The Sociological Art World of Korean Pop Music (KPop)

By Danielle Rosenberger

This paper was for the Robert Cook Honor’s College Core Unit C, which was taught be Dr. Vaccaro.  It is a class where the main focus was on the critical thinking question “how do we define Art?” through the lens of  Sociology.  The class explored different genres of art and attempted to to explain them through the sociologist Howard Becker’s concept of an “art world.”  We discussed why some works were considered art and others were not as well as certain predictable patterns of behaviors that occur within art worlds.  The course made me think more about why people act in different ways, and it was very interesting.

An art world contains all the necessary elements to create works of art in a certain area of expertise.  The main elements associated with an art world are collaborators, conventions, resources, distribution, and judgement.  One such art world is that of pop music, which has all the necessary components.  Pop music emerged within the first half of the twentieth century; however, Korea had many tragic events that occurred during the same time.  The Korean War, military administrations, Japanese colonization as well as other events created a very painful period for Koreans.  Thus the pop music industry sprouted late in the country and only began with full strength during the early 1990s.  Seo Taiji and The Boys initiated the Korean pop renaissance by combining elements of Eastern and Western music as well as incorporating dance.  Since their songs gained immense popularity, companies saw pop music as a goldmine.  The companies then made “copies” of that group in order to secure large profits.  This became the creation formula for new idols–using the style of the ‘90s idols–and it is still used today.  Pop music evolved into an industry that focuses more on profits than the actual “art” aspect.  Mass production slowly strangled unique artistic expression.

Rules and standards followed by those within an art world are known as conventions.  Each art world uses conventions to create artwork, but the pop music industry takes the pursuit of these guidelines to an extreme.  Even though Korean pop music is slowly evolving to reflect current pop culture, most ideas are reused for a lot of the groups.  Promotional strategies, unique haircuts, fashion, and choreography get passed down from one generation of idols to the next.  Fashion and haircuts have not remained the same, but previous stars became a model that new stars follow almost exactly.  There is also a template for promotional success which consists of a lead single in hip-hop style accompanied by a dance-song or ballad.  Korean pop groups tend to follow this guide too closely, as if it were a religion.  Taiji planted the roots for Kpop, and each idol that comes after kept the beginning ideas to incorporate into future work.


Kpop has grown into such a success with the help of major music companies.  S.M. Entertainment, J.Y.P Entertainment, and Y.G. Entertainment are the three most famous Korean record corporations known as the “big three”.  The most successful company is S.M. Entertainment which was founded in roughly 1989 and slowly rose to the top.  Lee Soo-man once did many activities in the music scene, but he was really suited for business and thus created a music company with his initials, S.M. Entertainment.  Since its founding, the company strived to create songs that would make the most money.  This meant that all the songs came out essentially the same.  After years of being in business Lee accumulated information to create the ultimate production formula of Korean pop music.  Each song almost always ends up making the Top 40 list in Korea.

S.M. Entertainment maintains a rather strict regimen for all of their pop stars.  Each idol group receives lessons in a variety of areas, but the company made them into a sort of boot-camp for music training.  Vocal lessons are meant to ensure the idol has the best sound possible.  Dance lessons teach stars how to move for music videos and live performances.  Choreography assigns a specific dance routine to each individual song, and sometimes the idol meets with more than one choreographer.  Lessons on how to speak towards a camera and how to approach individuals are also part of the program.  Language lessons are included as well since the company is global.  In addition, if S.M. thinks that any idol has a flaw, then extra work must be put in to make them as perfect as possible.  The company has morphed music into somewhat of a science to ensure the highest attainable payout.


S.M. Entertainment has become an immensely profitable corporation.  By using a specific model for the production of all songs the company pretty much guarantees that each one will be good if not a hit.  In pop music in general as well as Korean pop, conventions are almost never broken in the industry.  Similarity sells to the public consumer.  S.M. Entertainment has made this its primary objective all the way down to controlling the smallest detail.  The company is constantly gaining profits because it perfected a musical formula and continues to mass produce music.

The breakthrough of Taiji’s group caused Korean pop music to become increasingly popular within Korea.  Within ten years, this music began to spread beyond the borders and gain more popularity internationally.  One of the first countries to experience Kpop was Japan.  Japan loved Korean pop so much that Japanese pop was soon created.  Many Kpop stars moved their

song making to Japan as well around 2000.  Japan has become a major contributor in song production and in selling Korean products.  Since then Kpop has continued to spread across the world with help from the internet.  In 2012 idols had shows as far away as Paris, and then Gangnam Style appeared.  The birth of Psy, the artist of the song, created a tremendous increase in popularity for Korean pop music.  His song reached Number 2 on the American Top 100 list, and became one of the most viewed music videos on Youtube.  As a result of their popularity, fanbases for idol groups emerged and spread throughout the world as well.  This made Kpop spread faster and more effectively because the fans were able to translate the songs into other languages soKpop3 it could be understood by more people.

Korean pop music reached a global popularity most likely due to the internet.  People from all over the world were able to see music videos and listen to the songs digitally.  In recent years more has been distributed through the digital world than that of the physical world.  Within the last few years S.M. Entertainment saw their digital sales rise above physical sales.  However, prices were cut by online providers which resulted in lost revenue for the company.  Idols then began to look for different opportunities to make up for the loss.  Some made Television appearances, advertised products, and went in musicals to gain extra publicity and money.  The internet may be a very convenient and easy way to distribute the music, but there is a cost to companies.

Since Korean pop has spread across the globe, music companies made connections with many other countries.  S.M. Entertainment has established itself in Japan as well as other locations.  Different collaborators are now accessible from Korea.  Collaborators are the people in the art world who contribute to the production of a piece of art, and there are three main subdivisions.  Artists have the talent or idea to create something and in this case that would most likely be the songwriters.  Technicians help put the work together, but they have less influence on the creation.  Support– singers in pop music–includes the people who bring the art to life, but they usually have little to no influence on the art.  About four hundred songwriters are used to create new Kpop songs through S.M.  The company samples several thousand songs before deciding which ones to use.  Singers all over the world attempt to break into the Korean pop scene to achieve fame.  Hundreds of thousands of applicants apply for the next spot on a Kpop idol group every year.  Those potential artists come from nine different countries, and thus make the company take global auditions.  By expanding globally, S.M. Entertainment and others secured a higher amount of people to work with.  Efficient collaboration requires the people to have different skill sets.  Collaborators limit or enable the quality of the creation with what they are capable of doing.

Resources are the materials and personnel used to create a piece of art.  Material resources for pop music include paper and pencils to write the songs, equipment to record singers, as well as a company (such as S.M.) to produce the music.  In my opinion, singers are personnel resources more than collaborators.  Especially in Korea, they have no actual say in how songs get produced, and are constantly told how to act by the companies.  Resources within the art world limit the diversity of sound in different songs because there are only a certain variety of instruments and chord progressions that can be used.  However, there is always the possibility of making something beautiful.

Judgment of Korean pop music has mostly consisted of consumers opinions of the songs.  Companies usually gathered information on which songs were listened to and purchased the most.  This system mostly used sales and online viewing data to assess popularity.  The data was added into the formula for hit songs.  Producers then chose which new songs would succeed in the industry, only promoting what they thought would sell based on the gathered information.  Koreans had been the primary judges of what was popular.  Then once the music spread to different countries, the verdict shifted to a more global platform.  However, some people of the Western Hemisphere see Kpop music as too rigid.  This may bring changes to the Korean pop industry.

By controlling every aspect of the music and making the songs very similar, companies are able to effectively manufacture many new songs in a short amount of time.  As a business model this is perfect to sell the most products possible.  But because everything is controlled, no room exists for individuality or expression.  The actual creative “art” aspect has been wiped out of the equation.  How can the industry revitalize creativity and expression?  I believe that some of the power should be taken away from executives. Companies should not assign a formula to art, singers and actual artists are the ones that make something unique and beautiful.  Giving more freedom to the idols to create more unique pieces might result in a rebirth of pop music.

Pop music, specifically Korean pop, is dominated by major producing companies that only care about profit.   Their need for mass production removed the possibilities for unique music.  Singers, who originally had a larger role in creating songs, no longer have much influence.  S.M. Entertainment perfected a formula to create the most amount of top songs in a short amount of time, and the music is now distributed worldwide.  Korean pop should be given more freedom for expression and creativity, but I do not think this is possible when companies control the industry and an obsession with money manipulates their actions.




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