perfect gentlemen

Music, media and the Republic of Korea have a lot riding on Psy’s horse

April 19, 2013
April 19, 2013

Major entertainment sites are posting daily view count updates; news media are offering up technical assessments with the seriousness of Wall Street analysts. It seems like the whole world is watching to see whether Korean rapper and one-man viral epidemic Psy can duplicate his extraordinary “Gangnam Style” success with his new release, “Gentleman.” That’s no fluke: The stakes in play are considerably higher than they seem.

In fact, there are three very different constituencies whose future might well depend on whether Psy can prove that lightning can strike twice (and, presumably, keep on striking)—and all three potentially have billions riding on the outcome.

Stakeholder #1: The global music industry

The party’s been over for Big Music for the past decade and a half; the only question now is whether there’s any kind of an afterparty to look forward to, or just a persistent raging hangover. There are some promising signs: As Quartz’s Ritchie King reported in February, revenue growth in 2012 from downloaded and streamed music more than compensated for falling sales of physical media, marking the first time since 1998 that the global recorded music market actually grew on an annualized basis.

But let’s get real: That tiny uptick comes after a 15-year screaming plunge, from nearly $40 billion in 1998 to about $16 billion now. The music industry is not by any means fixed. And worse yet, it doesn’t have any real idea how to fix itself, or what “fixed” even really means.

It’s clear that even in a best case scenario, the days when the Big Six—EMI, CBS, BMG, PolyGram, WEA and MCA—played the hugely profitable role of the music world’s primary gatekeepers and starmakers are over forever. But given that it’s better to live small than die big, Big Music is now desperately looking for a business model that will let them survive in a world where piracy is normalized, copyrights are an anachronism and content wants to be free (or, more precisely, consumers want it to be free).

Coincidentally, this is the world that Koreans have been living in for the past decade, ever since 2002, when it first took the global lead in broadband Internet penetration. K-Pop mogul Jin-Young Park—the impresario behind superstars Rain and the Wonder Girls—told me that when he first visited the US and music execs condescendingly asked him where he was from, he responded “I’m from the future,” and proceeded to explain to them that in his reality, CDs were seen as collectible souvenirs, music was basically gratis and companies like his made money by manufacturing stars, not by releasing records.

Back then, they reacted with shock and denial.

Now, they’re scrambling to partner with top Korean talent factories like JYP Entertainment, SM, and YG, realizing that for the better part of a generation, Korea has been a vast laboratory for the building of a new business model for music—one that has seen its revenues grow consistently even as the rest of the world’s sales have slid, and which has profitably exported an army of pop specimens to markets across Asia, from BoA to Super Junior. It was assumed that eventually, these gloriously perfect idols would make a successful crossover to the rest of the world as well. Koreans were as surprised as anyone that K-Pop’s global breakthrough would be led by a chubby motherfather best known in his native land for a range of high-profile scandals, from dropping out of college to dodging Korea’s mandatory military service to getting busted for pot.

That is, until he created the most-watched music video in the history of the world.

Stakeholder #2: The new media establishment

Old-guard music titans are watching Psy hoping to learn how to avoid extinction in a world where, to repeat CNN president Jeff Zucker’s oft-quoted mantra, analog dollars have turned into digital dimes. But the new-school crowd has its eyes glued to him as well, because Psy may have figured out something that no one else has to date: The formula for consistently generating contagious content.

Everyone understands how digital content goes viral: The zero-cost, on-demand distribution infrastructure of the internet has effectively reduced the price of sampling to the tap of a finger; as a result, consumers are much more willing to respond to the temptation of curiosity and novelty than they’ve ever been in history. And once they’ve found something they like (or hate, for that matter), the frictionless sharing made possible by social media means that they can instantly broadcast their reaction to friends, family and followers.

What no one has quite nailed down is why.

“It’s just something you can’t really quantify—if I could, I’d be making viral videos all day, every day,” says Sarah Penna, head of talent and cofounder of YouTube management agency Bigframe, which represents over 200 YouTube channels and two curated vertical communities, the urban aggregator Forefront and the “smart girls” network Wonderly. “The problem is that if you try to make a viral video, and a lot of companies have, it usually doesn’t work. Going viral is something that just happens. You can do your best to make your content to appealing and shareable, but if you asked me what Reddit or 4Chan is going to pick up on tomorrow, I couldn’t tell you—no one could.”

When pressed, Penna points to the obvious. “We know people share videos of babies, kittens and puppies,” she says. “Everything else tends to just be weird stuff, the unexpected, the incongruous. Like, in ‘Gangnam Style,’ you don’t expect the elevator to open up and see a guy thrusting his pelvis in there. But it’s hard to put your finger on what’s exactly the right kind of weird.”

Take for example the video meme that stole “Gangnam Style”’s spotlight right after it hit the staggering milestone of a billion YouTube views—the “Harlem Shake.”

Brandon Martinez, CEO of Indmusic, YouTube’s largest video network for independent labels and artists, is the online partner of Mad Decent, the boutique label that released Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” Even they were caught off guard by the phenomenon.

“You have to remember that Baauer originally released the track in 2012; it did pretty well, but by February, Baauer and Mad Decent had basically moved on.” says Martinez. “Then, out of nowhere, we saw this Buzzfeed article about ‘Harlem Shake’ videos. And we said, ‘Hey, we had a song called that last year—let’s see if there’s any connection.’ Sure enough, the video used Baauer’s track. At the time, there were only seven videos out there.”

As of last count, the number was in the hundreds of thousands. The spread of the meme wasn’t entirely organic; Quartz’s Kevin Ashton has traced the corporate complicity in the transformation of “Harlem Shake” videos from an obscure YouTube gag into a global viral phenomenon, detailing how digital agencies, cable channels and ultimately major brands like Pepsi jumped on the bandwagon and whipped the horses. But, points out Martinez, their participation merely served as an accelerator; the Shake still wouldn’t have blown up if there weren’t already fuel to burn. And he concurs with Penna that despite the best efforts of experts, researchers and academics, no one has yet been able to pinpoint what makes a meme contagious.

“No one knows how to engineer something to be viral, and anyone who says they can knows less than anyone else,” says Martinez. “But I’ll say this: In ‘Gangnam Style,’ you had an almost ideal collection of YouTube-y characteristics. It’s offbeat, it’s funny, it’s bright. It starts with a cute kid dancing—who doesn’t love that?—and then it moves on to sexy ladies. It’s like the viral perfect storm.”

Martinez also points to the fact that K-Pop has captured the attention of musicians as well as creative execs—and that artists like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine and rapper T-Pain were among the first to adopt and embrace “Gangnam Style.” “They’ve been talking about K-Pop now for years, they’re intrigued and paying attention to it, but most of them have no idea what it’s all about,” he says. “And then Psy rolls in, and all of a sudden it all just kind of comes together.”

Stakeholder #3: The Republic of Korea

That points to the third major player watching, waiting and hoping for “Gentleman” to attain a “Gangnam Style” level of success: South Korea itself. It’s not just a matter of pride, although according to UC-Riverside professor Edward Chang, the desire to see Korea’s culture celebrated on a global scale has been a dominant strain in the country’s social makeup for the past 30 years. “Koreans always want to reach for number one status,” he recently told the Los Angeles Times. “The nation’s rapid economic growth has been about striving for the top spot.”

Psy’s unlikely success has made him the face of the nation’s ongoing efforts to build everything from tourism—there may now be more people around the world familiar with the “Gangnam” neighborhood in Seoul than with the city of Seoul itself—to technology. At this year’s South By Southwest, Psy’s smirking visage was the umbrella brand for all of Korea’s startups, who traveled to Austin under the sobriquet “Geeks from Gangnam” and invited people to pose for pictures at their pavilion while wearing an oversized foam Psy mascot head. In Gangnam itself, there are government plans to build a dedicated K-pop stadium and a “Hallyuwood” Walk of Fame, complete with statue of Psy.

All of this is hardly accidental. Though the breakout of “Gangnam Style” was a surprise, the wheels of government and commerce have turned to position Psy as the face of Korean pop culture ever since. The Korean government has seen culture as a critical tool to exact soft power since the demands of the International Monetary Fund triggered the nation’s economic collapse in 1998, when it was widely believed that lack of familiarity with Korea had bred contempt among the developed nations who held the fund’s leash. As a generation of talented young mavericks pulled themselves out of the wreckage, three subsequent political administrations stepped up public investment in cultural output, pouring out grants and subsidies for creatives who seemed likely to be able to win hearts and minds abroad. Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has an annual budget of over $3.5 billion, and spends nearly 10% of that in promoting Korean pop culture abroad—more than double the amount that the US, with six times the population and a vastly larger economy, spends on the National Endowment for the Arts.

Corporate Korea is hitched to the pop-culture bandwagon as well. The Korean music industry’s business model, which focuses on revenue streams like endorsements, sponsorships and product placement rather than vending musical product, puts artists in direct partnership with brands. The Wonder Girls are the face of one of Korea’s most popular fried chicken chains. Hiphop quartet 2NE1 is partnered with the cosmetics chain Etude. Boy band 2PM has created viral dance routines expressly for their sponsors, the water purifier company Woongjin-Coway. And as for PSY himself, as gaming blog Kotaku pointed out, the “Gentleman” video is a veritable feast of product placements, from popular mobile game app Candy Crush Saga (which has what amounts to a five-second commercial in the middle of the song) to Hite beer and even Double-A office paper, reams of which are spotlighted when the clown prince of K-Pop-hop photocopies his face at the end of the video. All of these brands are sponsors of the Psy juggernaut, and hoping to ride it into the global marketplace.

But the brand that gets the most play is Psy’s own. The singer has taken his now instantly recognizable wardrobe and shades, Mr. Frostee hairdo and snarkily pursed lips and turned them into a graphic silhouette that’s liberally stamped across the video, as well as on his YouTube channel and on sets and backdrops at his concerts and appearances. As “Gentleman” viewership burgeons—as of this writing, it was at 147 million and counting—the logo seems destined to be the most instantly recognized pop symbol since the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue.

Which underscores the fact that the biggest stakeholder in the success of “Gentleman” is unquestionably Psy. The singer made millions on “Gangnam Style,” but with its followup, he clearly has more than money on his mind—he’s aiming at the launch of an identity that extends beyond transient internet fame and into, well, the future. The rest of us are just along for the ride.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @originalspin. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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