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K-pop purveyors build bands with multinational flair

Vagaries of fandom and politics force strategic adjustments

Black Pink comprises two South Koreans, a Thai and an Australian of Korean heritage. (Photo courtesy of YG Entertainment)

TOKYO If you turned on a TV in Japan seven years ago, there was a good chance you would see a South Korean pop act gyrating away. The odds of that are lower today.

Chalk it up to changing tastes, new entertainment options or politics, but there is a widespread perception that Japan is over its crush on K-pop. Some might even argue that South Korea's days as a pop culture power are numbered.

The 14,000 people who filled Tokyo's Nippon Budokan to capacity on July 20 would beg to differ.

The judo arena-turned-concert hall, which has hosted everyone from The Beatles to AKB48, that day offered the crowd a peek at the future of hallyu, or the Korean wave. Black Pink, the latest all-girl group to take South Korea by storm, performed for 30 minutes. Technically, the girls are scheduled to make their Japan debut on Aug. 30, but there was already enough buzz to pack the house.

K-pop has lost momentum -- Google search data shows a steep drop-off from the peak of its popularity -- but the strategy behind it is evolving. And the embers of Japanese fandom may yet flare up again.

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BEYOND JAPAN The K-pop boom that erupted in Japan in 2010 paved the way for expansion into other markets, such as China and Southeast Asia, said Lee Kyoung-eun, director of the Japan Business Center of the Korea Creative Content Agency, or KOCCA.

The beginnings of the boom can be traced to two female groups: Girls' Generation and Kara, which both exploded onto the South Korean scene in 2007. They made the leap to Japan in 2010, and a host of other South Korean acts were hot on their heels.

The boom faded almost as quickly as it began, as ties between Seoul and Tokyo soured over territorial and historical disagreements. Since 2012, not a single K-pop act has appeared on Japanese national broadcaster NHK's annual New Year's Eve music show.

Unable to count on Japan, and hit by erratic interest in other Asian countries as well, South Korean entertainment companies sought ways to raise their global profile. One strategy is to scout more foreign talent. "By making members multinational in an effort to foray into markets other than Japan, K-pop has acquired new allure," Lee said.

This approach is not entirely novel: Both Girls' Generation and Kara had U.S.-born members of Korean descent. But the geographic scope of K-pop groups is expanding. Black Pink comprises two South Koreans, a Thai and an Australian of Korean heritage.

YG Entertainment, the talent agency that created the group, holds regular auditions overseas, according to Yoshimi Watanabe, CEO of the company's Japanese arm. This is how it found Lisa, the Thai member, and Rose, the Australian.

YG is not giving up on Japan. "There are several Japanese among YG's trainees," Watanabe said. "They are now undergoing intensive training. So you can look forward to them thriving in the future."

Similarly, S.M. Entertainment, the agency behind Girls' Generation, made a splash in China in 2012 with Exo, a boy band featuring several Chinese members.

But politics are once again complicating matters. This time it is Seoul and Beijing which are at odds over a U.S. missile defense system on South Korean soil. "Some [K-pop] concerts in China were canceled," said KOCCA's Lee.

She still sounds confident, noting that "China is a huge market."

"While the growth of K-pop exports may slow somewhat in the near future, I expect the exports -- not just to China but overall -- will increase," she said.

Entertainment companies keep adding multinational flavor to help make that happen. Last year, S.M. established a group called NCT, which includes members from China and Japan as well as Thailand, the U.S. and Canada.

Southeast Asia is a high priority. KOCCA opened an office in Jakarta last year to expand cultural exports to the region. This is the organization's third Asian branch, after Tokyo and Beijing.

How much does it help to have band members of strategic nationalities? Insiders say it certainly doesn't hurt.

One example is Twice, a female group featuring three Japanese and one Taiwanese alongside five South Koreans. Things are working out well in Japan so far: Fans packed the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium to see their first live show in July.

"In Japan, having three Japanese members helps with publicity," said Yukiyasu Fujii, exclusive manager at Warner Music Japan, though he stressed the group has broad appeal. He said Twice's "Japan Debut Best Album," which was released in 110 markets, topped iTunes rankings in nine: Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Peru.

CHOOSE YOUR IDOL The success of a recent audition TV show also bodes well for K-pop's future.

The program, "Produce 101 Season 2," ran on South Korea's Mnet cable channel from April through June. Over the course of 11 episodes, viewers voting online picked 11 guys out of 101 aspiring singers. Thus the boy band Wanna One was born.

"Produce 101" attracted a global audience, thanks to official videos available online, according to Mayumi Nidaira of the marketing team at CJ E&M Japan -- an arm of the show's South Korean production company. She said there were fans in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi, the U.S., France and South America, in addition to Japan and South Korea.

Only residents of South Korea were eligible to vote, but this did not stop distant fans from influencing the outcome, Nidaira said. "Many overseas fans seem to have asked relatives, or friends studying in the country, to vote for their favorites."

One foreign national made the final cut: Lai Kuan-lin from Taipei. "I think support from those who live overseas played a big part in his selection," Nidaira said.

K-pop continues to reach people online -- not only via YouTube, Twitter and Instagram but also apps like Naver's V Live, which lets users watch idols' personal livestreams. This digital ecosystem can create superstars in an instant.

Yet, K-pop purveyors have yet to rekindle the craze of the early 2010s, and competition with acts from other Asian countries is heating up. So just as they are always searching for talent, K-pop agencies may need to continue adjusting their strategies, too.

Motohiro Shirakura is a former staff writer of Nikkei Entertainment magazine and covered K-pop trends for many years.

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