November 7, 2008
Kpop Goes Global (part 2): SM Global auditions and transnational fan culture

In my previous post on the SM Global auditions, I talked about the complications within the very idea of "global" in the contexts of national markets and the anxieties or tensions surrounding the what is meant by the "global" stage, especially when "globalization" is used not simply as a euphemism for westernization.

In this part, I would like to draw out another, perhaps related, component, which was the function of the SM Global auditions as a transnational fan space. Rather than functioning as straight talent gathering, the auditions in fact worked as a sort of fan-relations event that not only did not require the presence of celebrities, but also worked to direct fan energy from the individual artists towards the larger company brand as a whole, a critical strategy in the development of new artists.

As I noted briefly in my previous piece, the promotional material from SM featured their successful artists dispensing information on dates and locations and encouraging people to attend the auditions. While this may seem like an obvious tactic -- showing people examples of the success they can achieve should they succeed through the auditions -- the promotional videos did not feature any information about the success of the groups in them, their lifestyles or careers. The videos were in fact so low-production that people unfamiliar with the groups and the Kpop market would likely not have been aware of the rampant success of these artists. In other words, they didn't contain any explicitly aspirational incitement for participation, but were instead positioned almost as fan messages or a press conference.

The auditions themselves felt more like a fan convention than a competition. My informant on the auditioning staff called the auditions a "Korean version of American Idol," but unlike footage from talent-oriented reality shows there was little interaction between groups that did not already know one another. Many of the auditioners came with groups of friends, and claimed to be auditioning "for fun" and to "be with friends," but few crossed group. More notably, there wasn't the sort of camera mugging or spontaneous "show off" competitions in auditions.

These auditions served, in short, as a brilliant consumer-relations move that expanded fan loyalty outward from the artists to the talent management company by allowing fans a chance to engage with not only the "world" of their favorite singers, but with one another within that space. This is crucial to the massive success of companies as SM, JYP, and Johnnys Entertainment, since they create a talent brand that ensures a fan base for future groups based on the success of those previous. We see this in the US with smaller indie and hip hop labels, but rarely with companies that have the scope of influence as these East Asian counterparts.