The Evolution of Korean Pop Music in the Past Ten Years
This year marks my tenth year listening to Korean pop (K-Pop) music, so I thought I’d write an article to share some of my thoughts and observations. My focus will be on the industry as a whole and a few phenomena rather than artist specific, but I’ll mention some artists who have made major impacts to K-Pop during these ten years as well.
The growth of K-Pop during this decade is remarkable, to say the least. It’s grown from a regional genre catering mainly to local and overseas Korean fans, to a well-known cultural phenomenon all over Asia and other parts of the world. Yes, I think most of us will agree that K-Pop has become a culture now.
When I started listening back in late 2000, the music scene was totally different from what it is today. H.O.T. was at the peak of their popularity and SM label mate Shinhwa was also quickly gaining fame. These two groups specialized mostly in dance music, while another boy band, G.O.D., had a more contemporary style. Their producer, JYP, called them “the boys next door”. On the girls’ side, we had the big three groups, Fin.K.L., S.E.S. and Baby V.O.X. Add hit-making soloists Kim Gun Mo, Lim Chang Jung, and Yoo Seung Jun to the mix, and you’ve got chart-topping artists year-round.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, top artists consistently sold over 1 million albums, a figure that kept declining each year ever since I started following K-Pop. Today, it is difficult to find many albums selling over even 100,000 copies. Many people blamed illegal MP3 downloads as the cause of crumbling album sales. But is this really the case? From a business standpoint, I look at things differently. When I first bought Korean CDs, the first thing I noticed was the number of songs. My Chinese, Japanese, and American albums have 10 to 12 songs, on average. Korean CDs averaged about 14 to 16 songs, and the album genres back then were very specific. If you were a dance genre artist, almost all of your songs in the album were the same genre. Same for the ballad artists. You would hardly ever find any up-tempo songs in a ballad album. The production cost of a fourteen-song album is obviously higher than a ten-song album. K-Pop artists usually only promote their title song on the album and maybe one follow-up song, so the other 12-14 songs were considered side tracks or “fillers”. Eventually, fans got tired of the combination of single genre album and too many songs. That could be a factor contributing to the sharp decline of album sales each year.
Only one smaller record company at that time stuck with ten songs per album while including various genres within the album. That company was J-Enterprise. Their artists, including Kim Gun Mo, Wax, and Jadu, had some of the better albums in the early 2000s, not to mention that Kim Gun Mo was one of the kings of album sales.
When album sales hit rock bottom, the industry first introduced digital singles sometime around 2005. Digital singles meant that no physical albums were being produced, so fans could only buy the songs online. At first, many major record labels balked at this concept, which was primarily used by smaller record companies and indie/underground artists due to its low cost. It was not until 2008 that digital singles became more common. Now even the most popular artists release digital singles. Some artists release a song on digital single as a sneak preview about two weeks prior to their full-album releases, while other artists promote their digital single hit song and include that song in their album later, making the album more worthwhile with a hit song that fans are already familiar with.
But perhaps the most groundbreaking change was the introduction of mini-albums, or EPs. These mini-albums usually contain in between four to eight songs, some of which were simply remixes. Artists usually promote only one song on the mini-album, but they may come back a few months later with another mini-album. That is a much more cost-efficient method than releasing a full album with fourteen songs. It also allows artists to come back sooner and gain more exposure.
Mini-albums have become the most common releases now. In fact, many artists don’t release a full album until years after they debut. Take 2AM as an example: The group debuted back in 2008, but had only recently released their first full album in October of 2010.
Another new concept that developed during the last few years was the repackaged album. SM Entertainment started this trend, which is now very common among most popular idol artists. The repackaged album usually contains one or two new songs, with a new title song being promoted. Of course, you will also find a new album jacket with new photoshoots. This prompts fans to buy the same album twice, with only one or two new songs included in the repackaged version. Sometimes I wonder whether those fans who bought both versions of the albums actually bought it for the music. To outsmart record companies, a fan will wait for the repackaged version to come out and then get all the songs in one album. But how many fans can wait? I know I can’t, at least not with my favorite artists.
To conclude this part, I’d say the mini-album is the trend for the K-Pop in near future. While the album sales may never recover to where they were before, the production cost of the mini-album is lower than full albums, so record companies can make a profit more easily.
Most people will agree that singers debuting in recent years are a lot more talented than singers debuting in the early 2000s. It’s like two different eras. Many singers in those days probably wouldn’t make the cut if they auditioned today! There are several reasons for this.
Back in the old school K-Pop era during the late 1990s to the early (even mid) 2000s, most record companies marketed idol singers on how well they dance, and of course, their physical appearance. Vocal talent was the least important aspect because all the music shows back then allowed singers to lipsync. Rumor has said that some of those singers only sang live a few times during their whole career. MBC’s “Music Camp” was the first gayo show to go all live, and at first some of the singers avoided being on his program to avoid the embarrassment of having to sing live.
Starting in the mid-2000s, record companies begin to emphasize vocal talents instead of image, especially with the success of vocal groups like SG Wannabe and Big Mama. Those groups were all about singing and they both debuted with booming success. At about the same time, all music shows made it mandatory to sing live. Those who couldn’t sing no longer had any place to hide.
To become vocally talented and have good stage presence, singers must go through an extensive training program before debuting. Back in early 2000s, many singers were almost “pressed into service”. You could tell they weren’t well-prepared when you watched them onstage, not only in singing, but with overall stage presence. Now we all hear that singers are trained three to five years before they debut. Record companies fine-tune everything from vocal to image to dancing skills before the singer is allowed to set foot onstage. One of the best examples of this is 2NE1. Everyone heard about them for a few years even before they debuted, and they seemed like veterans the first time they stepped on stage. It had set the bar even higher, showing how thoroughly new singers needed to be trained before debut. Fans will accept no less.
Most new artists debuting now are well versed with several genres of music. Record companies let them to promote different genres to showcase their talents. Also, group members are allowed to go solo at the same time now and often promotes a different kind of music than the group’s. In this way single genre artists and albums is no longer the norm.
Back in the day, Korean pop music fell into two categories: dance or ballad. Those are still two of the most prominent genres now. In K-Pop, most dance artists tend to release their albums in summer while ballad artists go for a winter release.
In the early days, nearly all of the idol boy bands and girl groups were dance genre artists. As I mentioned above, record companies put a lot of emphasis on an artists’ dancing skills. With their striking physical appearance, colorful outfits, and their catchy songs, it was a lot of fun to watch their performance, even if they weren’t singing live. At that time, the average age of dance genre artists is in their late teens or early 20s, while their fans were usually high school or college students.
Ballad is always an important genre in any music, especially in Asia. Everyone loves the mellow songs filled with romantic or sad lyrics. In Korea, most of the ballads have a sad theme. Fans may not remember a popular dance song after a few years, but good ballads can last for a long time. Ballad artists of course put their emphasis on singing and how well they perform the song. In the early days, the average age of most ballad artists was in their mid to late 20s and some in their 30s.
Dance and ballad genres will always be the two most prominent genres no matter how the industry is changing. Now I am going to talk about three specific trendsetting genres: R&B, hip-hop, and trot. These genres would incorporate dance and ballad aspects to eventually gain mainstream acceptance.
The influx of the R&B genre changed K-Pop forever. Starting as early as the mid- to late 1990s, many Koreans returned home from overseas. Among them were musicians who grew up in America listening to R&B music. They bought this genre home to Korea with them. Solid, Tashannie, As One, and Park Jung Hyun were a few that I can think of. Back then, the Korean R&B songs were very Westernized. It was not until 2001 when a duo named Brown Eyes, debuting as a faceless group, started to revolutionize the Korean R&B genre. Brown Eyes incorporated the Korean ballad and gave it a new spin with an R&B style. Without any appearances on music shows, Brown Eyes still managed to sell over one million copies of their debut album, and the song “Already One Year” became a classic hit. That led to the formation of many vocal groups of similar styles, the most successful of which were probably SG Wannabe and Monday Kiz. In the mid-2000s, vocal groups extended to the females with the debut of Big Mama, See Ya, Gavy NJ, and Brown Eyed Girls.
Hip-hop is another genre that is getting more and more popular. It has always been in existence in Korea, but was mainly confined to the underground scene. Like R&B in the early days, Korean hip-hop also had a lot of Western influences. Drunken Tiger is one of the earliest hip-hop artists to have consistent success on mainstream charts. In 2004, the debut of MC Mong really put hip-hop on to the mainstream radar. Many hardcore hip-hop fans think that Mong’s music is pop rather than hip-hop. But no matter what, it was a huge crossover success. MC Mong also introduced a mixed genre of hip-hop ballads, rapping on ballad songs with beautiful melodies and featured popular guest vocalists. That slow rap has become a brand new genre and we even see an influx of artists focusing on this genre.
When we talk about hip-hop, we must also mention Epik High. While I won’t classify them as changing the pop culture like the previous artists I have mentioned in this section, Epik High themselves are considered a unique genre. Their hip-hop is often mixed with electronica and house style elements. To this date, no other similar groups can compare with them.
The success of hip-hop crossing over is not a surprise, but on the other end of the spectrum, no one expected traditional Korean pop music (trot) to crossover to the pop culture as well. This genre has always been for more mature audiences, and its singers are of the older generation. The debut of Jang Yoon Jung in late 2003 changed everything and put this genre into the pop landscape. First of all, she was in her 20s, which is considered young for this genre. She mixed a lot of pop influences on to her songs (even hip-hop!), and she actively appeared on music shows and game shows created an awareness of the trot genre among the younger generations. Since then, Park Hyun Bin is considered her male version, and now many younger singers and groups debuted with the trot genre and hope to crossover to the pop scene.
ARTISTS AND THEIR FANS
Artists cannot survive without their fans. The age of artists is also directly related to the age of their followers. In recent years, we have been seeing both the average age of artists and their fans getting younger and younger.
In early 2000s, the average age of debuting mainstream artists were between late teens and early 20s. Fans are usually a little bit younger as most fans see their idol artists as their role model. In those days, average fans were between high school and college age.
Fast forward to now, artists are debuting younger and younger. As a result, their fans are also getting younger. Many of them are in their early to mid teens. We have seen evidence of that here in Soompi as well. Back when I joined the website in 2000, most members were college students. Now I am seeing a lot of newly registered members in their mid-teens. By targeting this younger age group, K-Pop has gaining many new and younger fans that can support artists for many years.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Not many fans pay attention to music production, but I always like to look at songwriters. Without them, there would be no songs. Unlike the Western scene, where most of the artists write and perform their own songs, there is a lack of singer-songwriters in Korea. In early 2000s, when there were fewer artists, fewer songs were written each year. The majority of SM Entertainment songs were written by Yoo Young Jin, while Park Jin Young (JYP) wrote for G.O.D., Park Ji Yoon, and Lee Ki Chan, etc. Other prominent names like Park Geun Tae, Choi Jin Young, Minuki, and Teddy (1TYM) often appear on the songwriter column. During those days, I imagine they were writing less than 20 songs a year.
With more artists debuting each year, the demand for songs increases dramatically. Record companies can’t always rely on the same few songwriters. That led to a large influx of new songwriters in the last few years, Cho Young Soo, Kim Do Hoon, Hitman Bang, Ahn Young Min, Kenzie, Brave Brothers, and Shin Sa Dong Tiger, to name a few. All of them, along with the veterans mentioned above, have become fixtures in the K-Pop production. Today there is an increasing trend for singers themselves to get involved in the song productions. Some write their own music while others pen the lyrics.
I’ve heard complaints that music from newer songwriters sounds similar to their previous works. Some called it their unique style, while others say it is repetitive. I tend to agree with the latter. The demand for songs is so high that writers may be running out of ideas. In the last few years, there were indeed fewer songs that I like very much each year compared to earlier in this decade. I do the “Staff Recommended Top 20 Songs” at the end of each year here on Soompi. My preliminary list was usually 40 to 50 songs long and it was difficult to exclude some of them. Back then, I had to add an honorable mentioned list aside from the Top 20. Sadly, in the past two years, I struggled to put together even 20 songs. Many songs are good, but not great. I am hoping more singers can write their own music instead of relying on a selected few songwriters. When their ideas run dry, it is hard not to come out with repetitive melodies.
If you ask me whether K-Pop is better now than before, my answer is both yes and no. The talent level is way up, and there is more variety of music to choose from. K-Pop is globalized now and singers are holding concerts in many different countries. With the Internet, fans can quickly and easily track every move of their idols. Even interactions between singers and fans are a lot closer now.
On the other hand, the quality of the music itself seems to be down as compared to the early 2000s. Most singers now are really well rounded entertainers. They not only sing but act in dramas and movies, appear on commercials and game shows. With the introduction of mini-albums, singers are able to have comeback stages not too long after their goodbye stage. As some would say, “with distance the heart grows fonder.” Yet within the decade this becomes less applicable to singers as they gain more exposure by stacking on activities and promotions. This decreases the significance of the period in which artists bring out new music material because the audience is now accustomed to seeing artists everywhere, all the time.
Nonetheless, K-Pop music will continue to grow, and it will undergo many changes each year, hopefully for the better. Many people ask me who my favorite artist is. My answer is that I am a music fan and I appreciate good music regardless of who sings it. I believe that good songs will find good listeners. I hope that will be true for K-Pop in the next ten years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Edward is our resident K-Pop expert and long-time contributor to Soompi, most famously in the form of his weekly Soompi Music Charts, which have been calculated and honed over the years with his own unique formula since 2005.