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[UPGRADING KOREAN CULTURE (3)]Online fans reshaping pop music world

2007/03/21 Source

This is the third in an eight-part series of articles that looks into the country's cultural and entertainment sectors and explores ways to help sharpen their competitive edge. - Ed.

By Lee Yong-sung

More and more Korean pop stars are making some serious noise all across Asia. Not to mention such established stars as BoA and Rain, many young, up and coming singing and dancing talents are now targeting overseas markets from the very beginning, even before their debut here.

For one thing, this is a barometer showing the growing popularity of Korean pop musicians in the rest of Asia, which must be highly encouraging for both musicians and producers. Behind this are, however, ever-diminishing album sales in the local pop music industry.

According to the Music Industry Association of Korea, last year's best-selling album was Dongbangshingi's (TVXQ outside the country) third album "O Union", which sold 349,317 copies last year, beating its rival SG Wannabe whose third album, "Partner for Life", sold 311,642 copies throughout the year. Since 2001, when three albums including Kim Kun-mo's 7th album, "Kim Kun-mo #007 Another Days", and the now disbanded boy band G.O.D'.s fourth "Chapter 4" album became one-million-album sellers, the industry has failed to produce a single one since. What is worse is that, over the past five years, album sales have gradually been dwindling with no sign of recovery.

At the end of last month, SMH Music, one of the country's major album retailers based in Busan, closed its largest shop in Haeundae, the most trendy and upscale area of the southeastern port city, after a few years of losing shares to the online music market - both authorized and illegal. Out of some 50 CD shops that once thrived in the second largest city of the country back in 2004, only 11 are still in operation.

The situation is not very different in Seoul. Tower Records, which had long been loved as a popular meeting place for young couples, closed in 2000 and Sinara Records, which was number one in terms of sales in the country, shut it doors in 2004.

There are only about 300 CD shops currently in business in the country where there were more than 10,000 stores dealing with vinyl records and CDs in the mid '90s. "All of a sudden, music has become too accessible. People seem to think it's a sort of free goods, always downloadable for free", said Yang Hyun-suk, president of YG Entertainment, a Seoul-based entertainment, production and management agency, analyzing the reason for the collapse of the offline pop music market.

Under the situation, many K-pop stars are making efforts to broadening their portfolio by tapping into acting. Se7en, who is often compared with Rain for his good looks and charismatic stage presence, has recently made his acting debut in "Prince Hours", a spin-off of "Gung (Princess Hours)", a modern day fairy tale about an ordinary college student who is swept into royalty when she falls in love with a prince.

Rock ballad singer Hong Kyung-min, Shinhwa member Kim Dong-wan and dance group Coyote's female vocalist Shinji are all trying to appeal more to young audiences with their hidden acting talent rather than with their songs, although Hong seems to be the only one receiving favorable (though mild) reviews. "Popularity doesn't guarantee success as an actor. Only those who are talented in acting can be real actors", said Jeon Ki-sang, the producer of hit television series "Sassy Girl, Chun-hyang" and "My Girl".

Of course the dwindling offline market does not mean the end of the entire pop music industry. According to the latest report of Korea Culture and Content Agency, the total size of the country's online music market is estimated at over 248 billion won ($262 million) in 2005 - over a five-fold growth from 41 billion won in 2000.

The fast-expanding online music market has been dominated by three mobile operators: SL Telecom, KTF and LG Telecom, but earlier this month, Samsung Electronics announced that it is ready to join the competition, as the world's top memory chip maker signed a memorandum of understanding with Soribada, a local peer-to-peer music system, which through its website Open the link, provides an authorized paid downloading and streaming service.

The reactions from singers to this drastic paradigm shift in the music world are divided. Shin Hae-chul, a singer who is well-known for his social invective-laden songs, says that the weakened offline music market could weaken the ground of experimental music.

"Singers often use a few tracks of their new album for their own musical satisfaction, though the rest of the album needs to be filled with songs to serve the public palate", Shin said in an interview. "But it is getting harder for pop musicians to live up to their ideals when people can choose whichever songs they like to download", he said.

Veteran female singer Jang Hye-jin, on the other hand, takes a polar opposite view on the matter. "Now one doesn't need to produce a whole CD to promote his or her singing talent. The new circumstance will encourage more young future musicians to pursue their musical ideals without worrying too much about the cost", she said.

Kim Jong-kook, the former member of popular male duo Turbo, also agrees that the size of the local pop music market will grow bigger than ever in this online-friendly music world, because those who could not afford CDs can now pay far less money to download a song or two. "It is good that there are now so many different channels through which people listen to music, such as mobile phone ring tones, color ring back tones, mobile phone music and background music for websites", said the singer.

Kim, however, points out that there are conditions that need to be met first. "First of all, there needs to be a system guaranteeing the biggest dividend for music makers, not distributors, and there should be no illegal downloading and music-sharing", he said.

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