Courtesy of cube entertainment
For someone who earns a living from the industry, the man whose company manages K-pop bands including 4Minute has something startling to say: The K-pop wave might be cresting.
He is Park Chung Min, chief executive officer of South Korean record label Cube Entertainment, which manages girl group 4Minute who performed a set here at Sunday's Straits Times Appreciates Readers (Star) concert.
Park, 38, told Life! in Singapore in Korean via a translator: "We are concerned that there are a lot of groups debuting all the time, and yet the market is limited. It is definitely something that we have on our radar."
He was here on July 17 for a 4Minute meet-up with fans at Plaza Singapura and to promote season two of cable channel talent search series tvN K-pop Star Hunt.
Cube, which has sub-labels, also manages bands such as Beast, A Pink and BTOB, and solo artists such as Canadian-Korean singer G.NA.
But Park - who, as a record label CEO, has his finger on the pulse of global pop-culture trends - is not shooting himself in the foot in pointing out that K-pop is getting saturated with new bands.
That is because he sees it as a challenge that Cube Entertainment and the industry are addressing by moving away from cookie-cutter formats and coming up with new approaches and a wider range of target marketing to stay on top of things.
And so, as he told Life!, he is confident that K-pop will not head the way anytime soon of once-hot trends or industries, such as Japanese pop (J-pop) and the Hong Kong movie industry, both of which have seen better days.
Park described the elements of K-pop music, which can be divided into three categories: the music, the looks, and the performance.
Speaking at an interview at Equarius Hotel, Resort World Sentosa, he noted: "It involves house, electronic DJ music, which makes the beat, and it's the way they dress, the style. It is also the way the performance is choreographed. When these three come together, it becomes something fresh."
And these elements will never change, said Park. They continue to be attractive and appealing, hence K-pop still receives a lot of support from Asia and all over the world.
With a limited domestic market, Cube is looking outwards, but not necessarily the big market of America.
Park added: "Most of the public and people in the industry believe that once you become a big K-pop star, the United States market is the next market to tap because it is the biggest. But I don't really see the viability in that."
He added: "Right now, those who have tapped into the US market haven't been successful in the eyes of the average Americans."
Asian stars who have tried in vain to make their US breakthrough include Korean superstar Rain - who has seen moderate success with sell-out concerts in America in 2006 and movie roles in action films such as Ninja Assassin (2009) - and Korean singers Se7en and BoA, top Japanese-American singer Utada Hikaru and Chinese diva Coco Lee.
He is not ruling out the US market - "We have G.NA, who's fluent in English and knows the culture" - but is adamant about not making it Cube's main goal.
Instead, Cube's strategic plan is to match "the potential of the artists to the markets they can tap into".
"There are different cultures and ways of running business in various countries. If you don't know the culture, just because you can speak the language or have a great song, that's not a key factor of success," said the CEO, who began his career as a composer and producer in 1994.
This is also a reason why Cube teamed up with cable channel tvN to look for talent in different countries, who know their own cultures, via a wider platform.
Knowing a few words in a different language is no longer enough to tap other markets. Neither can K-pop stars rest on their laurels.
Park, who is married, said: "Language is a tool, you've to be fluent, for example in Japanese, if you want to enter the Japanese market.
"Also, the idea of a K-pop star people have is good-looking, pretty, skinny tall and good at singing and dancing. Since everyone is like that now, we have to differentiate ourselves."
An example is boyband BTOB's seven members, who can speak Korean, Japanese, Chinese, English and some Spanish, which allows "them to cover a very wide variety of target audiences". Furthermore, they play instruments, "so they're able to form an actual band".
Park sees no need or rush to produce cookie-cutter robots to beat the competition, even with Cube pouring in time and money. Such investment can include making blockbuster music videos. Costs are comparable to what pop artists such as Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga might spend - ranging from US$120,000 to US$500,000, said Park.
And for tvN K-pop Star Hunt season one winner, Thai student Chonnasorn Sajakul, 15, who is now training under Cube, he said it is too early to let her debut because although 'she has an innate ability to sing, her voice has yet to connect with her heart'.
He explained: "We need time to know her better, to find out what kind of artist she can be and give her the right training for that. We don't want to cover her artistic expression with our training system and turn her into a robotic artist that you can see everywhere."
To stay afloat amid stiff competition in the K-pop industry, Park has a couple of ideas up his sleeve.
Quoting an industry saying that "all composition of melodies ended with Mozart", he said: "I'm looking at bringing the 'old school' back, by reinterpreting the oldies. You can see that in some of the dance moves today, those with a 1970s or 1980s feel."
The K-pop industry is all about setting trends, and what Park does is to eschew the traditional line of K-pop production. He said: "Usually the music comes first, then the styling, then the performance and lastly, the music video. But I don't do that, I try to break that rule. Styling could beget music, or give birth to the performance."
And for Park, who has a nightly production meeting, it is a never-ending race to stay trendy.
He said with a laugh: "My team includes professionals such as stylists and my visual director, and I entrust them to do their research and they inform me of all the new trends. That makes me trendy, because I get all these reports."