Video settings

Please Log in to update your video settings

Video will begin in 5 seconds.

Recommended

Replay video

Video settings

Please Log in to update your video settings

Asian Pop is on the rise

It's polished, beautiful and worth a lot of money. Welcome to the wonderful world of Asian Pop.

PT5M9S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2yvux 620 349

Four years ago, Barom Yu hopped on a plane from Sydney to Seoul. South Korea had a thriving breakdancing scene and the Australian was a keen B-boy, his YouTube tutorials having racked up millions of views.

Fed up with his studies at Sydney University, Yu had decided to go to Seoul to check out the scene and connect with his familial roots.

Not many people realise that K-pop in Korea is actually dying ... in Australia and Europe it's just blooming right now 

He was walking down a street not long after he arrived when a man stopped him and asked how old he was. "I was kind of suspicious because [he was] dressed in a suit on a really hot day," says the 23-year-old. "I wanted to tell him I don't really roll that way. Then he said, 'Don't be scared, it's not something weird'. So I said OK, so what's this about?"

Barom Yu.

Barom Yu was talent-spotted while walking the streets in Seoul.

The man was a representative from Yedang Entertainment, scouting for talent for a new idol band. The company already had three members, and was looking for three more. The representative knew nothing of Yu's musical talents; he just liked the dancer's look.

Yu spent two years as a trainee, taking classes in dance, vocals, acting, Chinese and Japanese with his fellow singers before their band, C-CLOWN, debuted. It is a gruelling life: they are under contract for seven years and work every day, from early in the morning till late at night. But the rewards can be great: K-pop's biggest stars have lucrative endorsements and many transition to acting. Yu hopes to use it as a stepping stone into photography and filmmaking.

Many of Korea's music companies routinely hold auditions outside the country; some even hold them via Facebook. The most successful company, SM Entertainment, says it receives 300,000 applicants from nine countries every year. Most non-Korean band members are Chinese or American, but Yu, who now goes by the name of Rome, is not the only Australian in this billion-dollar music industry. Brisbanite Jason "Hanbyul" Jang is a member of LEDapple, while Kristine "Hayana" Yoon, from Sydney's Canada Bay sings with girl group EvoL.

Barom Yu (second from right) with his South Korean boy band C-CLOWN.

Barom Yu (second from right) with his South Korean boy band C-CLOWN.

Malaysian Australian Che'Nelle (Cheryline Lim) got herself noticed the old-fashioned way - when she uploaded songs she had recorded at her home in Perth and put them on MySpace. She was signed to a label in America, but it was in Japan that her career really took off: her debut album went to No. 12 on the charts and she has had three top 10 albums there in the last three years.

She chalks up her success in Japan to a quirk of fate: her Japanese rep was so impressed with her impromptu rendition of a Japanese song that he decided she should record in the local language. Luv Songs, her 2011 album in English and Japanese, went to No. 3 and stayed on the charts for two years.

"I hear a lot from the team at the label and they talk about what is attracting the fans. One thing I guess is that I sing really well [laughs] and also … me being a foreigner and singing in Japanese attracts them. It's a combination of all of that. And I'm just like, hey, whatever works!"

Writer-producer Louis Schoorl, in his recording studio in Darlinghurst.

Writer-producer Louis Schoorl, in his Darlinghurst recording studio. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Yu and Che'nelle have both become better known outside Asia, thanks partly to SBS's Pop Asia, which broadcasts pop from the region through digital radio and on television on Saturdays and Sundays. The weekend shows are a sensory feast: budgets for the clips routinely run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Slick dance routines are performed against stunningly detailed CG backdrops ranging from old-style Hollywood glamour to futuristic dystopias. Then there is the music. The sound of Asian pop varies wildly; not just from band to band, but from song to song. During two hours on Pop Asia, you might hear hard EDM, swaggering hip-hop, big band swing, retro Motown-style pop, dubstep womp, indie rock or slinky electronica with a tango break. What they have in common is that they rarely bust the three-minute mark and they're all bursting with hooks.

"It's very interesting, the Asian work, because I think there's no limitations, they try everything," says songwriter and music publisher Hayden Bell. "They're not scared to throw in crazy heavy metal guitars over the most simple playing or a hard pop beat. There's no barriers."

Bell is just one of the Australian songwriters providing hits for the Asian pop market, along with his wife Sarah Lundback-Bell and others including former Australian Idol contestant Thanh Bui, Melbourne's Hayley Aitkin and twins Olivia and Miriam Nervo, and Sydney's Peter Hyun and Louis Schoorl.

Singer Che'Nelle.

Malaysian-Australian singer Che'Nelle, big in Japan. Photo: Mark Sacro.

In 2009, Bell and Lundback-Bell founded the publishing company The Kennel. Since then they have provided a string of hits for some of Asia's biggest singers and bands, including BoA, Super Junior and Girls' Generation.

Last month, I Got a Boy, a song Lundback-Bell wrote for Korea's Girls' Generation, won the YouTube Music Award for Video of the Year. The song's YouTube views of about 80 million are seriously shy of Psy's viral hit Gangnam Style, which is the most watched video on the site, but the rapper is yet to prove he is more than a one-hit wonder, while I Got a Boy is just one of many hits for the perky nine-piece.

I Got a Boy takes the "no barriers" philosophy, rushing through myriad styles, rhythms and tempos; pushing the usual tidy three minutes out to 4.30. "Sarah was behind that one," says Bell. "She was like, 'The mentality of that market is they listen to five or 10 seconds of a song on YouTube, then click to the next one then flick to the next one. [So] let's give them a song all in one with about nine different songs - to keep the attention span'. It worked."

But there's more to success in this competitive industry than writing a smart song: SM Entertainment, the biggest player in K-pop, says it listens to about 12,000 songs a year. How does an Australian songwriter - or anyone - make their song stand out?

"You've gotta have the right product, the right song, the right sound, the right production level and then you obviously need luck," says Adelaide-born Bui, who co-wrote a song called Picture of You that went to No. 1 when it was recorded by Korean boy band TVXQ. "Music is such a taste thing, it's not mathematics and it's not science."

That doesn't stop people from trying to crack the formula. In February last year Sydney music publisher David Rowley organised an international songwriting camp - attended by Jessica Mauboy and Natalie Bassingthwaighte, among others - led by key figures from around the world, including representatives from SM Entertainment. "They spent two days telling the writers about the acts they were working with, the dynamics of K-Pop and what they were looking for,'' Rowley says. ''They said first of all the song needs to be constructed so a choreographer has something to work with … [they want] a big chorus, and of course there are the 10 words that everybody who lives in Korea or Japan knows in English - use 'em."

Rowley says "the Japanese have a slightly different formula". And it's this formula that can lead to rivers of gold: with physical CD sales of 80 per cent (Australia's are 53.7 per cent according to ARIA's 2012 report), the Japanese market is arguably the most lucrative in the world.

Che'nelle is forthright when asked if she feels as if she hit the jackpot with her unexpected success in the country. "Something like that, something like that!" she says. "I feel very blessed to be in a market where physical sales are so huge."

Sydneysider Louis Schoorl is another who has broken through in Japan: on a trip to Stockholm last year he wrote a song with Erik Lewander and Ylva Dimberg of The Kennel that was recently released by Girls' Generation and will appear on their forthcoming Japanese album Girls and Peace. The perky retro track My-Oh-My has notched up more than 10 million YouTube views in a month.

Schoorl was born in Holland and moved to Sydney about 10 years ago. He spent some time playing in bands before setting up his Darlinghurst studio.

He has co-written X-Factor contestant Taylor Henderson's No. 1 song Borrow My Heart and worked with Jessica Mauboy, Guy Sebastian and Daniel Johns. He had a song on Girls' Generation's last album but says having a single released by the group is opening more doors for him. "I'll probably have to go to Tokyo and Korea early next year, do some writing sessions there with their writers."

But now the West is opening its eyes to the Asian pop world, the industry is becoming competitive. "There is a lot of money being made in the Asian music market, there are a lot of big American writers trying to get in,'' he says. ''The No. 1 in Japan makes more money than the No. 1 in America."

Yu, Bui and Rowley all agree the market in Korea has reached saturation.

"Not many people [outside] realise that K-pop in Korea is actually dying," says Yu. "Idols come out week after week after week. Now, when the audiences see a new idol [group], they won't look for five seconds, they won't look at all, it doesn't matter about skills or how good the team is. I mean the good thing is that in Australia and Europe and other Asian countries, everything must be new to them, it's just blooming right now."

"Everything has its time," says Bui. "The K-pop thing happened and it's great because it has put Asian faces in the international eye, and before this there was essentially nobody."

Bui, who was born in Australia to Vietnamese parents, recently moved to Ho Chi Minh City where he continues to write and record and has opened a music school for children.

"With markets such as Vietnam, South East Asia and China I think there's massive potential in the future,'' he says. ''I think people here are hungry for good quality music and I think there are big opportunities for Asian artists to collaborate with international artists and for international artists to collaborate with Asian artists."

Che'Nelle's Aishiteru and C-Clown's Shaking Heart are available on iTunes. Girls' Generation's Love and Peace is out next week. Pop Asia airs on SBS2 on Saturdays, 6pm, and Sundays, 4pm.