A few weeks ago, Thailand’s Creative Economy Agency launched a strategy aimed at rivaling Korea’s K-pop as a global cultural phenomenon and overtaking it over time. The strategy, according to Chakrit Pichyangkul, director of the agency, aims to globalize Thai popular culture by promoting three pillars – people, business and locations. Interestingly, one of the first projects is a Metaverse culture lab whose aim is to ensure that everything done in real life is mirrored online, a strategy Korean record labels and management companies have been employing for over a decade. At the same time, halfway around the world, Zimbabwe has released a UNESCO-backed music strategy aimed at developing artists and music IP to boost the country’s GDP and create new jobs. There, the government’s stated goal is to develop a sustainable music industry and “to use music as a tool to improve the country’s image and to leverage the Zimbabwean diaspora for consumption and investment in the sector”. K-pop might come first, but next we might see T-pop or Z-pop.
The development of the Korean pop music and culture sector, respectively hallyu as it is called, was a two-decade long, patient and intentional state-structured process. After a recession, some progressive policymakers recognized the potential impact of music and culture as a way out of debt. In 1997, after being humiliated by asking the IMF for an emergency loan to deal with a financial crisis, investment was channeled into a publicly managed national rebranding project based on music, arts and culture streams. What came out is what we see on BTS, NCT 127 or Girlpink, but each stream began with educational programs and talent development initiated, funded and directed in the public interest and with public money. What is being celebrated now may not be a model that will work everywhere, but it shows what could be true everywhere – that there is economic and social potential in music and culture, and with it the benefits of soft power and positive national branding. As countries and regions strive to establish economic recovery strategies and create socially sustainable economies that drain less from our environment, music and culture are recognized as a viable avenue. The raw materials are extracted from our heads, not from the ground. And the possibilities are limitless. This is something to celebrate as there will never be “Peak” music unlike Peak Oil.
National and intergovernmental authorities are listening and in more places than ever before, and are influenced by South Korea by taking action, strategizing and spending. For example, the Organization of American States has partnered with the Dominican government to develop a strategy that will explore how to create long-term, paid jobs in the creative industries. In the Caribbean, music is often a sideline as most opportunities, bar a few superstars, lie in the cash tourism-led creative economy, which depends on external factors like weather and capital flows. A project by the Chinese giant Tencent and Billboard Magazine named Chinese Music Gravity aims to promote Chinese pop music around the world. Even Oman has deliberately dabbled in music, using an Arabic hit as a tool to promote the country as an investment opportunity. The continued UK chart success of Spanish speaking artists, from Rosalia to J. Balvin, validates this opportunity.
It’s an encouraging start, but there have been far more failures than successes. The downfall of these initiatives is that they come and go, like the governments that implement them. Music is a long-term investment, as South Korea shows. Canada introduced a content quota in 1971 and has since invested in funding music of all genres and disciplines. It can take a decade or two for an artist from China, Zimbabwe or Thailand to gain a significant following abroad. This has yet to be recognized or well understood. Creating a strategy is one thing. Another is to pursue long-term educational investments, infrastructure and grassroots policies that ensure music is taken seriously in local and national contexts. Until Psy’s unlikely hit Gangnam style In 2012, only a few Korean artists made their breakthrough worldwide. And that was 15 years after the original policy and investment was made to develop Korean music and culture for international audiences.
But this expansion of nations that take music seriously is encouraging. Mexico, for example, released its first ever report charting the size of its commercial sector. Belize is launching an international music tourism plan for the first time. The Philippines are also preparing one.
With these strategies comes more music, more stories introducing new cultures and experiences, and, as talented artists find audiences, more income and jobs.