13 December 2012
Articles | Interviews | News | Prime Cuts

Feature: PSY

The extraordinary DIY success of ‘Gangnam Style’ was the defining music story of 2012. But who is PSY, what just happened and what does this mean for the future of pop?

Words Ben Cardew
Illustration Laurie Sherman

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With all due respect to Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift, PSY’s cantering electro classic ‘Gangnam Style’ was THE song of 2012 — a hit so ubiquitous, with such incredible cultural cachet, that it long since stopped mattering whether you liked it or not. It just was.

Both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and David Cameron have imitated its dance moves, and it is in the book of Guinness World Records as both the most-‘Liked’ song and most-viewed clip on YouTube. What’s more, when a group of Tibetans wanted to send a message to China’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping, they did it by sending an effigy of him out into the streets to dance ‘Gangnam Style’ alongside Tibetan monks, elders and activists. It’s that kind of big.

But while the average pop punter probably sees ‘Gangnam Style’ as a freakish one-off hit, a kind of South Korean ‘Macarena’ from an artist we’ll never hear of again once the novelty wears off, the story behind PSY and how his monster hit blossomed is one that tells us a great deal about where the music industry is at in the early 21st century.

For a start, there’s PSY’s home country of South Korea. The Asian economic powerhouse may seem an unlikely destination for a global pop hit, but for the global music industry the shock was not so much that a hit of such magnitude came from South Korea, rather than it took so long in coming, and when it did, it was from PSY, and not one of the country’s manicured K-pop idols.

For South Korea, as anyone who has endured enough music industry meetings will agree, is frequently cited as a model for the wider music industry, a country where the government has got to grips with piracy — introducing ‘three-strikes’ laws against illegal downloading back in 2009 — and record sales are on the up.

“During the past 10 years, it really was a rollercoaster time for the music industry in South Korea. Illegal music MP3 files were distributed massively for free on the internet, which caused the fall of the domestic music industry, literally,” says Chae Young Lee from the South Korean branch of recorded music organisation the IFPI. “The Ministry Of Culture, Sports And Tourism has proposed numerous policies to take down illegal music content distributed online and I believe it has paid off.”

In 2011, for example, revenue from recorded music in South Korea totalled $199.5m, up 6.4 per cent year-on-year and enough to put the country in 11th place in the global music market place, above the likes of Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

This growth has — if the global record industry is to be believed — enabled massive A&R investment in South Korean music, and this in turn has helped to create a wave of K-pop acts who are turning heads outside their home country.

As a result of this virtuous circle, South Korea’s musical exports are booming, up 111.9 per cent year-on-year in 2011 to $177.41m and reaching $42.19m in the first quarter of 2012 (pre-‘Gangnam Style’, lest we forget). In fact, South Korea is now one of a small handful of net exporters of music, joining the likes of the US, the UK and Sweden.

A South Korean global hit, then, was probably overdue. What people didn’t expect was that it would come from PSY, a 34-year-old father of two on his sixth album, and who was considered past his peak before ‘Gangnam Style’.

“It was surprising to us in Korea as well,” says B. J. Yang, managing director of Universal Music Korea. “What was really interesting in this phenomenon is that everyone in the world seems to get the humour and wit from PSY right, regardless of language and nation. However, we still think that this success to a certain degree came from the efforts made by major K-pop management/labels with what we would like to call ‘the first phase of the K-pop boom’, created by the so-called ‘conventional’ boy/girl bands.”

“PSY comes from the YG Entertainment stable, one of Korea’s big three artist management companies. They’ve been making waves with their international push of their number one boy band, Big Bang, and their number one girl band, 2NE1,” adds Bernie Cho, CEO of Seoul-based K-pop creative agency DFSB Kollective. “People assumed it was going to be a boy band or a girl band that would possibly be the breakout K-pop act. But PSY cannonballed from out of nowhere and made the huge splash worldwide. At the time of the release, he was probably the artist least likely to become a global superstar in YG’s all-star line-up.”

Not only that, but PSY is something of a controversial figure in his home country. His early songs owe more to Dr Dre and Eminem than LMFAO, with 2001 debut single ‘Bird’ featuring both a Snoop-style “beeyatch” and a “hey ho” chorus that sounds straight out of Naughty By Nature.

PSY was arrested for possession of marijuana in 2002, the same year his second album, Sa 2, was slapped with a 19-and-over rating in South Korea. Topping off an eventful 12 months for the singer, 2002 also saw PSY come to international attention for the first time thanks to his song ‘Champion’, which was a big hit during the World Cup, held that year in Japan and South Korea.

“When PSY first came out, his lyrics were often quite cheeky, riddled with amusing wordplay, so a lot of his songs would get fined, censored, or banned,” says Cho. “It always was a bit saucy, a tad sexual, a touch profane, nothing gangster, but like when you hear the Lil’ Wayne song ‘Lollipop’, you know he’s not talking about candy.”

“Before ‘Gangnam Style’, I was not a good attitude artist,” PSY recently told The Guardian, in-between teaching Jay Rayner the ‘Gangnam Style’ dance. “I was badass. They don’t have an expectation of me on the moral side.”

Since the success of ‘Gangnam Style’, PSY and his various representatives have been careful to present an image of the rapper as a harmless, cuddly kind of soul who you could happily leave in charge of your children. He’s full of self-deprecating remarks about his success, for example, and recently led the Oxford Union in a mass ‘Gangnam Style’ dance.

You wonder, though, if underneath all this something of this rebellious attitude remains, albeit well hidden. Most of his comments to the press appear asinine in the extreme, but he recently walked out of an Australian radio interview after being asked about his marijuana arrest. This, according to Fox FM head of content Dave Cameron, was because he doesn’t like being asked about his pre-‘Gangnam Style’ past — a pretty difficult line to take in the internet age.

Meanwhile, PSY’s reaction in The Guardian to being awarded South Korea’s Okgwan Order Of Cultural Merit for his contribution to increasing the world’s awareness of Korea, was intriguing to say the least. “That’s a huge responsibility,” he said. “I don’t want it. I’m not responsible for ‘Gangnam Style’. And now I have to be good.”

In the same interview, he would go onto refer to PSY as a character he plays, expressing regret at the way he is seen. “It’s a product made by me. It’s the most dynamic part of me. I like the word ‘artist’, but I don’t like the word ‘artist’ inside my house,” he said. “When the shows are done, I just want to go home and be myself.” Which might prove difficult when Ban Ki-Moon is banging on your door demanding to be taught a dance routine.

Yet for all its comedy value, even ‘Gangnam Style’ has proved controversial in its own peculiar way: the song’s poor showing in Japan, where it only just scraped into the iTunes top 30, has led to considerable irritation among PSY’s South Korean fans, who think that Japanese are ignoring the song due to the current frosty relationship between the two countries.

In response, certain Japanese bloggers have suggested that South Koreans are artificially boosting ‘Gangnam Style’’s YouTube hits by using automated viewing programmes, leading Han Koo-Hyun, president of the Korean Wave Research Institute, which promotes Korean culture around the world, to issue an amusingly sarky press release, saying such claims are “tantamount to doubting a world record in an Olympic marathon” and suggesting that Japan’s indifference to the song “should be viewed as a primary school kid’s jealousy and envy”.

Even North Korea has got in on the action, with the country’s famously non-fun-loving government uploading a video to government website uriminzokkiri.com, which uses ‘Gangnam Style’ imagery — including the famous horse-riding dance — to poke fun at South Korean politician Park Geun-hye over, bizarrely, a Henry Mancini instrumental.

Meanwhile, the song’s video was one of many blocked in Germany due to an on-going dispute between YouTube and performing rights organisation GEMA — nothing to do with PSY, of course, but enough to create multiple headlines about the video being “banned” in Germany.

As we come to the end of 2012, the stats about ‘Gangnam Style’ continue to add up, with YouTube views now in excess if 940m and ‘Likes’ at almost 6m. But it’s not just the scale of ‘Gangnam Style’’s success that is notable, it is also the way that the song has achieved such notoriety, spreading like wildfire online with mainstream TV, radio or press support coming only after the song had already racked up millions of YouTube views.

It is a story that bears repeating. On July 11, PSY and YG Entertainment started releasing promotional teasers for ‘Gangnam Style’ to YouTube, with the full video following on July 15. It received an impressive 500,000 views on its first day, but the video remained largely a domestic phenomenon until mentions on Reddit and tweets from the likes of Robbie Williams and T-Pain caused foreign audiences to pay attention.

By the end of the month, the video had clocked up 10m views on YouTube and was pulling in 1m more every day. Enter Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen, who signed PSY to his Schoolboy Records label (part of the Universal Music monolith) at the start of September. It was only at this point — when ‘Gangnam’ had almost 100m views on YouTube — that the traditional media cycle went into motion in the US, with PSY appearing on everything from the MTV Video Music Awards to The Ellen DeGeneres Show. At the same time, the parody mill went into overdrive, with a bunch of Eton schoolboys and the US Navy among those who really should have known better.

As copyright owners in the song, PSY and YG could have demanded YouTube remove any parodies from the site — as happened with the ‘Newport State Of Mind’ Jay-Z take-off in 2010 — but presumably they realised the promotional value of these spoofs, which introduced many viewers to the original song, valuing it over the small amount of money that even millions of YouTube plays can bring.

But so what, you may ask? There have been novelty hits ever since Edison first recorded his voice to wax cylinder.

This, of course, is true. But there are a number of things that set ‘Gangnam Style’ and PSY apart. Firstly, ‘Gangnam’ has proved a peculiarly DIY kind of success: PSY wrote and co-produced the song, which was initially released by YG Entertainment, a label that is big in South Korea but hardly a global powerhouse. PSY also co-directed the video, which was shot over only two days.

Secondly, with ‘Gangnam Style’ PSY has, on a minuscule budget, achieved the kind of global attention that most major labels or big brands can only ever dream of, catapulting himself into global pop fame — 2m downloads and counting in the US, as well as soon-to-be-a-billion YouTube — on entirely his own terms and, before Scooter Braun come along, largely under his own steam.

And, lest we forget, this is all for a song in Korean, a language that a good 95 per cent or more of its global audience will never understand, which parodies the bourgeois attitudes of the Gangnam area of Seoul, which 95 per cent of its audience will never visit.

True, there has been a general relaxation of attitudes among British and American music fans to songs that come from outside of the Anglosphere — consider the recent string of dance hits from Romania, for example, courtesy of Inna and Alexandra Stan — but these are generally sung in English and don’t take the listener too far out of their comfort zone. ‘Gangnam Style’, for all its EDM-esque synth sound, was something rather different.

“I don’t think PSY will be a one-off — the production values and the creativity coming out of Korea are remarkable,” Universal Music COO Max Hole recently told The Independent. “The focus of the recorded music industry for the last 40 years has been on the 10 main music markets — US, the UK, Germany, France, etc. The next 30 years the focus is going to move to the emerging markets and that’s very exciting for us.”

“Will PSY’s success help other South Korean artists? Definitely,” says B. J. Yang. “Besides already existing core K-pop fans in the world, now more and more media and industry people are getting to know about Korean artists and would like to introduce them.”

This move to emerging markets will, Hole believes, be linked to the same advances in mobile and online that allowed ‘Gangnam Style’ to sweep to global attention. “The explosion of mobile devices and smart phones means that for the first time we can communicate with millions of consumers in parts of the world where we’ve never been able to go before,” Hole explained to The Independent. “The investment will be in all genres and languages, from local music in China to Portugal and Colombia. We’re seeing small revenues for the first time from Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa and Peru.”

But if South Korea is going to serve as a model to the music industry — as many people have suggested — it is worth looking at what exactly this might mean, particularly with regards to the tricky questions of money.

The stark, and rather depressing, fact is that the South Korean music market is dominated by digital sales and streaming, and neither pay much to artists. Of the $199.5m of revenue from recorded music in South Korea last year, $108.3m was from digital. Of this, 43 per cent was from downloads (down from 53 per cent in 2010), 9 per cent from master ringtones, 8 per cent from ringback tones, 36 per cent from subscriptions (up from 22 per cent in 2010) and 4 per cent from other sources.

This is all great in theory, digital being pretty much unanimously seen as the future of the recorded music industry. It would be an encouraging stat in the UK, too, where the price of digital music is roughly equivalent to that of CDs. In South Korea, however, an unlimited music streaming service will set you back 3,000 won a month, or £1.73, around a sixth of what Spotify charges in the UK.

For downloads, the contrast is even more marked: the average price of a download in South Korea is just 60 won, or 3.5p. Of this, the content owner will receive 40 per cent (1.4p), which must be split between artist, label and distributor.

Indeed, PSY is said to have earned just 36m won (£20,855) from 2.86m downloads and 27.32m streams of ‘Gangnam Style’ in South Korea due to his low royalty rate, according to a report on the All K-pop website. And this in a country where consumer goods prices are roughly on a par with the US, where a Starbucks coffee sells for an average of 4,000 won (£2.30) and a CD goes for 12,000 won (£6.95). No wonder PSY is advertising fridges for Samsung. (A spokesman for PSY, incidentally, did not confirm or deny whether the track had been lucrative, but did say “it would seem very unlikely”.)

The low cost of downloads in South Korea is partly to do with the distinctive way that digital music is consumed there. The 2011 Korean Government Audit On The K-Pop Music Industry found that 91.3 per cent of digital music consumers buy music from heavily discounted streaming-plus-download packages, which offer 150 downloads plus unlimited streaming for just 9,000 won a month (£5.19). It’s a bargain for consumers, certainly, but a nightmare for artists who have advances to repay and may be tied into long-term contracts.

“Many record producers find that OSPs [online service providers] in South Korea hurdle [impede] further development of the domestic industry,” says IFPI Korea’s Chae Young Lee. “OSPs are refusing to increase the price of songs because they are afraid of losing conventional subscribers, but record producers… need to be paid more. This is the most controversial industry issue these days.”

What’s more, this low pricing does rather raise the question of whether Korean consumers have really been put off illegal downloading by government action and education programmes — as the global music industry would have you believe — or have instead concluded that, with downloads going at 60 won a go, they might as well cough up.

The Korean government, it is true, has acted on the issue (as well they might do, given the cultural currency that PSY and others have given the country). But the price rises that it has forced on the music portals — the price of an average download will increase to 120 won on January 1 2013, rising to 180 won in 2016 — are so half-hearted that Korean artists are up in arms, creating the Stop Dumping Music campaign to demand something like parity with the Western download stores.

And so, back to PSY. With ‘Gangnam Style’ passing 2m download sales in the US and 0.5m in the UK, he’s unlikely to be short of a penny, whatever a download pays in South Korea. What’s more, the song is showing little sign of retreating from the public consciousness, with Madonna the latest celebrity on board, roping PSY in to perform the song with her at a recent New York concert.

Reading recent interviews, however, you suspect PSY is already sick of the song and accompanying dance, which he reckons he has now done more than 1,000 times. “Just one song did this,” he told The Guardian. “It’s too much. It’s too huge. They don’t even want another story. People need time to figure me out and I need time to show myself to them.”

For the moment, this is out of his hands: the spate of parody videos has shown the song to have a life of its own, one that would go on and on even were PSY to retreat to a monastery and refuse to ever mount the ‘Gangnam…’ horse again.

Inevitably, though, ‘Gangnam Style’ will run of steam — and then what? Los Del Rio sold 11m copies of the ‘Macarena’ in the mid-nineties but follow-up singles such as ‘Tengo Tengo’ and ‘Car Loca Rosa’ notably failed to bother the charts.

PSY is slightly different, of course, for all the reasons mentioned above. What’s more, he’s got heavyweight management in the form of Scooter Braun watching his back, and then there’s a back catalogue of genuine interest and even — dare we say it? — depth. All of which makes rumours that his next single will be a duet with Justin Bieber sung, largely in English, all the more inevitable and depressing.

PSY himself has said that he feels the frustration of the language barrier, despite spending several years in the US in the late-nineties, studying music at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, although he dropped out, and speaking excellent English.

“In Korean, my lyrics are witty and have twists. But translated into English, it doesn’t come over,” he told The Guardian. “I’ve tried writing in English, just for me, but it doesn’t work. I’ve got to know everything about a culture and I don’t.” But if his English efforts don’t work, what is the alternative? Will the Western public get behind another song in Korean? Or how about a song with no dance routine?

Of course, PSY wouldn’t be the first to go down the commercial route, should he choose that avenue. But what ‘Gangnam Style’ demonstrated so effectively was that — at least one time — a Korean rapper with a rebellious past and distinctive style could take on the Anglophone music industry, using nothing more than a crunching EDM riff, some daft choreography and DIY video on YouTube, and win.

That makes PSY’s a very 2012 triumph. And to lose that magic to the homogenised Bieber machine would be a great deal sillier than any dance routine you can imagine.

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