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Korean pop rides "Gangnam Style" into U.S. music scene

South Korean pop singer Psy poses on the red carpet as he attends the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) in Hong Kong November 30, 2012. REUTERS
South Korean pop singer Psy poses on the red carpet as he attends the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) in Hong Kong November 30, 2012. REUTERS

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Gangnam Style," the catchy Korean song by rapper Psy, may have danced its way into the American charts but the Korean pop industry isn't horsing around when it comes to capitalizing on the singer's phenomenal U.S. success.

With "Gangnam Style" topping the current Billboard Digital Songs chart and becoming the most-watched video on YouTube ever with more than 800 million views, fellow Korean pop, or K-pop, artists are positioning themselves for similar U.S. breakthroughs.

Korea's pop music industry is thriving. Over the past two years, a handful of K-pop acts including girl group 2NE1, boy band Super Junior and nine-piece band Girls Generation have embarked on mini-promotional tours around the United States to build their audience.

"Psy has opened doors and is shining a spotlight on K-pop. People are paying attention to what's being done there," Alina Moffat, general manager at YG Entertainment group, which manages Psy, told a recent entertainment industry conference in Los Angeles.

Psy's vibrant music video, featuring his invisible pony-riding dance, also featured K-pop artists Kim Hyun-a of girl band 4Minute, and Deasung and Seungri of boy band Big Bang, all of whom are attempting to crack the U.S. market.

"YouTube has really changed the awareness of K-pop. Both American kids and second-generation Korean American kids are discovering it," Kye Kyoungbon Koo, director of the Korea Creative Content Agency, told a panel at a Billboard and Hollywood Reporter conference in Los Angeles in October.

MARKETING THE NEXT BIG THING

For U.S. companies looking to invest, K-pop is being marketed as the next big thing, boasting young, stylish and influential artists who command devoted fan followings.

Moffat said car companies and mobile phone brands were among those being courted at KCON, a convention held in October in Irvine in Southern California that showcased K-pop artists.

"Kids are coming, they're engaged, they want to spend money and sponsors saw that," Moffat said.

Whether Psy or other K-pop artists can command a global following to rival Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber or Rihanna remains to be seen, but John Shim, senior producer at MTV World, believes it is the right genre to compete with pop music's biggest names.

"K-pop admittedly is a very niche genre but I also think it's the best equipped of Asian pop to cater to the U.S. audience," Shim told Reuters.

Psy has helped to break down language barriers, keeping "Gangnam Style" in its original Korean form instead of adapting it to English when it became an international hit.

The singer told Reuters he was persuaded to keep it that way by his manager Scooter Braun, the talent scout responsible for Justin Bieber's success, who signed Psy to his record label.

"I thought, 'Should I translate this or not?' because (the fans) have got to know what I'm talking about, and lyrics are a huge part," Psy said.

CHATTING IN ENGLISH

But industry executives say at least one member of each K-Pop group is usually taught to be fluent in conversational English.

"The investment in language is costly, but effective," said Ted Kim, president of South Korean music television channel Mnet. "It really matters that Psy can go on the Ellen DeGeneres TV show and have a conversation."

Psy said he was proud his song succeeded in Korean, but he now wants to branch out into English.

"'Gangnam Style' is not the sort of thing that's going to happen twice. I've definitely got to make something in English so I can communicate with my fans right now," the singer said.

In Korea, bands such as SM Entertainment's Super Junior and Girls Generation have became branding powerhouses, scoring endorsements ranging from cosmetics, fashion, video games, electronics and beverages.

In the United States, companies such as Samsung have already jumped on the K-pop train, sponsoring Korean boy band Big Bang's U.S. tour.

But while the genre is gaining steam in the charts, it has yet to spill into ticket sales for tours, according to Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief at Pollstar.com, which tracks concert sales.

"Psy may be able to sell out arenas in Asia, but not yet here. For the American audience, he has to prove that he's more than a novelty act," Bongiovanni said.

"K-pop has to prove itself before large companies spend money on it," he added.

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and Eric Walsh)

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