FROM MOTOWN TO SMTOWN.
The global rise of Korean pop has been proportional to the decline of R&B.
Girl’s Generation, a Korean pop group, won the first ever YouTube Music Awards held in 2013. This award was voted on entirely by fans, worldwide. Americans paying attention were befuddled that a little known group from halfway across the world beat out One Direction and Justin Bieber. The group, comprised of nine feline members, is part of a label known as SMtown. Much like Berry Gordy’s Motown, SMtown is the brainchild of a charismatic founder named Lee Soo Man. SMtown is the number one Korean pop label, and it set the tone for the global phenomenon.
Again like Motown, SMtown is a composite of closely-knit groups that operate under an industrialist system. Set up by Mr. Lee, it is a system conceptually similar to what Mr. Gordy created at Motown. To hear Smokey Robinson tell it, all the Motown artists lived a few blocks from each other and grew up together. Lee Soo Man for his part created a similar environment for his artists, housing them in dormitories and training them together from an early age.
Motown and R&B groups like the Jackson 5 rose to prominence through radio, infused with elements of the African-American culture. Similarly K-pop groups are rising to prominence with the Internet as their medium, infused with elements of modern Korean culture.
It is increasingly becoming a nom for K-pop groups to embark on world tours, from Peru to Hungary, passing through the United States and selling out stadiums in every emerging Asian country. Within the span of one month, from March to April, 2014, three separate Korean-pop groups will tour the United States. By November of 2014, that number could rise to 7. This is unprecedented.
That K-pop isn’t going anywhere any time soon, in 2011 Billboard launched the K-pop Hot 100 charts. Billboard has 8 international charts, and only four international Hot 100 charts, Brazil, Europe, Japan and Korea. Of these four, technology is central to the economies of two of them, Japan and Korea. The Canadian Hot 100 is not considered an international chart.
Coincidentally, as Korea is home to Hyundai, which has risen rapidly as a global automotive brand, so also is Ford home to “Motor-Town”. The Ford system informed Berry Gordy’s methodology at Motown. Likewise, Lee Soo Man tapped into the same cultural values fueling Hyundai’s global growth. In a speech at Stanford University, Mr. Lee called it “cultural technology.”
Finally, the lack of explicit content in K-pop (although this is changing) should not be ignored in understanding its widespread appeal. The 15-25 age group dominate its fandoms. This is also the same age group that generally dominate album sales and music consumption in many genres. This has been especially true with the advent of social media.
Increasingly, R&B has moved away from the innocuous era of the Jackson 5, as well as, later on the seductive lyrics of Toni Braxton’s first album to down-right explicit content. This departure has no better example than Chris Brown. A troubled R&B crooner who initially catered to this demographic at the height of his career, but whose more recent albums now carry that increasing ubiquitous label “Parental Advisory”.