Monthly Archives: June 2011

What Comes After the Big 3?


These are the top three players in Korea’s idol scene, the names that hold the most strings in the K-pop arena. These three companies have pretty much dominated popular music in Korea after Seotaiji and the Boys bowed out in 1996, churning out young entertainers and constructing a whole star-training infrastructure. Legacies of pop groups and legendary solo singers can be traced down the timelines of these companies’ success stories.

But I think a significant shift may be in the making. It’s only fifteen years later, yet the popular music game moves so fast that I think we may be entering into an age of new, diversified companies.

I read two recent articles from Soompi News, the first one on Bae Yong Joon (established actor who hit hallyu stardom with his lead role in the K-drama Winter Sonata) getting read to create a new idol group under a company he’s heavily tied with as a stockholder, Key East Entertainment. Celebrities already included in his company’s catalogue include Kim Hyun Joong,  Hwanhee (former idol under SM R&B duo, Fly to the Sky) and actress Lee Ji Ah (actress recently embroiled in divorce suits with Seo Taiji; acted in K-dramas Beethoven Virus and Athena).

Kim Hyun Joong on the left, Bae Yong Joon on the right.

The other article was on Kim Dong Wan, member of boy band Shinhwa, speaking on his bandmates’ upcoming endeavor to create Shinhwa Company. Shinhwa was another legendary group (by the way, 신화/shinhwa, literally means “myth” or “legend” in Korean) under SM entertainment, consisting of six boys who sang, rapped and danced. All of the group members left SM after their contract ended in 2003, also fighting to keep their group name in a court battle, which they won. Shinhwa is known for the tight relationship among the members and (therefore) them being the longest-running boy band in K-pop history. An article with further details on the new endeavor can be found at

Shinhwa throughout the years.

While it’s the stars under SM, YG and JYP who still hold top dollar and are able to make it across the nation’s borders to become hallyu stars, plenty of smaller companies back home in Seoul are not sitting idle (harhar, no pun intended, really). New singers like IU (solo female) and groups like B2ST (aka BEAST) are also hugely popular and up toward the top in Korea. And almost every star who has gained recognition from audiences outside of Korea started by getting the audience back home to love them. A new wave of idols from other companies means a growing surge of competition that combined may soon catch up to the heights of the Big 3.

On the other side, the movement of past Big 3 idols to other companies after their contracts end also is a huge potential factor. Entertainers often leave their first company to sign under a company that offers them more freedom and perks; if able, they even start their own. Hwanhee, Shinhwa and Kim Hyun Joong (though he was under DSP, which is kind of like an under-the-shadow follower of SM) are all examples already previously mentioned. YG Entertainment seems to be an exception, though artists who aren’t signed under their main label and care such as Wheesung and Big Mama have ended up leaving. Nonetheless, when an entertainer moves, all the power and profit of the fans that adore them follows as well.

It’s a shift that is in step with the widening scope of K-pop, as mentioned in a recent article done by BBC News. As K-pop continues to venture outside the domestic sphere, these companies which have been very successful but also hold such a tight grip will find themselves facing entertainers who will begin to demand more. The knowledge of what other arrangements are possible and the feeling that you’re being cheated can be very powerful impetuses.

There will also be pressure from having to deal with countries whose way of thinking don’t so readily accept the Korean “old boys network” way of doing things, and a necessity to understand that other culture if they hope to gain real access and respect internationally. With smaller companies creating popular stars and established celebrities moving away from their main companies, I anticipate that the Big 3 will have to be innovative and flexible in both their entertainment concepts as well as their business practices if they hope to continue their successful legacy.

[WS] The dark side of South Korean pop music

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Seoul

Photo Credit:

South Korea’s pop industry is big business in Asia. As K-Pop sets its sights on Europe and the US, will this force a change in the way it treats its artists?

Selling singles is no way for a pop star to make money these days. Most artists find that touring and merchandise sales are more lucrative. So when it comes to concerts, size matters.

This is why the biggest date in the Korean pop calendar – the Dream Concert, at which up to 20 bands perform – is held in Seoul’s 66,800-seat World Cup Stadium.

Teenage crushes come here for a once-a-year date in a national love story, where commitment is measured in coloured balloons, and devotion is knowing all the words.

Most of the bands, like Super Junior andWonder Girls, are household names; highly produced, sugary boy- and girl-bands with slick dance routines and catchy tunes.

But the industry also has a less glamorous side: a history of controversy and legal disputes over the way it treats its young artists, which it is still struggling to shake.

K-Pop is a massive industry: global sales were worth over $30m (£18m) in 2009, and that figure is likely to have doubled last year, according to a government website.

Industry leaders are also ambitious – Korean stars are beating a path to Japan, America and Europe. This month, South Korea’s biggest production company, SM Entertainment, held its first European concert in Paris, part of a year-long world tour.

In April, Korea’s king of pop, Rain, was voted the most influential person of the year by readers of Time magazine. And earlier this year, boy band Big Bang reached the top 10 album chart on US iTunes.

Follow the moneyKorea is excited by what this new musical export could do for its image – and its economy.

But some of K-Pop’s biggest success stories were built on the back of so-called slave contracts, which tied its trainee-stars into long exclusive deals, with little control or financial reward.

Two years ago, one of its most successful groups, Dong Bang Shin Ki, took its management company to court, on the grounds that their 13-year-contract was too long, too restrictive, and gave them almost none of the profits from their success.

The court came down on their side, and the ruling prompted the Fair Trade Commission to issue a “model contract” to try to improve the deal artists got from their management companies.

Industry insiders say the rising success of K-Pop abroad, and experience with foreign music companies, has also helped push for change.

“Until now, there hasn’t been much of a culture of hard negotiation in Asia, especially if you’re new to the industry,” says Sang-hyuk Im, an entertainment lawyer who represents both music companies and artists.

Attitudes are changing, he says, but there are some things that even new contracts and new attitudes cannot fix.

Rainbow is a seven-member girl-band, each singer named after a different colour. If any group could lead to a pot of gold, you would think they would.

But Rainbow – currently in a seven-year contract with their management company, DSP – say that, despite working long hours for almost two years, their parents were “heartbroken” at how little they were getting paid.

A director for DSP says they do share profits with the group, but admits that after the company recoups its costs, there is sometimes little left for the performers.

K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses.

The bill can add up to several hundred thousand dollars. Depending on the group, some estimates say it is more like a million.

Musical exportsBut music sales in South Korea alone do not recoup that investment. For all their passion, home-grown fans are not paying enough for K-Pop.

The CD industry is stagnant, and digital music sites are seen as vastly underpriced, with some charging just a few cents a song.

Bernie Cho, head of music distribution label DFSB Kollective, says online music sellers have dropped their prices too low in a bid to compete with pirated music sites.

“But how do you slice a fraction of a penny, and give that to the artist? You can’t do it,” he says.

With downward pressure on music prices at home, “many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea”, Mr Cho says.

Company representatives say concerts and advertising bring in far more than music sales. “Overseas markets have been good to us,” says one spokesman. South Korean musicians need to perform on home turf, but “Japan is where all the money is”.

As acts start to make money overseas, he says this “broken business model” – underpricing – is creeping into their activities abroad.

A former policy director at South Korea’s main artists’ union, Moon Jae-gap, believes the industry will go through a major upheaval. “Because at the moment, it’s not sustainable,” he says.

Until that happens, he says, artists will continue to have difficulty making a living.

South Korea’s government is keen to promote its new international identity, one many hope could rival Japan’s cool cultural image.

The only question is whether the industry ends up more famous for its music, or for its problems.

 Source: BBC News

[WS] KTO Poll Finds K-pop As Main Cultural Draw

K-pop drives hallyu craze: survey

English speakers favor Super Junior, French and Spanish are Big Bang fans

By Kim Yoon-mi (, 2011-06-13 18:31

Korean pop, or K-pop, is driving the Korean Wave abroad and Asian women in their 20s make up the majority of overseas hallyu fans, a survey found on Monday.

The Korea Tourism Organization conducted the online hallyu survey on 12,085 non-Korean visitors from 102 countries to its website ( from May 11 to May 31, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the website. The survey asked seven questions related to the Korean Wave in eight languages ― English, Japanese, traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, German, French, Spanish and Russian ― on the site, via e-mail and on social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook.

Asked to select a category of hallyu that interests them, 55 percent of respondents, 6,447 people, picked K-pop. This was followed by TV drama with 33 percent, film with 6 percent and others with 7 percent. Others included TV variety shows such as KBS’ “2 Days & 1 Night,” Korean food, shopping and cosmetics.

Out of the 12,085 respondents, 9,253 were from Asia, 2,158 from Europe, 502 from the Americas, 112 from Africa and 60 from Oceania.

By age group, 49 percent of the respondents were in their twenties, followed by those in their thirties at 18 percent, teenagers at 17 percent and those in their forties at 8 percent.

By gender, 90 percent or 10,826 respondents were female.

Asked which hallyu celebrity they wish to travel with in Korea among 30 stars or groups recommended by the KTO, the highest proportion of 13 percent chose the 13-member boyband Super Junior. Five-member band Big Bang came second with 9 percent, followed by JYJ with 7 percent, TVXQ with 5 percent and Girls’ Generation with 4 percent.

The interest in hallyu celebrity differed from language to language. English speakers favored Super Junior, while French and Spanish users preferred Big Bang. German speakers favored actress Kim Tae-hee and Japanese, actor Bae Yong-joon.

Japanese users showed more interest in TV drama than in K-pop and more than 50 percent of Japanese respondents were women in their 40s and 50s. Japanese in their 20s and 30s showed the strongest interest in K-pop.

Among the French speaking respondents, K-pop fans were mostly teenagers or in their 20s, and preferred going to amusement parks or karaoke to experiencing Korea’s traditional culture and history, the KTO said.

Foreign respondents overseas picked Seoul and Jeju Island as the travel destination in Korea that they would like to visit with their hallyu star.

Source: Korea Herald online

K-pop Stars as Conscious Culture Representatives?

For Korean celebrities, there often seems to exist both a pull toward and a draw away from their home country of South Korea. While these kind of conflicting sentiments are common enough in a day and age where a number of cultures are easily open to our perusal, I don’t think I’ve seen them voiced as consciously as I have out of the mouths of K-pop figures. I have often read lines from interviews where a singer states he or she is proud to bring Korean culture to other countries, be it obviously through some sort of “Korean food highlight” segment on a TV show or simply through the fact of the entertainer being a Korean as he/she enjoys popularity in another country.

Boy band Tohoshinki, a five-member Korean group (originally 동방신기, Dong Bang Shin Gi) that went to Japan with the intent of succeeding as a J-pop group, released and performed all their songs in Japanese. For the most part, they worked with a Japanese team, including regular staff as well as music composers/producers; they also studied Japanese intently so that they could go on variety shows and conduct interviews more fluidly. Though heavily integrating into Japanese society and style, learning cultural mannerisms and humor in addition to the language itself, the group still seemed to see themselves as representative of their home country. (It’s usually rather implicit and a very strong impression I get from reading articles and interviews; it was stated more outright in a recent episode of Golden Fishery from the two members remaining at SM Entertainment.)The fact that they were natively Korean was often mentioned and employed in the show material; one Japanese show had them eat spicy foods from all over the world to test each members’ tolerance while recording their reactions.

However, the members often expressed an almost desperate want to return to Korea and perform “at home.” Each time they were allowed back, they would say things like, “I’ve missed this stage so much,” or say at fan meetings, “Thank you so much for waiting for us,” while crying. They (or their company) know that to expand their reputation and keep profits increasing, it is beneficial to venture outside the Korean entertainment market. Simultaneously, there is still some very strong draw where missing home doesn’t just mean missing family and friends and familiar places but also encompasses the home audience, songs in the native tongue/sound and even the TV show productions (YG singer Se7en also mentioned this in his 2010 Golden Fishery interview except he had ventured into the American market, didn’t do so well and advised others to be content performing on home soil, half in jest. He mentions watching Korean programs after 2:35.)

But that was a group that integrated into an entertainment industry foreign to them. Yet similar sentiments seem to exist in those who do not have to go through the same efforts of fitting in to an unfamiliar culture. Two members of Super Junior, another SM boy group which originally possessed 13 members, recently appeared on MBC News Desk to comment on their recent concerts in Paris.

A number of singers and groups under SM’s umbrella traveled to different cities to do a “world tour.” In the clip above, Super Junior leader Leeteuk stated: “If past battles were fought visibly with guns and swords, today’s battles are unseen cultural competition. As the Hallyu wave continues to spread, I believe Korea will become a powerful focal point of the world. If I were to compare this to sports, I believe we are national athletes (representatives of our country). We will spread Korea’s good music far and wide.”

Again, that conscious mindset of, “I am going to a foreign country. I am Korean. I am bring Korea to this country. I am representing my homeland, South Korea. I am promoting and spreading the strengths of Korean people and culture.” It’s almost a characteristic.

Honestly I’m not sure what to think about it all. Is it a good thing or a bad thing, more negative effects and implications or positive? (I tend to lean toward the negative, but that’s because I connect a lot of it with the shortcomings of the mainstream music industry in Korea.) Do these entertainers really mean and feel that, or is it something they’ve been led to say by their company? Inculcated through their years of training or instructed explicitly as an appropriate interview response? Is it SM Entertainment especially? Why does Korea seem to be the Asian country most intent and vigorously conscious of exporting their culture?

Added note: Oh yes. And the government plays an increasing role as well (see DBSK as Delegates to Globalize Korean Music). A lot of this fits under Korea’s cultural tourism.

[WS] Flower Boy Kim Hyun Joong Admits to a Nose Job

I guess this is the "before" nose.

Not again!! I guess when someone told me everyone has gotten something done, he really meant everyone. While everyone in the entertainment industry is suspect, Kim Hyun Joong was one I thought who had a good shot at being a “natural.” …I’ll just shake my head for a few minutes and then move on.

For those who might not know: Kim Hyunjoong was the former leader of five-member boy band SS501, which was under DSP Entertainment (DSP tends to copy SM Entertainment in a form of combat; SS501 seemed to be their response to SM’s Dong Bang Shin Gi). He was the most popular member, known for his flower boy looks and 4D personality, and his popularity only increased after entering into acting. Now, with a few K-dramas under his belt, he’s endeavoring to take his career to new heights, continuing as a solo act under a new company after SS501’s contract ended almost exactly one year ago.

Kim Hyun Joong Admits to Plastic Surgery for First Time

In a shocking revelation, singer/actor Kim Hyun Joong admitted for the first time to having gone through plastic surgery on Thursday’s MBC “Knee-Drop Guru.”

For his flower boy image and clear-cut features, Kim Hyun Joong carries the nickname “Walking Sculpture.” So during the show, Kang Ho Dong, the MC of “Knee-Drop Guru,” asked Kim Hyun Joong, “Is the ‘Walking Sculpture’ a work of god or a doctor (plastic surgeon)?”

Without much hesitation, Kim Hyun Joong answered, “It’s god-given but the doctor put the finishing touch on it.”

He further explained, “I broke my nose a long time ago after getting hit by a stone. So I got the bones fixed and a little nose job done.” Throughout the interview, he seemed very confident with his looks as he went as far to state, that “I’m very satisfied with my looks. Can’t you just tell? I wouldn’t switch it with Yoo Sae Yoon (the co-host of the show).”

On Thursday’s episode, Kim Hyun Joong also talked about his decision to sign with Key East Entertainment, what it’s like to work with Bae Yong Joong (head of Key East), and thoughts on his growing popularity.

The former SS501 leader has released his first solo mini album “Break Down” on June 7th simultaneously across the entire Asian region. The first showcase for his new album was held yesterday following the release of the MV for “Break Down.”

Source: Music News

To be honest and to state it plainly, I don’t like cosmetic plastic surgery. I don’t like the subscription to a mainstream mode of beauty that furthers itself, I don’t think it makes people look better, and for those who are singers, I don’t know why you would do anything that could even possibly affect your sound. I’m not judging or holding it against those who have done it, and I know that there’s an immense amount of pressure and competition, but I just tend to feel at least a little disappointed. Especially for those who are singers, as I view it as compromising the music. However, I do appreciate when they admit to it rather than keep up a front.

Anyway, aside from his pretty boy looks, the boy does have a compelling entertainment personality, as fans of his segment on the variety show “We Got Married” can attest to, and he seems to be an average nice guy compared to people who take celebrity to its heights. Has a frank manner, as evidenced by his admission of going under the knife, and he even spotted and called out a collapsed fan at his recent showcase.

For those who want to see his new image and MV, here’s the video for “Break Down.” Personally, the new look, dance and sound reminds me of Se7en.

[FFT] Quotes on Culture and Consumption

For cultural copying, almost by definition, ends up sanding off the rough and surprising edges of any cultural good it appropriates.

[To] not derive their identity from what they consume but what they create.

-from Culture Making by Andy Crouch

Thoughts on 2NE1’s “Lonely”

Less than a month ago, YG’s main girl group 2NE1 released the digital single, “Lonely.” It’s a fun, fresh track, in two senses: It’s a nice contrast against the tide of poppy and/or electronic-based songs that has saturated the Korean gayo (domestic pop music) market, which YG is well aware of; people who have succeeded in pop music know that it’s as much about contrasting against what’s dominant in the market as keeping in mind the mainstream taste of the public, and YG’s top male group Big Bang also voiced their same intention of going against the electric tide with their recent release of “Tonight,” their fourth mini-album from February of this year. It’s also a different sound for the 2NE1 girls themselves, who rode the pop dance wave albeit with heavier beats.

However, I do have a few qualms with the song. You’ll notice that it’s an acoustic track, pretty much all string sounds with the guitar as the main and some background (synth?) orchestral strings. No rhythm instruments like drums or beat tracks. With this change in sound, the instrumental being literally instrumental, I find the entry of some of the vocals to be too piercing for the song, especially CL’s. (She has the first few lines of the song, but also check out 0:25.)

When listening to the song for the first time, it seemed to me as if the girls couldn’t shake off their in-your-face club style of singing. Some would say that these vocal qualities are what make 2NE1 recognizable, and while this may be true, I think retaining the same singing approach is at the expense of a singer’s skill to gauge a song as well as compromising the song itself. It is understandable to employ a forceful, even, penetrating technique when you’re backed by boomy basses and rainbow synths, but for a more sensitive song, I think the sound could have been adjusted to reflect this change while still remaining strong (like at 1:47). Instead, the voice of member Sandara Park (0:21), who has the weakest vocals of the group, comes off as the most fitting, although Minji’s vocals (0:11) are a nice medium.

Actually, I find the most enjoyable part of the song to be the lyrics. While typical “lonely” songs sung by pop groups are talking about being abandoned by or apart from the other party, 2NE1’s “Lonely” is expressing the feelings of loneliness and restlessness even when you’re in a caring relationship. It kind of follows in the vein of American female singers’ “gentle independence” songs, e.g. Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone.” After understanding the lyrics, I found the content really refreshing and interesting. In that respect, “Lonely” is really different and rather mature compared to other songs around. To listen to the song along with the lyrics and translation:

All in all, it’s a decent track that’s recognizable thanks to the titular chorus and YG magic. While I wasn’t totally satisfied with the delivery of the song, the girls’ vocals are steady as ever, and they’re enjoying continued success with “Lonely.” It’s been playing everywhere, and I even woke up to it blasting near my apartment building one morning.

Levels of English in Korea – Park Yoochun in “Miss Ripley”

It’s always a plus for Korean celebrities if they can speak English well. At least, a glowing article about it always seems to surface, commenting on how impressive the actor or actress is. I remember spotting something a few years ago when Andy, the youngest member of boy band Shinhwa, had his own ten-second segment of English.

The most recent fuss has been over Park Yoochun, former Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK) and current JYJ member. For those who don’t remember, DBSK was the biggest boy band of the current K-pop generation until three of the members, including Yoochun, decided to engage in legal action against their entertainment company. Since then, the three boys have been effectively barred from music activities and Korean broadcast. Having been forced to turn to other outlets, each has been venturing into different fields, and Park Yoochun has been fairly successful having entered into the world of Korean dramas. Acting is not at all a bad choice though. While  most Asian pop stars have a finger in all parts of the entertainment pie, the move from music to acting seems almost necessary in Korea with idol careers having such short life spans.

To be honest, as a past fan, Park Yoochun has always been my least favorite member of DBSK. But it’s interesting, and a good thing, I think, to see how these three are doing outside of and in spite of the antagonism from their former entertainment company, the ever-looming SM. So I watched his English speaking clip for fun, and while his accent isn’t bad! (he spent a few years in the USA), it always gets me, the way he pronounces his r’s. Things like “fur” or come out sounding like “fer.” It’s just so pronounced, and I suspect it might be because of the general difficulty Koreans (and Japanese) have with pronouncing r’s, as differentiated form l’s. This particular pronunciation comes out like an overcompensation from someone who’s tried to, or been trained to, overcome that phonetic hurdle.

Just to clear any potential air, this post is not meant to be malicious and is not to belittle this person’s English (even if I am amused) or Koreans’ English in general, at all. As you can see from the video clip, some of his gestures and emphases are off as well… but it makes me wonder how cautious and/or horrified I should be about how my own Korean may come off to the native Koreans around me.

Anyway, to conclude in a slightly more academic way :) – just another instance of the English language and its pedestal-ized place in Korean society (in the drama, associated with wealth, power, position, status; also approved and continued with article and viewers’ reactions). Also evidence of why it’s so difficult for Korean pop stars who aspire to make it in the US market; even for those considered to have an impressive grasp of English, the accent and language usage comes off as awkward to native English speakers, in a way that is generally “unsexy,” an opposite impression compared to people of European origins. I wonder if it is that difficult or overlooked to get a proper language consultant for these Korean celebrities (I’m serious – language and mannerism is such a big factor in the impressions of Korean pop stars who want to “make it” in America.)

For the original article I read, taken from Park Yoochun Impresses Viewers with his English on “Miss Ripley”

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