As record executive Joojong Joe weaved through the packed crowd at the 19,000-capacity Honda Center in Anaheim, California, there to see Korean boy band Bigbang, he spotted a young Russian woman crying. She couldn’t explain why. Confident that she wasn’t in any actual distress, he moved on.
“It’s like the Backstreet Boys back in the day,” Joe says with a shrug. “A lot of people cry.” Even, it turns out, a Russian obsessed with five androgynous Korean boys. Such is the reach of the hottest global pop genre, the campy Korean variant known as K-Pop.
The top act in its niche, Bigbang took home $44 million in pretax earnings over the past year, easily more than the $33.5 million collected by today’s highest-paid American all-male arena pop group, Maroon 5. Bigbang landed the No 54 spot on our Celebrity 100 list, even topping such artist-entrepreneurs as Dr Dre (No 63, $41 million) and Jimmy Buffett (No 66, $40.5 million), though that’s more attributable to the popularity of the group’s music than the depth of its members’ business savvy.
“We made more than Maroon 5?” says front man Kwon “G-Dragon” Jiyong, 27, through a translator. “Did not know that. My mom is in charge of my earnings.”
Fortunately the group’s finances are being guided by much more than a mommy manager. The real force behind Bigbang is former K-Pop idol Yang “YG” Hyun Suk and his namesake company—a $630 million publicly traded record label, talent agency and concert promoter with fingers in pies from fashion to marketing to film. The company and its founder are responsible for creating not only Bigbang but also, to a great extent, the modern K-Pop movement, which is in the midst of a transformation from regional staple to international craze.
Within YG’s roster, examples abound. Girl group 2NE1 sells out arenas around the world and even did an Adidas commercial with Nicki Minaj, while the video for ‘Gangnam Style’, from pop-rapper Psy, holds the all-time YouTube record, with 2.6 billion views since its 2012 debut. That sort of virality wasn’t possible a decade ago, when K-Pop was available beyond Asia mostly via illegal download or at specialty record stores.
“In the past there were limitations to distributing and accessing music,” says Yang, whose company is on pace to do a quarter-billion dollars in revenue this year. “Now in the digital age, those geographical boundaries are insignificant.”
If the rise of K-Pop seems a relatively recent phenomenon, that’s because it is. American influence came to the peninsula in earnest during the 1950s with the Korean War and its aftermath, as troops staying in the area exposed locals to Western pop and rock ’n’ roll. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that those influences combined with European electronic music, American hip-hop and existing traditional Asian genres, coalescing into the beginnings of modern K-Pop.
Yang grew up in this milieu, spending his high school days emulating the music of Soul Train and practising the dance moves of Michael Jackson. In 1992, singer Seo Taiji came to Yang to learn how to dance; they teamed up with a third member to create Seo Taiji and Boys, which married hip-hop and catchy melodies. Their first hit, ‘Nan Arayo (I Know),’ made Rolling Stone’s list of the best boy band songs of all time.