How K-pop cashes in on image

Story highlights

  • South Korean pop earned estimated $290 million last year
  • Pop groups go through years of training before their debut
  • They are carefully managed to avoid any hint of scandal

It's a rapidly spreading pop culture phenomenon, fueled by the Internet.

Korean pop music or K-pop, is one of the most notable exports to come out of South Korea in the past decade.

Korea's content watchdogs say K-pop exports grew nearly 50 percent from 2011 to 2012, grossing an estimated $290 million last year.

Earlier this year, nine-member K-Pop dance group Girls' Generation beat Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga for "Video of the Year" at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards in early November. The girl group is making waves as part of South Korea's young generation of pop stars rising up through the international ranks.

K-pop concerts sell out in minutes. They raise television ratings, and their branding can get teens, and even some adults to buy just about anything.

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But it is not without incredible amounts of training.

Most idols train for years in singing, dancing, acting and learning Asian languages before they are even allowed to debut their first song.

Mike Suh, head of strategy and global business at entertainment conglomerate CJ E&M, says idols go through a long training period "so that they immediately attract fans when they first appear."

That phenomenon was on display at the 2013 Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA for short) in Hong Kong, organized by CJ E&M, where some of South Korea's biggest idol groups Girls' Generation, BIGBANG, EXO, 2NE1 and Sistar held court.

Tickets for the 10,000 seats were sold out within an hour of going on sale and nearly 13 million people signed onto MAMA's website to vote for their favorite idols.

MAMA also showcased notable guests from the international music scene including Hong Kong singer/actor Aaron Kwok, Norway's Ylvis, Sweden's Icona Pop and American legend Stevie Wonder.

Self-proclaimed K-Pop fan Paris Hilton also made an appearance.

New pop

One of the more unique acts to go onstage was helmet-donning girl group Crayon Pop, which took home "Best New Female Artist" at the event.

The comic act shot to fame when their music video "Bar Bar Bar" went viral earlier this year.

At a backstage interview at MAMA, the five girls bowed politely, but were extremely careful of their actions.

Showing how closely monitored they are, their manager was on high alert, often signaling to them about what they should and should not say.

The practice is common among many idol groups, as any slip of the tongue can immediately damage their careers.

In 2012, seven-member idol group Block B made comments in an interview about the tragic flooding in Thailand that some fans viewed as disrespectful and offensive.

After a public outcry, the group issued many apologies but it wasn't enough. There were reports of music stations restricting them from appearing on its programs.

Many netizens reportedly demanded their disbandment; some going as far as calling for the members to commit suicide.

Former 2PM leader Jay Park also sparked public outrage after netizens found old posts on his social media site about his dislike for South Korea. The Korean-American was soon dropped from the idol group.

Surveillance

Every action of an idol is monitored by their agency -- even romance can be prohibited by a clause in their contract.

Singer Choi Dong-wook, known by his stage name Se7en, told a Korean talk show he saw his fan club instantly drop by about 100,000 members when he announced he had a girlfriend.

Scandals can also have financial consequences.

After BIGBANG leader G-Dragon tested positive for marijuana use in 2011, the group's management company YG Entertainment reduced the size of its IPO by around 10 percent.

Multicultural reach

At MAMA, fans speaking Mandarin, Nepali, Tagalog and Japanese among other languages stood in the waiting areas, staring wide-eyed as the music videos of idols played over and over on the screens.

The audience members knew everything about their idols -- writing down everything they said and did.

It's dedication like this that keeps the K-Pop phenomenon going, and in return, artists give back forms of "fan service".

Newer debuts like Crayon Pop appeal to fans by physically appearing before them at so-called "high touch" events -- more personal, face-to-face meetings that allow them to have direct interaction.

"At these events, we shake hands with fans and get their advice on what they'd like to see," said Crayon Pop member Cho-A.

Acts also use social media as a constant window to keep fans' attention.

Crayon Pop has a YouTube channel where fans can watch videos of their everyday lives -- shot and edited by their agency. The channel currently has more than 157,000 subscribers.

Disconnect

Some fans, however, believe that despite these methods, the artists come off as unapproachable and distant. Fans say they want more of their idols, and they're not getting it beyond the tightly controlled images and videos.

Dorothy Advincula, an assistant editor at the Korean entertainment news site Kpopstarz, calls this K-Pop's "economics of scarcity," a method agencies use to try to keep the ball in their court.

"Artist agencies make it difficult for idols to relate to their fans beyond the stage performance. So the littlest sighting, the slightest glimpse with a photo or any kind of evidence becomes a sort of trophy," she said.

Advincula points to the social media presence as a veil. "While it's not unique to K-Pop, the response is different because there can be a disconnect on how idols and fans actually interact... while in mainstream, there is a certain consistency."

"I think we've come a point of no-return where because of these bite-sized contacts... naturally fans get a bit greedier and demand something more."