The K-drama of pop music

Sukii Lu

Korean popular music (known colloquially as K-Pop) has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years. In South Korea, the birth of Kpop idols has become a well-established industry. The media often refers to South Korea as a "star-making factory". In this industry, Kpop idols are the only product, and their "creation" is managed from pre-debut "packaging" to post-debut "marketing" and "sales". These "human products" are repeatedly sent into the market by South Korea's star-making factory. This production line often requires massive human and financial resources, and the creation of each idol can take several years or even decades of investment by their management companies.

It may seem surprising that such a small niche of cultural production has managed to gain such widespread popularity and global appeal but this process can perhaps begin to take apart assumptions about media globalization and Western cultural imperialism.

How is Kpop being produced, distributed, and received globally?

In the early 1990s, South Korean TV networks realised that musical programming could fill airtime, and they then gradually became more dependent upon “visualized music” in their schedules. In return, Kpop took advantage of television as an outlet for marketing, establishing a kind of symbiotic relationship. This also set the groundwork for the subsequent online distribution of the genre.

Kpop's music videos are often produced by moving around the world to create movie-like sets with replicable dance styles and unique, brain-washing melodies. These resonate strongly with viewers and lead to imitation crazes. This became the catalyst for Kpop fans to further indulge in their music. Visuals are the main inner core of kpop music. As a result, the majority of idols have undergone plastic surgery at the behest of their companies, forcing them to undergo facial adjustments and body management in order to meet the "visual" aesthetic of the technological age. In the marketing of kpop, music becomes not only an aural medium but also a visual one. These companies are well aware that image is important in attracting fans.

On the other hand, these entertainment music companies conduct annual recruiting exercises around the world. They provide language training in English, Mandarin, and Japanese to the selected trainees (prep idols). One of the most iconic is BoA, who was discovered by SM (one of the top entertainment companies in Korea) when she was 11 years old and received 2 years of additional training in Japanese and English. Her debut Japanese album, Listen to My Heart, was released on March 13, 2002. The album was a breakthrough in BoA's career, becoming a RIAJ-certified million-seller debuting atop the Oricon, the first album by a Korean artist to do so.

Through these strategies, Kpop business and entertainment companies have grown in fame and have also opened up international markets, paving the way for the subsequent development of the idol business and attracting international fans.

Due to the rapid development of electronic technology, the internet and various social media have worked directly or indirectly with the music industry to generate a large amount of content and fans have the mobility to find it all. Among them, YouTube has played a key role in providing free access to these music and audio forms, acting as a platform for the  dissemination of interest in Kpop and fan culture. Social media platforms cultivate powerful bottom-up online youth practices that enhance the transnational flows of Kpop through the global marketplace. Fans form online and real-world communities, working together to share knowledge and content. 

The agency organises various events for Kpop stars so that fans can have opportunities to meet their favourite idols - they hold countless concerts, autograph sessions and other special events for the fans, and at the same time, the agency records the training process of all the trainees and gives them back to their fans as a documentary after their debut. This strengthens the emotional connection between idols and their fans. Fan culture is therefore deeply tied to the agency, and the seemingly natural formation of the fan base has actually created a mutually beneficial business relationship with the Kpop stars, the agency and the entertainment platform.

In turn, Kpop fans respond by supporting their idols with obsession and organised collective action. In Korea, each established Kpop group or artist has an official fan club sponsored by their music label. These groups have an official name - for example, fans of the Big Bang group are known as "VIP"s. Fans also show support using a range of  tools: colours, slogans and customised cheer sticks.

I recall when I was first introduced to K-pop around 2010, social media was not as developed as it is now, information mostly appearing only on the message boards of some large online fanclub websites. Based on my own experience, most fans are students about my age. However, some of them are able to follow the activities of idols almost completely. They track and follow idols' itineraries, and regularly upload pictures and videos online like “paparazzi”. These people who are at the forefront of chasing after idols, sometimes as a profession are called "fansite administrators". Many of them even have good and close connections with idols' agents. Compared to ordinary fans, "fansite administrators" can quickly get more idol information and get closer to idols, therefore, this helped them have a stronger voice in fandom.

Entertainment companies and agencies are involved in fan operations by cooperating with "fansite administrators" or "stans" in the fan community, they use tactics to induce fans to continuously support them financially. In particular, because many idols’ music video shooting schedules need to be kept secret, the agency will send a security team to secure and block the area around the venue. This makes it extremely difficult for fansite administrators to follow the action, so they buy professional cameras with a telephoto lens in order to get exclusive photos or videos. Some fansite administrators, also make profits by auctioning it to the wider fandom and selling it to lower-status fans because of the exclusivity of this information.

Although everyone is called a fan, there is a clear hierarchy existing in the fandom. There are countless cliques within the same fan base, each competing in its own way to be heard and conflicts also exist. The average or novice fan is more likely to be influenced by these high level "opinion leaders" like administrators. Just like any other community, everyone in a fandom will want to become a larger part of it.

The amount of time and money that an upper-status fan needs to put in to reach and maintain their status is enormous. Therefore, within fan communities, social hierarchy can be perceived in the form of capital. In order to be recognized by other fans and establish themselves within the fan communities, they need to spend more money and time.

Becoming a Kpop fan is not only a hobby, it can quickly become an expensive dedication. The most basic fan work is uploading translated versions of videos with different languages on sites like Youtube and Tumblr, and these uploaded videos always strive to break viewing records. In addition, they also create hashtags related to idols on social media and r-post them extensively; constantly conduct idol name and tag searches to push their stars onto the global trending lists; raise money to buy advertising space for wishing their idols a happy birthday in public, and give expensive luxury gifts. All these time-consuming and money-consuming behaviours are highly promoted in fandoms.

Moreover, fans influence each other to demonstrate loyalty. They compare themselves to each other. This can happen in terms of the price of gifts, but also in terms of "true fan" affiliations. Some fans will say that those who "search and dig" for old videos of their idols, especially rare ones, are the real fans. Others claim that a true fan should follow and support their idols from their first debut, rather than joining the fan club after they become popular. But whatever the perfect definition of a true fan is, a lot of effort in terms of time and money is always the right answer. It was this realisation that made me understand I would never come to be seen as a true fan, despite buying albums and participating in fan meetings. It wouldn’t be enough.

There are also comparisons between different fandoms. This takes place using the number of video views, the number of idols' endorsements, the level of endorsements by brands, the price of gifts received on idols' birthdays and so on. Fans gain a sense of superiority from their idols' fame and social status. Fandom actually replicates the power structure of our society, where the idol themselves are in a sense a social currency that serves to build the identity of the fans, who climb the power ladder by virtue of their economic power, fame and social status to achieve some kind of self-worth, both in the cultural and economic sense.

There is a special "intimacy" between fans and Kpop artists due to the emotional investment of fans and the excessive dependence of idols' on their fan base. However, it is also because of the massive investment of money, labour, and time that fans have a certain sense of entitlement - a sense that the industry cultivates and appeases. Ultimately, the cultivation of a grassroots fan knowledge culture "becomes an 'invisible engine' for the circulation and exchange of goods."

Certain entertainment companies will sacrifice the privacy of their idols to cultivate a more emotional connection with fans. Korean idols usually are monitored by fans at every move and every act. Moreover, in order to get long-term support from fans, idols need to maintain their reputation as being “approachable” and companies can forbid idols from dating.

A pathological fan type exists called sasaengs(사생팬)who were formed along with wider fan culture. The term describes fans who verge on being stalkers of their favourite artists. In order to attract attention from these artists, they can endanger them instead. Some sasaengs used to sneak into artists’ homes or their family houses for the chance of experiencing a close encounter. This kind of morbid fan culture occurs as a common phenomenon. Absurdly, sasaengs even share, or sell, artist itinerary information with other sasaengs. While companies and other fans have criticised sasaengs’ behaviours, they often see no issue with their behaviour, seeing something glorious in their determination, support and love for their idols.

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