Another day – another SK media outlet trumpets the growing power of K-Pop in the world – from the K-Pop flash mobs in obscure places, to glowing reports of sold-out venues and successful fan meets. Much of it has a lot of credence – K-Pop is a force to be reckoned with in Japan, is growing strongly in China and is a significant presence in South-East Asia. Some might even argue that an impressive niche has also been carved by K-Pop in Europe (though most of it appears to be mainly in Eastern Europe).
To prove their point, journos and industry representatives rollout the recent success of SM Town shindigs in Paris and fan buzz that various K-Pop auditions generate in places like Brazil. But the oh-so-unattainable crown jewel of the music business – the US market – seems to be elusive for the K-Pop artists.
A popular school of thought (fueled, no doubt, by some degree of nationalism and anti-Americanism) contends that K-Pop can thrive without the US market, thank you very much. Supporters point to the sold-out venues in Japan, Singapore, China and Indonesia as indicators that K-Pop artists do not need US audiences to successfully reach out to millions of fans around the world. The proponents of this viewpoint cite the millions of times that K-Pop videos or concert performances are viewed on Youtube, the myriad of Facebook fan-pages and other social media presence as a testament to K-Pop’s international strength.
All that is true. However, the fans and K-media are being somewhat coy about one teeny-weeny little secret (the one that artists know all about): look through any music market stalls in Manila, Beijing or Jakarta, and you will see copious DVDs and CDs of pirated K-Pop material. Same goes for music downloads – I’ll take the bullet and suggest the unspeakable – that very few international K-Pop fans actually legally pay for the music they are listening to. They might profess their undying love for Super Junior or JYJ, but most feel no shame pilfering SuJu’s or JYJ’s tracks off the various torrent or free download sources.
Talent agencies know this very well – and that is why it is impossible for K-Pop artists to survive on record sales and even concerts alone. Hence, the incessant merry-go-round of variety show appearances: artists need their face recognition with the general public to score CF endorsement deals to pad their concert ticket and record sales. Heck, artists don’t see much of a payday even through legal download channels: Soribada’s track price lists range from as little as 2 cents to 15 cents per track. Subtract a chunk that talent agencies like SM or YG take as their share, not to mention distribution channels, marketing costs, etc. etc. – how many pieces 15 cents can be possibly sliced into? And if the boy/girl group is 5 (or 7, or 9) members strong, what is the final take-home for each one of them? I doubt it is much. So, even if you are dealing with larger populations, local governments’ unwillingness to enforce intellectual property rights makes it so much harder to make comparable profits in Asian markets.
Therefore, the economics of K-Pop makes conquering the US market very attractive to the talent agencies and the artists alike. While illegal downloads are still happening in the US, the success of iTunes, Rhapsody and Amazon’s music download services made it much easier for an average consumer to just purchase the tracks from legit sources, rather than risk unpleasant legal ramifications of getting caught. Pricing with an average of 99cents a track, or almost $10 an album makes the realities of music business a lot easier to handle than meager 2 pennies. That is why more and more K-Pop acts make their downloads available through iTunes and the likes Stateside. Ticket sales (and concert tickets in the US are not cheap), movie deals, possible commercial endorsements translate into a much bigger final amount when you deal with the biggest music market in the world. The fact that you will also have the legal system and the law enforcement on your side if you have to deal with copyright infringement issues is no small potatoes for any performing artist out there.
K-pop has not had the easiest of times trying to break into the US market, though. There are many reasons tossed around, many of them mentioned previously by Seoulbeats here. I’ll just throw in a few additional bones.
1). Identity crisis. It seems that the K-Pop execs have no clue as to who the target audience of their confections should be Stateside. This is a business school basic (or a Dr. Evil basic, you get your pick) – world domination requires a solid business plan with a clearly-defined and well-focused target audience. For highly-manufactured acts that K-Pop shells out, kids and tweens should probably be the best target audience. Note to SM, YG and JYP: don’t try to peddle your wares to college-age crowds or young adults – don’t waste your breath (and what’s more important, your money). But short of JY Park’s foray into Nickelodeon with the Wonder Girls, few others are following the trend. Bad decision, my friends, very bad decision. Because the Britneys, Justins, Christinas and Mileys of the world all graduated from the same boot camp of crooners – that’s right, you guessed it, the one with the mouse ears. And teeny-boppers in the US are a huge marketing force – powered by their parents’ wallets and their parents’ desire to buy stuff that their little angels want.
2). Language issues. Until Star Trek becomes reality (oh, my, did I just give out that I’m a die-hard Trekie??) and they start mass-producing universal translators attached to our voice-boxes, good knowledge of English is going to be paramount in conquering the US market. Not Konglish, not some other crap version of God-knows-what, but a working knowledge of English. The one that will allow the performers to actually interact with their audiences with ease, and not look and sound to0 sterile in their interviews (nothing spells disaster in entertainment more clearly than bombing on Leno or Letterman).
3). Cool-aid consumption. Seriously, Korean media, talent agencies and fans alike need to stop listening to visiting pseudo-dignitaries and get their heads out of you-know-where. I’ll tell you a little secret, folks: Ludacris might say and sign all kinds of shit to sell his headphones. Teddy Riley might do the same. So might Flo Rida and the assortment of other A, B and even F-list celebrities so reverently quoted in the SK press. It’s an old marketing ploy: i’ve got shit to sell, and i’ll say and do what I need to in order for you to buy that stuff off of me. And no, G-Dragon, even Ludacris headsets and the stale/bizarre ganja bust are not going to add any real street cred for you – unless you’re willing to do hard time up in Pelican Bay.
But, then, you can just opt for the K-version of it, and get you military duty out of the way.