[Exclusive] Interview with Mark Russell, Author of

If you ever wished you had a handy guide to K-Pop, a textbook for a “K-Pop 101” if you will, then you’ll want to grab a copy of the new book, “K-Pop Now: The Korean Music Revolution.” Whether you’re new to K-Pop and could use an easy yet thorough guidebook or you’re a K-Pop veteran who needs help explaining to friends and family what K-Pop is and how awesome it is, “K-Pop Now” would be your go-to book.

“K-Pop Now” was written by Mark James Russell, a writer and K-Pop specialist who has written about the subject for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, among other publications. With his extensive connections and experience in the Korean music scene, Mark Russell is a reliable authority on what was, is, and will become K-Pop. 

The book is full of useful information about K-Pop, and it features 34+ artists (males groups, female groups, and solo artists). Not only that, Mark Russell offers an easy-to-understand explanation on Korea’s culture and musical history. Ever wonder how K-Pop really got started or where some celebrity restaurants are? It’s in the book.  It also includes interviews with “Eat Your Kimchi,” ZE:A‘s Kevin Kim, and first generation idol Brian Joo. Along with the information, the book is a visual treat. Even those who are less inclined to reading will have fun going through the many, many, bright and high quality photos that are jam packed into this book.

We met up with Mark Russell and talked with him about his book, his biases, and the future of K-Pop. Check out the interesting interview below, and make sure to read to the end to find out how to win copies of “K-Pop Now!” 

Mark James Russell, the Author
Mark James Russell, the Author

Soompi: How did you come to Korea, and what brought you into K-Pop?

Mark Russell:  I was in my 20s and I was having trouble deciding what I wanted to do in life. Right before I was about to grow up and get a serious job, someone gave me the offer to come to Korea and teach at a University. Right when I got to Korea I made some really funky friends from different parts of town; friends who were underground musicians and artists. I was meeting people who were not your stereotypical Korean, and they introduced me to more interesting people. After two to three years of this, I wanted to write about it. I did a couple ‘zines and then people started paying me to write. By 2001 I was able to write full time and since then it’s been my job. 

Soompi: How did your book “K-Pop Now!” come to be?

Mark: The publisher is Tuttle Books, they are half American half Asian company. They’ve been around for a long time and they’re probably the most established American publisher that specializes in Asian topics. They did a lot of Japan and China stuff, but not so much of Korea.

A few years ago they published a book by Daniel Tudor called “Korea: The Impossible Country” which did very well. Everyone was surprised how well it did. That got the editorial guys thinking that Korea is a subject to be explored and there are not enough people writing about it. One of the first things they did was call me up and say that they wanted to do a K-Pop focused book. They wanted something that is more fun and like an introduction that fans themselves can enjoy. So we talked about it and we came up with a plan. They have a great design and editorial team. It was fun working with them. 

Soompi: What’s the process for writing a book like this? 

Mark: First thing you have to do is decide what you are going to write, so I put together a list of sample chapters. Very early on we realized we wanted to have background material and a band listing, with as many groups as possible. We wanted something that fans could afford and that would be interesting to them, so we kept the page count down and we came up with a list of 40 artists we wanted to profile. From there it’s refining.  There were some big names we wanted, but it just didn’t work out for various reasons, including not getting the copy rights for photos.

Soompi: How did you choose the 34 artists to feature in your book?

Mark: We had to do a mix because we did this a year ago, and things change. I knew EXO would be big, but I didn’t guess that they would be this big. They ended up getting a smaller section. But SM Entertainment has so many groups, you could do a whole book on just SM artists. At a certain point you have to make your choices. I tried to be a little broader, which is why I put Yoon Mi Rae in, even though she’s not your classic K-Pop idol. I chose Busker Busker because I find their story so different and interesting. I also have my own personal biases. I would have liked to have done something on Henry, but I was running out of space.

Soompi: So, who are your biases? 

Mark: Yoon Mi Rae is incredibly talented. I like Jay Park a lot, and I like Henry. He’s a very talented person. I also like all the guys in BIGBANG. TOP’s “Doom Dada” – how do you even call that a K-Pop song? It was so out there! In general I like stuff that pushes the envelope more. I like Spica a lot- they have really great voices. 

Soompi: What are some groups that are underrated in your opinion?

Mark: It depends on who you’re talking to. You have these groups that do really well outside of Korea, but Koreans have gotten tired of, like 2PM. I thought “ADTOY” was a great song but in Korea it did nothing on the charts. “Baddest Female” was a great song, and you can’t say CL is under rated, but that song didn’t do very well either. 

The Cover – A preview to the many photos in the book

Soompi: In your book you tackle this subject, but what really makes K-Pop different?

Mark: A couple of different things. In this day and age, media has changed. It used to be a small number of people who has controlled access to what you see. A small number of people controlled what was on MTV, what was on Mnet. It used to be top down and now in the YouTube age it’s bottom up. What’s important now is getting noticed, which is why PSY did so well. He got noticed. I think K-Pop is good at getting noticed because it can be slick, but it’s also very bright and flashy, a little bit louder, just a little bit more of everything.

Soompi: My favorite part of your book was the history section. I loved reading about how K-Pop became what it is. What is your favorite part?

Mark: I think we’re similar. I have a huge interest in Korean music history. Korea in the 60s and 70s had an amazing rock scene. They had great music, very psychedelic, grungy, and a lot of fun. If you get into the history of these people they have great stories. You can see the roots of K-Pop there in some ways, like the rise of the idol stars in the 70s.

I also had a fun time going around Seoul with a photographer friend of mine, looking around the city and seeing the changes. It does change a lot. I was gone for four years and everything changed. I tried getting a taste of that. I tried to let people who have never been to Korea know what makes the country different and special. Hopefully I got that across. 

Soompi: What do you think are some misconceptions about K-Pop, for foreigners and Koreans?

Mark: Internationally, the biggest misconception is that idol music in Korea is K-Pop. If you actually look at the Gaon and Melon charts there are a lot of other kinds of music there. You see different kinds of artists, older artists, hip hop, and more ballads. It’s interesting to see what gets on the charts. There is a lot more diversity in Korea than what a lot of casual Western listeners might know.

In Korea, I think there are misconceptions on how Korean culture is viewed abroad. I find that half the people are too positive about it and half the people are too negative. Some are under the impression that the popularity is like Justin Timberlake, and some are under the impression that it’s all made up, with nothing going on. It’s there, but it’s a niche; it’s a lively and exciting niche.

Soompi: What do you predict will happen to K-Pop in the next five years or so?

Mark: I find Western observers have been consistently wrong about this over the years. I’m fully prepared to be wrong again. In 2008, I thought we reached a nice apex and that we were going to start going down, but that was just a starting point. It kept going. Koreans in general are great at proving the world wrong. I would say that we are overdue for a paradigm shift: the next Seo Taiji. Seo Taiji didn’t quite give birth to K-Pop, but he was an important figure, creating the way the current idols are done. But he wasn’t part of a big machine, he was his own thing, and everyone had to reshape around him. I think Korea is ready for someone else who is bigger than the industry. It could be someone who’s there now who takes the leap. You can’t predict where it’s going to come from. I think we’re definitely ready for someone who is going to transcend the restrictions that are there and bring something new. At some point it’s going to happen.

Soompi: What advice do you have for people who are interested in working in Korean entertainment, without actually becoming a performer?

Mark: It’s really tough. Anything in media you have a lot of people who want to do it. If you really love something, it’s good not to rely on it too much, because you won’t lose that love. Get something kind of related. If you get something that’s in the arts/media in general but maybe not in the exact groups you like or K-Pop, it’ll keep things a lot fresher. Language skills help a lot. You need to develop skills that can be used. The most important thing in any business is filling a need.

To enter the contest all you have to do is:

  1. FOLLOW us on Twitter (@soompi),
  2. TWEET: @soompi is giving away 4 #Kpop Now books! Just COMMENT on http://bit.ly/1irGWGq, FOLLOW, and RETWEET to win #soompiKPOPNOW
  3. COMMENT on this article with what you liked about the interview (please include your Twitter username)

This giveaway will run from Monday, April 28 at (KST) to Thursday, May 1 (KST).

We will announce the winners throughout the contest so check back to see if you’ve won! Good Luck!

~Winners Circle~
– @BelindaluvsTVXQ
– @rafagirl18
– @Endechan
– @DaeSherri 

Don’t want to take your chances? “K-Pop Now” is available on AmazonChapters, and Barnes and Noble

Photo credits to Mark Russell. 

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