South Korea’s Greatest Export: How K-Pop’s Rocking the World

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Han Myung-Gu / WireImage / Getty Images

Singer Taeyang of Big Bang performs in Incheon, South Korea, on Aug. 5, 2011

The members of K-Pop Fans Kuwait seem a little blue. The angsty poem attached to their tower of fan rice at the kickoff of Big Bang’s world tour in Seoul was a bit of a downer for a pop show. The fan rice paid for by a club in Indonesia, on the other hand, was more in the spirit of things, adorned with a message to the band that could even double as a tourism slogan: “Don’t think too much. Just come to Indonesia.”

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What’s a fan-rice tower? What’s Big Bang? I asked the very same things when I arrived in South Korea last week and attended my first K-pop concert in Seoul’s Olympic Park Gymnastics Stadium. Fan rice is pretty much what it sounds like: rice, from fans. As a way to show their devotion, fans of Korean pop music — or K-pop — buy bags of rice and donate it to their favorite bands, who, in turn, donate the rice to a charitable cause.

In a linoleum hallway in the Seoul stadium, stacks of rice bags festooned with ribbons and signs boasting how many kilograms each club purchased (100 kg, 500 kg, 1,000 kg) were lined up like shrines to the K-pop gods that were about to go on stage: T.O.P., G-Dragon, etc. Big Bang is one of the biggest acts on the K-pop roster. For their first show in months, 12.7 tons of rice were donated from 50 fan clubs around the world.

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How do I know this? Because there are entire businesses dedicated to making sure the rice gets there. Roh Seung-gu, whose staff took two days to build all the rice-bag towers on display for the Big Bang show, got into this industry when fans just bought bouquet towers for the bands. (Passé.) Now he has 24 offices around the country helping source and ship rice from South Korean farmers to venues. For the past five years, his sales have grown 100% every year, though he still insists it’s not a particularly profitable venture. “I’m not making anything off this,” Roh says. “I just do it because it’s a good thing.”

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That would certainly make him the exception. In Seoul, everybody seems to be cashing in on the K-pop boom. As the fan base for the catchy melodies performed by polished dance groups, pop bands and soloists is growing, the spin-off industry around their pretty ranks is growing even faster. Tours from Japan and China bring busloads of teenagers and middle-aged women to see K-pop concerts and do some shopping while they’re at it. Fashion houses pump out imitations of designer items that K-pop stars are spotted in. Reality shows looking for the next big talent are popping up on every channel, while dozens of cram schools in Seoul teach students how to prepare for the rigorous auditions held by management companies. Kim Hyung-seok, a celebrated composer and producer who runs a music school where aspiring stars go to train, admits he feels conflicted about taking course fees from students who might not make it in the business. “I ask myself, Is this the right thing to do morally?” In the end, he decided, education is not about commercial success. “You can’t stop people from doing what they want to do.”

Even for the companies that manage K-pop royalty, the ancillary businesses bring in more money than the music itself. With a population of only 48 million, South Korea is a relatively limited market, compared with, say, Japan, which accounts for most of K-pop albums’ overseas sales. That’s why a lot of K-pop bands learn and sing in Japanese, among many, many other things. According to CJ E&M, a major media company in Seoul that produces the reality show Superstar K, record sales account for about 40% of the major management companies’ revenue. The other 60% comes from having their stars appear on everything from energy-drink labels to soap operas.

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The limited revenue stream from record sales is part of the reason that Seoul’s “Big Three” management companies — JYP, YG and S.M. — have been making moves to break into Latin America, Europe and North America. If the rice towers at the Big Bang show are any indication, they’re on the right track. Fans from over 60 countries donated rice to the show last week. The rise in international donations, says Roh, has been “very dramatic.” The question he cannot answer is what kids in Kuwait love about K-pop. “I don’t know,” he says, laughing. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”