"Do Music Moguls Know A Secret About K-Pop?" That was the question posed by a Friday afternoon panel looking to shed some light on Korean pop's transition from Asian music craze to American crossover, as well as the big business that already exists in the U.S.
David Zedeck, a music agent who books bands like Girls Generation for Creative Artists Agency, said K-pop is already selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues in cities like Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Denver, and often at record rates. Recently, when Girls Generation wanted to premiere a new music video at New York's Best Buy Theater, they invited fans via Twitter -- and 1,500 schoolkids showed up that day. "I was bumming out that we gave it away for free," Zedeck said. "But we could take any one of these groups and do 16 to 18 real arena dates in North America."
Between K-pop's growing U.S. presence and enormous popularity in Japan, more people are listening to Korean pop around the world (most of whom don't understand the language) than Koreans themselves, said Jeff Yang, who writes the "Tao Jones" column for the Wall Street Journal. "All sorts of things are happening that are establishing this opportunity for K-Pop to crossover. It could be essentially like Latin music for the Asian immigrant community or immigrant-plus community. I don't even feel I can bet which way it's going to go right now."
Perhaps the genre's biggest benefit and drawback is productivity. New boy bands, girl bands and solo artists are cropping up on a monthly basis and established acts are racing to maintain a steady stream of new product.
"With K-pop, even if they take two months off, it's so bad for them. They need to consider their comeback every time they do a release," said Flowsion Shekar, founder and CEO of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog. "Right after they finish, they need to come back with a repackaged album. Then a year after they have to consider their comeback. If they take a couple months off, they could fade away."
Wonder Girls, one of the leading K-pop girl groups, struggled to keep up with their competitors in Korea and Japan after taking a few months to develop their fanbase in the U.S. "Their leaving Korea opened the door for Girls Generation," CAA's Zedeck said.
The American audience is broadening demographically, too, especially since the U.S. population is only roughly 5% Asian Americans. "What people respond to is that these guys represent something different that's kinda cool. There's nothing else out there like this," said Ted Kim, senior VP of Korean entertainment company CJ. "It's based on how you look, how you move, what your reactions are. That's where people started responding and that's the part where we get excited."
The American hip-hop community's recent interest in K-pop has helped open a lot of doors for other artists and managers Stateside, too. Snoop Dogg recently guested on a Girls Generation track, Kanye West teamed up with JYJ on a track in 2010 and Swizz Beatz recently announced his own plans to start a new venture with Korea's O & Media to help break artists like Bigbang to American audiences.
That's a long way from even a few years ago, when panel moderator Sang Cho, chief operating officer of Korean TV company Mnet, would start pitching music programming to U.S. executives. "We probably showed about 300 music videos to top producers and record labels. In the beginning there were relationships so they would be courteous, but it was not a serious conversation," he said. "It's a different dialogue now."