Click on Taeyang’s new comeback music video on YouTube, Ringa Linga. Now quickly look at the bottom left corner before it disappears. What did you see? That’s right, a corporate media company’s name, M.net. To the K-pop uninitiated, Taeyang is to K-pop what Usher is to R & B, and his label is the preeminent Korean YG Entertainment. M.net on the other hand is a Korean media giant with no direct relations to YG. Imagine for a minute Justin Bieber releases a new music video, and before he sings the first note a small logo of NBC or MacDonald’s appeared in the corner. As ludicrous and profane that looks to beliebers, it’s just another day in the park for K-pop. The financial gains from corporate sponsorship have been instrumental in pushing K-pop well beyond the shores of the Korean peninsula. But with the fits and starts K-pop has been experiencing in getting a foothold in America, this playbook may very well be deployed in increasing its popularity here.
Aside from Psy of Gangnam Style fame, prominent K-pop acts like The Wonder Girls, Girls Generation, and BoA have tried without success to make significant inroads into the U.S. entertainment market, while losing money in the process. Each of them tried to bridge the divide by going it alone, although some signed with American record labels or got American management. An alternate route may well be to also sign up with a marketing agency or talent firm, who would then be matchmaker with willing brands. The financial gains from this partnership, in dollars, would then effectively foot the bill for their adventures or misadventures in the United States.
Isn’t this called “selling-out”? Well, K-pop has never had any qualm about being a promotional tool for corporate brands. The most popular girl group in K-pop, Girls Generation, who recently unexpectedly won YouTube’s video of the year award, has released whole singles for corporate entities like Intel and Samsung. This unabashed marriage of convenience between K-pop and corporations has been a trusty source of financial capital for the K-pop acts and their home agencies
When B.A.P., the K-pop male group barely a year from debut, pulled off the enviable feat of a mini-tour of the United States, they partnered up with Verizon. Visiting four cities with stops in San Francisco and Washington D.C, the corporate sponsorship enabled B.A.P. to do something that more established K-pop agencies like YG Entertainment have not been able to do. They visited cities outside of L.A. and New York, the main centers of K-pop in America. One way to look at this, is that with Verizon’s help more Americans were able to see a K-pop act perform live.
This was not lost on Jeff Benjamin the K-pop columnist for Billboard.com and contributor at Fuse.tv, when he was interviewed at a K-pop event at the Korea Society in New York City. “I actually think this is a really big step in showing that K-pop doesn’t need to just go to New York and L.A., but it can go to other places like Washington D.C. and hopefully they can come to the mid-West and it can come to the South…” The K-pop world was also paying attention, because shortly thereafter two K-pop groups, Vixx and Infinite included concert stops outside of New York and L.A. on their respective U.S. tours. Vixx included Dallas Texas, and Infinite added San Jose, CA and Silver Springs in Maryland.
It’s not that American artists shun corporate sponsorship. It’s just not done to the same extent as occurs in K-pop. After all, the hottest news item in the music world this past summer was Samsung partnering up with Jay-Z for the release of his new album. And, didn’t the band U2 work with Steve Jobs and Apple for the release of the iPod and iTunes. The difference is when these encounters occur, more distinct boundaries are set between the two entities so the artist doesn’t appear as a sellout in the eyes of their fans and peers. Although, it needs to be said that the degree one becomes a sellout for an alternative folk singer-songwriter or a punk band is totally different than say a hip-hop artist. Anyway, K-pop artists have no such issues. They fully embrace corporate currency. As many recall, when Big Bang, Taeyang’s male group also signed to YG, came to L.A. and New York in 2012, one of the members had a Samsung phone on stage and was using it to take pictures and videos for later use as promotional videos for Samsung on YouTube.
Corporate sponsorship is not a silver bullet. Largely beneficial for artists, there are caveats that should be remembered. The artists no longer simply acts in their own interest, but must realize their activities also needs to serve that of their corporate benefactors. This of course can place limits on the artist’s creative process. Ultimately, as TS Entertainment who oversees B.A.P. has shown, it is wise to work around those limitations. B.A.P. soon after the mini-tour subsequently released an exceptional music video of their new single “Coffee Shop”, which was shot in all the American cities they visited.