By Lina Yoon / Seoul
As a child who used to hide from his parents to dance to cassettes of Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, Dong Young-bae says he was too shy to tell anyone he wanted to become a famous dancer and singer. Not anymore. Today, the 22-year-old South Korean singer and dancer known Taeyang is facing the spotlight as an international pop star. Thanks in no small part to a long-standing trend in Asia that renders all things Korean cool, Taeyang is going global, riding the so-called Korean Wave all the way out west.
Better known in South Korea as the voice of the Korean boy band Big Bang, Taeyang’s first solo album, “Solar,” released online internationally last month, hit No. 2 on iTunes R&B sales charts in the U.S. and No. 1 in Canada — a first for an Asian artist. “In the beginning, it was hard to believe I had fans buying my album so far away,” says Taeyang, which means “sun” in Korean. He says he didn’t do any promotion in North America for the album, which was recorded in Korean and targeted fans in South Korea and Japan. “The world is smaller now.” (See TIME’s special report “The Best of Asia 2010.”)
For many artists in Korea’s booming music industry, social media like YouTube and Twitter have become crucial tools to reach audiences in formerly hard-to-access markets like the U.S. and Europe. Korean artists are bypassing traditional outlets like radio and television, “aggressively steering their efforts to go international via the Internet,” says Bernied Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based agency specializing in international marketing of Korean pop acts. “Social-media-savvy K-pop stars are now tweeting, YouTubing and Facebooking their way up music charts across and beyond Asia.”
It’s working: allkpop.com, an English-language, U.S.-based Korean pop blog that caters to international fans, now generates more web traffic than any Korean music portals in South Korea. “Korean artists are now out there,” says Johnny Noh, who runs the site. “People like [Korean artists] and want to know more about them.” The blog’s monthly readers more than doubled in the past year, from one million in 2009 to 2.2 million today.
DFSB Kollective was the first company to begin direct distribution of Korean music acts on iTunes in 2009. It began with more than 50 Korean artists in alternative, hip-hop and electronica music genres; now, there are hundreds of Korean artists available in the online music store. Within a few hours of the Aug. 25 iTunes release of Solar International, an extended version of Taeyang’s album that includes English versions of his singles, the album was at No. 3 in Japan, No. 5 in Canada, No. 11 in the U.S. and No. 15 in Australia on iTunes’ R&B/Soul album chart. It will only hit on-the-ground music stores in the U.S. and Canada later, and no release date has even been set for Asian markets. It’s the first time a South Korean album has been promoted offshore and online exclusively through social media groups, according to YG Entertainment, Taeyang’s Korean R&B and hip hop label.
People in the Korean music industry are watching and learning. YG Entertainment also plans to release the first album of girl group 2NE1 internationally and offshore. The group became famous after releasing the single “Lollipop,” with Big Bang, which was featured in an LG cell-phone ad campaign last year. Since then, 2NE1’s international exposure — particularly in the U.S. — has been growing. Black Eyed Peas producer Will.i.am saw one of their videos on YouTube and immediately wanted to work with them, says Choi Sung-jun, chief operations officer at YG Entertainment. They have been collaborating for the past couple months in Los Angeles and London.
K-pop’s online buzz has also become a way for artists to make a name for themselves at home. Kim Yeo-hee, 22, became a YouTube star last March when she posted three videos under the name Apple Girl. In her first video, Kim played music with the applications of four Apple iphones and sang Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable.” Two days later she became the most searched word in all major Korean web search engines. In May, Kim released her debut digital mini-album and is preparing a new single for release in September; she went from making music on iPhones to selling her own music on iTunes in less than six months. “I wanted to become the Korean version of Justin Bieber,” says Kim. “But I never imagined so many people could be interested in what I do.”
Of course, once you get your face known overseas, you still have to control your image. On a day in late August, Taeyang was working nonstop at the YG studio in Seoul to get ready for his upcoming concert that will be streamed live on YouTube. The young celebrity massaged his shoulder, yawned and, with bags under his eyes, looked through the photos that will appear on his new album. He frowned at an image of himself in which his well-groomed goatee had been photoshopped out. “Call the printer and tell them to change the picture,” he told the designer. He gestured to the photo of his digitally clean-shaven face. “I want to look a bit tough,” he said. “In the U.S., like this, they’ll think I’m too nice.”