Girls' Generation and the New Korean Wave

As carefully as Korea, Inc. manufactures cars, televisions, containerships and washing machines, it is using those techniques to manufacture pop stars, according to a research paper by Ahn Shin-Hyun for the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

The focus of Ahn’s paper is Girls’ Generation, a group of nine young women who are in large part responsible for spreading demand for K-pop, as it is known, beyond Japan and Southeast Asia to include North and South America, Europe, and the Middle East.

Since Girls’ Generation made its debut four years ago, the singing group, who aren’t rock musicians, grabbed the audience with striking black outfits and boots and tight choreography

In fact, the strong reception for Girls' Generation in Tokyo should come as no surprise. It was built on training as rigorous as the country’s notorious hagwon, or cram schools, that have students studying so deep into the night that the country recently passed a law making it illegal to do so after 11 p.m.

The nine members of Girls' Generation were groomed carefully for three to seven years at SM Entertainment, Korea's largest talent agency and its principal star maker, before they ever hit the stage, according to Ahn. In grooming its potential stars this way, Korea is following in well-worn footsteps going back to at least the UK’s Spice Girls, who were regarded as having been created out of opinion surveys and careful merchandising rather than arising from their artistic talent. So-called Cantopop singers are developed in the same way in Hong Kong

Korea pays more relentless attention to such details.

“In the case of Girls' Generation, rumors were already afoot that this new group would be ‘super girls’ even before they appeared in public,” Ahn writes. “The group released a debut single, ‘Into the New World,’ sporting wardrobes that ranged from school uniforms to roller skates,”

Girls' Generation became an instant hit, making the rounds of Korea's entertainment and reality TV shows as squeaky clean and energetic teenage stars. In 2009, after a heavy publicity campaign in Seoul, Girls' Generation released "Gee," their signature song and their first overseas hit. Its chorus seemed to be confined to the words "Gee gee gee gee baby baby," a storyline, Ahn writes, “of innocent adolescent love, as well as sophisticated choreography, and fashionable outfits.

The video went viral, attracting fans in Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. By this August, the video had 50 million views on YouTube.

Success in Japan

In a marketing coup, SM Entertainment announced that it had signed a contract with Universal Music Japan for sale and promotion of Girls' Generation albums in Japan. Two months later, Ahn writes, "’New Beginning of Girls' Generation Arrival,; a DVD with seven music videos, was released. In its first week, the DVD opened at third on Japan's Oricon weekly music DVD ranking, with sales of 23,000.” Subsequently, Girls' Generation gave 14 perfomances in Japan. Their first regular album, "Girls' Generation," sold 500,000 copies in the first month, "Girls' Generation" became the only third double platinum album by a Korean artist in Japan , with album sales in the first half of 2011 alone bringing in¥2.6 billion (US$34 million) in Japan.

Into the New World

K-pop's expansion is being bolstered by fans sharing and reproducing music videos on Youtube and social networking sites, where its popularity and presence grow daily. At the center of this lies SM Entertainment's singers, who had moved on to Paris in June. "SMTown Live," as the concert ws named, was a performance of SM artists to promote Korean singers in Europe. The single concert sold out 7,000 tickets in 15 minutes, months in advance.

After hundreds of European fans formed flash mobs in front of the Louvre to sing songs and perform Girls' Generation dances, Ahn writes, SM Entertainment arranged a second concert that drew 14,000, awakening Le Monde and Le Figaro, which rhapsodized over the Korean Wave.

As much as the singers, SM Entertainment has drawn considerable attention as the reigning force in the Korean music industry. Established in 1995, it is now Korea's largest firm for young pop music idols. In addition to Girls' Generation, the company's current top asset, its roster includes an array of past hit makers and new talents.

Girls' Generation has driven SM Entertainment’s operating profit and stock value soaring, with sales up an annual average of 37.5 percent from 2007 to 2010 while earnings per share skyrocketed from minus ₩479 in 2007 to plus ₩266 in 2008 and then to ₩1,342 in 2010, when S.M. singers entered Europe.

Success Factors for Girls' Generation

Girls' Generation's success is a direct result of S.M. Entertainment's unique system for casting, training, producing, and managing promising talent, and its stable of experts in each field, which seems to go well beyond anything the Spice Girls ever thought of, Ahn writes. The company holds weekly open auditions, and receives e-mail/mail applications and referrals, with weekly open auditions in Los Angeles. Auditions have also been held in Malaysia, Thailand, and Kazakhstan.

Those who pass the audition process can then expect to undergo years of rigorous training. Would-be singers must learn how to dance and act to improve their ability to express themselves, and enhance their chances of reaching stardom, Ahn writes. Starting as early as age 12, trainees are required to develop foreign language skills, songwriting and music production.

Producers then form and rearrange members in order to build groups with the greatest potential for success. Again, in the case of Girls' Generation, more than a dozen hopefuls were brought together and tested before the final nine were decided upon.

SM's content production is also highly systematized, and regularly enlists foreign composers and choreographers to produce music and dance moves that can appeal on a global scale. Korean and foreign composers have worked jointly to produce hit songs like Girls' Generation's "Hoot," a product of cooperation from songwriters in the UK and Denmark.

S.M. reinvents its stars’ images to keep them on top of the market. When Girls' Generation debuted in 2007, all its members were teenagers, and all songs projected an image of innocent young girlhood (e.g. "Into the New World" and "Honey"). Today, Girls' Generation has evolved into a group of confident young women with their own opinions (e.g. "Run Devil Run," "Hoot" and "Bad Girl").

As they made the transition from teenagers to women in their twenties, Girls' Generation have been able to explore a variety of images and continue meeting the expectations of their fans.

The New Korean Wave

Korea's "idol groups," including Girls' Generation, are making waves not only in Asia, but throughout the entire world, and are ushering in another Korean Wave. While the first Korean Wave in the early 2000s began with movies and television dramas and spread Korean culture throughout Asia, the present Korean Wave is being led by K-pop and is spreading worldwide.

The New Korean Wave has become a major contributor to Korea's balance of payments since the mid-2000s. Revenue from singing and dancing surpassed US$200 million for the first time in 2008. Although revenue dipped slightly in 2009 and 2010, it climbed to $123.5 million in 2011 in the first half alone, and is expected to rise further in the second half, as several overseas concerts are scheduled. The number of international tourists coming to Korea to attend events for record sales, concerts and awards ceremonies doubled from the previous year to 34,000 in 2010.

Notwithstanding its popularity, Korea's content industry has to date been plagued by criticism and doubt about its perceived lack of variety and quality. With the New Korean Wave, however, prospects for sustainable growth are much brighter. The New Korean Wave appeals to more regions; and its fans voluntarily consume, reinvent, and evangelize the content.

BBC has noted on its "Asia Business" section, "Korea's pop culture is emerging as the main backbone of Korea's brand."