How STRONG is the Korean wave ?

My third Korean trip for b2b K-POP music business event Mu:Con in Seoul (organised by KOCCA) pitching Midem 2016, welcoming every year “K-POP NIGHT OUT” live concerts, as well as my participation to The new K Pop culture conference lately in Paris with the World Association for Hallyu Studies, organised by Frederic Martel (writer, academic researcher. Author of “Mainstream” & “Smart” -The internets” both strongly recommended) interacting with Patrick Messerlin, Professor of economics (emeritus) @ Sciences Po Paris, made me take some steps back to gauge the East Asian phenomenon, focusing here on music. Not to mention the current celebrations of 130 years of diplomatic relations between France & Korea:

K-Pop, Korean Cinema, K-dramas, K-fashion and Kimchi are the ingredients of the Korean wave “hallyu” (Chinese term) that is hitting the four corners of the world. Hallyu simply means the global pop culture consumption of Korean products like : TV Dramas, music, films, webtoons, food, fashion and so on. All what we call “cultural contents”.

After the second world war, western Europe became obsessed with all things American: James Dean movies, Elvis’s rock ’n’ roll, cigarettes, gums, burgers and Coca-Cola. Historians describe that period as the “Coca-colonisation” of Europe and this soft power influence, although not quite as blatant or reverential as it once was, is still very visible. Apple, Nike, Disney’s Star Wars, NBA, Burger King, Amazon, Google and Starbucks have learned widely from their so-called parents. Something similar to Coca-colonisation is occurring in Asia from Indonesia to Japan. Whether it’s at the cinema, in the supermarket or on television, it’s almost impossible to avoid the style power of modern South Korea. Today, our kids want to be entertained differently. At least, Asia has a strong culture heritage, shaping up loudly a pop culture for anyone.

The Korean cultural wave was named three years ago by Time magazine “The greatest Korean exports” leaving the industrial chaebols behind, hidden perhaps even for their greatest pleasure. LG, Samsung, Hyundai are not dominated by the figures nor by the marketing dollars spent but the hallyu wave gives them a real world traction. The capital city, Seoul the hosts this boiling creativity is officially crowned the “city of cool” by numerous trendy magazines around the world. This intertwining of fashion, music, film and television has allowed Seoul to become arguably the most fashionable and culturally influential city in Asia, taking the unofficial title from long-time holder Tokyo. Design, art, shopping, eating, watching movies, wandering in the modern streets or traditional temples and parks, everything is so cool in Seoul.

The Korean organisation is amazing to witness, even though it has some real contradictions. Though, K-POP industry has showed that it owns the best know-how to manufacture creativity by outsourcing its inspiration from the world, adapting it locally through scandinavian lyricist, US producers back to the international audience, not yet totally mainstream ww., though. But there are a huge active community of fans in every continent. K-POP is then totally hybrid, more “americanized” than anything else in asia. The music producers can be from America, lyricists from Scandinavia, joined by the best choreographers and local fashion designers. Still, authenticity is not there from a western point of view. In the west, every effort is made to make sure the pop star is seen to be the “real deal”. While in Asia, the idol system is a transparent one in which the fans know young girls and boys train for years to debut and are almost completely controlled by their company… The korean government plays an active role promoting / pushing / investing on the korean wave, to an extent we’re not really used to in western countries. This unique model works, it’s surely not perfect but the global impact is happening.

The Legend — SS Entertainment /

On a mass marketing level Korea is branding itself “K-everything”. It was certainly invented by the Japanese who put a little dose of clarity and nuance in their “J-classification”. Take music, for example we have K-POP. The super dominance of the 3 Korean music majors SM Entertainment, YG Entertainement & JYP models make people think Korea only produce “idol manufactured bands” although they’re some good indie Korean electronic, hip-hop bands from pretty small indie producers. Those barely hit the international markets whereas indie electro artists like Idiotape, or post-rock mixing traditional music like Jambinai are emerging and have started to tour in the US and Europe quite extensively. Another interesting initiative to point out recently by YG Entertainment, the launch of a new sub-label headed called: HIGHGRND. Those are part of the KPOP family. Should everything be perceived as KPOP ? Same goes with fashion, what does K-fashion means except its provenance? Can we name a korean fashion designer ? (not yet, maybe quite soon — check links hereafter). All the musicians mostly call themselves K-Pop artists, true of course but from a pure marketing standpoint, not easy at all without any nuances. K-rock, K-electro, K-rap are the next big things ??

On many other hands, K-Pop industry is really a world advanced market as piracy was eradicated in the 2000’s, Korea was the first ever territory where digital recorded music sales surpassed physical formats in 2006 and today the big stars don’t really rely solely on recorded music. Of course, its revenues and value has significantly dropped. Income generated from idols images, endorsements, gifts, fanclub subscriptions. We can compare the Korean stars to our football players making sometimes more cash out of the field. The more “licensed” you are, better the rewards.

SM Town pop up store in Dongdaemun Design Plaza

The French fashion giant LVMH, the world’s biggest luxury goods conglomerate, see the upside of direct investment into Korean pop culture. Last year, L Capital Asia, an LVMH investment vehicle, made an US$80 million investment in YG Entertainment, home to Psy and G-Dragon. The deal is mutually beneficial, LVMH getting direct access to a roster of stars who have pan-Asian appeal and loyal and highly suggestible fan bases and YG being given another revenue stream for its stars to add to a recent expansion into beauty products.

Another reportage in a magazine, “Totalement Seoul” in Madame Figaro / Oct. 2015

To conclude, there’s a Korean a “super trendy” unique cultural miracle with a strong momentum. One can admire the soft power efficiency that even surprised the Korean government at first, which is now a master at taking advantage of this lucky position. Korea has built its success by doing better than the concurrents, is now entering the tough part when you’re leading the path. There’s a huge success in dramas, cosmetics (girls, please check the amazing products from Etude House convenient cosmetic stores), a good recognition in cinema, fashion high-end designers or Zara type “8seconds” (pretty linked to the dramas as a “hit article” can be sold out in Seoul soon after it appeared on TV!) and an overall promising status in music, evolving very fast. My own feeling is that Korean food will be the next big thing, it would be such a natural follow-up (See article “K-food ready to go mainstream”). In technology, Samsung has had tough times beyond the hardware. Software and global services platforms are really poor where Apple has long proven its dominance with iTunes and iOS. The country does not always give the impression to best exploit its tremendous window of opportunity. Korea is thus neither booming nor at the verge of a decline, but in a transition phase between a successful step 1 and a future with new dynamics, more agile capacity leading to that “indie” creativity. It will surely get there faster than its neighbours, its small size being both as much an asset than a weakness.

Korea will always count on its tremendous capacity to evolve, digest, try & customize everything with a great intensity, for the worse and for the better.

The “neo-futurist” Dongdaedemun Design Plaza — DDP — designed by Zaha Hadid and Samoo,

IDIOTAPE — Live @ Mu:Con 2014

JAMBINAI — Time of extinction single

DYNAMIC DUO — Hip hop duo, performed @ Midem 2014

THE RATIOS — LIVE => Excellent rock vibe !

Originally published at on October 26, 2015.