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Special Feature: Bridging the East-West Pop Divide - How western songwriters are finding success in the Far East with K-pop - Oct 12, 2011

While pop stars of the west struggle to replicate their successes in the lucrative East Asian music market, western songwriters have discovered their own way in by riding the K-pop phenomenon that is sweeping the continent.

picture A strong east-west divide still permeates the world of pop.

Lady Gaga’s last album may have topped the Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese pop charts, but western pop stars’ impact in the Far East is still a long way off what they experience at home. Just look at the Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart for 2010 - who are all these artists?! The highest non-Asian act at #16 is not Gaga, Rihanna or Katy Perry, but Owl City.

The same is true in the opposite direction – albeit more so. The names dominating Asian charts are unfamiliar to western eyes because most aren’t exported outside of Asia, such as the biggest selling Japanese act of 2010, Arashi. Those that have made the journey westwards have yet to make much of an impression. The “Queen of Korean Pop Music”, BoA’s 2009 English-language album failed to crack the Billboard US top 100 albums with only 8,000 sales - a stark contrast to the 24m albums she has sold at home.

The reasons behind this divide are down to differences in language and culture, and the need to invest a level of time and dedication that most major artists can’t afford to spare.

Owl City’s success in Japan was far from accidental. As manager Steve Bursky said in a recent HQ interview, they exploited the cultural kinship Adam Young’s music had in Japan by touring there early. The Korean K-pop stars that have recently found huge success in Japan, the world’s second biggest music market, have done so by tailoring their acts to fit the Japanese template for idol pop to an absolute tee; they record Japanese language albums, and do all the right commercial endorsements and music shows – being a sophisticated alternative to cute J-Pop must have helped too.

But until China realises its potential as a world leading music market, it seems unlikely western pop stars are going to think Asia as being worth their precious time.

Riding the K-pop wave

Western pop stars may be struggling to conquer the Far East, but western songwriters are enjoying huge success there by riding the wave of the K-pop phenomenon currently sweeping across Asia.

The ever growing production line of super slick, choreographed-to-perfection pop acts that roll out of Korean talent factories such as YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and - most significantly in terms of western input - SM Entertainment need a lot songs if they are to meet the insatiable demand the likes of TVQX, Girls’ Generation, BoA, f(x), Big Bang and Super Junior attract. It’s not surprising then that these entertainment companies have been drafting in experienced pop composers from the West.

Girls’ Generation’s latest #1 album – the largest selling album by a Korean group in Japan - is dominated by top Scandinavian, British and US writers including Alex James, Jörgen Elofsson, busbee (HQ interview), Scott Mann, E. Kidd Bogart (HQ interview) and Kalle Engström. TVXQ’s Japanese #1 ‘Superstar’ was co-written by DEEKAY’s Lars Halvor Jensen (HQ interview), Drew Ryan Scott and Lindy Robbins, BoA’s ‘Eat You Up’ was written by Danish songwriters Remee and Thomas Troelsen, and Girls’ Generation’s huge hit ‘Tell Me Your Wish (Genie)’ was created by Norweigian production team, and K-pop mainstays, Dsign Music.


But aren’t Asian music fans bothered that European and US writers are writing all their favourite songs? Most probably don’t realise. While some songwriters bemoan their lack of public recognition it is their relative anonymity that allows them to sneak to the top of the Japanese and Korean charts without anyone raising an eyebrow.

But even so, how can Swedish or British composers even hope to bridge the cultural chasm that supposedly exists between East and West and write in a convincingly “Korean” way? Well, much like a Swede writing a song to represent Azerbaijan at the Eurovision Song Contest or an British songwriter writing US country music hits, cultural differences in the pop world rarely go deeper than surface level. If it’s a great pop song that suits current South Korean music trends then all it takes is a little “localisation” to its target market for it to be a potential hit. Chairman of the major Korean label SM, Lee Soo-man, has likened it to the way cuisine is prepared differently around the world to suit local tastes.

How it usually works is that when Korean entertainment companies accept a demo pitch from a western publisher they then request an instrumental version so the company can alter it to fit their artists, usually by re-writing the lyrics, adding their own vocals and then finishing off the arrangement. In the process you get an Asian pop song bolstered by the experienced songwriting and production muscle of a western hitmaker.

How did western songwriters get involved?

The authenticity of K-pop is not necessarily being diluted by foreign influence because the music has always been modelled on US and European pop. When it first emerged in the mid-90s with founding of SM Entertainment, the Korean music giant wasted no time in drawing on overseas production and publishing talent. S.E.S.’s 1998 single ‘Dreams Come True’, for example, was a cover of a song by the Finnish pop group Nylon Beat, with lyrics translated into Korean.

Over the years SM has built up an extensive network of connections in America and Europe to the extent where, according to Lee Soo Man, the company now has relationships with over 300 composers all over the world. Such a deep talent pool from which to draw on means a stronger song selection, and higher standards. By raising the game, more and more South Korean entertainment companies are diversifying their output by collaborating with overseas producers and composers.

SM’s commitment to building its western network was highlighted by a conference held in Paris earlier this year designed to promote K-pop and let the 50 European writers and publishers in attendance know what styles the Korean entertainment company is looking for, as well as build more active relationships with them.

In addition to conferences, dedicated K-pop songwriting camps are also hoped to become regular events in future. One such songwriter camp was held in Sweden last year. The four-day Camp FantAsia was set up by Pelle Lidell of Universal Music Publishing to create songs tailor-made for SM artists. The fifteen songwriters in attendance were aided by SM representatives who helped direct proceedings and offer their constructive advice.

A long standing SM ally, European A&R executive Lidell is perhaps the most significant connection made by the organisation in terms of introducing western talent to the Asian pop scene. His background in delivering hits for Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Kelly Clarkson would have proved very enticing for Lee Soo Man.

What’s the incentive?

But why go to all this trouble focusing on music that is still largely unheard of in the west? Having yet to truly break out of Asia, K-pop may not offer songwriters much in the way of home recognition and credibility, but in attracting enormous sales in its home continent, the healthy ensuing royalties offer more than ample compensation. It was reported that Korea’s “Big 3” music agencies – YG, SM and JYP Entertainment – earned a combined revenue of $150 million USD in sales for 2010.

What’s more if your song gets recorded the chances of success are very high – at least if you have Pelle Lidell looking after your interests. Lidell told The Guardian that almost every song he’s delivered to the company has become a hit and he’s never had a single release in Korea that has sold less than 400,000.

by Barry Wheels

Read On ...

* DEEKAY's Lars Halvor Jensen on writing for Girls' Generation and TVXQ
* Murlyn Music MD Pelle Lidell on what he looks for in a songwriter
* Special feature on the influence of Swedes in modern pop
* Chairman of 88tc88, Thomas Reemer, explains how to release your music in China
* Is Nashville still all about the song? Special feature investigates