Alex Jensen talks with SG Entertainment CFO Thomas Sommer. Thomas postulates that the success of, ‘that show’s’ can be found in our collective need to see direct consequences of our actions, in a world where we get so little visceral feedback, where we are unsure of our consequence, Squid Game shows us a world of less talk, more direct action and consequence.
Thomas then draws a line to a seemingly unrelated show, Hometown Cha Cha Cha, about a young dentist giving up the big smoke and finding connection, happiness (and love) in a small country town.
Thomas’ premise is that despite these shows being on opposite ends of the genre spectrum, their success lies I their portrayal of authenticity. As Thomas says both of these shows portray worlds in which, ‘acts trump words.’
Thomas then deep dives into why Korean writing, whether for dramas, movies or even songs are resonating so much globally. He posits that Korean writers have been dealing with the angst caused through lack opportunity to show our true selves for so many years, and now that authenticity and connection have become so rare worldwide, the result is a global need for the kind of writing that Koreans have done so well for so long.
Alex and Thomas then take a right turn into something often seen as the most inauthentic form of art and culture, NFTs. Specifically, NFTs offer the promise for fans for instance, to get part of the ownership or the ownership of a specific artifact that belongs to an idol. Thomas warns us against prejudging these kinds of transactions and realize that it is another step in building a connection between fan and talent. If the societal purpose of pop stars is to entertain, to give solace and to make the world a little brighter for a fan, then owning an artifact of the talent, even virtually is simply another connection.
As an example of this deep connection, Thomas and Alex discuss the relationship between BTS and their Army. As Thomas says, without army BTS would not have gone so far, or become who they are. At the beginning, the Army because BTS talked about themes and topics which were very relevant to them and really resonated with their deeper needs. having said that, Thomas also warns the companies surrounding BTS, to balance their need to exploit the group for profit, with the need to maintain the authenticity that brings them such devotion.
In the final stanza of the interview, Alex and Thomas look at what happens when the veneer of a Kpop star’s life is peeled back in front of the world, and the world’s reaction.
Today’s episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons Seoul. Stylish elegance in the heart of the city.
Are Squid Game, Hometown Cha Cha Cha and BTS NFTs all linked to worldwide cry for authenticity?
Alex Jensen: You’re listening to Koreabizcast with the KBLA. I’m Alex Jensen, and it’s Friday, November 12th. Something interesting is happening in the world of entertainment in Korea. Well, a lot actually, but I’m referring to a trend in which Korean entertainment companies are trying to get in on the metaverse and NFT act. Back in May, the government launched a Metaverse alliance of over 200 companies and institutions, setting aside nearly 8 billion US dollars’ worth from next year’s budget for Korea’s digital transformation. On today’s show, we’ll discuss how the entertainment world is getting involved. And this episode is brought to you by the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, stylish elegance in the very heart of the city.
Alex Jensen: So, some of you may recall, Thomas Sommer is the CFO and co-founder of SG Entertainment, which is doing some really exciting things in the K-pop space with idols, performers, and creators. And Thomas returns to Koreabizcast. Thank you very much.
Thomas Sommer: Well, thank you for having me on again.
Alex Jensen: And we’re trying to start with something like our entertainment correspondent or perhaps even entertainment guru if you don’t mind. Is that suit you?
Thomas Sommer: Sure. Why not?
Alex Jensen: I mean, so much is happening all the time in the world of Korean entertainment. We almost need a weekly update. How’s work going for you lately?
Thomas Sommer: Yeah, it’s been good. There’s lots happening. There’s lots to talk about. Yeah, I think drama might be the word you’re looking for. There’s lots of drama all the time. So, we never that get tired, never get bored.
Alex Jensen: Well, yeah, I mean, speaking of drama, off the back of that show.
Thomas Sommer: Yeah.
Alex Jensen: It was Squid Game. Season 2 just being confirmed. So, we can still talk about squid game without it sounding like old news. But also, other shows coming about that are gaining perhaps, in the Squid game effects more traction as people want more Korean drama to fill the void. What is it about Korean society You think that resonates so well, globally?
Thomas Sommer: I think yeah, there’s been a few Korean dramas that have made the rounds in the news recently, there was of course, there was Squid Game. And there was also another series called Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, that was really successful internationally. And they don’t talk about the same thing at all, quite opposite in terms of their contents.
But I can, I’m happy to try and offer some explanation as to why this Korean content has been so successful in the world, recently and maybe what is it about this Korean content that resonates so well with the rest of the world. So, it is true that there has been some traction recently with Korean content with the high wave. Of course, it started with K-pop in Southeast Asia, it’s been around for a lot of time, very successful. But I’m talking more specifically about the rest of the world, especially the western world.
So, you had the success of Parasite, the movie Bong Joon-ho, a couple of years back. And now you have Squid Game phenomenon, like the most, most successful series on Netflix of all times. So, my idea of why this was so successful is that there’s something that was a portrayed in the series on the more, deeper cultural societal and cultural level that really resonated with the kind of concerns of the rest of the world and I think that’s what the series portrays really well is, in a world that’s, you know, growing ever more dramatic, there’s a lot of dramatic discourse. There’s a lot of justification about many things and sometimes people have the feeling that things don’t what they can do doesn’t really matter.
There’s everything is some might appear virtual, and there’s lots of words and dramatization everywhere in the news, etc. And I think what Squid Game portrays, even if in a very brutal way, is a compensation for this where you actually look for authenticity, where ‘acts trump words’. And in this series, we see, we actually see proof of work, we don’t see people talking, we see, we see action, we see action and consequence directly.
So, this kind of skin in the game that the actors portray, and that the scenario portrays resonates a lot with people around the world who want to see things in action rather than just talked about. And I think this is this search for authenticity is something that people was were really looking for these days.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, there was something about Squid Game for me that stood out as being unique that it was a little less melodramatic than some of the other dramas even if it was very overblown and, and like a caricature at times, it was more so in a, in a stylish manner that resonated for me with the old British show Utopia, which I think I’ve said before on this podcast, but the colors and the movement of the drama was a bit like that, although obviously, it combined other elements almost like an action movie at times. It really had a bit of a lot of different genres in there. But you also mentioned Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha which I’ve not seen any of it. I’ve seen it come up on my Netflix as a recommended show. Tell us briefly about that. Why is that gaining any sort of recognition right now?
Thomas Sommer: So, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha is about the story of uptown, kind of a effluence Korean girl who moves to a coastal, little coastal town in Korea, and moves there opens a dentist’s office there, she’s a dentist and kind of starts getting integrated into that coastal seashore, little hometown life, and starts getting more, much more happier, becoming much more happier there.
And yeah, so it’s also about authenticity. But more about authenticity on the outside of finding back your roots going to more simplicity, less virtual things, more realness, more authenticity, as I mentioned before, and in a completely different genre and a completely different setting that Squid Game. It also resonates with people because you have that compensation of the busy lifestyle, city lifestyle, where everybody has is always busy and pretending to do things where you don’t manage to connect on a deeper level with other people.
And what this show portrays is this realness of family like connection, that is much more fulfilling on the on a personal, on a personal level than a busy city life where you don’t get to connect, and relationships remain very superficial.
Alex Jensen: So, I think everything you said that makes sense. Absolutely. But do you not feel that there? Is this almost X Factor? I don’t know how to describe it of Korean cool that runs through even very different genres that is drawing people to these contents, including music as well, by the way?
Thomas Sommer: Yes, I completely agree. I think there is one aspect, of course, which is the tradition of Korean filmmaking into a drama making, which has been an industry that’s been thrilling, that has been a thriving over the past years. And that that certainly plays into it.
But I think there’s also a more, deeper reason in terms of the more the deeper, as I was mentioning earlier, with deeper cultural and societal aspects of it. I think I mentioned the search for authenticity in the West, or everywhere in the world. And I think that, especially within Korean society, people are especially looking for more authenticity, because it is a country where, you know, people are very focused on not hurting other people’s feelings, and often, sometimes also hiding the truth, you know, for the benefits of harmony of social peace and these kinds of things. And I think that’s maybe in Korea, a little bit more than somewhere else.
There is this deeper psychological need for authenticity and being true to your, your own feelings. And this is something that perspires in the in the Korean content production as well.
Alex Jensen: Yet, we might be moving in a direction that seems even less authentic, in a certain sense, perhaps in its truest sense, when digital products become ever present, and that’s something the entertainment world, including K-pop particularly seems to be grasping as an opportunity, maybe to make some money through fans. I don’t know what you think about NFTs entering K-pop.
Thomas Sommer: Yes, this is a, this is a nice segue way to the recent trends within the entertainment world. We’ve seen that these the blockchain technology, which shows, which is showing some promise as well as the more specifically that those NFTs non fungible tokens have are starting to make that foray into the world of entertainment and K-pop where they offer the promise of, for fans for instance, to own to have the guarantee to get the part of the ownership or the ownership of a specific artifact that belongs to an idol for instance.
And I think that’s yes, there’s certainly an opportunity, an economic opportunity with NFTs at this point within the entertainment industry, which is very much based on, which is in which is about arts, you know, which is about kind of like, not exactly similar to, but closer to the art market with the sentimental artifacts. And this is true, especially in the world of K-pop where, you know, fans will buy any kind of merchandise that represents their favorite idols to kind of link it to that bridge between the offline and the online world through NFTs. I think there is it’s without no doubt there’s an economic and business opportunity there.
But I also think that from a more general perspective, we should not forget that technology serves and should be there to serving a purpose, serve and not be the editor and the goal itself. Because at the end of the day, what’s the entertainment industry is here is to delight fans is to offer solutions to the, to their life, to the, to their problems in life to offer artists who can act, offer some solace in people’s lives as well.
Technology should only be there as a way, artists to connect with fans or for artists to offer their content and not as you know, something to focus on for the for its own sake. And as long as entertainments remember that and artists remember that technology can be a great tool. But if they think that technology is an end in itself, I think they will run into some issues.
Alex Jensen: When we speak about exploitation the world of K-pop, we might think we’re straightaway worrying about the idols themselves and whether they’re working too hard or whether they’re getting fair deals. But in this context, is there an element of exploitation of fans?
Thomas Sommer: I think that’s, it’s a more general, more broader question is about what is the relationship between the fan which is also the consumer and the artists. And it’s ordered the exploitation of consumers in general through the marketing and through the, I’ll say this, the sale of these artifacts, I don’t think that NFTs are particularly more exploitative of fans, then the other artifacts are, and this is the whole industry, how the whole industry has been, for some time, the NFTs just offered another layer and multiple layers on top of it.
But it doesn’t change the fundamental principles behind that relationship. I think it’s a very immediate, deeper left questions about how to perceive that relationship between the artists and their fans. And as oftentimes I think there is no single answer. I think it really depends on the artist and depends on how the artists envision their relationship with the fans. And from that from their own. You always have that aspect of where this art began, started where this business began and stuff and it’s not an easy question to answer then.
Alex Jensen: You’ve got HYBE, the force behind BTS, for example, and there’s so much sensitivity around that particular group. Their fans are militant, quite literally, they call themselves an Army, don’t they? In fact, they just say Army they drop the need for any sort of grammar rules there. So, is that an area they need to be particularly sensitive towards what the fans want, especially in this business case?
Thomas Sommer: I think so. Yes. Army are the people who’ve made BTS who they are today. And without Army the BTS will not be able to, to go on or as a group with the current identity. At the beginning Army formed and became so militant and so engaged because BTS managed to talk about themes and topics which were very relevant to them and really resonated with their deeper needs.
This is something that, in my opinion the entertainment company behind BTS are behind some other groups as well, need to remember if they want to keep on benefiting from that very strong relationship between the fans and the artists. I think that’s we can see that there has been some negative reactions to the announcement of the of the fact that they were going into some NFTs or technology because, not because the fans are necessarily against NFTs per se, but because they get the feeling that the that they are no longer the first priority of the company behind BTS and I think this can be an issue for them.
Alex Jensen: On a side note, but still related to BTS I find it kind of surprising on the commercial front that here in Korea, you see them popping up on adverts for like COWAY, for example, home appliance brands, when it would be impossible to imagine them doing that with a brand of that nature in say the United States where they’re cool factor means, you know, you just can’t really see it happening. Is there something to talk about there, do you think? That the cultural difference and the corporate difference between Korea and the rest of the world when it comes to endorsements?
Thomas Sommer: Yes, absolutely. Actually, matter of fact, yesterday I was in the subway, and I saw there was some BTS chewing gum in the vending machine. And just to illustrate your point that yeah, it doesn’t they can maybe, they can be speaking at the UN one day and doing adverts for chewing gum and snacks, it’s not a problem in Korea.
And this is a very deep difference between the way that we perceive idols in Korea and the way we perceive artists in the West. In the West, there are, there’s this intellectual element and a cultural element that are is to stand for something for some values. And I can guarantee that BTS have nothing to do ads for chewing gums or for massage chairs in the West, because over there, what the value they stand for. What they say at the United Nations is what matters to fans versus in Korea, it’s more about dance idol status, that’s once they can reach that status and have that kind of confidence mark or the confidence level with the fans, they can go on and the fans will trust them to do pretty much anything. So, this is a very strong difference in the perception between Korea and the West that of course, any entertainment company or business needs to be aware of.
Alex Jensen: And on the other side of things, you got idols who are not nearly as successful at BTS who are struggling to the extent that I wanted to bring this up when I knew I was talking to you because I just had this pop up on my Facebook feed the other day. This week, it was a male K-pop idol. That’s the article particularly emphasized that for whatever reason, who has been drawing attention to online communities for his heart to heart with fans about his part time jobs. So, this was during a live broadcast with fans.
The member of VANNER called Hyeseong discussed the fact that he’d been spotted working part time at Lush as a salesman. And he explained that he had not been earning any money and he said that when someone is in that kind of situation, when you’ve been living without earnings for a couple of years, your thoughts can end up in a very extreme place. So, he was very open and honest about it. But I think it shocked some people who saw through the veneer of being a K-pop idol. Does it make, you I know you’re very human focused with your approach to K-pop. So, I was really interested in your thoughts on A: him coming out with this information and B: the response to it being quite shocking.
Thomas Sommer: Yes, I understand the responses from fans. This is not surprising to me. The K-pop industry and the K-pop entertainment industry in Korea relies on that 3D image of the idol life of when you reach idol status in Korea, you are deemed to be on another level and you are deemed not to have to worry about the Streisand the worries of the of the layman the movie and to have that kind of truth revealed to them as acts as a shocker to many fans who because it kind of destroys their vision of what it is to be an idol and what themselves, how they themselves projected how they project themselves into that life.
When as an as nice as a fan as a K-pop fan. So, it’s kind of an eye opener, and a shocking revelation for them. But to come back to more, how to say this, more reality about the entertainment itself. The truth is, unfortunately that the pandemic has brought a lot of havoc on the on the industry itself because a large part of the revenue from for and for the entertainment companies came from concerts and majority of the revenue of the share of the revenue actually, and being deprived of that revenue stream was very, very difficult on them. So, as we’re now slowly reopening, there is a lot of hope about getting back to having the possibility once again to have concerts to get that source of revenue again.
Alex Jensen: Well, it’s probably a lot of people listening right now who would love to be going to enjoy concerts as a fan as well or just out of curiosity to see this K-pop buzz firsthand. By the way, I don’t know anything about VANNER, I have no idea that the size of this group in the first place but based on the online reaction, they have at least some fan bases, but it’s not quite the Army of BTS, that’s just a quick disclaimer for me on that. But it does represent what many musicians around the world have been facing a tough time without being able to perform live.
Thomas Sommer: Absolutely. Yes, yes.
Alex Jensen: Thomas Sommer of SG Entertainment, it’s been really nice catching up with you again and getting your thoughts on some themes rather than your own personal story, which people can go back and check if they’re curious just by searching Koreabizcast via your favorite podcast provider and you’ll find Thomas among our past interviewees. Let me say thanks again for joining us today.
Thomas Sommer: Thanks, Alex. It was really a pleasure to be on your show.
Alex Jensen: And let me also say thank you for listening. We’ve reached the end of another week here on Koreabizcast, and what a journey is shaping up to be already mid-November, and so many more guests yet that we wish to welcome on the show. You can go back through the archives, as I was just saying to Thomas, if you want to have a look at the progress we’ve made so far, we’d love to hear from you. If you’ve got any ideas, feedback, stories to share sponsor proposals, email@example.com is the email address and you can find us KBLA at LinkedIn. Let me also say thank you again to the Four Seasons Hotel Seoul for sponsoring today’s episode and look forward to catching up again on Monday.