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.
To some insiders, the fact that a monster international hit originated in Korea isn't all that surprising. After all, during the last four years, Korean pop has gone from a foreign curiosity-see Stephen Colbert's 2008 mock K-pop video and dance-off with Korean singer Rain on "The Colbert Report" - to a legitimate global movement. Having dominated Asia and made inroads in Europe and South America, K-pop had lately been on the cusp of traction in the U.S. market. The Korean music industry grossed nearly $3.4 billion in the first half of 2012, according to Billboard estimates, a 27.8% increase from the same period last year. Yet America was still a largely untapped frontier.
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'HE'S A SUPERSTAR'
It's mid-September, a month after PSY signed with Braun, and it seems like he hasn't stopped moving since. He's halfway through a 24-hour day that began with a live performance on NBC's "Today," will continue with rehearsals for the following night's "SNL" and finally end with an impromptu show alongside Usher at New York club Circle. By tomorrow, "Gangnam Style" will have reached No. 1 on the iTunes charts in the United States, the 19th country that the song has conquered. The following week, it will land at No. 2 on the Hot 100. For now, PSY has a brief moment to collect his thoughts about his ongoing American experiment.
"The basic principle I have is that what is most Korean is what is the most international," PSY says in his native tongue. "I don't want to come here and act like I'm an American. I want to showcase the dynamic potential Korea has, and I want to prove that as an artist."
Those in his corner believe a number of factors set the stage for PSY to succeed stateside. Having been schooled in the States (he briefly attended Boston University and Berklee College of Music), he knows enough English to navigate U.S. media; he has more than a decade of experience performing huge shows in Korea as a solo artist; and, at 34, he's business-minded enough to be able to make his own decisions without label micromanagement. In essence, PSY came to America as a ready-made star.
"I don't put him in the same category [as other K-pop artists]. I put PSY in the same category as some of the biggest acts in the world," Republic president/CEO Monte Lipman says. A few years ago, Lipman had flirted with the idea of signing the Wonder Girls, who never ended up aligning with an American label. "PSY is a superstar. He's got that charisma, that sense of confidence and showmanship."
For his part, PSY is sensitive about discussing his American success in comparison to his K-pop predecessors. "When the Korean press and the netizens [Internet commenters in Korea] talk about my progress in America, they somewhat poke fun of the other K-pop acts, and I think that's wrong," he says. "It doesn't matter who it is. If a Korean artist reaches to the top, we're all ready to stand up and applaud for him or her."
And, at the moment-by virtue of one of the most improbable pop hits in recent memory-PSY finds himself the most globally famous Korean artist ever.
"Even if the cultures are different, a human being usually sees the same thing and feels a similar type of enjoyment," he says. "When you see Niagara Falls, you're going to feel the same thing. It's grand, and it's amazing. So, I think, what's already been proven and tested in Korea, will work here.
"I was nothing here," he continues, as a Republic rep suddenly appears to rush him to the next stop on his itinerary. "So that's why I can do anything."
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- K-Town