August 10, 2017 10:00 am JST

Asian music sensations break the sound barrier

Diverse stars reach across borders and give K-pop a run for its money

JUSTINA LEE, Nikkei staff writer

Malaysian singer Yuna has drawn comparisons to Adele and Sade. © Getty Images

Move over, K-pop. South Korea has been a dominant force in Asian entertainment for about a decade, but a powerful combination of economic development and social media is changing the game. From Southeast Asia to China, other countries are producing new stars with diverse backgrounds and musical styles. These up-and-coming artists are striking a chord with the region's growing middle class -- and audiophiles on more distant shores.

SINGAPORE It was a night 200 music fans in Kuala Lumpur will not soon forget. In an intimate, one-night-only concert arranged by Uber on July 29, indie pop sensation Yuna showed off the voice that is elevating her into the company of one-named icons.

The Malaysian-born singer's rhythm and blues style, delivered in a blend of Malay and English, has been compared to Adele. Billboard likened the 30-year-old to Sade, the Nigerian-British singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the 1980s and has sold more than 50 million records.

Last year, Yuna's latest album "Chapters" made Billboard's Top 10 Critics' Choice list for R&B, alongside the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna.

As Yuna gets noticed in the West, her star burns ever brighter back in Asia. Uniqlo, the ubiquitous Japanese casualwear brand, made her the face of its Muslim fashion collection.

In the past, Asian artists typically relied on exposure in traditional media, such as magazines and TV. Promotional efforts focused on their home markets, and sometimes other Asian countries.

But social media and platforms like YouTube have given them new avenues to showcase their talent and connect with far more potential fans. At the same time, the emergence of Asian economies has pushed up disposable incomes, fueling demand for a wider variety of entertainment -- beyond the South Korean pop that took over the airwaves about a decade ago.

Yuna -- her full name is Yunalis Mat Zara'ai -- is a prime example of the power of social media. She started out by posting videos of herself on the once-popular network Myspace. In 2011, she signed with the U.S. independent label Fader. Now she is represented by American management company Indie-Pop.

It's important for a music artist to bring in something new, even if it's not mainstream
Yuna

With so much competition, the U.S. market can be tough to crack. But Yuna said the biggest challenge was taking the first step out of her "comfort zone" in Malaysia. Once that barrier was broken, she said, "everything else was just smooth sailing."

"I think being Southeast Asian, you can't really break into a different character -- you're always yourself, everywhere you go," Yuna told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It's important for a music artist to bring in something new, even if it's not mainstream. As an Asian artist, I could experiment a little bit more."

Ben Willis, her manager at Indie-Pop, noted that artists like Yuna who have found success in the West are turning around and winning more fans in Asia -- not just in their home countries, but regionwide. "The Asian market is massive and super-untapped," he said. "Over the next few years you'll see more of a presence in markets like Japan, [South] Korea and China."

Just how massive are we talking?

From Beijing to Bangkok, economic growth has fueled the rise of the middle class. This -- coupled with the world's largest internet user base, according to Euromonitor -- has made Asia a prime target for the music streaming business. Another big factor is youth.

Young consumers, including millennials born between 1980 and 2000, now account for 48% of the world's working population, United Nations data shows. Asia is home to 1.4 billion millennials, accounting for 61% of the global total.

Now consider that 50% of music streaming revenue in 2015 came from listeners under age 35, according to a report by McKinsey & Co.

While Asia accounted for only 14% of digital music revenue, McKinsey said, it had 44% of all internet users in 2015 and accounted for 25% of global gross domestic product in 2013. It's a recipe for growth: "This upward trend in the Asian music streaming industry is expected to continue, with the number of digital music users expected to grow about 15% a year from 2014 to 2020," the report said.

The marketing opportunities go far beyond just streaming, as Yuna's collaborations with Uber and Uniqlo show.

All I had was slow internet and a few vinyl order pages to find music
Nakadia

"The high mobile penetration in the region constantly exposes consumers to celebrity-endorsed digital marketing," said Sunny Um, a beauty and fashion analyst at Euromonitor. "Young consumers are willing to pay a premium for celebrity-endorsed items -- beauty, personal accessories, food and health supplements -- to look and feel like a celebrity themselves."

And while "celebrity" might have once meant "pop idol," artists from niche genres are starting to gain some serious star power.

LIFE-CHANGING BEATS Meet Nakadia Mungphanklang, a Thai DJ who crisscrosses the planet to ply her trade in the hottest clubs. Known as Nakadia, she grew up in poverty in rural Khon Buri. As a teen, she left home and went to work in factories.

Discovering music -- specifically, electronic music -- changed everything. A visit to Europe in 2002 made her realize that spinning tracks was her true calling. She became a DJ in 2003.

"In Thailand, we had hardly any electronic music," Nakadia recalled. "All I had was slow internet and a few vinyl order pages to find music."

Now, at 36, she has the world at her fingertips: Nakadia has performed some 1,500 gigs, captivating crowds in exotic locales like Sao Paulo and Ibiza. Her biggest show, so far, was at the Berlin Love Parade festival in 2006, where she performed before a sea of some 2 million people.

"It took me many years to find my own style through traveling the world, listening to hundreds of other artists and always staying open-minded," she said.

Nakadia said artists in Southeast Asia face a number of obstacles but have "so much more potential."

"Local labels and agencies are often too small and have no chance on the global market," she said. To change that, she would like to see governments get serious about promoting pop culture exports.

"I'm always jealous when I see the amazing infrastructure and support Dutch artists experience," she said, pointing to government grants for artists traveling abroad. Nakadia recognizes that might be too much to ask, but said, "A bit of support from authorities across Southeast Asia could mean a lot for the development of artists."

NEW FORMULAS Southeast Asia is not the only place turning out stars of different sorts these days. Consider FFC-Acrush, China's newest "boy" band.

The five-member group was created by Zhejiang Huati Culture Communication, an entertainment company partly funded by online giant Tencent Holdings. What sets it apart from the typical pop ensemble is that they're not boys at all -- they're young women. The "A" in the name comes from Adonis, the epitome of male beauty in Greek mythology.

"The Chinese government has long recognized the importance of 'soft power,'" said Song Geng, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong. "Though in my view, the result has not been very successful so far."

Still, while FFC-Acrush may not be about to take over the global charts, the group's success in China is nothing to scoff at. The group racked up nearly 1 million fans on the Weibo social network even before its first formal release -- an unusual feat -- and its rise reflects the broadening entertainment horizons in a society that tends to be fairly conservative.

The group represents "a trend for alternative gender expressions in today's China," Song said. "People are bored with the traditional, old modes of masculinity and femininity." This, the professor added, is "a natural consequence of China's economic growth, especially the development of consumerism."

DYING WAVE? R&B from Malaysia, techno from Thailand, androgynous pop from China. Does Asia's rapidly evolving music scene spell the end for South Korean pop, perhaps the biggest entertainment juggernaut the region has produced so far?

The short answer is no, most experts agree.

"For every hallyu fan that leaves, there are two new fans discovering it for the first time to replace them," said Paul Han, co-founder of allkpop, a website for South Korean entertainment news that draws 10 million monthly readers from around the world. Hallyu means "Korean wave."

Reports of K-pop's death have been greatly exaggerated, reckons Liew Kai Khiun, an assistant professor and pop culture expert at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "Predictions of the decline of hallyu have been ongoing for more than a decade, but I do not see any concrete evidence of that."

"It used to take a week for K-pop groups to reach 1 million views on YouTube," he said. "The time has now been reduced to days."

Sometimes it happens even faster: The latest hit from female supergroup Black Pink garnered 10 million views in 17 hours.

Liew thinks K-pop is unlikely to be knocked off its perch in the next five years. But as the rest of Asia turns up the volume, there could come a day when K-pop "will reach saturation and be overshadowed by other forms of entertainment."

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K-pop purveyors build bands with multinational flair

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