Rapper Psy captured the worldwide fame with over 1 billion people listening to his dance hit "Gangnam Style" on YouTube. Everyone was surprised by the global success of a chubby man in his 30s, who does not fit the sleekly doctored image of most K-pop stars.
But Yang Hyun-suk (43), the CEO of Psy's management company YG Entertainment, had faith. Yang says he has targeted the global market since he opened YG Entertainment back in 1997. "Psy's success?" asks Yang. "The door we've been knocking on has finally opened."
Yang himself is a pop icon in Korea. He got his start with the group Seo Tai-ji & Boys, which transformed the landscape of Korean pop music in the 1990s and later opened his own talent agency, whose artists are now making inroads into the W23 trillion (US$1=W1,069) global music industry.
According to Billboard, YG and Psy made at least W15 billion in advertising and song rights. But the achievements go far beyond money. YG spread K-pop around the world, boosting Korea's brand value and generating so-called economic effects worth W1 trillion.
Other popular singers and dance groups in YG Entertainment's stables are Epik High, Big Bang and 2NE1. YG's main line of business comes from the rights to their songs and generate added value by staging performances and from merchandise. It made W110 billion in revenues last year, putting it among Korea's top three talent companies along with SM and JYP Entertainment.
The company targets the global stage, especially the U.S. and Japan, which account for more than half of the global market for music. The manufactured bands Big Bang and 2NE1 gave sold-out concerts around the world last year, drawing more than a million people. Lee Hi, a young singer who was spotted by YG Entertainment at a talent contest, has been called Korea's own version of Adele.
Yang doubts K-pop can keep up the momentum. "They say K-pop is all the rage, but not all Korean songs are popular," he said. "Only good singers and good performers survive."
YG has joined hands with Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Card and other companies in various ventures. "If you fuse creativity with organizational power, you end up becoming a formidable force," Yang said. He recently partnered with Cheil Industries, the Samsung Group's fashion subsidiary, to launch a new fashion brand targeting the global market. Yang said he hopes to boost the Natural Nine line into a top brand by involving Big Bang and 2NE1 in the design process and having them wear the clothes on stage.
What are his goals this year? "To be honest, my goal just three years ago was to rise to the top of the Korean music industry," he said. "But now that goal has changed to the global music industry. I have become more confident. I've seen the doors open to a market that had seemed impenetrable. Now we have to aim for the top."