Google’s fun Earth Engine lets you look at maps of the world going back nearly 30 years, so you can see how an area has changed over time. Usually, the resolution isn’t good enough to turn up much of anything, but one area it works pretty well is with reclaimed land along coastlines. And between Songdo in Incheon and Saemangeum in Jeolla Province, Korea has a couple of big reclamation projects going on. So I checked them out on the Earth Engine to see how they looked.
Here is Songdo, the new “international business city” being built southwest of Seoul, close to the Incheon airport:
Saemangeum is even bigger, with around 400 square kilometers eventually to be reclaimed from the sea (or so I read). I don’t know how much they’ve done so far, but it is fascinating to watch, along with the building of that huge sea wall:
My new article about K-pop and Korean economics is out in the latest issue of the Milken Review. It was fun writing something longer and more serious than the usual K-pop feature, letting me flex some different writing and thinking muscles.
So far, it looks like the article is getting some good feedback, too, getting mentions in Forbes, Kpopstarz, and elsewhere. I’ll try to add more links as I run across them.
One of my bigger arguments in Pop Goes Korea was that the Korean Wave was not really about Korea at all; it was actually about globalization. The amazing success Korea has had in media and entertainment over the past 10-15 years was not because Korea was unique and different as much as it was because Korea has ahead of the curve.
Korea was at the forefront of the Internet revolution, and many of the changes that online has wrought came to Korea first (or at least quicker and more dramatically). Music, for example — online/digital sales in Korea have surpassed physical sales (CDs, etc.) since at least 2004.
But, the thing is, those changes are increasingly affecting the rest of the world now. With music now, $5.6 billion is spent globally on digital music (that’s about 34% of all music revenue), with digital exceeding physical sales in Sweden, Norway, India, and the United States, and much of the rest of the world is catching up.
Which brings me to Turkey and Turkish television. I wrote about Turkish soaps in 2010, but they have just continued to grow in popularity since then, earning $90 million in exports last year, up from just $1 million in 2007. They have found big fans throughout Central Asia, the Balkans, the Arab World and even Latin America. And what’s driving that success? Good production values and stories, as well as the need for more content — cable/satellite TV means more channels, and those channels need something to fill the void. Turkish producers have done their best to fill it.
One of Turkey’s most popular TV shows, Magnificent Century (or “Muhteşem Yüzyıl”).
And it is not just Turkey. In Eastern Europe, the growth of pay-TV (now an $8.3 billion market) has also created more demand, leading producers to emulate Russian, Scandinavian, and other content.
With the success of Turkish soft power, predictably, has come a backlash, with many countries banning Turkish soaps. While cultural protectionism is a common issue all over the world (at least when a country is importing culture … exporters tend to be much more open-minded), I do think a lot of journalists oversell the issue. As one wrote:
Remember, the Turks did not feel they should be a satellite state of Brazil just because they so dearly loved Brazilian soap operas in the 1980s and 1990s. Nor did the Arabs begin to love the Americans/America because they had a habit of watching more Hollywood films (than Turkish soaps).
On the other hand (if I may undercut my own argument), when you look at the IFPI’s international music numbers, local sales are still overwhelmingly important in most markets. But I don’t think that is terribly surprising. Exports are more of an issue in capital-intensive forms of media, like TV or movies. When you go to the big international content markets (film, TV, music, or whatever), you are increasingly seeing an international presence selling content, not just buying. It’s still the early phases of the new media world we are growing into, but I’m still encouraged by what I am seeing.
A few days ago, Annie Ko of the band Love X Stereo, wrote a column in the Guardian about her favorite Seoul-related songs. It’s a pretty good list, too, and includes Cho Yong-pil’s “Seoul Seoul Seoul,” He6′s “Come On Baby,” and Lee Sangeun’s “Secret Garden” (not to mention smartly adding her own “Soul City”).
So that got me thinking about other Seoul-related songs. Of course, Byul.org put together a CD last year featuring indie bands singing about Seoul, called Seoul Seoul Seoul (I assume in reference to the Cho Yong-pil song).
But, to be honest, most of those songs did not excite me terribly much. I guess it is hard to write songs about a city (even if Jay-Z makes it look easy). What other Seoul-related songs are there?
There’s Yang Hee-eun’s “Road to Seoul”:
And Yang Byung-jib’s “Seoul Sky 1″ (a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “New York Town” that starts this video) and “Seoul Sky 2″ (a cover of Phil Ochs’ “Lou Marsh”, at 21:17):
Add4′s “Seoul Square” (starting at 05:00):
And I supposed you could include Neon Bunny’s entire album Seoulight, if only because of its name (and because it is so catchy). Here’s “Falling” from that album:
I’m sure there’s plenty more that I’m missing, but those are some pretty good ones.
UPDATE: Okay, I suck — I totally forgot about Hyeuni’s “Third Han River Bridge.” One of the most iconic Seoul songs of all time. HA!
Not sure why this took me so long, but at last I have imported all of Korea Pop Wars, my first blog, into this current site. I guess that does not help much with old incoming links to KPW, but at least it makes all that information more easily available for people who read my little website.
It is kind of fun looking at those old posts. After all, I started the last blog in 2006, during perhaps Korea’s best movie year ever. So you had posts like this box office update, when there were zero Hollywood films in the top 10 — seriously, there were eight Korean films, one Japanese movie, and a Spanish film. And here is a post about the Korean country singer (and friend) Jimmy Lee Jones. Last I checked, Jimmy is still going strong, with his bar down in Daejeon.
Anyhow, if you were looking for my old posts about movies or music or whatever, hopefully they will be easier to find now.
I was just checking out the lineup of musicians and acts playing at this year’s SXSW in Texas and was really amazed by the Korea presence this year — 10 Korean artists, not including Korean-American musicians. In 2010, I think there was just one.
There is also Far East Movement, with the Korean-American quotient. And, of course, there are plenty of other Asian acts, from Japan and around the continent.
The important thing, imho, is how Korean groups are increasingly getting out of Korea and playing around the world. That sort of exposure — exposing the bands to new audience and exposing new audiences and acts to the bands — is so important to developing the Korea scene. That sort of thing is a big part of what made Korean movies so good, 15 or 20 years ago. It’s great to see music doing the same.
Anyhow, Galaxy Express played at SXSW last year, too, when they scores a pretty cool mention in the New York Times. And once again, they will be going on a tour after the festival, hitting 25 shows in a dozen states (or so says their Facebook page). I’ll post the full schedule once I hear about it.
I just came across this Daehan News feature about South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan visiting Canada in 1982 and thought some people might get a kick out of it.
Chun, of course, came to power in 1980 (officially), following the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979 and the short-lived presidency of Choi Kyu-ha. It was a pretty dicey time for North-South relations, so Chun probably needed all the legitimacy he could find.
There’s a short New York Times article on his visit here.
Just to give an overview of this video:
0:00 – Leaves African leg of his trip
0:05 – Ottawa and Parliament buildings (“Canada is a peaceful country,” says the narrator)
0:31 – Chun Doo-hwan and his wife Rhee Soon-ja disembark their plane. Greeted by Edward Shreyer
1:13 – Rideau Hall for official reception
1:31 – Prime Minister’s residence for some garden party
2:01 – Choppers to Montreal to meet with Korean War veterans
2:45 – Back to Ottawa for an awkward-looking meeting with Pierre Trudeau
Not mentioned in the video (unsurprisingly) is the assassination plot to kill Chun during his visit. Choi Jung-hwa, a son of the International Taekwondo Federation founder and North Korea-friendly Choi Hong-hi, had been living in Mississauga at the time. The younger Choi allegedly tried hiring a couple of people to kill Chun while the South Korean president was in Canada. But apparently that plot was broken up months before the visit — Choi went into hiding in Europe for years before returning to Canada and spending a year in jail.
There’s more about Choi and his return to Korea in the JoongAng Daily, including the great news that North Korea disguised its agents as taekwondo masters working for ITF and dispatched them abroad. Given that I studied taekwondo at an ITF gym while in high school, it makes me wonder if I could be a sleeper agent.
Last year was a great one for Korean pop music, but it was also excellent for indie music and other non-pop stuff in Korea. I only spent a couple of weeks in Korea this year, but it was clear from the shows I went to and people I talked with how vibrant the scene is these days (not to mention the music I downloaded and listened to). Back in 2008, when I started the Korea Gig Guide, I had this feeling that the indie scene was growing and getting stronger, like it was in the late 1990s. These days it is stronger still, continuing to grow bigger and more interesting.
Sadly, though, I don’t have a big list of my favorite new releases. For yet another year, I focused my energies in older Korean music, thanks to a huge batch of old records a friend digitized for me. I’m pretty proud of my collection of Korean rock, folk, and pop from the 1960s and ’70s now (thanks mysterious friend!). A related highlight of my year was meeting the great singer Kim Choo-ja. She and her husband nicely opened their home to me, and so I was able to absorb several hours of stories and good stuff.
As for new releases, the best of the year was probably Jambinai’s first full-length release, Différance (iTunes, Amazon). While not a fan of their more hardcore-tinged experiments with electric guitar, their core sound — driving postrock played on Korean traditional instruments — was as great as ever.
There was plenty of fun electro-based music last year, such as Glen Check (I particularly liked the single “84″) and Neon Bunny (her new EP Happy End was all quite fun). Love X Stereo is pretty good, too.
I am not a huge Telepathy fan, but their new version of “Flying White Pillow,” recorded for Fred Perry, was really intriguing, showing signs of growing into something more (a live show I saw of theirs in May backed up that impression).
And there were new released by 3rd Line Butterfly, Galaxy Express, and other big names.
But, as I said, I spent more time listening to old music, so I’m sure I missed a lot.
One of the coolest stories in 2012 was definitely Busker Busker, the Cheonan trio that appeared on an American Idol-esque TV music contest and somehow overcame all the producers’ preconceived notions of how the program was supposed to run, becoming perhaps the most popular group of the year. Yes, K-pop still dominates Korea, but the success of Busker Busker — a real band, playing real music — was one of the brightest rays of sunlight to shine through the bubblegum clouds in a long time.
(Not that there is anything wrong with bubblegum … I just value diversity).
Much more authoritative than my opinions, though, are the smart folks at Weiv, Korea’s longtime online music publication. They have put together another solid (and eclectic) list of the year’s top Korean music:
There have been a lot of ups and downs for the Korean film industry over the years, but 2012 was the biggest up ever, on so many levels. Just looking at the numbers (courtesy of KOBIS):
Total admissions: 195 million (old record was 160 million, 2011)
Total box office: 1.45 trillion won, or $1.36 billion (old record was 1.26 trillion, 2011)
Korean films: 58.8% (2nd best in decades, maybe ever)
Korean admissions: 114.5 million (old record was 91.7 million, 2006)
Korean box office: 835.5 billion won (old record was 613.7 billion, 2011)
In addition, 32 Korean films pulled in more than 1 million admissions (the old threshold for being considered successful … although, admittedly, that seems a bit low these days). Nine Korean films topped 4 million admissions, three topped 6 million, and two (The Thieves and Masquerade) topped 12 million.
Just to give you some perspective, before 1999′s Shiri, no Korean movie had ever pulled in more than 4 million admissions. Shiri blew away the records then, with 6.2 million admissions, but today that is not enough to crack the top-20.
Those aren’t the officials numbers, btw. Just my quick look at KOBIS. But clearly 2012 was pretty freakin’ incredible for Korean movies, especially for someone who first traveled to Korea in 1996 when the movie industry was in shambles financially (when they made 23% of a 203 billion box office).
Obviously this has been a big year for Korean music, thanks to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” becoming the biggest song ever on Youtube and surpassing 1 billion views. And like any uber-popular sensation, people’s enjoyment of the song moved inversely with its ubiquity.
But even without Psy, it would have been a pretty notable year for K-pop, as YG, SM, and JYP and pushed harder (and, arguably, more successfully) than ever into the United States and the West. SNSD appeared on Letterman. Big Bang sold out shows (and won critical praise) in the US, Peru, Britain, and all over Asia. G-Dragon’s “Crayon” got plenty of notice by pop critics (one New York Times critic named it a top song of the year … and the song won Pop Dust’s Song of the Year poll). Choe Sang-hun and I had a 1,500-word feature on K-pop in the New York Times back in March, long before Psy’s hit had dropped, and since then there have been oodles of stories in all your major media.
Despite the endless ink spilled (and pixels illuminated) over K-pop, I think most of the media still has not really wrapped their collective heads around “what it all means”. One common bit of idiocy has been the idea that K-pop has somehow “failed” because no one was able to follow up Psy’s “Gangnam Style” with another chart-topper. Talk about missing the point — as if this musical age is all about Billboard and chart rankings.
If you want a symbol for the year in music, it may well have been Grimes, the 24-year-old Canadian electronic artist. “Oblivion” was widely regarded as one of the top songs of the year, even though it never spent much time on any charts and has only 4 million Youtube hits. Grimes has been quite clear, though, about the influence K-pop and J-pop have had on her music. As she wrote in NME recently:
It’s the insane art direction in K-pop music videos that got me addicted to it. I like the misguided appropriation of western pop tropes in the videos – because they’ve got it wrong, it’s kind of better.
I mean, check out her video to “Genesis” — aside from the budget, it could be the latest 2NE1 video:
And then just to make things really scrambled, Dan Deacon mashed up “Oblivion” and “Gangnam Style” to create “Gangrimes Style.” Quite catchy, too:
Anyhow, the point is to ask what people mean when they talk about K-pop (or any music genre) succeeding. K-pop draws plenty of fans to its shows. It sells in its niches. It draws on pop influences from around the world and influences the world in turn (here’s a story on K-pop in Chile). That’s really not terribly different than dubstep or EDM in general. That’s the world of music today, full of cross-references and cross-fertilization, without any one act dominating the way U2 or Coldplay or Janet Jackson once did.
Could K-pop go mainstream in 2013? Anything is possible, but I would argue that it doesn’t need mainstream success to be considered successful. Would anyone argue that Korean movies have not been successful over the past 15 years? And yet no Korean movie has made significant money at the US box office — save D-War (with about $11 million), the “Gangnam Style” of Korean movies.
Aside from K-pop, it has been a good year for Korean music in general. It seems like there are ever more electronic-based indie bands, pumping out catchy, fun music (Love X Stereo, Glen Check, Telepathy, Neon Bunny), postrock (Apollo 18, Bulssazo), twee rock, folk, hard rock, traditional-modern hybrids (Surisuri Mahasuri, Jambinai), just plain weird (EE, Mukimukimanmansu), and more. Apollo 18 had two successful tours of North America. Galaxy Express was the first band pictured on this year’s New York Times feature on SXSW. If there is a fertile area in which Korean music could really grow in 2013, I suspect these non-pop genres have more potential.
Anyhow, it should be a fun year. That’s so much to look forward to.
Pop Goes Korea: Behind the Revolution in Movies, Music and Internet Culture is the only English-language book to examine the whole of Korea's entertainment industry and how it became such a powerhouse over the past 15 years. With profiles of many of Korea's top stars (including Lee Byung-hun and Rain), Pop Goes Korea features chapters on movies, music, television, comic books, the Internet, and more.
What the Critics Are Saying
Wall Street Journal:
"Mr. Russell's book is the first by a non-Korean to explain the rise of Korea's entertainment industries. With lots of pictures, lists (top TV shows, most expensive movies, worst flops) and sidebar articles, the book could hardly be more approachable."
London Korea Links:
"...a lively description of the industry and infrastructure which makes the creation and enjoyment of these stars possible."
"Five stars out of five"
"The book reveals not only the challenges of Korean pop culture but also triumphs and feats in entertainment and arts with poignant analysis and anecdotes to help the industry move in a better direction. "
To buy your own copy of Pop Goes Korea, you can check out these websites: