Making it in Seoul: how some Canadians are moving to South Korea to become K-pop stars

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: CBC News:
October 20, 2023 at 13:21
For singers including Junny and P1Harmony's Keeho, moving was what they needed to make a name for themselves
Junny (left) and P1Harmony's Keeho have found different routes to success through a move to Seoul. (Submitted by artists; design by CBC Music)
Junny (left) and P1Harmony's Keeho have found different routes to success through a move to Seoul. (Submitted by artists; design by CBC Music)

Written by Nadia Trudel.

Korean acts have taken over the charts in recent years, making K-pop — a term used to encompass an industry and genre — a global phenomenon. The term hallyu, or Korean wave, is used to describe the cultural phenomenon surrounding the rise in popularity of South Korean pop culture globally, but the Korean wave isn't just about exporting culture — it's also about importing talent.

While few artists end up making it in such a competitive industry, the modern K-pop industry actively searches for new talent through a global open-audition process, which has always included the U.S., China, and Japan. In recent years, though, the net has widened to recruit artists from countries including Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Canada.

And for some young Canadians, particularly those from the Asian diaspora, the Korean music industry has presented exciting new opportunities, ones that haven't always been available in their home markets. This has led to an increasing number of artists — including Canadians Henry Lau, Mark Lee of NCT, Jeon Somi, Seok Matthew of ZB1, and Jacob Bae and Kevin Moon of the Boyz — to successful careers in Seoul. 

For Toronto-born Keeho, becoming an idol trainee in Seoul happened naturally. "I was preparing for auditions for university and just for that experience I auditioned for the current company [FNC Entertainment] I'm under. It went very smoothly and one thing led to another, and I was somehow in South Korea training to become a K-pop idol."

"It surprised me because I really didn't think much of it, and my family didn't either," he continued. "It was just a really good opportunity so, 'Let's go try it out' was the mentality we had when we approached this invitation."

WATCH | The official video for P1Harmony's 'Jump': 

It was a hard adjustment after moving to Seoul in February 2018, but Keeho's efforts paid off when he debuted as the leader of the six-member group P1Harmony in 2020, which brought him back to his Toronto hometown this past July for the group's first Canadian concert dates. 

"[K-pop is] so perfected and polished," said Keeho, when asked why the genre and industry appealed to him. "It's so different and unique and so far away. There's so much to indulge in and enjoy. From music videos to YouTube content to shows. It's really like a huge carnival filled with everything you could possibly enjoy and once you get in, it's that much harder to get out."

Seoul-born and Vancouver-raised singer-songwriter Junny had an unconventional entry into the industry. He started out as an independent artist on Soundcloud, which led to the sale of his first song to a former member of the popular idol group EXO. After a trip to Korea, Junny decided to pack his bags for Seoul just before the pandemic. 

WATCH | The official video for Junny's 'Invitation': 

He describes K-pop's unique industry model as a place where companies typically serve as both record labels and representative agencies for artists. They recruit, train, finance and care for the artists, as well as manage the music, promotions, marketing, the list goes on. Whereas the American record label model — particularly the machine behind boy bands —  traditionally hides its involvement, K-pop companies become brands with recognizable signatures. 

"This is such an original way to create music and to create content and create artists," said Junny. "You can't see this anywhere else. And even the genre, as a songwriter you think if you stick with one thing this is the way you should go but K-pop doesn't do that. It's like a jumble of five different things altogether, and sometimes even the song can change in the middle, so it's very dynamic."

WATCH | An explainer on unexpected beat changes in K-pop: 

K-pop as 'just pop music'

Junny's first break in Seoul came when he was invited to a songwriting camp hosted by SM Entertainment, one of the traditional "Big Three" entertainment companies in South Korea. 

"Songwriters in America, they do it too but it's very private," explained Junny. "But in Korea, it's more like a formal invitational thing where these entertainment companies will contact the songwriters that they like. At the time, SM was very famous for bringing in a lot of foreign songwriters from the U.S., Sweden, Australia."

The song camp marked the start of Junny's relationship with the entertainment company, writing for SM artists including NCT U, NCT Dream, Baekhyun and Kai, as well as soloist and national sweetheart IU.  

"I think it's amazing that SM was able to give songwriters like me a chance," said Junny. "I had nothing on my name and to invite me just because of the music — I think that's what it's like in K-pop right now. They're looking for the best music possible; not who's written it, it's more what they've written."

WATCH | The official video for Junny's 'Not About You': 

Taeyoung Kim, a lecturer in communications and media at Loughborough University who studies creative industries and globalization, agrees.

"It is a good idea to re-approach K-pop as just [a] pop music genre rather than defining them as a merely pop music genre from Korea. Many fans like BTS, Blackpink or other K-pop idols because of their music or individual characters or choreographies, not because of their nationality."

The carnival of K-pop, as Keeho described, has also created passionate fanbases that are resulting in fans who audition to become idols. 

"I think we are looking at a phenomenon of mirroring — a lot of people who are auditioning for the global auditions happen to be K-pop fans who often are looking up to a couple of K-pop idols and are aiming at working in the same industry," says Mathieu Berbiguier, a UCLA PhD student whose research focuses on the Korean wave and fandoms.

As much as the K-pop industry is often sensationalized in the West, it does offer new hope, especially to young Asian creatives. The idol model offers a kind of democratization and accessibility, at least in theory. Even behind the scenes, the competitive spirit and openness allow opportunities for songwriters and producers located all over the world, including Canadians DJ Swivel, who worked with Beyoncé and Britney Spears before working with juggernaut K-pop group BTS, and Jenna Andrews, who's written for Drake and Carly Rae Jepsen as well as K-pop groups TVXQ! and Girls' Generation.

"I just hope for artists like me in the future, we can represent artists in Canada and show the world that we're killing it — and for kids like me, growing up in an Asian household and not being able to really not figure out who they are," said Junny. "It feels good to make a name for myself, and have a lot of people enjoy my music all over the world."

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