Seoul Train

A Korean pop mogul with a thing for Berry Gordy has invaded New York, and he's brought a stable of potential stars with him

The engineer behind Asia's biggest pop star ever has his eyes set on a new frontier.

Six months ago, Jin Young Park and his company, JYP Entertainment, branched out from South Korea, purchasing a $4 million townhouse on East 31st Street. Park transformed the place into a dorm and recording studio for his next set of young musical trainees, with a party space below. The building officially opened for business last month with a bash for music-industry insiders, Korean community leaders, and the cameramen who follow Park's every move.

Some of Park's neighbors have mistaken the house for a club with its velvet rope, security guards and the fluorescent "JYP" affixed to the building's exterior. Instead, it's the city's first Asian-style pop-music factory, a manufacturing plant for the mostly interchangeable, slick young crooners who have become huge moneymakers on the western shores of the Pacific Rim: South Korea, Japan, and China.

Magic touch: music producer Jin Young Park
photo: Kate Lacey
Magic touch: music producer Jin Young Park

Park, meanwhile, has emerged as Asia's answer to Colonel Tom Parker or Lou Pearlman. His Elvis is Rain, a 25-year-old Korean pop singer (born Ji Hoon Jung) whose popularity in Asia is actually pretty astounding. Rain had $20 million in sales last year and has sold more than three million albums in his career. In a recent worldwide online Time magazine poll, Rain was voted the Most Influential Person of 2007. His world tour last year featured his first performances in America and quickly sold out Madison Square Garden. He might be even more popular here if he spoke some English. But earlier this month, Rain opted to leave JYP after his five-year contract expired, and now Park is looking for a new cash cow.

At last month's launch party, Park hosted a packed house to welcome himself and his current crop of eight young performers to America. Dubbed "Gateway to Asia," the party was a collision of two worlds—Korean businessmen and their wives in suits and cocktail dresses, mingling with fashionable hip-hoppers who had showed up to check out the house and sip some free Henny. Many had never heard of Rain and didn't seem as impressed by the traditional Korean drumming and the debut performances of two of Park's trainees as they were with the open bar, free massages, and Korean fortune-telling.

No fewer than six cameras were in Park's face all evening long. His launch is big news back home.

His townhouse is less flashy than some producers' homes, but he's put some thought into the décor. The parlor level he calls the "Ice Floor" for its stark white walls with bamboo stalks and cloud-like white leather ottomans. A dozen round glass bowls with one goldfish swimming in each fill up the cube shelving.

"Are you guys having a good time?" Park, 35, asked the crowd as he ascended the parlor floor's stage, spotlights hitting him from the balcony. The look was calculated playboy: top three buttons of the crisp white shirt undone under a suit jacket. Three-hour-a-day gym muscles on display. Zoolander mane.

Over the past decade, Park has graduated from backup dancer to pop star in his own right to a media mogul whose company is estimated to be worth more than $60 million. His star factory works on a scale that a producer like Simon Fuller could only dream about: He recruits talented Asians as young as 11, trains them for years at one of his "academies," crafting an image for each one, then puts them on a conveyor belt of marketing, recording, and filling roles in television shows and movies.

And his track record has people on this side of the Pacific paying attention. "JY is on everyone's radar," says Karen Kwak, an executive vice president at Island Def Jam Music. "He has a drive that's like no other. He is going to break into the America market—with that kind of commitment and focus, I can't see how he can't."

At the coming-out party, Park passed the microphone over to one of his young protégés, who goes by the name G-Soul and was rocking a faux-hawk, designer jeans, and graphic shirt. He's been training under Park for seven years.

G-Soul belted out the gospel song from Sister Act 2 in a cappella style, his sound a mix of today's young black male singers—Neyo, Chris Brown, Mario—but with more depth. Then another trainee, a young woman named J Lim, took the stage wearing a silver sequined dress. She sang a soulful rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" with ad libs reminiscent of Alicia Keys. "Uh, yeah—put yo hands in the air. . . " she crooned, and the crowd appeared wowed. It's a sound some obviously didn't expect to hear coming from an Asian mouth.

"If you think this is impressive, we have 100 more kids training over in Korea," Park told the crowd.

J Lim, G-Soul, and another young singer named Min sit next to Park, nervously grinning before their first American interview. Min speaks the best English, which is one of the reasons why her album is dropping first, but in front of Park her responses are reduced to three-word answers. She's shy and she giggles, as though her comprehension of English has suddenly vanished.

Next Page »