Will K-pop continue to stay on top?
By Kim Tong-hyung
Is K-pop for real or the fluke of the century?
While it’s difficult to call an imposter a $3.2 billion industry that has doubled its global sales in each of the past three years, production companies admit to concerns that their strength in highly produced, one-size-fits-all music is beginning to be duplicated by others. And their staggering ineptitude in protecting their intellectual property from foreign copycats doesn’t inspire confidence for the Korean pop industry’s business future.
Another criticism toward K-pop is related to the way how entertainment firms treat their young artists, often signed to notoriously long deals as trainees and endure long working hours with little financial rewards. The Fair Trade Commission (FTC), which issued a ``model’’ contract terms for musicians last year, verbally assures that business models based on these so-called ``slave’’ contracts won’t be allowed to be sustainable.
K-pop has been growing as a global influence, with the $177 million raked from exports last year representing more than a double in annual growth.
This has policymakers hailing pop music as Korea’s definitive export item following cheap cars, mobile phones and packaged kimchi and expressing excitement how the sugary boy- and girl- bands with slick dance routines and catchy tunes could give the country a younger and more dynamic image.
But despite the deafening fanfare surrounding artists like Rain and members of Girls’ Generation, Kara and Big Bang across Asian countries, some pundits will argue that K-pop has yet to fully capitalize on its money-making potential.
It’s still a significantly smaller industry than computer-based video games, which raked in 9.1 trillion won (about $8 billion) in revenue and $221 million in exports last year.
Korea’s CD market is stagnant and digital music is vastly under priced, which forces musicians and their production companies to rely heavily on touring and merchandise sales. So naturally, music companies here hold desperate hope that the exploding popularity of their products overseas will beat them a new path toward the gold trail.
The problem is that the popularity of K-pop in countries like China, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam has been inspiring local artists to copy the look and feel of Korean stars, often with cookie-cutter precision.
Girls’ Generation, a nine-member pop girl group immensely popular in Korea and some pockets of Asia, has a Chinese clone in Idol Girls, also a nine-member girl band that mimicked its dance moves, fashion and even the photo on the album’s cover when debuting in 2009. Another Girls’ Generation look-alike is Taiwan’s Super 7.
Super Junior, a 12-member boy band, has a Chinese equivalent in Super Boy as Big Bang has OK Bang. 2NE1, another popular girl group, is uncomfortable about its similarities with Thailand’s Candy Mafia, while Chinese girl group i-Me seems to be a genetic cross between Kara and the Wonder Girls. Solo artist Hyun-a saw her single, Bubble Pop, taken and used by singers in China and Vietnam.
While the list of K-pop copycats is beginning to read longer than Tolstoy, it’s interesting that the Korean music companies, including the ``big-three’’ players SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment, have yet to file a single lawsuit between them.
``Yes, we are committed to protecting our intellectual property, but the problem is `how.’ We detect so many infringements in so many countries, from Uzbekistan to Vietnam and China, and the nations all have different ideas of intellectual property and level of protection,’’ said an official from one of the three major labels, who didn’t want her or the company to be identified.
``K-pop has become a complicated product as we are selling much more than music but a whole package of image and culture. Some will copy our music, some will follow our dance routines, some will copy our album covers, and some will mimic our video clips.
``It’s always different every time and always unclear every time regarding how far we can push to protect our rights. Lawsuits will take significant time and money and in some countries it’s hard for us to grasp who exactly we need to sue over what.’’
Perhaps, it’s awkward for the Korean entertainment companies to climb on their high horse when they themselves struggle to break from constant accusations of plagiarism.
The Seoul Central District Court earlier this year found Park Jin-young, a popular solo artist who heads JYP, was found guilty of plagiarizing a tune from a lesser-known songwriter in a theme song for a teen television drama, Dream High, which featured many K-pop stars. Park has appealed the decision, but this wasn’t the first time he was accused of liberally using the tunes of other artists.
G-Dragon, a member and songwriter for Big Bang, was entangled into a heated debate in 2009 on whether he copied the music of U.S. rapper FloRida. The management firm backing Ivy, a popular female singer, was hit by a heavy fine in 2008 after a U.S, court found it guilty of copying scenes from a promotional video for the popular video game, Final Fantasy, in her music video.
Critics say that Korea has lost control of intellectual property protection in music since the abolishment of the plagiarism watchdog Performance Ethics Committee in 1999.