Korean Psycho: the rise of old Seoul

On the horizon stands a man who will singularly change the western world: a man whose name will be etched into the annals of our history as the Korean who conquered the west. Without warning, without threat and without precedent, so came the Korean Psycho.

July 2012. The western world is preoccupied with the rising of dark knights; Nolan is in the theatres, Obama is on the campaign trail and Usain is refurbishing his trophy case: worldwide indecision over whether or not to call Carly Rae Jepsen leaves people sleepless in their beds.

Last year any non-Korean ear hearing the word Psy would have edited it out as a broken suffix or an Internet neologism; now it is the moniker for a global phenomenon. In the last year Park Jae-Sang has earned himself a fine slice of Internet (and real world) history. Of course the millions of dollars, billions of views and armfuls of awards that Gangnam Style has brought Park has come with a proportionate amount of bitter criticism, pointed in particular at his perceived novelty appeal. The popularity of Psy’s follow-up single Gentleman may have gone a ways to assuage the critics and now focus has shifted to examining the changes catalysed by the Psy phenomenon; changes to the international music industry, changes to modern notions of notoriety and changes to the social geographical division of popular media between the east and west.


Jackman style! Psy snares the wolverine…

Old Seoul singer     
The nature of global fame as a progression of national popularity can lead a new market to misperceive a veteran performer as a new artist. Psy’s journey to superstardom is not the standard “fifteen of fame” reality television gestation that modern pop charts are saturated with: his is a fifteen-year trans-hemispherical tale; from college dropout to independent controversy; from conscription escapee to major label sensation.

As part of his role as heir to a fine electronics manufacturing company, a 19-year-old Psy was sent to Boston University by his father to study business administration. After studying for a single semester Park turned his back on his father’s wishes and spent his remaining tuition allowance on a keyboard, a computer and a MIDI interface before transferring to Berkley College of Music where he spent the next year. Then, he dropped out to return to South Korea, to start his career in music.

His first chance at fame came in late 2000 when his distinct dance style was noticed and he was picked up for his first television spot. His debut album Psy from the Psycho World! set a precedent of subversion when actions from civil rights groups led to Psy being fined for distribution of inappropriate content. In addition to censoring outrage Psy also stood defiantly against the ethos of Korean popular music, characterised by its style-over-substance, idolist approach to music as produce.

Traditionally K-pop artists are chosen and groomed by ‘entertainment companies’ on principles of beauty, glamour and advertising integration. As a fat, dancing rapper Psy’s characteristics run perpendicular to almost every other popular artist in the Korean music industry, a landscape which is dominated by boy and girl groups such as 2PM and 4Minute. Much of Psy’s success is owed to this subversion of the norm and he is an unlikely rebellious figure to many.

Psy’s notoriety rose when his second album, Ssa2, was banned from sale to minors over fears it would negatively influence the youth of the country.  In 2002 he released 3 PSY. His track Champion coincided with World Cup games in Seoul, which led to the recognition of Psy as a domestic breakthrough artist.

The next few years of Psy’s life were a rollercoaster of turmoil and elation. In 2003 he was given leniency from mandatory military service and worked at a software company, serving the nation’s interests for the next two years. In 2006 Ssajib (Cheap House), Psy’s fourth album was released to commercial success, reaching number one in the South Korean album charts.

But in 2007 Psy was accused of not fulfilling his military obligations and was sentenced to serve as a Private First Class signalman in the 52nd Army Infantry Division. After two years of service Psy was released and turned again to his passion. Finding himself unable to raise funds for a new album help came in the form of one of South Korea’s star-making talent agencies: YG Entertainment.


Psy performs for more than 100,000 in his hometown

Where dreams are made
There is a heavy concentration of power within the South Korean music industry. K-pop is run by three agencies: S.M. Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment. These three new-age music factories collectively turned over more than US$330 million in revenue in 2012, with the biggest of the three, S.M. Entertainment, having recently been valued at US$1.24 billion.

Yang Goon Entertainment began expansion in the late 2000s and their signing of Psy to their label for his album PsyFive in 2010 was part of a strategy of buying established artists for possible international release. Psy’s international debut in January 2012 was to 80 000 Osakans as part of the YG Family Concert tour.  He was received warmly, due in part to his now legendary concert showmanship, something Psy himself credits to the inspiration of Freddie Mercury. In February YG Entertainment announced their plans to push deeper into the US market, with Psy by their side.

Gangnam Style arrived in the world on July 15 to wild applause and unequalled internet fervour: the music video received half a million Youtube views per day for its first two weeks and by the end of August Youtube was reporting 4 million daily views of the colourful, horse-dancing track. The video peaked mid-September following Psy’s visit to America, where he signed with Justin Bieber’s agent Scooter Braun, and then again in late December following a fake Nostradamus doomsday prophecy, which pushed views for the video past 1 billion.

Psy has been awarded the MTV Music Video Award for best video and three Guinness World Records for the music video for the song: Most viewed online video, most “liked” online video and the first video to be viewed more than 1 billion times. The song has reached the top of the singles charts in over 30 different countries worldwide and spent six weeks atop the ARIA charts. The online success of Gangnam Style is thankfully more quantifiable than the industry is used to thanks to video counters. In the case of Psy, it has translated very literally into international, western pop music earnings and the burning question remains: how did it become so popular?


Psy shows UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon how to move.

The King of Youtube
When examining reasons for Psy’s popularity there is a certain amount of ambiguity and definition involved. Was it the engaging dance? The use of satire and Psy’s own persona? YG’s management strategies, celebrity advocacy and the use of South Korean celebrities are much more quantifiable factors on Gangnam Style’s popularity which can be seen as YouTube view spikes.

It goes without saying that the catchiness and simple electro aesthetic of Gangnam Style is a huge part of why it has enjoyed such phenomenal international fame – so much so that its lyrics are all but arbitrary. But beneath the undeniable energy and beat of the song there are many other intricacies at play.

“Stay classy and dance cheesy” is one of Psy’s personal mantras and Gangnam Style’s inimitable choreography, in particular his signature cross-armed gallop, are a complete distillation of his attitude. The dance consists of only a few real moves, including an above head lasso and other dad-level manoeuvres, making it simple to re-enact and for people to appropriate with their own cheesiness.

Regarding viral videos there is one true tell of audience engagement and it is another anomaly of the Internet age – the parody video. Since the release of Gangnam Style YouTube has identified over 33 000 homage videos, all of which are owned by YG Entertainment. Not only are these videos a testament to the popularity of Gangnam Style as engaging video content – the ad revenue they bring in goes straight to the coffers.

YG Entertainment understood at the outset that making a song popular the world over starts with domestic popularity and with that in mind the music video for Gangnam Style has at its core a South Korean target audience. In 2006 South Korea became the first country in the world to have a 50% digital music revenue stream and it is this online mindset that set up the success of Gangnam Style across all social media platforms (for comparison the international average for digital music industry integration was 38% in 2012).

What western audiences will not notice is the clip features South Korean comedian Yoo Jae-Seok, television host No Hung-Chul and a 7-year-old Korea’s Got Talent sensation, Hwang Min-Woo. In addition to this, the core of the song is making fun of the wealthy Gangnam district and the people that skimp on necessities to maintain an outward appearance of opulence (known as Doenjangnyeo or “soy bean paste women” after their propensity to eat soybean paste instead of food to afford luxuries).

Whilst the video may seem to be, in an international context, a silly fat man dancing like a horse, the song and video highlight a very real cultural and economic issue in Psy’s homeland. This subversion is a big part of Psy’s persona. Early on he found the best way to excel in the beauty and youth-saturated Korean pop market was to make fun of himself, and this has served him well on the global stage. Using elements of satire and subversion in music is an ingenious tool that allows an artist to stand for something but still make an important comment on their subject. Psy’s utilisation of these tools coupled with his wicked sense of humour has bred mass appeal among discerning audiences.

The music video’s use of bright colours and intense energy as well the involvement of sexual innuendo and toilet humour ensure that it is an engaging piece of media across age groups and cultural divides.

In a much more quantifiable way, the success of Gangnam Style can be directly followed to YG Entertainment’s social media strategy. Before Gangnam Style’s release YG had a network of 2.5 million Youtube subscribers and upon release other YG artists were used as distributors via their Twitter channels. YG were very careful to make Gangnam Style a viral hit.

As views began to race, the numbers became a story in themself and stories on the Gawker and Billboard sites and later in The Daily Mail helped to bolster numbers significantly. The final piece of the popularity puzzle was the bombardment of celebrity endorsements (most of them via Twitter) that Gangnam Style received. From as early as August 1 celebrities including T-pain, Katy Perry and Tom Cruise tweeted their love for (and their own take on) the smash hit. These early endorsements coincide with viewer spikes during the first few months of the song’s release and no doubt led to his signing with agent to the internet stars, Scooter Braun, who is responsible for the infamy of Canadians Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen.


Celebrity endorsements on Twitter were essential to Gangnam’s success.

Won for all and all for won         
For those running the recording industry since the disruption of the digital age, the question is nor about popularity, but how to monetise it. The ideal hasn’t changed (that popularity will lead to wealth), it’s only the distribution channels that have. The advertising element remains, as does the endorsement culture.

Psy’s net worth is somewhere in the area of $10 million. The ad revenue from the 1.5 billion views Gangnam Style has received on YouTube reaches above $8 million, which is split equally between YouTube and YG Entertainment. As of January 23 the video was racking up $0.65 per view for Psy and YouTube.

With over 2 million downloads from the iTunes store at $1.29 each, Gangnam Style has totalled in excess of $2.7 million for Apple, 70% of which Psy and YG get to keep.

South Korean culture has had varied effects on Psy’s earnings. The endorsement culture of the Korean music industry means companies are lining up for Psy to endorse their products, led by LG and Samsung who have reportedly paid $4.6 million to ensnare Psy as their spokesman. Endorsements are considered an integral part of the pop music scene and Psy also is spokesman for companies that produce rice wine, beer, cosmetics and fast food.

The downside, at least for the artist, to the digitisation of the South Korean music industry is the decreased potential there is to make money from their most common channel of distribution: online music streaming services. From domestic downloads and streaming services, Psy has made less than US$60 000. But it is not all bad news on the home front. Since the release of Gangnam Style, shares in Psy’s father’s company, DI Corporation, have risen 800%, netting the company an increase in revenue of $30 million. Share prices are traditionally based off of a company’s performance but in some cases, and particularly in South Korea, public sentiment also has a powerful pull over equity performance.


Psy is the new face of internet super-fame. And what a face.

The future
YG Entertainment’s work with Psy has not so much created a new model for turning internet popularity into money so much as it has taken an existing path and trod it exceedingly well. The digital revolution and the proliferation of 21st-century media piracy has left the recording industry a shell of its former self – an unsteady landscape for which there is no road map. Through the rubble of the post-Napster environment trudge the tyrants of the old recording companies, searching every available streaming service, video site and social media platform for the hints of how to make the heady monetary figures of the old times.

It seems technology is almost on a daily update schedule, allowing media and in particular video to be shared and consumed en masse with increasing ease. The exponential rate at which music and music videos are being continually and inseparably linked has paved the way for the next wave of music megastars, as artists create engaging and funny video content designed specifically to succeed in an online environment. This link has bound aspiring artists to YouTube to create the most stable model for revenue that music has seen since the digital disruption of the 2000s.

Following the success of Psy’s follow-up single, Gentleman, the question of his impact on future viral popularity is a pressing one that will only be answered over time. The bar that Psy has set, for himself and for his contemporaries, is unprecedented. The latest benchmark set by the hit single was 1.5 billion views on April 20 and his second single is on track to reach half a billion views, receiving 38 million views in its first day (another world record). And these are songs that, at best, feature limited English. His international popularity will surely only grow with plans to release an English-based album in the near future.

Very little stands between Psy and the almost unfathomable mantle of most watched performer of all time.

Psy’s first crossing of the international date line back in 1996 sparked in him the want to create music, and each subsequent crossing further threads together his personal iteration of the co-influential relationship between western pop music and K-pop – the taking of western influences to create uniquely eastern pop music which in turn has exploded in popularity across the globe, bringing the spokes once again around in the cycle of interplay between our dichotomous cultures.