Once with almost no international recognition, Korean popular culture has come a long way so far. Possessing its own distinctive color, K-pop now enjoys a great popularity, both international and domestic. The sensation caused by Psy’s “Gangnam Style” effectively illustrates the phenomenon (Korean Wave). Such success was largely backed by the unique model of the Korean pop culture industry.
Korean pop culture industry has a somewhat unusual market structure. It is dominated by a few large companies with elevated market power. Companies like S.M. Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment lead the industry in an oligopolistic fashion, dealing with practically all aspects and genres of the popular culture, from tour management to TV series production. They are hence relatively more comprehensive and influential than record label companies in the West. Most major idol singers and actors belong to these companies.
Hidden beneath the brilliant success of K-pop, however, there lay numerous problems concerning the oligopolistic structure of the industry. Thus, we must avoid complacency in the current glory. Of course, it may seem neither possible, nor beneficial, to completely disrupt the current structure. Nevertheless, we must reflect upon the potential problems and envision appropriate solutions.
To begin, the de facto oligopoly of the K-pop market may reduce the diversity of cultural content. Although different companies endeavor to develop and diversify their distinguished styles, they are largely limited and already fixed, lacking originality. In fact, the current structure may kill off diversity. Artists are molded into the companies respective standards, and the potential of more creative styles is given up. Moreover, the big companies all have one common agenda; they want content that they can sell. Consequently, diversity could be limited. Originality and other artistic values may be neglected at the benefit of content that offers immediate, but superficial pleasure. Artists may not be heard by the public at all if they do not fit the standards of large companies, regardless of their potential.
In addition, the current structure of the K-pop market may inhibit progress in the quality of cultural content. Big companies flood the screen and radio with their stars, employing their significant influence and well-established ties to the major networks. Consequently, the oligopolistic market lacks competition. It is very difficult for new entertainment companies or independent artists to find a place in the K-pop market. They often fade away without having been heard or seen much by the public. This may result in the complacency of the big companies and the stagnation in quality of content. Under the current structure, one is not able to succeed solely with their quality content, and the established oligopoly assures its leaders an easy profit. There is no sufficient incentive for competing over the quality of content.
Fortunately, the public has grown sensible of these problems. Although people still enjoy the entertainment provided by big companies, they also want something new that they have not seen so far. The recent popularity of audition programs can be emblematic of the public s new stand. These programs gave independent artists the chance to be heard, and the public reacted with excitement. The public wants greater diversity and more original quality of cultural content, and we must try to solve the problems of the current oligopolistic market structure for further progress of K-pop.
In order to do so, we must start thinking outside the box of big companies, and know why the current model persists. One reason is that there is not enough support for young pop artists with potential. Under the current education system of Korea, there are not many ways to continually develop one s talent in popular culture and succeed. The easiest way of succeeding as a K-pop star today is signing up with entertainment companies from an early age and following their training program. Hence we must think of other measures to support young K-pop talent, providing youngsters with the opportunity to find their unique styles. As for the market structure itself, the government should ensure transparent, fair trade between the networks and big companies, with support for the minor, new players. Through these measures, we may envision a bright future for Hallyu.