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Korea’s culture industry should be as diverse as its culture

We talk a lot about corporate culture, but it’s worth dwelling on how Korea’s dominant corporate structure has affected the arts and the ability of Korea’s artists to succeed.

The success of Korea’s conglomerates in recent years hasn’t been matched by other parts of the economy. Just two companies ― Samsung Group and Hyundai Motor Group ― generated over 30 percent of Korea’s operating profits in the fourth quarter. That’s a tribute to those companies’ innovations and hard work.

But surely Korea has more to offer. It’s certainly true that it’s safer to diversify your base of corporate profits. If you don’t, the dangers can be well summed up by the Wall Street Journal headline “Nokia’s pain becomes Finland’s.” Korea’s government and corporations agree that small and medium-sized businesses, as well as self-employed workers, can boost the stability of Korea’s economy and make it more resilient against any external economic shocks.

And yet the imbalance between large and small continues and is reflected in more than just our corporations. Korea’s “growth pole strategy” is reflected in real-estate development focused on developing Seoul and a few major metropolitan cities, creating a beautiful skyline that rivals that of any major city built on the ruins of war. With regards to sports, the country adopted an “elite sport system” leading to Korean athletes grabbing recognition in sports which very few ordinary Koreans enjoy. At no time did we question the effectiveness of such a strategy, but its limits are now undeniable.

It’s even reflected in Korea’s culture industry, which gave rise to the Korean wave, or hallyu. Top local music labels have innovated and caused the global spread of Korean content by breaking the typical formula for success. However, this field also suffers from an overreliance on a few groups of artists. In the culture industry, where creativity always comes first, a large base with lots of creators is a crucial element for sustainable growth.

Sadly, it seems that Korea’s talent for creating content isn’t matched by the opportunities it has to release that content. A recent survey revealed that there are some 3,000 departments in specialized high schools, universities and graduate schools that teach content production and together they produce about 55,000 graduates every year. However, less than 15 percent of those students find jobs that make use of their education. What a waste!

If we could get those students to treat culture the same way startups treat revenue, that would expand Korea’s cultural base, reduce youth unemployment and, by definition, further the “creative economy” ― a key initiative of the Korean government.

It’s easier for an individual to flourish than ever before. You don’t need a record contract to have people hear your music or a relationship with a radio station to send your song out to millions of people. Thanks to the development of online media channels like YouTube, we’ve seen plenty of individuals ― both at home and abroad ― come online and build successful careers by producing content they love on YouTube. Jung Sung-ha, a young guitar prodigy, started uploading videos of himself playing guitar to YouTube in 2006 at age 10. Thanks to his YouTube channel, he’s now a globally recognized artist with close to 800 million views and 2.4 million subscribers on YouTube. Another successful local YouTuber is Great Library CAST, one of the most influential game partners in Korea. Dong-hyeon Nah has made YouTube his full-time career, earning notable advertising revenue by providing distinctive game broadcast content to audiences in Korea and around the world.

There have been many programs encouraging and supporting IT-based venture firms but very few to support individuals with creative talents. While many people think of the venture industry as exclusively for technology developers, cultural creators are indeed a group of people who can realize “lean startups” that can be launched without many initial costs. That’s why we see a lot of potential for Content Korea Lab, which the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the Korea Creative Content Agency are creating.

Korea needs to build on the global success K-pop has had in using Internet infrastructure and mobile technologies to expand in the global marketplace. The best foundation will be talented creators who feel empowered to sell their work directly to the world, independently of each other.

Brian Suh
Brian Suh
By Brian Suh

This article was contributed by Google Korea. ― Ed.

(Head of YouTube Partnerships, Google Korea)
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