Your next T-pop star, sounds familiar?


It’s been ages since this curiosity has begun to boggle my mind after several months of stay in Taiwan. As I enter random stores (esp. fancy and trendy ones), Taiwanese play more Korean songs a.k.a. K-pop than local songs. Let me be clear. I am in Taipei, not in Seoul, and I am not in any Korean record shop, bar or restaurant. I am talking about local shops here. So I started asking around:

Why do you play Korean songs instead of local songs?

Actually most did not have clear ideas. It just plays. The closest to an answer I got was, “maybe because the laoban thinks it’s COOL and TRENDY.” But funny thing is not in its trendiness as some songs are from a several years ago. It’s just in the sense that the songs are in Korean. Korean wave is the thing. But then, who creates the mass of this K-pop wave? Yes, the (mostly group) idols. Why wouldn’t Taiwanese listen to T-pop(better known as Mando-pop) sung by Taiwanese idols? So I asked around, too:

Why don’t you guys listen to the songs of Taiwanese idols? I mean before I can get to this question, who are Taiwanese idols?

It’s been almost more than a year since I set my foot on this island but only name that came to my mind was: F4 which is considered as fossil as they were popular like more than a decade ago. SpeXial whose face I can’t even recall but remember just the name because the name sounded so speXial. :P

We are the four flowers, F4. The first generation of flower-series idols.

Surprisingly, Taiwanese had little idea, either. (even considering my friends are, sadly, not in the age for idol fandom.) So I decided to dig it up a little bit.

Why do young Taiwanese show most zeal toward Korean idols, some toward Japanese idols and only little toward local idols?

How would you like your idols cooked?

Idols to steaks?

Well, I actually asked this question with a different twist on my posting in Korean blogs using the simile of “raw fish eating habit in Korea and Japan.” However, since most readers may not be familiar with raw fish eating culture, let me use “steak” instead.

Japanese always like it rare.

Japanese prefer cooking their idols “medium rare” meaning that they pick up talents through audition or street casting and debut them as idols with relatively little training. I think it is because Japanese feel affection toward those looking fresh and cute who may seem to be living down the block. And they like to see them grow on stage. It is difficult to praise the singing and dancing skills of many famous group idols like SMAP, ARASHI, Morning Musume or AKB48 as awe-inspiring. (aside from how “affable” their songs are)

Koreans, on the other hand, always want the idols cooked “well done.” Korean entertainment agencies select potential idol candidates and train them like hell. Most “trainees” spend 3~7 years practicing singing, dancing and sometimes even acting to become more perfect idol figures upon debut. The managing companies even recommend them to take plastic surgery so that they would become gods and goddesses to teenagers. All this means lots of investment in $ and time. That’s why it leads to the so-called “slavery contract” for most of group idol members more often in Korea. It obviously leads to lawsuits and unhappy break-up between the idols and the agency because the agency wants to get their investment back from all the profits the idols are making but idols want more share of the money they earn from their fame.

Korean idol group EXO’s oversea concert

I believe a part of the reason why Korean idols swept different parts of Asia and world so fast — as to form a genre called K-pop and a trend called Korean wave 韓流 — comes from this degree of training in preparing group idols before debut. They were not born ready but were just better prepared to perform in bigger stage.

Bigger pool, Bigger fish

Since I changed my allegory of “fish” to “beef,” maybe it would be better to put it as “Bigger field, Bigger cows” but let me just stick to fish on this one. It is said that a carp, or what Japanese people call it as koi, can grow as big as its habitat. Human beings are like that, hence idols are like that.


If you are investing your time and money in entertainment, you want to see more refined performance by better “refurbished” performers. In this sense, it is quite natural that Korean idols with strong skill sets create fandom not only in domestic market but abroad as well. They bring lots of money and reputation to their agencies through selling records, goods, concert tickets.

Literally big bang in Korea’s entertainment landscape, K-pop idol group Big Bang
Then, where does this money all go?

It becomes the reliable ammo to aim at the excavation and development of new talents before debut, and the powerful marketing of the rising stars after debut. Well-trained idols who are better cared and supported from the professional management of the agencies are destined to become bigger stars.

The three big names in Korean entertainment


Meanwhile, Japan, as it usually does with many other products, mainly focuses on domestic market. So Japanese idols are basically targeted for domestic market. However, Japan can “afford” to do this unlike Korea because its domestic market is big enough. As result, if the idols take off in Japan, their agencies can earn quite sum of money. With such financial armament can roll out big scale marketing. One of the well-known success cases is AKB48. It reproduced lots of local versions like SKE48, NMB48 and so forth (as far as I know, there are even foreign versions in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc.) With all these spin-offs, the agency even managed to hold a “general election” (Yes! we are talking about politics in entertainment now!) to rank each and every member. Each fan can get as many ballots as they wish as long as they purchase the idol’s merchandise. In the end, Japanese idols get enough media exposure thanks to brilliant and powerful marketings of their agencies.

Idol marketing at its pinnacle: AKB48 general election poster


Back to our original question, then what about Taiwan? Let’s be honest. How many Taiwanese idol groups can you name? Until I literally “urged” my friend to come up with a list of any group idol she can think of, F4, S.H.E., Dream Girls were all. Even these groups are quite behind the trend. The only recent one I could name was SpeXial but some of my Taiwanese friends have not even heard who they were. This tells the reality in Taiwan’s group idol world.

Taiwan idol group who wants to be special, SpeXial

It boils down to capitalism: $ make $

In conclusion, Taiwan’s idol agencies don’t have the money like its Korean or Japanese counterparts do.

Then why don’t they have $?

Taiwan’s domestic market is even smaller than Korea which means it cannot scrape big chunk of profit just by aiming at Taiwan market.

Then why can’t they aim global market?

It’s chicken and egg problem. Because they can’t earn huge amount of money in domestic market alone to properly train local talents to become well-prepared global stars, they cannot compete with already toughened-up Spartans from Korea who even have strong marketing bazookas.

It comes down to the basic rule in business. Invest a lot for R&D to come up with a sexy product. If the product itself is just good, it will sell well. But you know what? If you have great marketing on top of that, it can even sell better.

Idols are cultural merchandise. If you can invest in young talents and train them hard with best trainers, you will likely to have with great products. But if you can roll out mind-blowing marketing to those wonderful idols, game over.

It all boils down to money. Sadly, at this stage of cycle, Taiwan agencies cannot find such money. Little training > debut > little marketing > little popularity > little money > little training > … Vicious cycle.

Idol market situation in a nutshell

*Aside from group idols which require lots of planning and management skills, there are quite famous individual performers in Taiwan as well. Please mind that my story focuses on “group idols.”

Brain Drain

Korean agency, SM, is now training oversea talents to better engage oversea markets.

Just like Taiwan’s job market situation in which bright kids all leave the country for higher paying cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, all the big talents swarm to Korea’s entertainment market and Korean agencies also welcome these foreign talents to embrace Chinese market. Korean idol group, TWICE, has 3 Japanese members and one Taiwanese member. Not to mention Super Junior, EXO, etc. But if all these great talents come to Korea or Japan for the fast track to bigger fame, who is left in Taiwan?

5 Koreans 3 Japanese 1 Taiwanese but singing in Korean?!


Taiwan is a country that absorbs foreign culture easily. At the moment, it may seem that it consumes foreign trends more than local ones. However, I believe, at some point in time, Taiwan will come up with its own strategy and contents to appeal to its local audience. But it won’t come for free.

Demonstration for Screen Quota by famous movie actor, Choi Min-Sik

I think Korea’s movie industry can be a good example. To bring up Korean movie’s competitiveness, there was a quota for movie theaters to play certain portion of Korean movies. It helped strengthen the foundation of Korean movie industry and earn profit against then much stronger Hollywood movies, which is then reinvested to create even better movies.

Chairman of Wanda Group, Wang Jian-Lian

It’s a matter of another debate whether government should involve in the market to nurture its domestic players. However, if there are private investors who have high interests in mass culture and contents, I think there are lots of possibilities for Taiwan culture industry. Even though the scale may be a lot different, Wanda Group in China is trying to learn many know-hows from Korea’s entertainment industry by making huge investments. Who knows these seeds will grow into the foundation of modern Chinese pop culture within a few years?

#idol #entertainment #kpop #jpop #mandopop #tpop

*Courtesy of image: Google Image

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