By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, May 15 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean pop music world is stepping up efforts to expand its reach to the Chinese market as the popularity of Korean pop culture has recently become stagnant in other Asian nations, including Japan.
China surely has the potential to become the world's largest music market for its 1.3 billion population and growing affluence. But for many Korean musicians, it has long been considered a difficult market to tap because of strong government restrictions on imports and broadcasting of foreign cultural content and rampant copyright infringements.
To overcome these hurdles, the K-pop industry has recently been adopting an innovative strategy to make a foray into Chinese the market: cultivating Chinese stars with a K-pop training system and distributing the Chinese-language content through Chinese Internet and mobile platforms.
At the forefront of such a localization strategy is EXO, a K-pop boy band managed by S.M. Entertainment.
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EXO divides its 12 members into two teams, EXO-K and EXO-M, for Korea and China, respectively, and usually releases Korean- and Chinese-language albums simultaneously in the two countries.
EXO-M, which includes four Chinese members -- Lu Han, Tao, Lay, Kris -- topped the music chart on Chinese state-run media outlet CCTV for "Overdose" on Saturday. "Overdose" is the title track of the boy band's latest mini-album released earlier this month.
The band's success carries a special meaning for S.M. Entertainment, which has explored the Chinese market since 1998 when it secured the Chinese government's approval for the release of H.O.T.'s album "Happiness." It was the first-ever Korean pop music album to formally reach the Chinese market. The company later recruited a Chinese member to the popular idol group Super Junior as part of its efforts to recruit Chinese fans.
"EXO is better tailored to the Chinese market than Super Junior in that it has a large number of Chinese members who debuted in China," said Go Ya-young, who have been working in the Chinese entertainment industry as a marketing manager for past nine years.
"This has the effect of making Chinese fans take them as local artists since they don't feel no cultural difference from the stars in terms of nationality and language."
Cube Entertainment launched a Chinese band, M4M, jointly with China's XingTian Entertainment last year after four years of training in Seoul. The group is composed of two from Hong Kong, one from Taiwan and another one from mainland China.
But they are not the only K-pop bands with Chinese members.
GOT7, a boy band that debuted in January by JYP Entertainment, has Hong Kong and Taiwanese-American members. JJCC, a boy band formed and trained by Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan, includes an Australian-Chinese member. Similarly, JYP added two Chinese to Miss A in an apparent bid to recruit more Chinese fans.
"Chinese members of K-pop groups can serve a role of bridge between the two countries as they make Chinese people feel familiar with them," Hang Joon-min, a JYP official, told Yonhap News Agency.
"China has vast land and many talented people, so we expect more and more Chinese artists will be recruited into the industry through auditions by Korean entertainment agencies."
These localization efforts are bearing some fruit.
According to the latest data released by the Korea Creative Content Agency affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, South Korea saw its exports of cultural content to China grew on an annual average of 28.1 percent from 2010 to 2012. Exports of pop music products, in particular, jumped more than 10 times from US$850,000 in 2006 to $8.86 million in 2012.
Also as part of efforts to bypass China's strict government restrictions on importing and broadcasting of foreign cultural content, Korean entertainment agencies recently began to join hands with Chinese information-technology firms to effectively promote their products on the Internet.
China is now home to over 618 million Internet users, with more new users in the country relying on mobile devices to go online, according to Chinese government figures.
On May 8, S.M. Entertainment signed a memorandum of mutual understanding (MOU) for a strategic alliance with Baidu Inc., operator of China's biggest search engine. Under the alliance, the two sides agreed to promote "legal" music downloads of music files and videos by S.M.-managed artists and launch a K-pop music channel at Baidu Tieba, the online community service with some 90 million daily visitors, according to the South Korean company.
YG Entertainment that manages Psy, BigBang and 2NE1, launched an official channel on China's largest online video-streaming service Youku last year. YG agreed to exclusively release music and other videos of its artists to Chinese-speaking countries through the "YG Family Channel."
JYP Entertainment, with Rain, Wonder Girls and 2PM, signed a contract with Baudi to provide music files of its artists. It also produced a Korean TV reality show "I Got 7" featuring JYP's new boy band GOT7, jointly with Youku. The show is set to begin airing on the SBS MTV cable channel later this month.
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