Rein­ven­tion after Rio

JoongAng Daily - - Front Page - BY YIM SE­UNG-HYE sharon@joongang.co.kr

Alan Webb, the Amer­i­can record­holder in the mile, has set his sights on the 2016 Olympics in Rio as a triath­lete.

Can­tonese, Man­darin and Korean. But to ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, Sunye, the leader of Won­der Girls, an­nounced in 2012 that she would be get­ting mar­ried. Won­der Girls has been on hia­tus since Sunye’s wed­ding, and although the group’s agency in­sists Won­der Girls are not dis­band­ing, Sohee’s de­par­ture from JYP En­ter­tain­ment late last year makes it seem like the group has, in ef­fect, bro­ken up.

Although Kara con­tin­ues to per­form, the girl group has gone through even more ups and downs than the Won­der Girls. After form­ing in 2007, Kara was a four-mem­ber group. But a year later, Kim Seong-hee left, and the girl group seemed to go into a tail­spin. Upon Goo Ha-ra and Kang Ji-young’s en­trance as new mem­bers, how­ever, the band man­aged to turn mis­for­tune into ad­van­tage and went on to break records, es­pe­cially in Ja­pan. Yet Jung and Kang re­cently de­cided not to re­new their con­tracts with their agency DSP Me­dia, push­ing the group into another down­turn. Through the TV re­al­ity show “Kara Project,” the group se­lected Heo Young-ji as a new mem­ber. But some crit­ics say that their pop­u­lar­ity will likely wane, just like Won­der Girls dwin­dled after wel­com­ing a new mem­ber.

Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion seemed like the only hope left for fe­male K-pop bands. But the group, which had been on a suc­cess­ful streak for seven years, seems like it won’t be break­ing the so-called jinx.

This year, a cou­ple of the mem­bers con­firmed ru­mors that they are dat­ing — a taboo for girls in K-pop groups. And to make mat­ters worse, Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion went down to eight mem­bers from nine just re­cently, upon Jessica’s de­par­ture due to dis­agree­ments over her launch­ing a fash­ion la­bel. Although the agency, SM En­ter­tain­ment, said that Jessica “quit vol­un­tar­ily,” the 25-year-old mem­ber as­cer­tained she was “told by the agency” that she was no longer part of Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion. On Weibo, the China-based Twit­ter- like ser­vice, Jessica wrote o n Sept. 30 that she’d been “in­formed” of her exit and that she was “dev­as­tated” as she had been pushed out “for no jus­ti­fi­able rea­son.” Korea’s girl group ti­tan is now left with a blurry fu­ture.

“Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion will look like they are sta­ble right now as they have such a large fan­dom, but they’ve al­ready lost faith from some of their diehard fans,” said a K-pop in­dus­try in­sider who re­quested not to be named.

K-pop girl groups’ dat­ing scan­dals, ac­cord­ing to the in­dus­try in­sider, are es­pe­cially fa­tal as “although they went global, Ja­pan is still their big­gest mar­ket.” Re­fer­ring to popular Ja­panese girl groups such as AKB48, which kicked out and re­placed many of its mem­bers for not abid­ing by the car­di­nal no-dat­ing rule, the in­dus­try in­sider said that the “girls of­fi­cially ac­knowl­edg­ing their dat­ing ‘scan­dals’ may seem fine in Korea, but in Ja­pan it will def­i­nitely dam­age their pop­u­lar­ity.”

Mi­nami Mine­gushi, a mem­ber of AKB48, begged fans to let her stay in the group last year when a tabloid news­pa­per pub­lished photographs of her leav­ing her boyfriend’s home. She shaved her head, which is a tra­di­tional form of show­ing con­tri­tion in Ja­pan, and up­loaded a filmed apol­ogy to the In­ter­net.

Ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Min­istry of Cul­ture, Sports and Tourism, Ja­pan still ranks No. 1 in im­port­ing Korea’s cul­tural con­tent, a large por­tion of which is K-pop. Last year, cul­tural ex­ports to Ja­pan stood at around 1.35 bil­lion dol­lars, fol­lowed by 1.23 bil­lion dol­lars for China. “In such a cul

ture like Ja­pan, it looks there are no more in­roads for the girl group,” said the in­dus­try in­sider.

Ac­cord­ing to the Cul­ture Min­istry’s re­port, China has been rapidly fol­low­ing Ja­pan in im­port­ing Korean cul­ture. Korea’s ex­ports to China have in­creased by 9.9 per­cent com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year, the re­port states, ex­plain­ing that there has been an av­er­age an­nual in­crease of 27.6 per­cent from the na­tion since 2010.

Growth on such a mag­ni­tude is dif­fi­cult to ig­nore, so Korea’s ma­jor en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies dove in by re­cruit­ing more Chi­nese mem­bers for K-pop groups. But after sev­eral Chi­nese mem­bers of boy groups filed law­suits to nul­lify con­tract con­di­tions that bound them to Korean en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies, the coun­try’s mu­sic in­dus­try en­trepreneurs need to come up with mea­sures to pre­vent an ex­o­dus of Chi­nese mem­bers. (Re­lated ar­ti­cle on Page 11.)

“Korea’s en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies will have to mod­ify their con­tract and get rid of un­just con­di­tions for for­eign mem­bers. If not, this sit­u­a­tion will never end,” said lawyer Jun Yung-suk in ref­er­ence to a law­suit Han­geng, a Chi­nese Su­per Ju­nior mem­ber, won in 2009.

“I look at such phe­nom­ena as grow­ing pains,” said pop cul­ture critic Choi Gyu-seong. “As the in­dus­try has seen rapid growth, it is still very un­sta­ble. It was a mat­ter of course as the cur­rent K-pop is cre­ated by sev­eral mega tal­ent agen­cies and later went through back­ward sys­tem­iza­tion.”

Mean­while, K-pop con­cert and fes­ti­val or­ga­niz­ers who plunged into the in­dus­try when it was thriv­ing don’t seem to be help­ing its cur­rent in­sta­bil­ity. Re­cently, some Euro­pean for­mer fans said they have turned their back on K-pop as they feel de­ceived. A K-cul­ture Fes­ti­val sched­uled for Sept. 12 to 13 in Dus­sel­dorf, Ger­many, was pulled just two weeks be­fore its launch by Korean events company Dif One. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the or­ga­nizer can­celed as it over­es­ti­mated de­mand and re­al­ized it would be un­able to carry the cost of the con­cert. Re­ports said only 4,000 tick­ets, well Psy moved K-pop into a higher gear, gal­lop­ing across the world with the hit song “Gang­nam Style,” while boy bands con­tin­ued to make head­lines by hold­ing world­wide con­certs and at­tract­ing mas­sive au­di­ences.

But it was the K-pop girl groups that first be­gan to per­form con­sis­tently over­seas, start­ing in nearby na­tions such as Ja­pan or China be­fore spread­ing their wings fur­ther to coun­tries like the United States.

Won­der Girls, of JYP En­ter­tain­ment, strate­gi­cally en­tered the U.S. mar­ket in 2009 as an open­ing act for The Jonas Brothers’ World Tour be­fore be­com­ing the first K-pop group to en­ter the Bill­board Hot 100 chart.

Another popular group, Kara of DSP Me­dia, also gar­nered im­mense pop­u­lar­ity in Ja­pan, rank­ing as “Ja­pan’s No. 1 Rookie Artist of 2010” by Ori­con, the big­gest chart in the na­tion, as soon as they en­tered the Ja­panese mu­sic mar­ket in 2010, four years after form­ing.

In 2011, Kara achieved their first No. 1 sin­gle on the Ori­con chart, an un­prece­dented feat for an over­seas girl group. After this, it was a mat­ter of course that SM En­ter­tain­ment’s Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion would be dubbed the most in­flu­en­tial K-pop girl group of the cen­tury, again by Ori­con, es­pe­cially while at their peak in 2011 and 2012. The nine mem­bers inched into the mu­sic scene in Ja­pan in late 2010, re­leas­ing nu­mer­ous songs in Ja­panese, and their de­but Ja­panese al­bum “Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion” be­came the high­est sell­ing al­bum in Ori­con’s his­tory for a K-pop group in 2011.

The num­ber of ap­pear­ances K-pop girl groups have made on TV pro­grams, ra­dio shows and films abroad is im­pres­sive. But it has be­come rare to see sim­i­lar record-break­ing achieve­ments from the same bands re­cently.

Does this mark the end of the lat­est gen­er­a­tion of K-pop girl groups? K-pop girl groups are known to be more un­sta­ble and have shorter life­spans than boy bands. They are more prone to dat­ing scan­dals, ru­mors of un­sa­vory pasts and even in­ter­nal con­flicts. Within the K-pop in­dus­try, girl groups last­ing only five years or so has be­come known as a “jinx.”

Popular first-gen­er­a­tion girl groups like S.E.S and their ri­val, Fin.K.L, dis­banded after six years while Fin.K.L lasted just five. And this trend seems to be con­tin­u­ing.

In 2010, three years after their do­mes­tic de­but, Won­der Girls were mak­ing moves to en­ter the global mu­sic scene fol­low­ing a change ange in their lineup. Orig­i­nal mem­ber Sunmi left the group to pur­sue an aca­demic ca­reer and nd was re­placed by Hye­lim, who is flu­ent in English, nglish, be­low the break-even point of 6,000, were sold. The venue, ISS Dome, seats 10,000, and en­trance prices for the fes­ti­val ranged be­tween 90 euros and 130 euros. Only some tick­ets have been re­funded.

“K-pop in emerg­ing mar­kets is only fer­vent among ar­dent fans rather than popular among masses,” said Park Seong-hyun, a re­searcher at the Korea Foun­da­tion of In­ter­na­tional Cul­ture Ex­change, an or­ga­ni­za­tion af­fil­i­ated with the Cul­ture Min­istry. “The profit struc­ture is not sta­ble yet, so right now, only mega tal­ent agen­cies or en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies go global with K-pop stars. In or­der to suc­cess­fully spread Kpop to new emerg­ing mar­kets, pri­vate and gov­ern­ment sec­tors must work to­gether.”

K-pop con­certs or­ga­nized by gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions fo­cus too heav­ily on prof­itabil­ity, ac­cord­ing to Park.

“Gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions and large broad­cast­ing sta­tions should work to­gether to con­tinue in­tro­duc­ing new com­pet­i­tive K-pop stars in un­ex­plored K-pop mar­kets abroad while en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies follow along to de­velop more di­verse gen­res of K-pop so that it be­comes more strate­gic,” he said.

De­spite sys­temic prob­lems and in­sta­bil­ity, to mu­sic in­dus­try in­sid­ers from abroad, K-pop still has po­ten­tial.

Jan­ice Min, 45, who heads the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter and Bill­board — two Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment me­dia out­lets that ex­ten­sively cover K-pop — said she doesn’t think that K-pop is in cri­sis but added that it will need to be “more au­then­tic” to at­tract a wider au­di­ence abroad.

“K-pop is the per­fect 360-de­gree ex­pres­sion of en­ter­tain­ment right now,” said Min, who re­cently vis­ited Seoul to par­tic­i­pate in the an­nual in­ter­na­tional mu­sic fair MU:CON Seoul 2014. “It has dance, singing, fash­ion, beauty. It’s all pack­aged so well that it makes it in­cred­i­bly ap­peal­ing to any­one in the YouTube gen­er­a­tion.”

How­ever, Min said K-pop groups may end up hav­ing the same prob­lem as boy bands and girl groups in Amer­ica for be­ing too “man­u­fac­tured,” as fans feel that they are con­tin­u­ing to see a “prod­uct of the mu­sic in­dus­try.”

“For authenticity, you need to feel like th­ese artists are pas­sion­ate about mu­sic, that they write their own songs and that it’s true artis­tic ex­pres­sion,” she said.

And lo­cal mu­sic in­dus­try in­sid­ers agreed on the need for di­ver­si­fied genre of K-pop. CJ E&M Mu­sic Per­for­mance Di­vi­sion head Ahn Suk-joon also said dur­ing MU:CON, that “other com­pet­i­tive gen­res like rock, hiphop and jazz should be de­vel­oped to so­lid­ify the foun­da­tion for K-pop over­seas.”

[REUTERS/NEWS1]

Ar­gen­tine fans of K-pop group Su­per Ju­nior re­act dur­ing their show in Buenos Aires in April, 2013.

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