Anyone who thinks Beatlemania was the height of music fandom hasn’t come across the BTS Army. As dedicated followers of K-pop megastars BTS (pictured), this self-proclaimed “army” is about as hardcore and fervent as any fanbase gets.
It’s no secret that K-pop has become a global phenomenon in recent years, with Korean superstars breaking records from East to West. Earlier this month, BTS made history by becoming the first South Korean group to headline Wembley Stadium, and their recent album Love Yourself became the first K-Pop album to make it to number one in the US album chart. The company behind their success, Big Hit Entertainment, was recently valued at $1bn.
Whilst K-pop’s international success has no doubt been spearheaded by the seven-piece boy band, they are by no means the only success story in the market. Female counterparts Blackpink, for example, are making huge waves of their own and recently set the record for the fastest music video to reach 100 million views on YouTube. That same month they became the first K-pop group in history to play Coachella. These accomplishments have had a huge impact on the South Korean music market which, according to the IFPI, experienced a 17.9% increase in revenue growth in 2018.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that K-pop was a key talking point at Midem 2019. With demand for K-pop sounds at an all-time high across the world, a ‘Songwriting for K-pop’ panel sat down to discuss the intricacies of the Korean music market and the opportunities it presents. The panel consisted of key international players from our client peermusic, an independent publishing powerhouse who recently acquired Korean publisher Music Cube. Here’s what we learnt:
- Mary Megan Peer – Deputy CEO, peermusic (USA)
- Kim Chang Rak – Producer & Top-Liner, peermusic (South Korea)
- Rodrigo Dominguez – Iberian Creative & Sync Manager & General Manager Portugal, peermusic (Spain)
- Ji-Hyun Kwon – General Manager, peermusic (South Korea)
- Moderator: Jeff Benjamin, music journalist and K-pop columnist for Billboard
K-pop is presenting huge opportunities for songwriters and publishers internationally
Songwriter and producer Kim Chang Rak has worked in the Korean music industry for almost ten years and written for artists such as TWICE, B.A.P, and SF9. In the last few years he’s noticed an explosion of interest from songwriters across the globe wanting to write for K-pop. “Before the worldwide success of K-pop, I tried to connect with international writers on social media but it was difficult to find good writers to work with,” he explained. “Nowadays so many writers are interested and there are plenty of opportunities for international writers and Korean writers to work together.”
As a forward-thinking international publisher, peermusic has had Korea on its radar for over a decade and in January of this year added it as the thirtieth country in its worldwide network with the acquisition of Music Cube. “It was a really exciting and significant moment for us,” said Mary Megan Peer, peermusic’s Deputy CEO. “Korea was by far the largest music market that and we didn’t have our own fully owned and operated company in”, she explained. “We already had a sub-publishing agreement with Music Cube for over 10 years and that really gave us a front row seat to K-pop’s exponential growth, so when we were looking for the next stage of growth at peermusic it was really a natural acquisition.”
The acquisition has also created many opportunities for peermusic’s writers. Rodrigo Dominguez, peermusic’s Iberian Creative & Sync Manager & General Manager Portugal, sees K-pop opening up new and lucrative frontiers. “Whether our writers are from Spain, Portugal, Sweden – it doesn’t matter – the Korean market is such an open market and treats pop music so well that any good, hard-working writer can make it in K-pop”. It’s also a fantastic source of additional income for these writers. “Some of our writers focusing on K-pop find that getting one or two singles per year brings them enough income to be comfortable and focus on other additional projects they’re passionate about”, he explained.
K-pop’s international success is having a positive impact on sync
As content creators and brands are becoming more engaged with the youth market, more and more opportunities for K-pop in sync are presenting themselves. “Four or five years ago Korean music was really only used in sync as a reference to Korea or perhaps something happening in Koreatown in Los Angeles”, explained Mary Megan. “Nowadays it’s a much broader reference to youth-oriented culture, it’s a way to add a young vibe to a scene, for example.”
In recent years peermusic have seen K-pop tracks placed in Younger, Family Guy, and a whole host of other shows that aren’t necessarily related to Korea. “I think we’re going to continue to see that grow as K-pop becomes part of the international dialect and not just a specific Korean genre”, said Mary Megan. In addition to its young and engaged audience, the messages of positivity and self-love expressed by many K-pop artists will no doubt also be attractive to the world of sync and brands.
K-Pop is a very unique marketplace
“K-pop music is very unique in terms of its structure”, explained Kim. “International writers interested in working in this field need to listen to a lot of mainstream Korean music to understand its unique structure and sound”.
“It’s more complex than other songwriting”, added Rodrigo. “It’s not just bridge – chorus. Korean audiences get bored easily so songs are really packed and albums can span all genres from rock to pop, hip-hop and trap. You need to really understand the market and respect it to be successful.”
K-pop centres primarily around ‘idol’ artists – boy bands and girl groups where individual members have different personas and talents, which adds further complexities to the writing process. “Every member has their own speciality, from singing to rapping or dancing,” explained Ji-Hyun Kwon, peermusic South Korea’s General Manager. “So it will be really good for writers to add a rapping part or dance breaks in the song so you can capture that diversity.” It’s clear that K-pop goes far beyond the music and that writers need to consider all of the elements in the experience.
The K-pop music market also runs on vastly different release strategies that reflect its “here and now” fast-moving approach. “In the West we’re used to several single releases that build up to an album release”, explained Billboard’s Jeff Benjamin. “But K-pop is focused on one single and releasing an album based on that, and then moving onto the next project.” In a world that is all about immediate reactions and limited attention spans, K-pop is the perfect musical solution.
“One of the other differences that we see in K-pop is that there are fewer songs that we would consider in the West as “evergreen” songs, which are songs that have a long life after being a single”, explained Mary Megan. “K-pop is so much about the here and now that there isn’t necessarily a long-term trajectory for any given song, but I think it’s just as lucrative a market for songwriters as many Western markets and international income is now also adding to that pie.”
It’s more diverse than you think
A lot of parallels have been made between the Korean and Latin music markets in terms of the impact they are having on an international scale. Something else the two markets have in common is a tendency for people to pigeonhole the music that is being produced. “I struggle with the idea that K-pop is a specific genre”, explained Jeff. “You hear a really large range of sounds, from synth pop to rock to hip-hop dance music, and there’s not a specific sound that’s set in one type of group.”
“What I call the ‘Despacito’ effect that brought Latin music to worldwide attention is now happening with K-pop” said Rodrigo. “Initially the Western world influenced the K-pop world, and now the K-pop world is influencing the Western world. It’s all coming together and we’re seeing K-pop artists and Western artists collaborating with each other and reaching markets that are beneficial to both.”
As Jeff points out, BTS’ most recent album Map of the Soul: Persona featured US artist Halsey on its lead single, but also artists like Ed Sheeran behind the scenes as a songwriter. “Artists are plugging into this world both as big featured artists but also behind the scenes”, he explained.
There is enormous potential for ancillary revenue in K-pop
There’s no denying that K-pop is all about the fans, and this highly engaged, internet-driven fanbase is spending big on everything from merchandise to concert tickets. And despite being an early adopter of music streaming with leading service Melon, South Korea has seen a huge increase in physical music revenue in recent years with fans re-embracing physical formats as a way of showing their devotion to K-pop artists.
“Fans will purchase albums not to go home and listen to, but because they want all of the packaging that comes with it,” explained Mary Megan. “Often there’s different album covers featuring different members of the group and people will buy multiple versions of a physical product but then go home and stream the music”, she continued. “K-pop albums are beautiful – they look more like hand-bound books”, added Jeff.
From physical products to streaming, and live experiences to digital/virtual apps, there is all manner of innovation to explore when it comes to the K-pop fan experience, and potential untapped revenue streams to tap into.
The future is collaboration
If anything is clear from this panel it’s that there is exponential potential to explore new avenues and collaborations in K-pop. “Like with Latin music there are a lot of sub-genres in K-pop, and I think there’s a lot of potential which hasn’t been discovered yet. I’m really excited about the changes to come,” said Kim.
“One of the exciting things going on right now is all the crossover, whether it’s ‘Despacito’ or K-pop coming into the international mainstream”, explained Mary Megan. “At the same time I love all the cultural pride that we’re seeing and I think it’s a very positive thing, especially with all the negative political issues going on.” More collaboration and genre crossover certainly seem to be the next logical step for the K-pop world, as the marketplace continues to bridge East and West.
“We can expect to see these collaborations in K-pop more and more” said Rodrigo.
It’s clear that K-pop is making strides in a global market that is more internationally connected than ever before. As the IFPI recently stated, Korea is shifting from a market of “potential” to an international “power player”.
Watch the full recording of the panel: