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NCT Hollywood and SM’s Race into the Metaverse

NCT Hollywood SM Congress
(left to right) SM founder Lee Soo-man, NCT members Doyoung (NCT 127), Mark (NCT 127 and NCT Dream), and Kun (WayV) at SM Congress 2021

The third major stage in K-pop’s culture technology model, as designed by SM boss Lee Soo-man, is exportation. Like the creation of its artists and products, the spread of K-pop is sharply designed and poised to deliver full concept.

The K-pop concept of global expansion is glocalization — going global by appealing to locals. SM looks to achieve this next in Southern California with the announcement of a reality competition show to assemble NCT Hollywood. As SM looks to plant real roots in the States, what can we learn from their sprawling experimental boy band about K-pop’s future glocalization efforts?

NCT: The Toyota Of Boy Bands

Korean nationalists probably won’t care for this comparison between one of their greatest recent exports and a ubiquitous Japanese brand. But it’s Toyota that leads all car brands in global market share while NCT is the K-pop group with the most popular subunits. What truly informs the comparison, however, is each brand’s exceptional catering to the local markets they break into.

American consumers are so familiar with Corollas and Camrys, Toyota is informally considered a domestic car brand. But the average American RAV4 leaser has likely never seen a Toyota Raum or Harrier (now selling in the US as the new generation Venza), two of the more popular SUV/MPV brands in Uganda. And just an hour-long flight away in Kenya, the Vitz, not the Prius or Yaris, is the subcompact Toyota model that has taken the streets by storm. Bustling urban areas around the world have unique collections of Toyota models because of the company’s dedication to filling a market’s unique needs, even if it means creating a brand new model to compete.

Now of course people can consume audio/visual products across physical borders in ways automobiles cannot be. That being said, K-pop’s major labels have been intently customizing songs, albums, and now entire groups to win strong favor among locals in new markets so as to appear domestic. NCT is the K-pop group with the most branches so far, with China-based WayV — a comfortably trilingual act — being their first foreign subunit ahead of NCT Hollywood’s creation and debut.

The effect of NCT’s strategic reproduction is like scattered seeds from a faraway land finding roots in new soil. It’s not supposed to feel like the very intentional planting and cultivating that it is, with SM’s next stop being the world’s most famed entertainment hub.

SM Goes Hollywood … and Metaversal

“Full concept” is a term essential to understanding K-pop. For instance, songs are never just songs for an idol group. They are the main dish that a soirée is planned around. The other courses of the meal and every experiential element of the party surrounding it are also engineered to help you fully consume what you’re being served, like its theme (narrative), decorations (video set design, outfits and makeup), and promotional material (artwork, social media content). In the same vein, NCT and labelmates æspa are the embodiments of SM’s biggest goal: to dominate the metaverse.

Under the direction of Lee Soo-man, SM is not content to simply keep up with humanity’s move toward the “metaverse”: they want to be one of its chief designers. Not only are they building their own digital realm set to contain a virtual reality experience and tv shows, but they are sculpting their artists to thrive in this new world. NCT’s — Neo Culture Technology’s — namesake is Lee’s foundational philosophy for K-pop, with the “neo” telling us NCT is meant to be the next level of SM’s cultural ambition. Likewise, the æ in æspa is direct reference to the group’s purpose: to usher SM, and K-pop at large, into a digital world inhabited by avatars (æs).

Los Angeles is a logical place for SM to expand their SM Culture Universe into the US market. NCT Hollywood will be assembled via reality competition show, produced in partnership with MGM Television. And in light of Republic Records’ most recent marketing deal with JYP’s Stray Kids and ITZY, it’s only a matter of time SM strikes up its own collaboration with an equivalent partner such as Hollywood-based Capitol Records. Given the tendency of NCT members to be moved in and out of subunits, NCT Hollywood could function as exposure for more established members and subunits as much as it will usher American talent into K-pop.

For all the strategic value of setting up shop in Hollywood, SM’s entanglement with California predates K-pop itself. It’s at CSU-Northridge where Lee Soo-man, then an engineering student, gained the inspiration to engineer Korean culture after watching MTV in awe of stars like Michael Jackson. A decade later, Lee returned to produce an album for Hyun Jin-young, SM’s first star and the conduit through which hip-hop, R&B, and new jack swing entered mainstream Korean music. LA was the place Lee chose for his first real K-pop diplomacy mission into the States as an upstart manager. His return as captain of a futuristic culture cyborg fleet three decades later is an incredible contrast to the schooner he first sailed in on.

Uncharted Territory

K-pop labels are nothing if not well-studied and meticulous. Considering the number of foreign-born artists in SM’s groups, massive global fanbases, and now foreign subunits, it’s impressive how little cultural controversy the label has found itself in. But the minefield of US mainstream culture is nothing like the strict yet relatively straightforward rules of engagement in their neighboring East Asian markets.

To reiterate, a crucial part of K-pop’s expansion via culture technology is making foreign cultural product feel local. This is a delicate process that undoubtedly results in mistakes, like WayV’s misinformed Chinese New Year post. But whereas Chinese fans of the group successfully directed their frustrations with Label V, the group’s management, it’s difficult to imagine such criticism retaining its nuance and pointedness in the US mainstream arena.

Kanye West and Doja Cat are great examples of mainstream creatives who regularly suffer from communications getting lost in translation. Whether it is a lack of context or an extraction from context, their various forms of expression are often poorly received or plainly exploited to create charged rather than careful public discourse. But as American nationals with brands based in disruption, missing the mark with an outfit, song, or statement may be painful but never fatal for the likes of Ye and Doja. K-pop idols, on the other hand, are just that: idols. It’s their perfection, not their controversy or character flaws, that give them gravitas.

With such an ambitious content strategy, the areas of opportunity for SM are also full of potential PR nightmares. For instance, If NCT Hollywood is merely the first of many other American-based K-pop subunits, the question of the “K” in K-pop will be raised. The music is, after all, based heavily in Black American musical innovation: would SM “owe” fans a Black American idol?

Then there’s the expansive KWANGYA (“wilderness” in Korean), a digital reality SM hopes to move K-pop performance and fan experience into. If it’s anywhere near as immersive as Lee Soo-man plans it to be — including avatar-based social activity and a world fans can “live” in — how long before the already exceptional commitment of K-pop fans is reported as a weird, worrying outlier in mainstream America?

Can a culture desperately committed to never fucking up survive the United States? K-pop, via NCT Hollywood, is about to find out.

Even if EXO isn’t on the radio and K-dramas aren’t winning Emmys (yet), Hallyu is still washing over Americans with no end in sight. And while K-pop acts are among the most culturally adaptive in the world, the American pop terrain does not lend itself to simple calculations. One week your marketing campaign has set up blue skies and sunshine for an unobstructed album launch. Next week, your group’s well-meaning anti-war tweet becomes a snowstorm of shame, accusations, and isolation. In these moments, will K-pop acts freeze, flee, or build igloos?

Whatever the future holds for the Korean wave in the United States, one thing is certain: there’s no way the NCT Hollywood show can be any worse than The Four.

In all seriousness, SM’s foray into the world’s great cultural hegemon is a K-drama we should be watching. Perhaps the show gets so big, we end up living in it.

UPDATE 3/31/2022: edited for citation via hyperlink



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