Recently boasting over 160 million YouTube views, Korean rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video became a viral sensation after it was released in July. The comedic song and video refer to the ritzy neighborhood of Gangnam in Seoul, South Korea. Despite the fact that few people other than Koreans know what any of the lyrics mean, the video has received a flurry of international attention for Psy’s now-signature horseback riding dance. The 34-year-old rapper, born Park Jae-Sang, may seem an unlikely candidate for pop stardom, but at the end of August he entered his fifth week atop the Billboard K-Pop Hot 100, tying the record for most consecutive weeks at number one.1 He also spent several weeks leading the Billboard Social 50, and according to Neilsen SoundScan2, had sold 61,000 U.S. downloads as of September 14th.
The success of “Gangnam Style” testifies to the immense power of the social media hive-mind. While Psy was already a known figure in Korea, social media catapulted him into the international spotlight, circulating the video in a fervent feedback loop across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the blogosphere. Numerous celebrities including LMFAO, T-Pain, Robbie Williams, Vanessa Hudgens, and Britney Spears, took to Facebook, Twitter, or their own website to lend their curatorial voices to “Gangnam Style.” After Spears tweeted about her desire to learn the horseback-riding dance, TV personality Ellen Degeneres brought Psy out during her show to teach Spears the dance. Further appearances at the MTV Video Music Awards and on the Today Show, plus attention from music industry heavyweights have solidified the song’s massive impact.3
A U.S. Bet
Psy’s future in the U.S. and international music scene may well be in the hands of music mogul Scooter Braun, the manager responsible for discovering and breaking Justin Bieber and, more recently, Carly Rae Jepsen. Amidst the “Gangnam Style” hype, Braun discovered the video and quickly met with the Korean rapper to discuss his career outside of Korea. In a brief YouTube video, Braun announced his intentions to bring K-pop to the masses and make Psy the “first Korean artist to break a big record in the United States.”4 Shortly thereafter Psy signed to Braun’s Schoolboy Records, part of the Universal Music Group, joining Bieber and Jepsen as well as rapper Asher Roth.5
Braun’s track record with Bieber and Jepsen lends significant weight to his voice in the industry. His endorsement makes Psy, already firmly in the cultural spotlight, the subject of heated industry debate. Yet even if the signing announcement underlines Braun’s bet on the potential of Korean music, Psy’s best efforts are unlikely, on their own, to champion the crossover of a new genre.
K-Pop, short for Korean Pop, has long enjoyed niche success in the U.S., but with little migration into mainstream pop culture. In early 2012, Rolling Stone published “The 10 K-Pop Groups Most Likely to Break in America.”6 The article cites previous failed crossover attempts including BoA and Se7en, “likely due to the fact that they were molded by American record labels to be presented in a way they saw best to break into [a] notoriously difficult market.”
A fresh crop of K-pop stars raised the question again earlier this year, with many looking to Girls’ Generation who made appearances on both The Late Show With David Letterman and Live! With Kelly ahead of their debut U.S. E.P. Even the successes of current K-pop groups, however, have highlighted how far the genre has to go. Girls’ Generation TTS, a sub-group of the previously mentioned act, was the highest charting K-pop group on the Billboard 200 with their E.P., Twinkle, which only reached number 126.
The arrival of Psy and “Gangnam Style” has brought a new level of mainstream success to K-pop, including a number one spot on the iTunes singles chart. There are several reasons why Psy has been able to overcome the traditional barriers imposed on Korean artists.
The signature horseback-riding dance fed a buzz that pushed the song to the forefront of pop culture relevance. As with the appearance on Ellen, most of the media attention centers on the song’s dance. At his VMA appearance, host and comedian Kevin Hart asked Psy, “you’ve got over 100 million on YouTube … how does that feel?” before the duo spontaneously broke into the trademark dance.7 Parody and tribute videos abound on YouTube featuring the dance, and Psy himself appeared on the “dance cam” of a recent LA Dodgers game as “Gangnam Style” blared over the loudspeakers.8 Indeed the eye-catching dance has fueled the video’s viral ascent, but also important is the underlying pop sensibility of the song.
Psy, a Berklee College of Music student, uses thumping electro-pop beats that fit snugly among other current chart-topping songs. Other K-pop acts who have found some U.S. success might represent a cultural shift towards Korean sensibilities but Psy naturally falls closer to the U.S. mainstream. LMFAO proved that a current market exists for comedic rap-pop, and Psy could be poised to follow in their footsteps.
The Music Scene in South Korea
The international successes of Psy are certainly welcome in the Korean music industry. A recent article in The Economist noted the bleak conditions for K-Pop artists in their home country. In a hyper-connected culture, South Korean music services have pushed extremely cheap tethered-download subscriptions to combat piracy. But for rights holders, “their payout is miserly.” The article expands: “Under subscription deals, [rights holders] collect as little as 30 won [or $0.0269 USD] per track; this must then be split between performers, writers and the label itself.”9
Audiences that prefer to purchase their music digitally, rather than stream the files, are accustomed to the competitive under pricing that has become rampant in South Korea. Motivated by a fear of P2P sharing, K-Pop albums sell at only a few cents per song, making domestic album revenues insufficient to sustain an industry of its size. 10 Pop acts like Psy may operate out of Seoul, but for consistent payoff have grown to rely on the burgeoning support of Japanese and American audiences.
Indeed, expanding beyond Korea provides artists with access to more and more profitable revenue streams. Mainstream success in the U.S. for the genre is not so much a growth opportunity as it is a survival tactic, and the K-pop community has embraced Psy as their poster child.
Gangnam Style’s popularity has subjected the South Korean music industry to the scrutiny of its Western counterparts. When hit pop group, Dong Bang Shin Ki contested the grounds of their grueling 13-year contract in 2009, K-Pop’s standard business practices were revealed not to be as squeaky-clean as their image would suggest. 11 Though courts came down in favor of the Dong Bang Shin Ki, even drafting a “model contract” for use as an industry standard, little else has been done to restructure an industry built largely on restrictions of artist autonomy and sky-high operating expenses.
Accustomed to lengthy contract terms and inflated production values, K-Pop performers are expected to cover costs incurred during touring, filming and recording, often leaving paltry profits. It is common practice for Korean entertainment agencies to suspend payment to performers until all production fees and corresponding promotional expenses are recouped. Given the colossal expectations of a genre defined by excess, the break-even point for a given album may not occur until several years following its release, if it occurs at all. 12
Not all K-Pop artists bear the brunt of their debts; record label powerhouses SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment cover the production costs of their artists, including those on their roster that fail to break even. But those companies are exceptions. With thinning profit margins and little incentive for record labels to change their payment policies, the standard business model of K-Pop has so far shown few signs of reform. Increased U.S. interest in Korean music could, however, threaten the status quo, but only if more American labels follow Scooter Braun’s lead in investing in Korean talent.
Tough Act to Follow
Despite the undeniable success of “Gangnam Style,” Psy’s longevity in the international market is not proven. As previously noted, Scooter Braun has already placed his bet in favor of Psy, but not everyone is as confident. Hypebot’s Clyde Smith, drawing from historical examples, raised the question of Psy’s future in an article entitled “Is PSY’s Gangnam Style The K-Pop Macarena Or The Next Party Rock Anthem?”13 “Gangnam Style” may be the first of many successes for Psy, but he could just as easily become a one-hit wonder. Smith comments, “for this to be the breakthrough hit for K-Pop in the States, PSY will have to follow with another big hit as did LMFAO with ‘Sorry For Party Rocking’.”
Psy, with Braun’s backing, certainly has the resources to extend his success. No formal plans for a U.S. debut have been announced at this time, but this will change. Still, more K-pop artists will have to captivate America for the crossover to become entrenched.
By Colin Ramsay and Mical Klip
2. Trust, Gary. “Weekly Chart Notes: Psy Adds ‘Style’ To The Hot 100.” Billboard. Billboard, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.billboard.com/column/chartbeat/weekly-chart-notes-psy-adds-style-to-the-1007949392.story>.
3. Carbone, Nick. “New York City Goes Gangnam Style: PSY Rocks the ’Today’ Show.” TIME.com. Time, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/09/14/new-york-city-goes-gangnam-style-psy-rocks-the-today-show/>.
4. Public Announcement – Scooter Braun Regarding PSY. YouTube. N.p., 03 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOn3aWDHlsE>.
5. Benjamin, Jeff. “Scooter Braun, Korean Viral Video Sensation Psy Announce Label Partnership.” Billboard. Billboard, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/others/scooter-braun-korean-viral-video-sensation-1007921952.story>.
6. Benjamin, Jeff. “The 10 K-Pop Groups Most Likely to Break in America.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, n.d. Web. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/the-10-k-pop-groups-most-likely-to-break-in-america-20120518>.
7. “Gangnam MTV Style: Psy Signs With Justin Bieber’s Manager, Performs at VMAs.” WSJ.com. The Wall Street Journal, 7 Sept. 2012. Web. <http://blogs.wsj.com/scene/2012/09/07/gangnam-mtv-style-psy-signs-with-justin-biebers-manager-performs-at-vma/>.
8. Psy- Dodgers (Gangnam) Style! No Foul Pole to Hinder View, Actual View from Dancer on “Dance Cam”! YouTube. YouTube, 21 Aug. 2012. Web. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOkBrH8hnXc>.
9. “Top of the K-pops.” The Economist, 18 Aug. 2012. Web. <http://www.economist.com/node/21560605>.
11. Williamson, Lucy. “The Dark Side of South Korean Pop Music,” BBC, June 14, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13760064
12. “K-pop industry’s profit distribution system gives idols a hard time?”, loc. cit.
13. Smith, Clyde. “Is PSY’s Gangnam Style The K-Pop Macarena Or The Next Party Rock Anthem?” Hypebot.com. Hypebot, 27 Aug. 2012. Web.