RAPID GROWTH has been one of the most representative facets of South Korea for decades. Having forged one of the fastest economic developments in East Asia through the so-called “Miracle on the Han River,” Korea has been at the center of global interest for many years. Not only in the economic sector but also in the cultural and entertainment sectors, South Korea has experienced phenomenal success. The music market, film market, TV broadcasting market, cosmetics market and more have been resulting in the “K-Anything*” syndrome for many years.
However, have you heard of K-Musical, or K-Theatre by any chance? While the K-Pop stars like Psy and BTS are making history on the charts of Billboard, and the K-Dramas are being broadcasted all around the globe, the performing arts industry is struggling to make a mark even on the domestic market. Why is the performing arts industry struggling to join the hall of fame? The following are some possible answers to the curiosity.
Unfortunate outlook of the “outlier”
The performing arts market is an “outlier” of the “miracle.” For starters, one should begin with recognizing the state of the performing arts industry. Kim Jung-min of Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) reported in his article “Industrialization Stage of Performing Arts” that the size of the South Korean performing arts market is significantly small compared to that of other developed countries. The domestic market is roughly around “one fiftieth of that of USA and one tenth of that of Japan.” In the case of Japan, though the Japanese performing arts industry did initiate a boom with imported foreign contents, its government is continuously making efforts to promote Japanese performances and performers overseas as one can witness from the Japan-owned theatre in Manhattan.
Even compared to the other arts industries within South Korea, the performing arts industry shows a relative inactivity. The graph, “Stages of Industrialization,” provides effective visualization of the position of the “outlier.”
The graph indicates where several subsections of the cultural industry locate themselves in the stages of industrialization. On the vertical axis is the size of the market and on the horizontal axis are the four stages of industrialization: initiation, development, maturity, and finally, decline. On the right-hand side of the graph, gaming, film, broadcast, and the music industry locate themselves as the four largest markets in the South Korean cultural society. In comparison, the circled triangle near the left end of the graph locates the performing arts industry. One can visually witness the position of the “outlier” near the low end of the graph, which once again pinpoints its abnormal state of underdevelopment as it is placed among other cultural industries.
The working conditions for the domestic performing arts industry are also meager. The Korean Association of Arts Management stated in “A Study for having an Actors’ Union in Performing Arts Industry: Focusing on in-depth Interviews with Actors” that “actors are working in poor working conditions without the guarantee of their rights as laborers nor the devices to claim their rights and solve their problems.” Because of the small size of the industry, payment is always an issue unless an actor is performing a major role. Actors are also struggling with earning major roles because when a foreign actor or a celebrity from another field is casted, they are pushed down the ladder to act the minor roles.
The possible reasons for the underdevelopment
What are the reasons for the underdevelopment? Many scholars and researchers have attempted to answer this question and have proposed a couple of plausible causes. A number of major proposals approaches the lack of development in macroeconomic terms. The Society for Dance Documentation & History reports that “domestic performing arts contents are insufficient in quantity and therefore lacking opportunities.” This suggests that the industry is still at the beginning stage of industrialization where “still the foreign contents are the major providers, without Made-in-Korea’s.” Insufficient government funding and lack of infrastructure are plausible leading factors of the state of the performing arts industry in South Korea, which results in a deficiency of approachability. The number of stage halls are lacking in comparison to other countries, and the existing major stages are mostly funded by large conglomerates such as Samsung and LG.
Is there a possibility of K-Musical?
Musicals, among the genres in the performing arts sector, have shown some hope for the past decade, however. Against the general slump of the performing arts market, the musical industry in South Korea has shown growth. From the beginning of the 21st century the musical market has started to grow. In 2001, the total number of audiences in a year was 31,000, then 62,000 in 2003, 70,000 in 2005, more than 100,000 in 2006, and 384,000 in 2018.
The acknowledgement of the position of musicals as a growing market subsection, while claiming the slump of performing arts above, may appear as a contradiction. However, an interview with Jeon Ye-won (Jr., UIC, Techno-Art Div.) has provided some insight into the contradiction.
Jeon is a member of ROTHEMS, a musical club on campus. “I first encountered musicals when I was 16,” said Jeon. She revealed one of her secrets, “the reason I went to my first ever musical show was to see ‘oppa**’.” “We admit that the adoption of pop-stars and TV-stars in the musical field have contributed greatly to its growth, making it more approachable. Obviously, myself as an example, from a fan of a ‘oppa’ to a fan of musical,” Jeon added.
As Jeon stated, a positive effect of star-marketing in the musical field functioned as a medium to near musicals into a popular culture. By adopting stardom and fandom sensitivity into the marketing strategy, the musical industry has managed to find some hope, maybe a possibility for K-Musical.
Could this be an answer for the performing arts industry to be a concrete part of “K-Anything?” “Possibly, but it still needs more work, as we are still lacking Made in Korea musicals,” Jeon concluded. Celebrity stardom certainly can bring attention to the industry; however, it is only a temporary and shallow remedy. In fact, The Korean Association of Public Policy in “Conditions of the Performing Arts Sector and Support Policy in the Developed Countries” underlined that Japan criticized Korean musicals adopting the fandom culture into their marketing strategy, commenting that they are mere demonstrations of fan-service.
Without considering the fundamental elements of musicals, such as the stage, music, props, costumes, and acting skills, production of well-made Korean shows with quality is impossible. To do so, government aid seems necessary. Although K-pop employs its own marketing strategies, it also receives significant support from the government; at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the government showcased K-pop performances to the world. Therefore, a show of possible growth in the musical industry with stardom was only an extension of the success of K-pop and K-Drama, nothing fundamentally hopeful for the industry itself. For the long run, broader considerations regarding governmental support, marketing strategies, qualitative improvements of the actors and the producers will need to work hand in hand with each other.
*K-Anything: K-Anything is a made-up term in this article to refer to any Korean products receiving international demand.
**Refers to a male K-pop star