Global talent, Korean-trained: K-pop’s new recipe for world domination

SEOUL: From Indian K-pop idols to Swedish songwriters, South Korea’s music industry is now a hotbed of global talent as it seeks world domination, experts say.

K-pop bands have long been associated with non-Koreans: Blackpink’s Lisa is Thai, while Japan and China are both well-represented, and Korean-American singers top the local charts.

But after megastars like Psy and BTS brought K-pop to a global audience, the entertainment agencies in South Korea that are behind almost every popular group are recruiting even further.

DR Music’s girl group Blackswan has just two South Koreans in its six female lineup, and last month added the industry’s first Indian “idol” joining Brazilian and Senegalese members.

In the United States, a Korean-American K-pop singer, AleXa, recently won NBC’s American Song Contest, the US version of Eurovision. Although he sang in English, his training in Seoul was unique to him.

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Staff told NBC that “they haven’t yet worked with an artist who can find a camera on stage faster,” said Angelina Foss, creative director at ZB Label of South Korea.

At the end of the filming, other participants asked for tips on AleXa, Foss said, adding that it was “just part of the training.”

‘Next step’

With comprehensive training programs covering everything from acting and etiquette to stunt coordination, K-pop artists make some Western pop stars feel like they’re not trying.

Recruited into open castings or found through online audition tapes, South Korea’s entertainment agencies identify raw talent and then begin work.

At ZB Label, part of industry powerhouse Zanybros that has produced thousands of K-pop music videos, bosses are “always thinking: what’s the next step in K-pop?” Said Foss.

They signed AleXa because they believed he had the “whole package” and saw his potential as a young Korean-American who appealed to the growing global K-pop fandom.

AleXa has been studying dance since she was 2, but said the training regime is still exhausting.

“I practiced every day of the week. I had dance classes every day,” said AleXa, who also practiced years of competitive cheerleading while growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“I had weekly reviews, which is a huge thing in the K-pop industry,” he says, explaining that trainees act for company staff to assess their progress.

After “months and months and months” of work, her bosses decided she was ready to “debut” as a full-fledged star.

In K-pop machinery, the concept of an artist’s debut is very important, and obsessive detail is put into styling, staging and cinematography.

“The concept and execution are very critical,” said AleXa, whose songs were written in Sweden, but produced in Seoul with a U.S. audience but global YouTube views in mind.

‘Strive for perfection’

K-pop recruiters are spreading all over the world, with BTS agency Hybe hosting auditions in cities including London, Bangkok, Sydney and Tokyo, but at the same time global talent has flooded into South Korea.

Iyanu Anderson, 24, discovered K-pop when he was a teenager in the United Kingdom where he studied Korean at university before moving to Seoul. She now works as a dancer, actress and model.

“I’d love to be trained,” said Anderson, who appeared in a Samsung commercial with BTS and performed as a backup dancer at their three March concerts in Seoul.

“But to debut as an artist, I’m not sure,” she told Agence France-Presse (AFP), citing the huge pressure, scrutiny and workload facing K-pop idols.

Even as a backup dancer, “there’s a certain amount of pressure, because just when we’re shooting a commercial, they’re striving for perfection,” Anderson said.

“Sometimes we shoot hours and hours and something is out of line. And then it’s a whole new setup,” he added.

“It’s pretty difficult” for overseas performers to adapt to the hard-driving K-pop system, says Michelle Cho, assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

But the industry itself is being forced to adapt to get top talent from around the world, he added.

K-pop managers “pay attention to pop cultural or youth cultural aesthetics and styles … in a lot of different places,” Cho explains.

If they manage to successfully diversify casting and train new types of stars, “it can only be a good thing” for the industry and its global prospects, he said.