Korean pop music or K-pop has been steadily gaining popularity outside of Korea the last several years, and most of the artists share the trait of having been developed in a music factory. John Seabrook in the New Yorker looks at what the head of the first of these factories calls “cultural technology.” There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in this article.
In effect, Lee combined his ambitions as a music impresario with his training as an engineer to create the blueprint for what became the K-pop idol assembly line. His stars would be made, not born, according to a sophisticated system of artistic development that would make the star factory that Berry Gordy created at Motown look like a mom-and-pop operation. Lee called his system “cultural technology.” In a 2011 address at Stanford Business School, he explained, “I coined this term about fourteen years ago, when S.M. decided to launch its artists and cultural content throughout Asia. The age of information technology had dominated most of the nineties, and I predicted that the age of cultural technology would come next.” He went on, “S.M. Entertainment and I see culture as a type of technology. But cultural technology is much more exquisite and complex than information technology.”
Lee and his colleagues produced a manual of cultural technology—it’s known around S.M. as C.T.—that catalogued the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups).