[Column] Taking a page from K-pop’s innovation playbook

Posted on : 2023-11-22 16:42 KST Modified on : 2023-11-22 16:42 KST
K-pop innovation kept physical media alive, can the same be done for legacy media?
Girl group NewJeans. (courtesy of ADOR)
Girl group NewJeans. (courtesy of ADOR)
By Lee Jung-gook, deputy culture editor

“I get so angry when I see people listening to music on MP3 players!”

Thus begins an article published in a daily newspaper in 2007, quoting the manager of a famous female dance musician. According to the article, the K-pop industry was in a crisis due to low record sales because of MP3s. The same piece quoted singer Lee Juck as predicting the demise of CDs in a couple of years.

Now, 16 years later, we can say that Lee Juck was wrong. Agencies no longer rail about people listening to music digitally. According to Circle Chart, K-pop record sales are expected to exceed 100 million copies this year. Even now, famous idol groups manage to sell millions of records within a week of releasing them. The group Seventeen sold 6.2 million units of their EP “FML” since releasing it in April this year. But who has CD players these days?

Last year, the K-pop industry recorded a market size of 8 trillion won (US$6.2 million), which accounts for roughly 30% of the world’s music industry. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Global Album Sales Chart, eight out of the 10 albums that recorded the highest sales in the world last year were K-pop albums. More than 8,000 labels across the world are members of the federation.

Considering how K-pop was expected to fail, its success is unprecedented. This is especially the case because it’s hard to see cases in which media that had grown obsolete due to technological development experiences a resurgence. Imagine if tube television had a renaissance in today’s LED age.

This level of success can be explained as a product of innovation in two areas: content and packaging. First, K-pop revolutionized content. When you look at the album credits of K-pop artists, you barely see Korean names other than those of the singers. Lyric writing, songwriting, and producing, not to mention technical aspects like recording, mixing, and mastering, are mostly completed abroad.

Many musicians from Northern Europe, where electronic dance music is all the rage, are involved in K-pop as songwriters. This gave K-pop a fresh new feel listeners weren’t used to, grabbing onto consumers who could have been lured away by the foreign pop market. Once K-pop retired Korean-style melodies, it became competitive in the global market.

Sound engineering was significantly improved as well. For example, the album by NewJeans, a group that has joined the ranks of global superstars, was mixed by world-renowned engineer Phil Tan, who won three Grammys including one for mixing a Mariah Carey album. The quality of K-pop has changed dramatically from the past, when a few “hit makers” wrote and produced all the songs and engineers who learned the ropes through observation reminiscent of apprenticeships participated in album production.

Next, packaging was revolutionized as well. Record companies aren’t selling records when they’re selling records. This may sound illogical, but it’s true. The term “CD” merely defines the external characteristics of products known as records. But K-pop albums contain hundreds and dozens of pictures and so-called “photo cards.” Not only that, but some albums also include stickers and decorative tapes one can use to decorate one’s diary, a popular activity among millennials and Gen Z.

Some albums include coupons one can use to download music. Upon criticism that people were throwing out CDs as soon as they bought them, CDs are now done up so they can be used as interior decoration. They’re virtually sold as artist merchandise, not records. In an age when CD players are no more, what consumer would buy products that only constitute CDs? Add to that, different versions of albums were created per member to induce one person to buy multiple albums. According to a report by IBK Securities, hardcore fans spend somewhere between 520,000 won to 1.04 million won (US$400 to $772) for their favorite artist every year.

Otherwise, a good foundation was built when the industry strongly demanded copyright protection to prevent illegal downloads and supporting policies were introduced, making listening to music for free more and more difficult.

The innovation of K-pop inevitably reminds one of the crisis faced by legacy media. We can’t keep complaining about people reading the news on online platforms. There’s much to learn from K-pop.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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