A few weeks ago, Thailand’s Creative Economy Agency launched a strategy aimed at competing with the times and surpassing K-pop as a global cultural phenomenon. The strategy, according to agency director Chakrit Pechiangkul, wants to globalize Thai popular culture by promoting three pillars – people, businesses and locations. Interestingly, one of the initial projects is the metaverse culture lab, which aims to ensure that everything that happens in real life is mirrored online, a strategy that Korean record labels and companies have been deploying for more than a decade. At the same time, halfway around the world, Zimbabwe has published a UNESCO-backed music strategy, which aims to develop artists and music intellectual property 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 harness the Zimbabwean diaspora for consumption and investment in the sector.” K-Pop might be the first, but then we might see T-Pop or Z-Pop.
The development of the K-pop music and culture sector, or hallyo As it is referred to, it was a two-decade process, patient and intentional by the state. In the wake of the recession, a number of progressive policymakers recognized the potential impact of music and culture as a way out of debt. In 1997, after humiliation when the International Monetary Fund was asked for an emergency loan to address a financial crisis, the investment was directed into a national renaming process generally managed based on music, arts, and culture currents. What emerged is what we see in BTS or NCT 127 or Girlpink, but every stream started with educational programs and talent development support that started, funded and directed for the public good and with public funds. What is celebrated now may not be a ubiquitous model, but it demonstrates what can be true anywhere – that there is economic and social potential in music and culture and with it, the benefits of soft power and positive national brands. As countries and regions look to institute economic recovery policies and create socially sustainable economies that extract less from our environment, music and culture are being recognized as a viable path. Raw materials come from our brains, not from the earth. The options are limitless. This is something to celebrate, as there will never be “peak” music, unlike what we experience with peak oil.
In more places than ever before and influenced by South Korea, national and intergovernmental agencies are listening, acting, strategizing and spending. For example, the Organization of American States has partnered with the Government of Dominica to develop a strategy that explores how to create long-term paid jobs in the creative economy. In the Caribbean, music is often a part-time activity, as most opportunities, except for a few stars, are in the creative economy driven by cash tourism, an economy that is dependent on external factors, such as weather and capital inflows. Project by Tencent and Billboard Magazine It is called the attraction of Chinese music and aims to promote Chinese pop music all over the world. Even Oman has been deliberately exploring music, using an Arabic song as a tool to promote the country as an investment opportunity. The continued success of Spanish-language artists in the English charts, from Rosalia to J. Balvin, underscores this opportunity.
This is an encouraging start, but the failures have been much more than the successes. The downfall of these initiatives is that they come and go, like the governments that provide them. Music is a long-term investment, as South Korea explains. Canada started Content Stake in 1971 and has invested in funding music across all genres and disciplines ever since. It may take an artist from China, Zimbabwe, or Thailand a decade or two to gain a large fan base abroad. This is not well recognized or understood. Formulating a strategy is one thing. Following up over a long period with investment in education, infrastructure and grassroots policies that ensure that music is taken seriously in local and national contexts is another thing. Even Psy’s unexpected hit Gangnam style In 2012, few Korean artists spread globally. This was 15 years after the initial policy and investment to develop Korean music and culture for an international audience was launched.
But this expansion in countries that take music seriously is encouraging. Mexico, for example, published its first-ever report chronicling the size of its commercial sector. Belize is embarking, for the first time, on an international music tourism plan. The Philippines is preparing as well.
With these strategies comes more music, more stories that introduce new cultures and experiences, and if talented artists find audiences, they get more income and jobs.