How a Struggling Italian-American ESL Teacher Became One of K-Pop's Most Powerful Players

ISSUE 5 2019 - DO NOT USE - OUT ON MARCH 1, 2019
Kwon Joongho
“I can speak enough [Korean],” says Thompson, photographed on Feb. 22, 2019 at his home office in Seoul. “But I can’t write a song in Korean on my own.”

"I couldn't take it anymore," recalls Paul Thompson, explaining why he fled his cubicle job as a Silicon Valley headhunter in 2013 to teach English in South Korea. It was a country he knew nothing about, except that it offered good-paying teaching gigs that required only an English degree, which he had earned at the University of San Diego.

Seven years later, the 31-year-old Stockton, Calif., native has attained unlikely status in Seoul: the only non-Korean ever to be signed as an in-house songwriter by K-pop giant JYP Entertainment. And after leaving JYP and starting an equally rare three-year publishing partnership with another Korean juggernaut, SM Entertainment (Girls' Generation, EXO), Thompson is now growing his own MARZ Music Group, funneling K-pop tunes crafted by his stable of young, mostly California-based writers to any willing Korean buyer.

From his small 10th-floor apartment in a Seoul high-rise, Thompson has cornered one of the world's healthiest songwriting markets: a place where revenue from physical music like CDs jumped 53 percent in 2017 over 2016 to $181 million, according to the latest available data from IFPI, and the top album last year sold over 2 million physical copies in a country of 51 million, according to Korean music chart Gaon. K-pop sales and streams are growing globally, too. That means writers with album tracks on big K-pop releases can still make a good living -- in contrast to the United States, where songwriters' fortunes now depend largely on streaming hits.

Soon after arriving in Seoul, Thompson realized he didn't want to be a teacher. But he remembered the K-pop videos that his former students obsessed over and decided to try making K-pop himself.

"I knew how to find information on the internet, and I started emailing label executives in Korea," remembers Thompson, a self-taught musician who had produced tracks for Ray J and Omarion after college but "never got as big as I wanted."

To his surprise, the CEO of JYP's publishing arm invited him for a test session, signing him with an advance soon after. But "JYP didn't know what to do with my music," he recalls. "That's when I started to study K-pop, and how I could be successful."

Thompson raised seed money from friends and family to launch MARZ and started running songwriting camps for SM, producing six K-pop No. 1s and five songs that reached the top 30 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart in 2018. Now Thompson, who spends between 2 a.m. and 5 p.m. on calls with the U.S. before catching up on new music and going to bed at 6 a.m., is expanding into China, where K-pop acts are currently banned from touring but still count passionate fanbases. (He hosted a songwriting camp in Taiwan this month.) Billboard spoke with Thompson about how he made it in Korea.

You left your initial songwriting deal at JYP. Why?

We weren't a good fit. JYP is very traditionally Korean and K-pop-sounding. It's like going to the very highest level right off the bat. They put me with this kid named GSoul, one of the few people who spoke English -- he was an artist there -- so we got put in the corner. I was writing so many songs for them and they weren't using anything. At the time, very few Korean companies were using foreign demos. J.Y. Park, the head of JYP, has final say on everything. He's one of the most legendary songwriters in Korea. He didn't like the Western style, so they didn't use any of my stuff. I don't blame them; I wasn't trying to make anything Korean-sounding, I was just making songs I thought were cool, and it wasn't working.

What did you do then?

I was broke. Student loans came calling. I knew that SM worked with foreigners. And then I really started to study the music and what I noticed was, a lot of the title tracks were very dance-heavy, but the album fillers [had] very '90s and early-2000s U.S. R&B flavor. I thought, "I know all my buddies from Los Angeles can do that stuff. We can't do electro-dance, but if we write a bunch of R&B, we can get three to four album fillers, make money and build a reputation. I'm in Korea and I'll be able to executive-produce everything and sell it."

How did you land the venture with SM?

I knew they did song camps, and I gave them a whole spiel about how MARZ Music is going to be the future of K-pop. I convinced them to let me do one camp. It was a disaster. We ended up pulling together 10 songs, and then all the A&R [reps] come at the end of the camp. They sit and stare at you; they don't smile. They ended up buying four, which I thought was terrible, but one A&R told me most camps sell two or three. At my second camp, we made 20 songs, sold 15, an all-time record at SM. Six became singles and three became huge. MARZ took off.

How many writers are signed to MARZ?

At any one time, 10-15 exclusively, and then I have a lot of consultation deals with people, or I manage their Asia stuff. Andrew Bazzi, I signed him [to a publishing deal] in Asia before APG and Atlantic, he sold 1 million records in Korea before he ever released anything in the U.S. He was in Korea with me at a song camp when "Mine" blew up and had to leave early because Atlantic said, "You have to come back and promote this."

Why do you think you've been so successful?

I have a very specific business model: I generally don't sign anyone older than 25. A lot of foreigners writing in Korea were older songwriters whose careers were not as bright as they used to be. They were stuck in their ways and weren't bringing innovation to the Korean music industry. Most people, I felt, viewed it as a quick check, and would give their B- and C-level songs. What the American public doesn't understand is that K-pop is not marketed to the general public. It's marketed to kids and young adults.

You're out of your SM deal. Will you shop songs to American acts and labels now?

Honestly I just have such a lock on the Asian music industry in Korea. In the U.S., you need a hit -- that's the only way to make money. In Korea, the ceiling for songwriters isn't as high, but the floor is much higher, and the performance royalties are amazing.

Are those royalties better in Asia?

It's not necessarily that they're better in Asia, but there are more opportunities for groups to have huge fanbases. So, for example, when EXO does a tour, they're doing a dome stadium tour in Asia. They were going to China, and at every venue they have 20,000 to 50,000 seats being filled. Same thing at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Korea, same thing at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. Performance royalties are based on ticket sales, the number of songs performed and the amount of copyright you hold. Not as many American artists are performing in front of 50,000 people a night.

What have been the biggest challenges working in Seoul?

They don't do business the same way -- I had to adjust to that. The aspects of Korean culture that are very important are age; your age really does matter, and if you're older than me or have seniority in a company, there's a certain way to address you and interact. In Silicon Valley, young people rule the world. That doesn't work here. I really had to learn it. It gets me into trouble sometimes -- my Italian-American aggressive nature comes out and I have to keep it in check.

This article originally appeared in the March 2 issue of Billboard.