By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Jan. 3 (Yonhap) -- Webtoons are fun to read with catchy visuals and creative stories, and they want to offer more to attract readers with differentiated content: music for your ears.
While background music and sound effects have been used in some digital comics optimized for reading on mobile devices, audio had been considered to be background content for webtoons, widely popular among young readers, in the past.
The trend has changed as webtoon providers are actively collaborating with the music industry to produce original soundtracks (OST) for popular series to capitalize on the rising popularity of Korean content in the global market.
Since 2020, a growing number of K-pop bands and renowned musicians have featured vocals for webtoons published on major portals, including Naver and Kakao, and several theme songs have swept local music streaming charts.
The webtoon OST market gathered further momentum last year when the global K-pop sensation BTS created songs for the Naver webtoon and web novel titled "7Fates: Chakho," an urban fantasy inspired by the septet.
Its theme song "Stay Alive," produced by Suga and sung by Jungkook of BTS, was an instant sensation upon its release in February 2022. It topped iTunes Top Songs charts in over 100 nations, and entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the British Official Singles Chart.
So far, "Stay Alive" has garnered 170 million streams on Spotify, the world's No. 1 music streaming subscription platform that offers an independent section for "K-Webtoon OST" songs.
In line with the latest trend, webtoon companies are exploring ways to use their intellectual property (IP) rights on multiple platforms.
Naver Webtoon, the nation's leading webtoon provider, plans to launch a music show tentatively titled "Webtoon Singer" in collaboration with Tving, entertainment giant CJ ENM's streaming service.
Contestants will sing songs from webtoon soundtracks on the show, which will use motion captures and extended reality to animate 2-D characters.
Producers of hit music shows, including "Super Star K" (2009-16) "Show Me the Money" (2012-) and "Street Woman Fighter" (2021), will helm the series, according to Tving.
Industry watchers say the soundtracks can provide more immersive experiences for readers and serve as a marketing tool to widen the fan base.
"I think webtoon OST songs are meaningful in that they offer differentiated content to readers," pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik said. "As there are diverse webtoon genres, major portals are expected to play a central role in the market expansion."
From the perspective of ardent fans, the more the better.
In November, the popular Naver webtoon series "Return of the Blossoming Blade" released the second theme song "Full Bloom" by singer-songwriter Ahn Ye-eun. Its animated music video drew a positive response from its fans and has attracted 8.3 million views on YouTube.
"I laughed a lot when I read the webtoon, but after watching this beautiful video, I ended up crying as I read this story again!" a fan wrote in a YouTube post.
Kim said OSTs have limitations in building a solid fan base as they are mostly targeted at young readers in their 20s and 30s but focused on their synergy potential when webtoon intellectual properties are used in multiple formats, such as movies, dramas and animations.
"As webtoons have the potential of being adapted into dramas and movies for a global audience, they can create more synergy in such cases," he said.
The South Korean webtoon market was estimated at 1.6 trillion won (US$1.2 billion) in 2021, expanding four times from 2017, according to the data by the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA).
Several hit TV series, including "Reborn Rich," "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" and "All of Us Are Dead," were adapted from renowned web-based comics.
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