If you want proof that investing in music as an ecosystem – across education, industry development, health, public policy and infrastructure – works, look at South Korea. This week, K-Pop superstars BTS sold an estimated 1.35 million tickets for their Sowoozoo live stream event, grossing $71 million from viewers in 135 countries from one concert. This one live stream is not an outlier. It is the result of deliberate, intentional state policy, over two decades, positioning music as a priority sector. It is this set of policies that recognise music’s soft power capabilities, impact on tourism and national branding, and the ability to cut across culture, language and divides and offer a product that appeals to anyone. These policies are so successful, K-Pop has been added to the national curriculum and music, as a sector, is one of the nation’s top exports, alongside cars, IT and semiconductors. This did not happen from circumstance. This was deliberate. And this could happen anywhere.
In 1997-1998, South Korea was in the midst of a financial crisis. It required a substantial loan from the International Monetary Fund to restructure its debt and it left South Korea, at the time, with a tarnished national brand. Fearing a brain drain and an inability to attract top talent, a Ministry of Culture (alongside tourism and sport) was created, with a specific department responsible for developing locally made and owned pop music, along with film, fashion, dance and art. This coincided with the end of state censorship (in 1996) and the removal of a cultural embargo with Japan in 2000, which led to an upsurge in Japanese consumption of Korean culture, prompting a need to meet the demand of the new audience. Music, along with other forms of culture, was seen as a way to accelerate economic recovery, so policies to support cultural development and investment to support the making and marketing of music were made. This was not funding. This was an investment. By 2011, K-Pop was finding new audiences around the world, including a sell out showcase at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
The investment was steady and patient. In 1999, 9% of primary school students surveyed wished to be entertainers. By 2012, that number had skyrocketed to 38% of all students. Investment from 2009 to 2013 grew from 1 billion Korean Won to 319 billion Korean Won, or $280 million USD at the time. This will increase to over 696 billion Won (or $584 billion USD) next year so, according to the government, it can “promote the nation’s soft power”. This is a 42.7% increase from 2019, demonstrating the South Korean government’s understanding of the power that music has to drive recovery. Music is now the single largest investment in the Ministry’s portfolio and the sector is the world’s six most profitable music sector, despite only representing 8% of global output.
It doesn’t stop there. Music is a core subject in primary and secondary schools. Many cities, including Seoul and Tongyeung, have substantive music cities policies, including the public investment in Seoul’s Changdong 61 district, a suburb developed as a music hub, complete with its own venue ladder (from small club to a new arena) to Tongyeung’s inclusion as a UNESCO City of Music. Music is also integrated intentionally into healthcare, for example being incorporated into care for COVID-19 patients.
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All of this derived from state policies that enforced, until the late 1990s, the exact opposite approach. Popular music was banned. Pursuing music as a career was not supported. But as interest in culture expanded, instead of leaving it to chance, the South Korean authorities – across national, regional and local government – understood that music, like any other sector, could create a disproportionate impact if it received the investment it required to grow. From education to health care, providing spaces and places for music to direct investment in industry development and tourism, Korean music has become a global phenomenon and with it, has returned billions of dollars of the state’s coffers. As stated in an article detailing the history of K-Pop in Vox, “none of this is accidental.”
This is not a perfect system. No system is. Censorship is still rife in South Korea. Not all cities have intentional music policies. Mental health is a substantial problem in the music sector, especially in K-Pop. The sector is ruthless and highly competitive. But the impact this music has on the world is due, in part, to state policies that recognised how valuable music can be for the wider economy, and the investment reflects that.
This intentional, regimented approach can be recreated anywhere. Sure, K-Pop’s unique blend of melodies, dancing and popular appeal may not be reflected in other genres, but music’s power to increase trade, improve branding and support the development of everyone is a tool available to everyone.
This is especially prevalent now, as we recover from the global pandemic. It is this approach that deserves replicating, but to be successful, all governments require a seriousness and commitment to investment that most lack when it comes to music and culture. In the UK for example, a missed opportunity is happening in real time, as music is being ignored as a sector post Brexit, rather than as a strategic investment. In others, music remains a nice to have or something to support, but not to invest in. Yet, the fruits of this labour are staring all of us in the face. The roadmap has been created. And now, for all of us to see, in every ticket sold to watch BTS on a livestream, there’s proof it works.