MAMA 2018 Celebrates 10th Year With Look to Future Of K-Pop's Place in Global Music Industry

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Courtesy of CJ ENM
BTS at 2018 MAMA Fans' Choice in Japan.

Celebrating its 10th year, the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) kicked off on Dec. 10 in Korea, headed to Japan on Dec. 12, and ended in Hong Kong on Dec. 14. Each night was full of performances from Asian artists, primarily K-pop stars, and nearly 70 awards were doled out.

BTS and TWICE came out on top with nine and five awards respectively, but while performances and awards took center stage, MAMA 2018 was also shone light on the lofty goals of Mnet, and parent company CJENM, to be a trendsetting force not only in K-pop but across music markets throughout Asia.

South Korean television channel Mnet, owned and operated by CJENM, launched MAMA in 2009 as the most recent iteration of their annual award show, first launched as a music video award show in 1999. While the inaugural MAMA was held in South Korea, MAMA events have been held in a variety of countries throughout Asia every year since, and recent years have seen it expand to feature three days of events. This year is the first time it's returned to Seoul for a show since its 2009 start. 

Since 2013, Kim Hyun Soo has spearheaded MAMA as the head of CJENM’s convention biz department. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other Korean award shows by pursuing the Asian market, and making it more globalized by bringing in Western artists as well," Kim says. In the past, Pet Shop Boys, Timbaland, John Legend, and more have performed, and this year saw MAMA launch the Janet Jackson Inspiration award, which Jackson herself received. “We want to serve as a cultural business platform," Kim adds. Along with artists awards -- primary categories focused on Korea and other ones aimed at different regions throughout Asia -- MAMA created a professional category in 2015 to recognize behind the scenes talent.

This year’s MAMA was bisected into three parts, with the premiere held in Seoul, a "Fans' Choice" event held near Tokyo, and the main awards being handed out in Hong Kong. While it may seem excessive, these weren’t just rehashed events with the same artists performing for different international audiences but each had their own distinct focus.

In Seoul, the night was oriented about a new generation of K-pop acts, with all of the Korean performers of the night only beginning their careers this year or last year. In comparison, the Japan event featured some of this year’s most prominent artists -- BTS, TWICE, Mamamoo, Monsta X, and Nu’Est W with breakout rookies IZ*ONE, Wanna One, and Stray Kids -- and opened the night with a series of covers as artists walked the path of K-pop history, paying homage to the likes of BIGBANG, Girls’ Generation, and others who rose to prominence in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Meanwhile, the main show in Hong Kong largely focused on the current state of the Korean music industry, beginning with opening performances from Korean hip-hop icons Tiger JK, who just released his final Drunken Tiger album, Yoonmirae with a member of Seventeen and rising pop diva Chung Ha, and by having a wide array of performers from across the K-pop and Korean hip-hop scenes.

Throughout the three events, international artists also performed, including Dean Ting of China, Hiragana Keyakizaka46 and Bullet Train of Japan, Marion Jola from Indonesia, Vietnam’s Orange, The Toys from Thailand, and Mandopop icon JJ Lin.

Run by a television station associated with one of the biggest South Korean conglomerates (CJENM is a subsidiary of CJ Group, itself an outgrowth of Samsung in the 1990s), at its essence, MAMA 2018 is as much a television event as it is an awards show. This year, its connection to Mnet was more apparent than ever, as it predominantly featured Korean artists who had appeared on Mnet shows in recent years, such as the Produce and Show Me The Money competition shows. At least six acts -- TWICE, Monsta X, Wanna One, IZ*ONE, Stray Kids, and fromis_9 -- were formed through competition shows on the channel. Artists from two of South Korea’s “Big 3” K-pop labels, YG and SM Entertainment, were notably absent, though songs from artists signed to the companies were heard during performances and acts from each company were included in the 10 acts awarded worldwide fans' choice awards.

“The way we nominate artists and celebrities is through album sales, digital sales,” Kim says. “We have Asian industry professionals who also vote, and online voting. Starting this year, we added global music video counts as well. To nominate as fairly as possible we also partnered with major charts in Asia.”

Along with internal voting, MAMA opens up certain categories to fans, and the 2017 MAMA event had to shut down voting temporarily to address fraud. At the time, a rep told Billboard that it was to address votes created by people using automatic bots or other illegal programs to boost votes. According to Kim, “We see voting as something that is a big decision factor behind our winners, and there’s actually a separate division within the company regarding the voting. They monitor the votes from all over the world in real-time to try and assuage any concerns of abuse, filtering out unusual activities.”

Even though it serves as a year-end award show, the main element of MAMA is the performance aspect. This year saw stand-out sets, especially in Japan, where Mamamoo dominated the Saitama Super Arena’s stage with individual performances begun by Solar pole dancing, and the night ended with an intensely theatrical rendition of BTS' “Fake Love” featuring oversized, puppeteering hands, followed by an uproarious performance of “Anpanman,” which saw RM turn into an astronaut.

CJENM expects MAMA to continue increasing its scale in the future, and they have seen interest in the event grow over the decade of its existence. According to Kim, during MAMA’s early days K-pop wasn’t yet on a global scale, but in comparison nowadays artists from throughout Asia and around the world want to participate in MAMA. “Ten years ago, to experiment bringing K-pop to the global audience was unthinkable,” he says. “Now, when we ask artists to perform, they eagerly agree.”

Kim suggests K-pop’s worldwide popularity and the interest from fans is why MAMA, and other K-pop oriented events, have become better-received throughout Asia and the rest of the world. Growing out of MAMA, and other CJENM events such as KCON, Kim adds that the company has been reached out to by international event organizers and companies hoping to work with them in the future to bring K-pop artists to their markets. And it's all because of how sizable, and interactive, K-pop's audience is. “K-pop fans now do a lot on their own, whether it’s talking about what’s new in K-pop or how to move the fandoms in their own direction. Right now, fans are a lot more involved and they’re the reason for the growth," Kim says.