How the K-Pop Breakout Star Harnessed the Power of YouTube, SNL and More to Become Music's New Global Brand
On the afternoon of Aug. 15, Korean rapper PSY and the overseas business manager from his record label, YG Entertainment, arrived in Los Angeles after a 13-hour flight from Seoul. At LAX, they were greeted by a smattering of fans and YG's American rep, who ushered them into a waiting car. PSY was going to Hollywood.
As his ride rolled through L.A. traffic, PSY, aka Park Jae-sang, cheerfully reflected on his whirlwind summer. It had been a month to the day since the video for "Gangnam Style," the first single off his sixth album, "PSY 6 (Six Rules), Part 1," was uploaded to YouTube. A satirical ode to his Seoul neighborhood, "Gangnam Style" had all the trademarks of a PSY anthem: an aggressive rap with a catchy hook, coupled with a whimsical dance step and a comedic, over-the-top video. Like much of his previous work, "Gangnam Style" was very much a PSY DIY: He wrote and co-produced the song and also co-directed the video. In Korea, where PSY has topped multiple domestic music charts a half-dozen times during his 12-year career, the record was an instant hit.
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But then the unexpected happened. Thanks to social-news site Reddit and tweets from high-profile artists like Robbie Williams and T-Pain, "Gangnam Style" went viral beyond Korea, spreading across Asia, Europe and South America-and now, finally, to the United States.
As "Gangnam Style" approached 10 million YouTube views at the end of July, Scooter Braun-the music executive famed for discovering YouTube-sensations-turned-pop-stars Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen-tweeted a link to the video, writing: "HOW DID I NOT SIGN THIS GUY!?!??!" What Braun didn't reveal then was that he had already planted the seed for a secret meeting with the rapper. PSY's video was pulling in more than 1 million new viewers per day. If the rest of the world was flocking to it, Braun figured, why wouldn't the United States?
And so, slightly more than two weeks and 15 million YouTube views after that tweet, "Gangnam Style" was on its way to Braun's house.
By then, the buzz was loud enough that PSY was garnering interest from labels outside of Korea. One German rep had recently warned PSY's team: "The first thing an American company will do is try to make you do an English version." (And, in fact, one U.S. label had already reached out to YG-and were rebuffed-with such a request.)
But PSY had traveled to the States with an open mind. In past years, he had watched some of his younger YG labelmates and other Korean stars-fresh-faced girl groups and slickly produced male singers-venture off to America with hopes of breaking into the U.S. market. As a 34-year-old solo rapper, PSY was far from the typical Korean "idol." He debuted in 2001, well before the current K-pop wave, and had become as famous for his offstage antics and rebel persona as for his actual music. Through it all, he never harbored ambitions of making it big in the States. To PSY, whatever happened next would be extra.
And what happened next is this: PSY and his entourage were welcomed into the backyard of Braun's house in Hollywood. The Korean rapper and the American music executive greeted each other like brothers.
Soon, the two got down to business. Braun was characteristically straightforward: "This is what I want to do: I want to sign you. And I want to keep the song exactly the way it is." PSY looked up at Braun, surprised. "You want to keep this in Korean?" he asked. Braun nodded in response.
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PSY paused to let this sink in. He had never met Braun, four years his junior, but he was well aware of his reputation for shepherding No. 1 hits. Could a song with Korean lyrics really reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100? Or, perhaps, a better question: Why couldn't it?
"All right, let's do this," PSY said, smiling. "But first, let's go to Koreatown tonight and drink."
In the weeks after that initial meeting, the Scooter Braun machine quickly went into overdrive: an international multiple-album deal for PSY with Republic through Braun's School Boy Records (excluding Korea and Japan, where PSY will still be under YG); a succession of masterfully orchestrated appearances on the MTV Video Music Awards, "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Today" and "Saturday Night Live"; and sudden, inescapable pop-culture ubiquity. With "Gangnam Style" on a relentless march to the top of the Hot 100, PSY's first, still-untitled U.S. release has been fast-tracked for November. The song's official clip has racked up more than 500 million views on YouTube as the song itself has sat secure at No. 2 on the Hot 100 for four weeks and registered 1.6 million downloads sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In the meantime, the American music industry has been left to make sense of the "Gangnam Style" phenomenon.