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Lee Hae-Wook

Swedish Music Lessons for K-Pop

Lee Hae-Wook

Oct. 11, 2012

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K-pop has catapulted onto the worldwide stage, but more needs to be done to sustain its success and to build on it to tap the Korean music industry' s potential as an economic engine and contributor to the nation's global brand. Sweden offers valuable ideas.

Long before K-pop proved that contemporary music can come from countries other than native-English language countries, there was ABBA, the 1970s Swedish group that sold more than 400 million albums, joining such luminaries as The Beatles and Michael Jackson. Thanks to the popular musical "Mamma Mia," ABBA's songs never vanish. More impressive is how Sweden has continued to have a major affect on pop music in the world despite its small domestic market. Following in ABBA's footsteps, Sweden has produced some of the best song writers and producers of our era. Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life," Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love," and many other hits have Swedish roots.

In the 1990s, Martin Sanberg from Sweden came to the fore. Sandberg, who is professionally known as Max Martin, has written hit songs for Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, N'sync, Usher, Katy Perry and other stars. Starting in 1999, he has won the Composer of the Year award in the US five times.

The source of Sweden's continuous presence in the global music industry is a national ecosystem that supports and nurtures musical talent. Unlike other countries, where major studios lead the music industry, Sweden has a community of 15,000 music-related companies, of which 10,000 are studios with the majority of them being 1 person studios. Furthermore, music companies such as EMI have offices in Sweden that work closely with the studios.

The proliferation of small studios is because musicians can make a decent living from working part-time at high-schools or music academies. With a stable lifestyle secured, musicians perceive each other as cohorts rather than rivals. This fosters an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration. As such, creativity is on a constant boil.

Another part of the ecosystem is government largesse. Popular music receives 10% of the government funding for music, and the support does not end there. Assistance also is provided for concerts, album production and overseas trips. The latter segues into the government's strong emphasis on exporting music. Through "Export Music Sweden," installed in 1993, Swedish musicians receive active systematic support when entering overseas markets and from 1997, the government has given an award to those who have made exceptional contributions to exporting music. In addition, to protect musical creativity, the government has implemented stricter copyrights than any other country.

A third factor is Sweden's high level of music education. One of the education goals of the government is for all citizens to enjoy the arts. Particular emphasis is placed on music education, which includes song writing in addition to performing. Another unique characteristic is that it makes room for pop music. Since the 1980s, when the students were allowed to have a voice in the music curriculum, the presence of pop and rock music has expanded significantly, filling classes taught by artists in the genres. Although heated debate persist on whether pop music classes are appropriate, it is difficult to argue that it has helped sustain the presence of Swedish singers, song writers and producers in the global music industry.

Currently, Korea's popular music is mainly comprised of teens and young adults packaged in groups that feature highly choreographed singing and dancing. They are managed by a handful of large entertainment companies which audition would-be performers and put them through a grueling training regime. Only the best are assembled into new groups, so success eludes most applicants.

To raise the global competitiveness of Korea's popular music, the music industry must diversify its genres. There are limitations to the growth of certain music genres like K-pop therefore other genres must be energized and new styles must be created by fusing current genres. The phenomenal success of rapper Psy's "Gangnam Style" around the world illustrates the global potential of Korean music apart from K-pop groups.

In exporting Korea's music, companies not directly involved with the music industry stand to be the biggest beneficiaries. As such companies must look into actively utilizing those in the music industry. Case in point, smartphone companies are seeing remarkable success by employing popular music song writers and taking advantage of their experience in the UX (user experience) division.

Finally, from a long-term perspective, public music education must be expanded. Currently, it is severely lacking in both quantity and quality compared to Sweden. Better music education would not only produce outstanding musicians but also enhance the country's cultural level.

When the aforementioned elements converge, an environment will be in place to provide continuous creativity and stability in the music industry.

This column originally appeared in Korea JoongAng Daily.
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