“The History, Development, and Future of K-pop and the Korean Music Industry”
By Hannah Waitt
In less than twenty years, South Korean popular music (Kpop) has risen from utter obscurity outside of Korea to one of the most thriving, vibrant, and popular pop cultures in the world today. Each week in “The History of Kpop,” we strive to get to the root of how the phenomenon that is Kpop came to be.
When we last left off in Chapter 1, South Korea had been recently democratized and radio and television stations were no longer the government’s to control. This meant that in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, musicians could finally express themselves without being completely censored – rock stars could finally be rock stars. However, rock stars in Korea operated in a very different environment than they did in the United States and in most other parts of the world.
A huge reason for why Korea’s modern music industry operates the way that it does, is because it developed during the age of television. While most other music industries developed during the era of the phonograph and radio, Korean popular music came about at a time in which TV was the primary medium through which people learned information and were entertained. This fact would have an enormous effect on the way that Korean popular music was created and consumed from the time that the music industry was emerging and into the present.
From the 1970s until the early 1990s, Korean broadcasting stations employed what was often referred to as the “star system.” In this system, the broadcasting stations provided studio bands, choreographers, music arrangers and conductors, lyricists and songwriters, and dance groups, and then required the star to sing on stage with them. The artist was brought on stage and then marginalized, having absolutely no control over the creative production process, nor how the content was being distributed in terms of performance.
This tight control held by the broadcasting companies eliminated any sort of opportunity for a diverse music landscape to develop in Korean popular culture by restricting the content that was aired to the safe ballads that they and the audience were used to. Now instead of the government, the broadcasting studios had control over everything – the stars, the songs they sang, their method of performance, and consequently, the entire direction of music consumption in Korea.
Cho Yong Pil sings “Come Back to Busan Harbor” with the broadcasting station band in 1993
Further restricting the progress of the mainstream Korean music scene was the fact that until the late 1980s, there were only two major broadcasting companies. The lack of competition mean that these two companies had a complete monopoly on the musical content to which Koreans were exposed. The weekend music shows were extremely popular, so time slots on these two channels were highly coveted, and the ability to play on the network’s music show translated to great influence and popularity. As a result, the music industry became trapped in a monotonous feedback loop in which what was on TV was popular, and what was popular, was on TV.
In fact, there was no way to gauge the popularity of an artist other than the weekly music shows. Korea had no official album or single sales chart like Billboard or Oricon, and as a result, television broadcasts were the only criteria by which the masses judged the popularity of songs, and by extension which albums they should buy. Through the consumers’ dependence on the stations to guide their taste and establish popularity of artists and content, the broadcasting companies further solidified their control over the popular music industry. This is a huge reason why weekend music shows like Inkigayo and Music Bank are still so popular today, and why winning first place on them is an indicator of success.
Lee Sung Chul sings “Don’t Say Goodbye” on KBS’s weekend music show in 1989
Another very important ramification of the television-centered music industry was the importance placed on image. Instead of just listening, Koreans also watched their music. Rather than debuting their songs on the radio, artists debuted new singles on national television. Thus, image and performance were as much a part of the artist and the song as the actual music. Artists were groomed for television and songs were chosen for performance rather than artistic value. This is something that still proves absolutely crucial to the star creation process in the Korean music industry today.
The use of television as the primary medium for introduction of music into the Korean popular mainstream, and by extent the consumption of music, fundamentally shaped how the Korean music industry was built and in many ways continues to operate today. The reason that you see idols bawling their eyes out when they win first place for the first time on a music show, is because that trophy used to (and in may ways, still does) signify that after all of your hard work training and practicing, you had finally reached the top. In the 1990s and early 2000s – before there were all these digital charts that we always see groups scoring “all kills” on – that trophy was the equivalent of having the number one song on the Billboard chart.
Girls’ Generation gets emotional after achieving their first Music Bank win in 2008
This is why weekend music shows are still so important and so popular today. Not only are they a gauge of popularity, but they also influenced the entirety of the modern music industry in Korea. When a group makes a comeback, they are not thinking about just the music when they select a song – they are thinking about the choreography, the stage outfits, camera angles that will be used, the overall visual concept, the different ways that the members will wear their hair, and the list goes on and on. Groups don’t pick songs based purely on the music. They pick songs based on their performance potential.
Thus is the legacy of the weekend “bangsong (방송)” or “broadcast” and its consequences in today’s K-pop industry. This concludes Chapter 2 of “The History of Kpop,” make sure to come back next Sunday evening to read about Seo Taiji and the Boys and their colossal impact on Kpop.
Tags: The History of K-pop