Sabrina Gradolf editor（Switzerland）
It’s 1992 and three young men in a boy band are performing in a live television talent contest. The sound is new: Korean lyrics, Euro pop, African American hip-hop and rap. They dance in sync.The studio audience goes wild.The judges in their prim suits are less impressed. They reveal their scorecards.The band gets the lowest mark of the night and is voted off the show. The judges couldn't have got it more wrong. In the next few days, the song “I Know” climbs to the top of the charts and stays there for a record-smashing 17 weeks. That night the group, Seo Taiji and Boys,ignites a revolution. Korean pop or K-pop was born.K-pop is now a multi-billion-dollar industry.Bands like BTS and Blackpink are selling out in the US, UK and international stadiums within minutes. BTS is second only to Drake in international music sales. How did K-pop conquer the world? It’s a story with several parts.
Sao Taiji and Boys blew everyone away with that one performance on the TV talent show, broadcast live into millions of South Korean homes. The band opened the door to generations of younger Korean artists who were inspired to create music using influences from other parts of the world. In the late 1990s, major artists like Clone also made it in China and Taiwan. The prize at that time was the Japanese music market. The so-called "Queen of K-pop" BoA topped the charts in Japan many times over. She helped open the eyes, ears and ambitions for a lot of people in the music industry. From 2008 K-pop's reach extended well beyond an Asian fan base. Unlike in China and Japan, where they use home grown social media, Korean companies embraced international ones – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – and K-pop began to become available on international music platforms.
In the West, the pop groups were manufactured. In South Korea, it was taken to extremes. It was far more targeted. Children were spotted and recruited. You could be anywhere from age 10 to 14 and you could get recruited simply because a rep from the agency saw you at the mall and thought that you look gorgeous.
There is a specific formula and a set of conditions for creating a K-pop star. There are three main agencies with up to 200 trainees each. There are other smaller ones out there too. All K-pop bands come through this system. The recruits either stay at home or live-in dorms. They live by a tight regime. They wake up, probably 5am. They train for a bit, whether that's choreography classes, vocal lessons. They have a personalized schedule based on what their role in the group is. Then they go to school until about 3pm, head back to the entertainment company where they do more lessons until about 11pm. In Seoul, the trains shut down at midnight, so they get on that last train, they go home, sleep for five hours and do it again. Bear in mind, these budding stars haven't even debuted yet. And when they do, they can have even earlier starts. Sometimes the trainees are existing on up to two hours' sleep a night. Once you drop that first single and have your first performance, the clock is then ticking down again to when you become irrelevant. Right behind you, there is a group of hungrier, more ambitious, younger kids that's looking to dethrone you as the next big thing. So, you run yourself ragged to make sure that you're getting every penny out of it.
Over the past few years, there's been an increase in K-pop stars admitting to having mental health issues. There was a high-profile suicide in 2017: Jonghyun, lead singer of one of the biggest groups SHINee, took his own life at the age of 27 and a note believed to have been sent by him to a friend spoke of his struggles with depression and fame.
Another well-known star T.O.P. overdosed on anxiety medications.
K-pop stars used to be bound by 13-year contracts. This term has been legally reduced to seven years. That was actually the result of a couple of K-pop stars stepping out and saying these contracts are ridiculous: ‘I sleep two hours a night. I don't want to go to these shows. But if I don't show up, I get fined and I'm trapped until I'm essentially 30-years old, because these contracts are so long’.
South Korean business leaders and political leaders were figuring out that they needed to expand into other areas. The only thing, young people especially, were talking about was either South Korean drama or South Korean popular music.
The government started to back the music industry, giving it tax breaks. They gave money to academics to enhance the popularity of the genre and foreign embassies were promoting the groups. It worked and brought in big business.
There's even a word to describe this wave of Korean culture: Hallyu. And K-pop became central to lots of other profitable industries like the beauty business.
For example, cosmetics and plastic surgery and other elements of the beauty industry really rely on K-pop, especially to promote this image that if you use these South Korean products and service that you will become attractive, cool, good looking just like these K-pop stars. The vast majority of young South Koreans get some form of intervention either in their face or their bodies. So, it’s something that's really changing South Korea and not always for better.
So, how did K-pop conquer the world? Clever design and brilliant marketing. But there's more to a K-pop band. It's an expression of Korean culture and the government has been more than happy to capitalize on its success. However, the constituent parts to the K-pop product are people, some as young as 10. They may have to endure so-called ‘slave contracts’ and arduous daily regimes. At its darkest, K-pop culture stands accused of scandals. Not a side of South Korea the government wants to advertise. All this may not be affecting music sales but it's a heavy price of conquering the world.
Sabrina Gradolf editor（Switzerland）