24. The Hallyu wave.

As I’ve mentioned in various past blog posts, I’m interested in international advertising, foreign cultures and music. Mix those three things together and you get things like the Hallyu Wave.

The Hallyu Wave, or the Korean Wave, is the name given to the rapid spread of Korean entertainment culture throughout Asian countries and now parts of Europe.

More recently, Korean entertainment companies, specifically music labels, have been testing the waters of the American music industry. A few of the top “Kpop,” or Korean pop record companies in Korea have been promoting their artists around Europe and traveling to perform in a few big cities in the US. Because of the Internet, fan turnout for these concerts has been extremely impressive. While very few Korean musicians have made an official US debut, some artists are able to sell out Madison Square Garden in New York City without any problem. How is this happening? First, what’s appealing about Korean entertainment to people in Europe and the United States? Second, what are these entertainment companies doing with advertising and promoting that is causing such success?

First. An example of a Korean music video.

I decided to do a little qualitative research and talk to six of my friends who, like myself, are riding along on the Hallyu wave. What’s the appeal? All my female friends at least made one comment about liking Kpop because of the “beautiful boys,” to quote one of them. Another mentioned that the groups remind her of groups she listened to during her childhood, like Nsync and Spice Girls. Korea has definitely taken the 5-member boy band formula of the 1990s US music scene and perfected it. While for some people (myself included) boy bands are definitely nostalgic, I’m curious if the United States is done with them. There might be a reason why boy bands and girl groups aren’t popular here anymore. Could the boy band formula make a comeback in the US? Another friend said it’s the bright and vibrant colors of their clothing and videos (and vibrant colors of products in Asian countries in general) that catch her attention. She finds that the majority of American artists dress in rather toned down colors.

There definitely are some popular Kpop artists who don’t shy away from bright colors…and yes, this photo is from within the last couple of years.

Another friend says she likes that many Korean stars are multitalented. Record labels and management agencies put their stars-to-be through rigorous training programs  before debuting them; something that’s unheard of in the United States. Musical artists are trained in singing, dancing, acting and academics before they debut. You can have someone who is a singer and dancer in a Kpop group, but also has a successful career in acting as well. This definitely gives fans easy access to their favorite stars. Finding as many opportunities for their talent is definitely a promotional strategy for labels and agencies. This ties in to what another friend said, which is that she likes Kpop because they promote and sell an entire package: Looks, talent, dance, videos, fashion, etc. “It’s more than just music, it’s a whole package…” she said. I would even add personality to the package list. Korean pop stars, also known as “idols,” are expected to be model citizens, as opposed to American celebrities. Some training programs even require their artists to do community service before debuting. By creating role models, there is much less negative press compared to the US. With hardly any negative press to be seen, it’s probably easier to promote artists and help them be successful. Of course the way people behave is also related to cultural differences as well.

I also asked my friends about the language barrier and their response to someone who might say, “How can you like this music? You don’t know Korean…” Five of them said something to the effect that you don’t need to understand a language to understand music. Music is universal. One even said that not knowing Korean could be considered a benefit. She can focus solely on the sounds of the music, saying that “liking the music has nothing to do with speaking the language.”

I interviewed one of my Korean friends with a separate set of questions. First, I asked why he thought Korean culture and music was suddenly becoming popular in America and why the media is starting to take notice. He thinks that it’s just the order of things. He explained that “for most…Western people, Asia is just Japan or China.” Until recently, not many Westerners paid much attention to the entertainment coming out of Korea. Because Korean entertainment has been popular in other Asian countries for a longer period of time, people who are interested in Japan or China tend to find out about Kpop because of its promotional activities in those countries. This, in turn, sparks their interest in Korea. The “Kpop boom” as he calls it definitely did not happen over night in the Western part of the world. Major record labels in Korea realized how difficult it would be to succeed in the US, which is why they moved from Korea to China to Japan to all other Asian countries to the European market and finally, the US market. The popularity of Korean entertainment has had many years to grow.

I also asked for his thoughts on whether or not Korean stars should make official US debuts. While there is already a niche market for it, would there be a big enough audience to be beneficial?  He thinks not yet. His opinion is that Americans have a very low tolerance for language barriers, and therefore Kpop artists would need to be proficient in English and release all-English songs to succeed. While they can definitely sell out a concert arena in the US, releasing American music and videos might still be a few years away.

As far as the language barrier goes, there are some record labels who are attempting to break the language barrier for us! SM Entertainment, one of the top record labels in Korea, recently created a facebook page, directed specifically at international fans. SM’s facebook page translates ANYTHING that they post in Korean into English. With all their posts, they post the English first followed by the original Korean, showing that the target audience for their facebook page is definitely international fans. They give fans a reason to “Like” the page by posting news, videos and photos of their signed artists. Whenever the company or a group travels to do a concert, there are always behind-the-scenes photos uploaded for fans. The company is also holding worldwide auditions this year, further advertising themselves to foreign countries. They also have YouTube channels for all their artists, all written in English.

Some Korean artists have already made a big enough impact in the United States to gather attention from American musicians. Will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas has taken an interest in Korean girl group 2NE1 and has been working on an album with them. Creating a connection with an American musician is a great step towards promotion in the United States.

As a side note, I’m also a fan of Japanese rock music. While there are fans of this music all around the world, unlike the Korean record companies, Japanese record companies don’t seem to be making an effort to break the language barrier and successfully promote music internationally. If I didn’t understand Japanese, I think it would be a lot more difficult to find information about bands and artists. This could be a reason that Korean music has a greater following outside of Korea than Japanese music has outside of Japan.

Along with the great Facebook fan pages the record labels are providing, there are plenty of people helping promote Korean culture to non-Korean speakers. One of the biggest Korean entertainment news sites is www.allkpop.com. Based out of New Jersey, it’s run by Korean-American’s and is often in contact and conducting interviews with Korean artists. All their content is written in English, making it extremely easy for non-Korean speakers to get their news and find out about CD releases, new videos, concerts, etc.

One of my favorite sources on all things Korean is a Canadian couple named Simon and Martina. Creators of Eat Your Kimchi, they are English teachers turned bloggers. They’ve lived in Korea for about 3 years and cover all topics from being foreign and in Korea to finding weird things like inflatable boobs at the store. What they’re most well known for is their weekly reviews of new Kpop music videos.

Simon and Martina have received media attention in Korea and have even made appearances on a few variety shows. Not only are they a great promoter of Korean entertainment for American fans, but they’re also a representation of foreigners who love Korean entertainment, showing people in Korea how many people are fans. They’re also a great way to introduce Korea to someone. I’ve shown family members their videos in the past, and they love them!

To me, it seems the language barrier is the biggest roadblock for promoting and selling Korean culture in Western countries. The record labels and agencies seem to be doing everything else they can by having a prominent social media presence, continuing to constantly update media for fans, and by taking care of the hardest part for most Westerners (translating) by releasing so much information in English.

As an American, I’d love to see more Korean artists debuting and having activities in the US; however, as a fan, I want to see artists do whatever it is that will make them the most successful (and happy!). If that means waiting a few years to let their companies continue to improve promotions so their transition into the US market will be more successful…well, I guess I can hold out a bit longer.

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