Indonesian Marcia Tianadi started listening to South Korean pop music last November after being introduced to the genre known as “K-pop” by a friend.
The 20-year-old finance student, who doesn’t understand the South Korean language, now listens to K-pop more than any other type of music including Western pop, which used to be her favorite.
Despite the release of English versions of several K-pop songs, Tianadi says she prefers the Korean version even though she doesn’t understand most of the lyrics.
She is one of millions of K-pop fans around the world who aren’t letting a language barrier stand in the way of consuming what is becoming a major global powerhouse in the music scene.
With their synthesized bubble-gum pop sound, flashy outfits and video art, K-pop groups such as Girls’ Generation, Big Bang and 2NE1 are carefully-selected, slickly-produced acts that can feature as many as 17 members.
These “manufactured” girl and boy bands are creating a frenzy among their young fans by selling out concerts within minutes worldwide, breaking through billboard music charts and even being featured on postage stamps in Korea.
The industry’s revenues hit about $3.4 billion in 2011, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), a government group that promotes the country’s cultural initiatives. K-pop’s exports also rose to $180 million last year — jumping 112 percent compared to 2010. Exports have been growing on an average annual rate of nearly 80 percent since 2007.
Sun Jung, Research Fellow at National University of Singapore (NUS), who’s been studying the emergence of Korean culture in Asia since 2003, says it’s no surprise the K-pop phenomenon is growing so rapidly globally, because social media has made the music more accessible.
“People can share, distribute and consume foreign pop cultures much more easily these days,” Jung said. “It’s very significant how Korean language K-pop is popular somewhere like South America and European countries. Internet and social media technology kind of enhance those flows.”
Online social networks are the biggest medium that K-pop fans around the world use to follow their favorite bands. According to a report by YouTube, K-Pop video clips were viewed nearly 2.3 billion times in 235 countries in 2011. The views have jumped three-fold since 2010.
K-pop fan Daren Ng, 26, says he first discovered the genre on YouTube four years ago and then started downloading the music and attending concerts.
Ng, who’s Singaporean and doesn’t speak Korean, says watching the videos online makes it easier to understand the songs.
“Sometimes it’s the rhythm that’s nice and sometimes you watch the video and it makes sense,” Ng said. “Sometimes there are translations, also they’ve got captions.”
Seoul based Sean Yang, CEO of music service provider Soribada which started distributing K-pop to iTunes and Amazon three years ago, says demand for the music really started picking up last year.
“If you look at the past six months, K-pop sales in iTunes have tripled,” Yang said. “We’re seeing very rapid growth recently.”
K-pop’s similarities to American pop, hip hop, R&B and European electronic music genres makes it more appealing to Western audiences as the bands start to target global audiences, according to NUS’s Jung.
“It actually is rooted in the Western pop genre, but at the same time the Korean pop industry brought that Western pop element into Korea and localized and made it something unique by mixing it with other elements,” she said.
The executive manager of one of South Korea’s biggest K-pop production companies, who wished to remain anonymous, says producers try to recruit international artists to broaden their fan base.
“There’s a Thai guy in 2PM, he’s really popular in Thailand. We have other nationalities practicing on the road,” the former musician said. “Lately we’ve been recording in English, Korean and Japanese for them, we really try to release one for every market.”
Thai native Tan Somboonsub, 31, who’s been following Korean television dramas and music for the past 10 years, says the K-pop sound has transformed in the past decade.
“The rhythm, the sound — there’s a lot more sound engineering involved,” Somboonsub, who performs K-pop songs, said.
Dance routines by groups like nine-member Girls’ Generation, is also a big hit among fans. Somboonsub says she’s visited Seoul to watch the weekend “street dance” by thousands to choreographed K-pop songs. Internationally, dance studios in Singapore for example offer classes that teach K-pop moves.
On the economic front, K-pop’s growth abroad is proving to live up to South Korea’s reputation as a top global exporter.
Choon Keun Lee, General Director at KOCCA says K-pop exports are having a positive effect in increasing the overall exports of consumer goods.
“It has been researched that for every $100 of K-Pop exports, there was an average increase of $395 worth of I.T. goods such as cell phones or electronics that were being exported,” Lee said.
“K-Pop is becoming an iconic representation of Korea, along with mobile phones and Internet technology.”
By CNBC's Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani