Much of K-Pop’s success can be traced to two causes: the desire amongst Koreans to develop a profitable cultural industry, and the calculated marketing strategy of Korean talent agencies. Following a messy financial crisis in 1997, the Korean government sought to re-invent its country’s image, diversify the range of its products, and enter new markets. As Doobo Shim writes in Hybridity and the Rise of Korean Popular Culture in Asia, “Koreans have just begun to realize that culture can be as profitable as semi-conductors or cars” (Shim 30). K-Pop has allowed the nation to capitalize on the market for pop culture. But how has it done this?
This is where the talent agencies come in. They have a sophisticated and well-calculated system, which Lee Soo Man of SM Entertainment has dubbed “Culture Technology,” in order to create a global brand out of K-Pop. The Culture Technology process is three-fold: (1) exporting cultural products – i.e. placing Korean artists in Japan and singing in Japanese; (2) creating international collaborations – i.e. bringing together a Taiwanese and Korean singer for a song; and (3) globalizing the product – i.e. cooperating with musicians around the world to create a global brand for SM that will hopefully produce a global K-Pop star. Before any of this can take place, though, agencies like SM will subject talented youths to years (between three and seven, according to Man) of training in music, dance, acting, and foreign languages. Through this process, SM can create images for its artists and cater these images to individual foreign countries. K-Pop star BoA has music videos in English which play more off sex, whereas her Japanese music videos portray her as more cute and innocent – an image that is popular in Japan, where J-Pop stars often consist of young, teenage boy/girl bands.
In this sense, K-Pop artists often lose much of a sense of individualism and become more a product of their agency’s marketing techniques. BBC highlighted some of the “dark sides” of K-Pop in this 2011 article, such as contracts that have lasted as long as 13 years. Yet the article also suggests that the globalization of K-Pop may actually help its artists with regard to bargaining power, a concept much newer to parts of Asia than to the United States. Regardless of agencies’ contractual power over their artists, their power over the industry is indisputable. With agencies continuing to promote intercultural sights and sounds into their artists’ songs, the product is losing some of its Korean roots and becoming increasingly global. As a 2011 article in the Harvard Business Review argues, K-Pop is beginning to transform into “U-Pop”: universally popular music.