Back in the 90s, it looked inevitable that J-pop would break into mainstream western charts. The catchy songs and slick production of Utada Hikaru, Yaida Hitomi, and Shiina Ringo, as well as the visual impact of bands like Dir En Grey or L’Arc En Ciel made it seem like only a matter of time before one of them made it big. At the time, I was working for EMI so I was able to listen to the CDs and it was clear that J-pop now had a quality that would work on the international stage, and I kept an eye on the industry magazines looking for the first signs of a breakthrough.
Of course, nothing happened. A few singles were released and a few tours were arranged but Japanese acts didn’t seem to have a desire for, or an understanding of, the European market. For example, Yaida Hitomi turned her pop-punk anthem My Sweet Darling into a jazz funk workout and it barely scraped the top 50. Considering that everyone I played it to loved the original, I still wonder what she was thinking.
Even the singer who most understood the West, Utada Hikaru, couldn’t translate her success in Japan to success in America. Perhaps the problem being that she was so busy with Japan that she couldn’t follow-up her first (moderately successful) US album until four years later. Nobody who was seriously trying to break the US market would leave that kind of gap between releases, no matter how famous they were somewhere else.
I’m not saying there were no successful Japanese acts in the West (Shonen Knife and Pizzicato Five spring to mind) but there was nothing like the impact that some people were expecting. For several years, J-pop was going to be the next big thing, but no artist was able to deliver the breakthrough single to start it all off.
The South Sea Bubble, meanwhile, was a stock company in the 1700s that raised its stock value by speculating on the value of its potential trade in the New World. Its stock price rose and rose, despite it not having any real collateral, until it collapsed, taking many people's fortunes with it. In many ways, it’s a template for all future stock booms/collapses. It’s a classic model of expectation of success fuelled by the promise of future return on your investment.
Which brings me to K-pop and the news that, in 2011 so far, a staggering 27 girl bands have debuted. That’s insane. And a little worrying. Given the estimated cost of running a K-pop band, I wonder how sustainable that is, when you consider that K-pop artists are yet to even try to break into the West. While the East Asian market is big, K-pop can’t expand forever without finding new markets.
Of course, it’s different now with the internet allowing artists to promote worldwide much more easily, without the need to be physically present in the country you’re focusing on. In the past, breaking the US market meant a gruelling tour schedule which has defeated many artists from the UK who perhaps didn’t appreciate the amount of work they’d have to put in.
But despite these changes, I can’t stop thinking that all this buzz and hype about K-pop looks very familiar. The recent K-pop concerts in Paris are a good sign, but bear in mind that both GACKT and Miyavi have had successful European tours recently, and you couldn’t call them famous in the West. How to translate YouTube hits into people paying money for your album is a tricky situation to handle.
I hope they succeed because there are definitely Korean pop bands who deserve a wider stage. And I recognise that the Korean music industry is trying to do something that no one has tried before: to really use the internet as a promotional tool in a territory long before an act has performed there. But unless something happens soon, I wonder how long K-pop can sustain itself by speculating on the potential value of its trade with Europe and America.