J-Pop and K-Pop, respectively, refer to wildly popular (and lucrative) genres of pop music recorded in Japan and South Korea. In many instances, these songs garner airplay and sales in additional Asian countries, and are sometimes translated into Mandarin for promotion in the Chinese market, as well.
Young hopeful artists compete in American Idol-type auditions. Those who are chosen are groomed for years, studying vocal technique and dance. In addition to singing, they perform synchronized dance routines in elaborately produced videos to help promote the songs. Attesting to the popularity of the genre, a video for a hit J-Pop or K-Pop song typically gets more than 100 million YouTube views.
While solo artists such as Japan’s Ayumi Hamasaki (known as the Empress of J-Pop) and Namie Amuro (who has sold more than 43 million recordings) have had phenomenal successes, the genre tends to be dominated by bands with large numbers of members. For example, Japan’s Morning Musume is comprised of eleven members. Korea’s Twice has nine members; Girls’ Generation consists of eight members; Got7 and BTS (aka Bangtan Boys) each have seven members. Japan’s AKB48, the top-selling J-Pop act, with more than 40 million record sales and (29) #1 singles, has more than 48 members and its own theater.
The fervent fan reactions elicited by the top Asian artists harken back to Beatlemania, the teen and pre-teen fan hysteria associated with the 90’s-era boy bands, and currently, Justin Bieber and One Direction. Faithful fans wait outside the offices and recording studios of the top record labels in Tokyo and Seoul, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars. Fans flock to entertainment complexes that, in addition to merchandise such as T-shirts, books, and CDs, offer everything from holographic concerts, memorabilia, and band-branded snacks, to vocal and dance lessons.
Stylistically, some of the songs are reminiscent of the mid- to late-90s, when boy bands such as NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, and Boyz II Men dominated the pop charts and the airwaves. Songs recorded by female J-Pop and K-Pop artists draw comparisons to the songs that artists such as Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, TLC, and En Vogue have recorded.
Urban, R & B, pop, hip-hop, and techno-pop influences can be heard in various recordings, as well as similarities to those released by current international pop stars, such as One Direction and Justin Bieber. Many of the songs have R&B or soul music elements and some of them include raps.
EDM (electronic dance music) is rapidly gaining in popularity throughout Asia, with several of the top record labels opening divisions that focus exclusively on dance music.
What Makes a Song Great for Asian Markets
According to hit songwriter/producer Ross Lara (Archipelago Entertainment) who has had tremendous success in Asia, “Forward thinking tracks and arrangements work well in these markets. More importantly, vocal production is key. There need to be vocal parts written for multiple members of the music group. A common theme amongst K-Pop and J-Pop songs are explosive choruses. On average, American hits are simplified and might not introduce new elements when the first chorus hits. In K-Pop, choruses really lift sonically and melodically.”
“Consider K-Pop as a chance to be innovative and try new sounds. Many of the artists are groups, usually ranging from 4 - 10 members, and are performance-driven, which pushes the records to be versatile with both production and songwriting.” – Rachel Seokyung Lee, International A & R, America Division, S.M. Entertainment Co., Ltd.
The songs tend to be sung in the language of the country where they are promoted (i.e., Japanese, Korean, or Mandarin). In some cases, K-Pop hits are translated to Japanese and Mandarin for international release. Songs written in English are translated, with the translator (sometimes referred to as the “adaptation lyricist”) being granted a percentage of the writers’ share. This percentage tends to range from 15 - 50%, with the percentage tending to be higher in Japan. However, it is typical for the song’s title to be sung in English, and for the lyric to be lightly peppered with English-language words. An example of this can be heard in J-Pop trio Perfume’s hit, “Pick Me Up.”
The fact that the lyric will be translated does not mean it is unimportant. In addition to the concept remaining the same, in many instances, the translation closely reflects the meaning of the original lyric. So, fresh, original titles, concepts, and lines of lyric give songs an edge.
The typical J-Pop song has one verse and a pre-chorus, followed by a chorus that repeats. K-Pop songs are more likely to incorporate a wider variety of the structures found in Western hits. For example: Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus, or Verse – Pre-Chorus – Chorus –Verse – Pre – Pre-Chorus – Chorus.
When asked to contrast what works in the Korean market, as compared to in Japan, a top Japanese publisher stated, “The songs and productions sung by Korean artists are more Western-style than J-Pop because the Koreans have been working more with American and European producers and songwriters. More K-Pop songs are ‘aggressive’ and are released throughout the world.”
A strong example of a huge K-Pop hit that might be categorized as “aggressive” is EXO’s “ Overdose.”
Vince Degiorgio (hit songwriter/producer and President, Cymba Music Publishing, Canada and Chapter 2 Productions, Inc.) has had great success in Asia. Degiorgio stated, “What makes a song great for the Asian market is the attention to melody, lyrics that lock into that melody with artistic precision, and a true pop mentality within your song structure.
There is more musicality in songs that are placed in Asia than in some other countries, where linear and flat productions might get placed. If the harmonic structure of your melody fits the local language, you could really have something. When it gets to the chorus, your song has to lift. Music is constantly on television, so exciting dramatic changes that bring the energy to a fever pitch will really help your chances.”
Degiorgio added, “Korea’s A&R teams seem to have a far more American approach in their mentality, while Japan’s A&R choices are more of a classic, world-pop flavor. I’ve always felt that the K-Pop song is steeped in a lot of 80’s rhythm patterns, featured break-beats, and sing-a-long choruses.
Rock songs are always a challenge, as there are only a few groups that do rock that would take outside songs. From an international point of view, some global superstars have had a real lack of success in places like Japan because their songs are too indigenous to their own countries. Japan has their own styles of rock and rock/pop.”
It has been estimated that eighty percent of the songs recorded for the K-Pop market are written by songwriters based in the United States or Europe, with the majority of the European songs coming from Sweden. So, how can you pitch your songs in Asia?
“Before you even consider pitching songs for this market, do your homework. Jump on YouTube and do some research. Hit the web. Listen to the artists’ vocal ranges and how songs work for the markets you want to approach. Everyone knows the big stars, but unless you are poised to hit the jackpot from the get-go, your first placement might be with a debut act or someone who is not of the greatest stature at that time. Grow with the person who picked your song!
Ask your music publisher (if you have one) if they are connected in that market, and have them gather information. Unlike the U.S. model, where many pitch directly to the A&R person for an artist, protocol and having a connection to these international markets is based on relationships through your publisher. They deliver the songs for you.
If you are interested in these markets and are unpublished, talk to someone who has had that success and perhaps they have a publisher or representative that can assist you.” – Ross Lara, Archipelago Entertainment
By searching online you can learn which songs and artists are currently topping the charts in various countries. Study their videos on YouTube, noting the song structures, musical styles, chord progressions, vocal range, and production.
Doors will be more apt to open if you are represented by a music publisher with a strong network of business connections in Asia, or a sub-publisher based in those territories. It is not uncommon to give up as much as 50% of the copyright for some of Japan’s biggest acts. A publisher or sub-publisher who regularly does business in Asia will likely know what terms are expected–and acceptable–in a given territory.
“Operating on a basis of full disclosure is a must when doing business– and in Japan, it is especially important. A previously recorded song, even if it is something that was wildly unsuccessful, is still a previously recorded song. Quite simply, if you are pitching a song with a history, tell the story and don’t leave anything out.” – Ross Lara
Well-produced demos are essential when pitching for the Asian market. Vince Degiorgio stated, “No matter what country you are pitching for, a vocal that is a true demonstration presentation of your song gets you a better shot.”
Lara added, “Writing camps are popular in the K-Pop market. There is something very special that happens when ten people are under one roof, writing songs for the artists under a label. A&R’s are engaged every step of the way, resulting in outstanding songs. I imagine there are a plethora of writers and publishers who would like to participate in K-Pop who submit their work regularly. Due to geographic constraints, this is the best they can do, but I think immersing yourself in Korean culture and working in Korea will give outstanding results.”
Some labels accept song submissions from unsolicited sources. The top J-Pop record labels are Sony, Universal, Avex, Johnny’s Entertainment. Korea’s most successful K-Pop labels are JYP, YG Entertainment, and S.M. Entertainment. You can learn their submission policies by contacting them directly.
Writing and placing songs in the Asian markets can be both artistically and financially rewarding. Here’s a final bit of advice from Ross Lara.
“Be patient. It might take a little time, but when your first song lands, it is the foundation of a long-term friendship and partnership with a label or an artist. It will also generate confidence with your international partners that you are someone who ‘gets it’ by delivering consistent market ready songs.”
I’d like to offer a “thank you” to all of those who contributed to this article, and an extra special acknowledgement to Ross Lara and Adara, and to Rachel Lee and the staff at S.M. Entertainment who gave me the opportunity to participate in a truly amazing writing camp in Seoul.
Jason Blume is the author of 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, This Business of Songwriting, and Inside Songwriting (Billboard Books). Jason’s song “Me” (written with John Acosta and Fredrik Carl Hult) is on Tomohisa Yamashito’s EP that debuted at #1 in Japan. His songs are on three Grammy-nominated albums and have sold more than 50,000,000 copies. One of only a few writers to ever have singles on the pop, country, and R&B charts, all at the same time— his songs have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Gipsy Kings, Jesse McCartney, and country stars including Collin Raye (6 cuts), the Oak Ridge Boys, Steve Azar, and John Berry (“Change My Mind,” a top 5 single that earned a BMI “Million-Aire” Award for garnering more than one million airplays). Jason’s song “Can’t Take Back the Bullet” is on Hey Violet’s recent EP that debuted in the top-10 in twenty-two countries and reached #1 throughout Scandinavia and Asia. He’s had three top-10 singles in the past two years and a “Gold” record in Europe by Dutch star, BYentl, including a #1 on the Dutch R&B iTunes chart.
Jason’s songs have been included in films and TV shows including “Scrubs,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Assassination Games,” “Black or White,” Disney’s “Kim Possible” “Dangerous Minds,” “Kickin’ It Old Skool,” “The Guiding Light,” “The Miss America Pageant,” and many more. Jason is in his twentieth year of teaching the BMI Nashville Songwriters workshops. A regular contributor to BMI’s Music World magazine, he presented a master class at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (founded by Sir Paul McCartney), served as a consultant on the state of the music business for CNN International, and teaches songwriting throughout the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, the U.K., Canada, Bermuda, and Jamaica.
After twelve years as a staff-writer for Zomba Music, Blume now runs Moondream Music Group. For additional information about Jason’s online SongSchool critiques and webinars, latest books, instructional audio recordings, and workshops, visit www.jasonblume.com.