In 1998, a group of entertainment insiders gathered at the French vacation spot of Cannes to attend Midem, an international entertainment market. About 20 groups from the local cultural content market participated.
“We returned with less than positive responses,” recalled Lee Gyeong-hee, a former journalist and YG Entertainment executive, at the Global Culture Exchange Forum held on Jan. 31 at Press Center in downtown Seoul.
In 2013, a total of 67 parties participated in the same event. Things have changed.
“At the reception desk we received requests for meetings and aspiring pop stars left their sample CDs every day,” Kim Min-seok, an official at the Korea Creative Contents Agency, told The Korea Herald.
Psy (Yonhap News)
The highlight of the event was Korean pop-sensation Psy attending the grand opening and receiving an honorary award at the NRJ Awards. Psy, who has stayed at the No. 2 spot on the U.S. Billboard Chart for seven straight weeks and topped the charts of nearly 20 countries around the world, said, “I can see, ‘Am I famous in France?’” and was greeted by a flurry of shouts.
It’s not only Psy. Thousands of people are uploading videos of themselves dancing to K-pop hoping to be picked up by Korean talent agents. Japanese, Chinese, American and other foreign “budding stars” are knocking on the door of Korean showbiz to be recognized in Japan, China, other Asian countries, some parts of Europe, America and even the Middle East.
“It is the renaissance of Korean culture. When have we ever been so welcomed?” said Park Gil-sung, chairman of the World Association for Hallyu Studies.
The government, businesses and even academia are gearing up to study this unusual phenomenon. What is hallyu and where does it stand today?
Born as craze, continues success
According to the Hallyu White Paper released by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the term “hallyu” was coined by a Chinese newspaper in 1999 describing the Korean TV drama and pop music boom among Chinese youth.
Since then, the term has been used to describe all “victories Korean cultural content has garnered overseas.”
Even Korean culture experts assumed the boom would subside soon but year after year, from TV dramas to movies to pop songs, the Korean pop culture boom is growing stronger. According to the white paper, Korea sold $228 million worth of television content, $196 million in music content, $15.8 million in films and $2.3 billion in online games overseas in 2011. More than 3.3 million people have registered with various fan clubs for hallyu stars around the world.
Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo
Lee Byung-hun (BH Entertainment)
Industry insiders attribute the phenomenal success of hallyu to its well-structured production system.
Ahn Suk-joon, head of the music business division of CJ E&M, one of the largest entertainment firms here, said the well-furbished nurturing system worked well.
“From planning to training and management of their future activities, we have created a system of nurturing artists according to individual characteristics and market needs,” he said at the global forum.
Some suggested passion as the main driver.
“I was impressed with Korean singer Rain’s motto, ‘Sleep when you die.’ I think such absolute energy of K-pop is the reason for the success,” said Patrik Messerlin, a professor of Economics at Sciences Po Paris at the same forum.
The early adoption of a social media-oriented marketing strategy also gave Korean showbiz an edge since its counterparts in the U.S., Japan and Europe were slow to use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
The global internet giant Google has been running a K-pop section, which is a rare “PR privilege” allowed to a handful of entertainers outside the U.S. YouTube has also been a useful gateway for Korean pop stars to present their content without the “help” of traditional media outlets and to approach a broader range of fans directly.
“We have to remember that YouTube and K-pop groups benefited each other and became a very successful model,” said John Hirai, head of music partnerships at YouTube Japan & Korea.
Sustainability of hallyu has become important not only among businessmen but also among policy makers and others who realize that hallyu is more than a product ― it boosts the nation’s brand and other industries. According to the Hallyu Future Strategy Forum’s 2012 report, hallyu was worth 5.6 trillion won in economic value and 95 trillion won in asset value.
“Now it is time to talk about sustainability,” said Yoo Jin-ryong, dean of Hallyu Graduate School at the Catholic University of Korea.
Some entertainment firms are going “glocal,” adopting a combination of global and local strategies. Such practices include casting nationals of target countries, producing them into Korean-style entertainers and releasing them in both Korea and the target markets. Hankyung of Super Junior, Wang Fei Fei and Xia of Miss A, Nichkhun Buck Horvejkul of 2PM and many others are successful cases of such a production style.
CJ has also launched singer, actor and model Nat Thewphaingam, more commonly known as Natthew, to reach into the Thai market.
“He gives familiarity to his countrymen while delivering sophisticated and trendy Korean K-pop style,” Ahn said.
Nik Powell, director of the National Film and Television School in the U.K., pointed out that the quality of content would matter the most in the future. At the global forum, Powell cited the cases of popular British artists such as David Bowie, Adele and others who had managed to capture public attention not only with their singing abilities and appearance but also with their ability to write songs, delivering their own characteristics and philosophy.
“If the Korean music industry bases its development on artists and their content development, especially in song writing, the resulting changes will be highly beneficial to the health of the Korean entertainment industry,” he said.
“We must be alert against ‘hallyu fatigue,’” said Park Gil-sung. “The only way to do this will be to diversify the content ― not only boy or girl bands but capable artists should be able to create global content and promote it,” he said.
By Bae Ji-sook (email@example.com)