Secrets of K-Pop and the Korean Music Industry With Bernie Cho, Part 1

DFSB Kollective President Bernie Cho has 20+ years in the Asian entertainment industry. In this two-part episode of How Music Charts, Bernie pulls the curtain back on K-Pop and the Korean music industry.

Secrets of K-Pop and the Korean Music Industry With Bernie Cho, Part 1
Jason Joven
Jason Joven
September 17, 20204 min read
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Bernie Cho is a music executive with more than 21 years of culture creation in the Asian music, television, and pop culture industries. As President of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based independent artist and label services agency that specializes in providing digital media, marketing, and distribution solutions to 600+ Korean Pop music artists, DFSB collaborates with artists and their management to devise customized strategies that directly connect them to their local and global fans. Since 2009, the agency has successfully produced numerous K-Pop concerts and showcases around the world, in addition to securing No. 1 chart debuts for various K-Pop albums in North America, Asia-Pacific, and Europe.

As one of the first and foremost K-Pop music exporters, DFSB Kollective and its artists have been featured speakers and/or performers at top international music industry events including CMJ, CMW, SXSW, Coachella, The Great Escape, Glastonbury, Summer Sonic, Music Matters, MusicBiz, and MIDEM. Bernie himself has been involved with the startup of six TV channels, two concert series, and one film festival.

A true executive all-rounder, Bernie served as the Head of MTV Korea’s Digital Media Production team and worked for nearly two decades in the Korean music and TV industries as a Creative Planner, Program Producer, and Show Host. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in Government/Asian Studies, attended the UCLA Executive Entertainment & Media Program, and graduated from the Foundation Film Program at Vancouver Film School.

Though Bernie has no relation to Chartmetric’s CEO Sung Cho, Bernie is an Advisor for several US and Korean music tech startups, including Chartmetric.

On the "full-stack business model" the Korean music agencies have and how similar it is to the computer technology sector:

"For those of you who are tech heads ... the most desired person that you want to hire in a tech company is the full stack developer ... and what that means is somebody who knows all the different parts of the development chain from concept to completion ... and they're a one-stop-shop ... and the full stack business model ... carries over into the K-Pop business culture because these Korean music companies ... they're a music label, they're a talent management company, and they're essentially a talent agency as well. So these are three different disciplines in the Western music markets."

Cho goes into the industry style's origin story, which is also endemic in other regions like Latin America:

"Many of the major labels ... really up until recently, were more concerned and interested in having Western acts succeed in Asia. The idea of Asian acts succeeding in the West was not really on their agenda, on their radar, or on their roadmap ... and so for a lot of Korean and Asian executives, there were [also] no [international] talent agencies to look to and lean on ... and so these Korean music management companies evolved into becoming the record label and becoming the talent agency."

For many Westerners, sizing the K-Pop industry is a hard thing to wrap one's head around, but Cho elaborates:

"People want to know how big the K-Pop industry is — it's huge.... If we look at the top Korean music companies — SM Entertainment, Big Hit Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment — each of these companies make more money annually than the top urban music label in the US, the top Latin music label in the US, and the top country music label in the US.... These top four Korean music companies generate more revenue than the music markets of all the countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia (with the exception of Japan and China), so the fact that individual companies generate more money than individual music markets speaks volumes."

In evidence of Chartmetric's concept of global "trigger cities" helping artists go viral outside of the traditional Western gate-keeping cities via streaming apps:

"You guys coined the phrase “trigger cities”.... We see this in our monthly royalty accounting reports and we get this confirmed by digital agencies who work with TikTok influencers. Cities that most people would not even think of as being sort of the ground zeroes and the hotbeds of what will make a song go viral not just locally or regionally but more importantly globally. And those cities include those in the Philippines, Indonesia, and of all places Mexico City.... When you look at analytics ... the reality is ... 90 percent of the YouTube views for K-Pop music videos are from outside of Korea.... We get royalty checks from Africa, the Middle East, Russia."

Having said that, Cho's experience reveals how E-sports and gaming constitutes a business that dwarfs even K-Pop:

"As big as K-Pop is, E-sports ... is even bigger. Of all the Korean pop culture exports, video games is actually number one.... It's basically 7.5 times bigger than music, TV, and movie exports combined. E-sports and video games are hands down the number one export of Korea.... I worked at MTV ages ago, and it was embarrassing that these Pro E-sports League channels were crushing MTV in the ratings."

Bernie Cho alludes to the digital influence of Seoul-based 1Million Dance Studio, here with choreography to Fitz and the Tantrums' 2016 "Handclap" (48M YouTube views as of September 2020).

Besides the obvious influence of short-form video platforms like TikTok and Triller, Cho also cites YouTube dance studio channels like Seoul's 1Million Dance Studio as major influencers that K-Pop fans flock to for the best choreography:

"1million dance studio is known to be the go-to choreographers for a lot of K-Pop artists.... [They are the] Platinum standard when it comes to K-Pop dance moves that a lot of kids are always looking to copy.... Those videos go viral.... they rack up not just millions ... hundreds of millions of views.... They've got more juice than DJs and VJs and TV producers in terms of breaking songs."

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Listen to Secrets of K-Pop and the Korean Music Industry With Bernie Cho, Part 1 on your favorite podcast listening platform here.