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Media & Entertainment

Watch out, J-pop and K-pop stars, here comes China

Backed by internet powerhouses, a new wave of idols is set to break

Arashi's announcement that they is taking a break after 2020 shocked fans in Asia. It may give entertainers from South Korea and China a chance to fill the void. (Photo courtesy of Johnny & Associates)

SINGAPORE/TOKYO -- "Arashi will be on indefinite hiatus after 2020!" exclaimed a tweet. Within minutes, Twitter in Asia was flooded with cries of despair from fans of Japanese pop group Arashi, upset that the group, which made its debut almost 20 years ago, has decided to suspend its activities, starting in 2021.

Japan and South Korea have long been the trendsetters in Asia's pop music industry. But with big-name acts stepping offstage in Japan, and a widening sex scandal wrecking the careers of a number of South Korean stars, rising Chinese performers have a chance to grab the spotlight.

Arashi's shock announcement was greeted with surprise across Japan. Even prominent politicians felt compelled to weigh in. "We are all shocked by this news. But as Japan's popular national idols, with a long history, I do not think this means their journey is over," said Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary.

Arashi is a huge force in J-pop. According to Oricon, a market researcher specializing in music, the boy band had CD and DVD sales totaling 10.8 billion yen ($96.8 million at the current exchange rate) in 2017. They were Japan's biggest pop music seller for five straight years.

Although their sales fell to 6.7 billion yen in 2018, when they had no new albums, the group plans to hold 50 concerts this year at the Tokyo Dome and other big venues in Japan. They are expecting to pull in 2.3 million fans in all, which would be a record for Japan's music industry.

The group first played solo overseas in 2006 in Taipei and Seoul. Later they performed in Shanghai and Hawaii. Arashi's concert ticket sales are estimated to exceed 20 billion yen in total, and the group has racked up more than 10 billion yen in subscription fees from fan clubs. Devotees fill hotel rooms near the venues where they appear.

A Singaporean woman, a big fan of Arashi, has visited Japan often to see the boy band live, building up a significant collection of CDs and other merchandise. (Photo by Justina Lee)

"The total loss from Arashi's hiatus will exceed 100 billion yen," said Toshihiro Nagahama, executive chief economist at Tokyo-based Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. That includes foregone revenues from hotels, restaurants, merchandise and TV commercial fees. Coming on the heels of the retirement of female pop sensation Namie Amuro in 2018, who outsold Arashi that year, the mega-idols' pause is a blow to the J-pop scene, not only in Japan but across Asia.

But the J-pop boom appears to be waning. Record companies are struggling to gin up sales online and off, and entertainers from South Korea and China are eager to fill the void.

Until recently, many in the industry predicted K-pop would displace J-pop. K-pop revenue reached 2.9 trillion won ($2.6 billion) in the first half of 2018, up 9.2% from a year earlier, according to Korea Creative Content Agency. South Korea's pop music exports rose 0.9% to $204.2 million during the same period. The agency estimates revenue for the full year reached 6.2 trillion won in 2018, up 7.2% from the previous year and equal to 5.3% of South Korea's content industry sales.

K-pop is also making inroads overseas. Lee Hwa-jeong, an analyst at NH Research Center, noted that K-pop idols are "hitting the U.S. stage," following the success of BTS. "In particular, YouTube plays a key role in globalizing K-pop," she said.

Namie Amuro's pop-up shop in Tokyo attracted many fans after the singer announced her retirement. (Photo by Tetsuo Oshiro)

But South Korea's pop music world has been rocked by scandal of late. Seungri, a former member of popular boy band BigBang, has been accused of procuring prostitutes for customers at a club he owns. Another singer, Jung Joon-young, was arrested on March 21 for shooting videos of women he had sex with without their permission and sharing them online with a chat group that included Seungri.

These incidents have sparked an uproar, with outraged fans demanding that those who took part quit the entertainment industry. Both singers have announced their retirement and are cooperating with police investigations.

The scandal continues to ensnare more artists. Choi Jong-hoon of the rock band FT Island and Junhyung of boy band Highlight have also announced that they will quit the business. Junhyung admitted that he viewed the footage shared by Jung.

Just as pop music giants in Japan and South Korea have hit a rough patch, the Chinese music industry is coming into its own. The market for recorded music is growing rapidly in China and is already one of the world's biggest. In 2017, it expanded 6.7% on the year, reaching sales of around $50 billion, according to a report by the Beijing Municipal Radio and Television Bureau and the Communication University of China.

The business is backed by an ocean of cash from big companies such as Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group Holding, which have the means to attract a growing middle-class audience in Asia with huge spending power.

Tencent, together with JYP China, a subsidiary of JYP Entertainment, formed a six-member boy band called Boy Story last year. The online gaming giant also created an 11-member idol group last year called Rocket Girls 101. Their ticket to fame is "Produce 101," an online TV show based on a South Korean reality talent show of the same name. With nearly 100 million daily active users, Tencent has the reach to create an instant pop music phenomenon. 

In 2016, G.E.M., a Shanghai-born, Hong Kong-based pop singer, was the only Asian woman entertainer to feature in Forbes' "30 Under 30" ranking of influential young people. Last November, she was invited to perform and be a presenter at the Breakthrough Prize, an international award that recognizes significant advances in science. G.E.M. was the first Chinese singer to perform at the ceremony.

For China's up-and-coming pop artists, the curtain has just gone up on the global stage.

Kim Jaewon in Seoul and Akihide Anzai in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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