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The Caucasian King Of K-Pop

Inside the Korean music machine
Brad Moore (center) with his bandmates, Kim Hyung-Tae (left) and Jang Beom-Jun (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

Brad Moore (center) with his bandmates, Kim Hyung-Tae (left) and Jang Beom-Jun (PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)

He was exhausted, his makeup itched, and his tight white pants were cutting off the circulation in his legs. Still, Brad Moore smiled and waved from the television-studio stage to the crowd of screaming, clapping Korean teenagers. Mainly, the 28-year-old drummer from Ohio was relieved that his eight weeks on a Korean music reality show were almost over. The fact that his band, Busker Busker, was poised to become a pop sensation didn’t hurt, either.

Moore and his bandmates—guitarist and vocalist Jang Beom-Jun and bassist Kim Hyung-Tae, two young Koreans he’d met while teaching English in Cheonan—had come together as a group only six months earlier. Now they had placed second on Superstar K3, a wildly popular show that is a launchpad for Korean pop—aka K-pop—stardom. Agents with a top entertainment firm, CJ E&M, were waiting backstage to whisk the threesome off to a secluded house where company producers would train them for a long, lucrative concert tour.

This is the Korean music industry’s formula for creating stars, and it’s working very well. K-pop generated $3.4 billion in revenue in 2011 alone. Dozens of new groups debut each year, and their music is gobbled up by millions of kids across Asia and around the world. The genre had its first international megahit last year with the rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” which went viral on YouTube and became a dance staple everywhere in America, from bar mitzvahs to baseball games.

The music—a mix of rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and electronica—is heavily influenced by the West, with sprinklings of English lyrics and synchronized Michael Jackson–style dance moves. Lee Soo-man, the man credited with launching the K-pop phenomenon, developed his formula from studying MTV during his years living in California: recruit attractive teens to form girl and boy bands, then train them for years before unveiling them in highly produced videos and concert tours.

Entertainment companies have no problem finding recruits: nearly two million hopefuls came to the first round of tryouts for Superstar K3. Busker Busker stood out from the start, though, with their acoustic, folk-influenced sound, and, of course, their Caucasian drummer. A few other K-pop acts include Korean Americans, but, unlike them, Moore speaks little Korean and is unlikely to be mistaken for one.

Moore, though, had gotten his fill of the K-pop assembly line while on the show. For nearly two months, he’d lived in a remote house an hour’s drive outside of Seoul with the other contestants, cut off from the outside world. They were pressured to get Botox shots, subsisted on a power-slimming diet of salad and tofu, and had to be in front of cameras around the clock. “We became professional sleepers,” recalls Moore, who lost 25 pounds. “When there was a break between shots, we’d lie down on the concrete outside or in the bushes.”

So after their near-triumphant performance on the show’s finale, the band turned down a proffered contract. “I was exhausted,” says Moore. “And I didn’t really care about becoming a celebrity. I figured, after this is over, I’ll go back to teaching, and it will be a fun story to tell people about someday.”

But the band’s decision only made them more famous, sparking a media frenzy and bringing autograph seekers literally to Moore’s doorstep. And CJ E&M executives kept calling. Finally, the three agreed to sign a six-month contract on the condition that they would write their own songs, play their own instruments, and pick their own producers.

This was K-pop industry sacrilege—but it worked. The group’s first album came out in March 2012. It skyrocketed to No. 1 on every music chart in Korea and spawned a sold-out concert tour.

Here's a taste:

Still, Moore says he had to push his bandmates, who grew up with the Korean maxim “Work is life,” to go along with the idea of not following the K-pop factory model. “I had to convince them that it’s beneficial to relax and chill out,” he says, smiling.

Ironically, a different Korean cultural mainstay helped Moore convince Jang and Kim to trust him: reverence for one’s elders. Moore knew they’d oblige; he has more than five years on both. –Nancy Averett