By Tom Sanders
The last decade has seen the rise and rise of South Korean culture. Referred to by the Chinese as ‘Hallyu’, the growing recognition of Korean film, music, television, and fashion is impossible to ignore.
PSY’s 2012 smash hit single “Gangnam Style” marked a historic turning point for Hallyu, bringing a new popular sound to the world. However, the current wave of culture and creativity that continues to pour out of South Korea started before the turn of the millennium. The 1997 Asian financial crisis prompted a switch in public and private sector investment from heavy manufacturing to the creative industries, most notably TV and film at the time. If it were not for this transition brought on by President Kim Dae-Jung’s 1999 “Basic Law for Cultural Industry Promotion”, there may never have been such prominent growth in this area of South Korea’s economy.
Fast forward to the current decade. In 2021, Coldplay and BTS’ collab “My Universe” debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Squid Game costumes continue to dominate Halloween celebrations after the show’s record-breaking success. This summer, a brand new music festival - Made In Korea - launched in Southwark Park. And in September London’s V&A Museum opened an exhibition that showcases Korean culture for the first time since 1961.
Commentators suggest we’re now well into the era of Hallyu 3.0, with the original wave in the 2000s led by Korean dramas and early K-Pop, and 2.0 commencing around 2007 when creatives and artists were able to take advantage of new digital technologies and social media. Hallyu is clearly here to stay, and is most definitely still on the up.
Before the relatively recent arrival of Korean television, film and beauty in the West, K-Music driven by K-Pop led the way for Hallyu outside of Asia. Amidst the literal and metaphorical noise stemming from K-Music, a string of skilled and creative electronic music artists either from South Korea themselves or with roots in the nation has emerged.
Producing and DJing fresh and original music that always seems to get crowds moving, these individuals operate at a significant tangent from the mainstream.Based on Spotify data accessible to the public, they are currently more popular in North America, Europe and places like Australia than they are in their home nation.
One only has to look as far as this year’s music festival lineups to see the particular prominence of artists in this bracket. Closet Yi, Hunee and iconic pop culture figure Peggy Gou have made regular appearances across the UK in the last 12 months. D.Dan continues to see success in Europe while Berlin-based Mogwaa is working his way up through the ranks with support from Gou’s label, Gudu Records. Park Hye Jin and Yaeji both have impressive Spotify monthly-listenership in the several hundred thousand range and continue to push a uniquely Korean electronic sound over in the US.
With her 2.6 million very active followers on Instagram and 2.1 million monthly listeners on Spotify, Peggy Gou is very much at the forefront of the Korean movement in electronic music. The third rendition of her music festival Pleasure Gardens took place in August in London’s Finsbury Park, having both survived the coronavirus pandemic and notably upscaled each year it has taken place. In October Manchester’s infamous Warehouse Project will see 10,000 fans descend on the city center for Peggy’s specially curated “Gou Talk” night.
Whilst campaigns utilizing K-Music once stood as a way for Western brands to access Asian markets, they can now be part of an international strategy that would be effective in a variety of different countries around the world. Tapping into the small but rapidly growing ‘K-Electronic’ side of music, as it could be referred to, offers brands the opportunity to avoid the commercial and possibly uncool element of K-Pop, depending on their target audience, while still accessing the fresh and creative feelings that consumers associate with Hallyu in the Western World.
The rising popularity of K-Electronic comes with the 2022 International Music Summit reporting that, for the first time in eight years, the share of dance and electronic music within people’s listening is increasing indicating the likely start of a new growth cycle.
Brands have already started to take notice of this trendy area of music. In May 2022 Magnum launched their ‘Magnum Remix’ campaign to advertise their three new “supercharged versions [of] much loved classics”. The campaign aptly included a Peggy Gou remix of Kylie Minogue’s hit single “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”, which sits at just under 6 million streams on Spotify at the time of writing. The whole programme included a fantastic music video illustrated by Seo Inji, a special pop-up at Cannes Film Festival where attendees could create their own custom Magnums, and a series of wallpapers for the more avid fans of ice cream and the artists involved to decorate their mobile devices with.
In a similar way to how Squid Game felt like a breath of fresh air, collaborations like Magnum’s work with Peggy Gou come across as instantly cool and interesting. It seems brands would be wise to turn their attention to the unequivocally exciting cultural wave that is Hallyu. South Korean electronic music artists and associated live music events may be a great starting point for companies looking to collaborate and access the opportunities that Hallyu brings, while not appearing excessively mainstream and supporting a subcultural area of music.
For companies less concerned about the commerciality of their image but operating on a budget, artists in this bracket would allow for the practically blank paycheck needed to work with K-Pop’s stars to be avoided.