago.

As for the proliferation of non-Korean songs (i.e. those of Adele and Duffy) belted out during auditions for reality music programs like “Superstar K” and “K-Pop Star,” Chan Kim, 57, agrees that it is fostering an interest in a wider variety of music. “Audition programs did trigger that demand, but only because those needs already existed.”

Is Chan Kim concerned about having more imported music enter the domestic market? No.

Chan Kim voiced the need for exchange: “That is cultural development.”

Though this mission was primarily buyer-focused, A2IM delegate Robert S. Williams, CEO of 335 Records, Inc., said, “The process has to eventually work both ways or it won’t work at all.”

By Jean Oh (oh_jean@heraldcorp.com)

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