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K-pop has crossed oceans to amass a huge global following and become a key tool of South Korean soft power. But the genre, as we know it, could undergo a makeover if one of the nation's top music gurus gets his way.
At present, all-Korean girl and boy groups, such as Girls Generation and BTS, make up the multi-billion dollar market. With their perfectly synchronized dance routines and color-coordinated outfits, these stars have influenced consumer trends across Asia as well as regional politics.
But the industry can no longer rely on Korean nationals alone if it wants to stay globally relevant, warned Park Jin-young, founder of JYP Entertainment—a talent agency, record label, production firm and publishing house rolled into one, where he holds the roles of artist, producer and chairman.
Park, 44, commonly known as JYP, is a well-known name in K-pop circles, having made the switch from singer to entrepreneur. Since then, he's created and managed a multitude of successful bands, including Rain and 2AM.
"We're trying to figure out the next stage ... We can't just keep sending over Korean stars forever, we need to find the next thing. Now, I want to build with foreign talent and create something with young talented kids from Japan and China," he told CNBC.
He's already tested the idea out with TWICE, a nine-member girl band consisting of three Japanese, one Taiwanese and five South Koreans. Signed onto his JYP label, TWICE is now one of the genre's hottest acts and made its U.S. performance debut in August, less than a year after releasing its first single.
For the past month, Park has been traveling in the world's second-largest economy to scout talent for an all-Chinese boy band. Renting a camping car, he chose to concentrate on smaller, lesser-known cities instead of Beijing and Shanghai.
Many fear the integration of foreign talent will force K-pop to lose its quintessential Korean quality that made it so appealing and novel to outsiders in the first place. But maybe that's no so bad after all.
"We can't keep trying to get other cultures to love Korean stuff. Now, we have to try to understand theirs, and make something together. We owe them that, because they've been consuming Korean culture for so long," said Park, who has Rihanna, Bruno Mars and Drake on his personal playlist.
K-pop is just one aspect of the country's pop culture, called the Korean wave, alongside television shows (known as K-dramas), fast food and consumer products. While Korean entertainment, fashion and culture have always commanded a loyal following in Asia, the country's cool factor hit fever pitch in 2012 when pop sensation Psy released the mega-hit song 'Gangnam Style' that went viral and helped raise the genre's global footprint.
Much of K-pop's success can be attributed to its industrialization, Park said.
"We've developed a system. Companies like ours have an academy, a sort of training system, to find young, talented kids and pull out the best in them. It started off organic, but we systematized it."
One of Park's idols is Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records—the record label that spawned an entire sound of R&B/soul throughout the 1960s. "He used to nurture and develop young talents, but he didn't make a system out of it," the JYP boss noted.
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