The K-Pop Factory

There is this global phenomenon called the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, where more and more people are consuming South Korean culture. This infatuation is heavily driven by the success of K-Pop, where its fans obsess over the flamboyant and engaging nature of the genre and its idols.

But the successes of K-Pop that resulted in the enthusiasm for South Korean culture was no accident. Since the mid-nineties, South Korea’s Ministry of Culture has invested vast amounts of resources to revitalise their entertainment and media industries. And, as a result, the world is beginning to see South Korea as a cultural and entertainment capital.

BTS, a K-Pop supergroup, performs on Jimmy Kimmel Live
BTS, a K-Pop supergroup, performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live


Korea’s big three entertainment conglomerates, YG, JYP and SM Entertainment, are responsible for establishing most of K-Pop’s biggest names. They had simplified K-Pop into a few elements: catchy songs, slick dance routines and aggressive marketing.

Back in 2007, Wonder Girls’ hit single “Nobody” became an instant hit in Asia with those exact ingredients, and so too did PSY’s “Gangnam Style” - which went viral in 2012, becoming the first YouTube video to surpass a billion views. 

They had also devised a unique system of seeking and developing talents which, to date, has produced more than 110 successful idol groups in three different generations.

The system finds aspiring individual talents, subjects them through meticulous (and controversial) training schemes, then groups them with other individuals under a catchy name. They would then subject the newly formed group to an exhaustive touring schedule coupled with an exhaustive PR campaign.

The industry also recruits and develops talents through regional talent competitions which are similair to American Idol. However, instead of an individual winner, a number of finalists would be chosen to form a K-Pop group supported by the entertainment company sponsoring the competition.

Isaac Voo, Malaysia’s first K-Pop idol, is a product of that system. He was one of eight others who won a regional talent competition called Boys24. They eventually formed IN2IT, who have already attracted thousands of fans within six months of their debut.

But the intense, cyclical natures of these systems are starting to show its cracks. Older groups are constantly being thrown on the backburner in favour of younger groups who are more willing to cope with the pressures of being a K-Pop idol. Adding to that, the genre is getting crowded and saturated with the constant barrage of new groups coming out of the same system.

And it’s problems go even further, as kids as young as 11 years old sign long-term and binding contracts with management agencies, which allows them to control their diets, behaviour and even their love lives. It is undeniably unforgiving as plenty of K-Pop idols have revealed their struggles with suicidal thoughts, depression and insomnia. 

Fans are shaken by the death of Jonghyun (from the supergroup SHINee)
The suicide of Jonghyun, a member of supergroup SHINee, left many fans distraught, and shed new light on the pressures of being a K-Pop idol.

But having said that, there’s a lot to be learnt from the rise of the Korean entertainment industry. They’ve proved that a resourceful governance backed by an enterprising industry can work to a certain extent. 

And, there’s a lot that Malaysia can learn about in reviving our rich culture and heritage. For years, we’ve struggled to effectively develop our arts, crafts, history and language, and this might be one way to do it. 

But of course, it’s not going to be as simple as that, but then again, what is? 

 

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