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By Darwin BondGraham
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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.
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 worldsKorean 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 marketwith 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 singersNeyo, Chris Brown, Mariobut 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, yeahput 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.
"I like Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, and Beyoncé," she manages to say. She's wearing a black mini-dress and four-inch platform pumps. All three artists agree that working with Park has its pluses and minuses. "Sometimes I look at him like a brother," says G-Soul, 18. "Other times, he's real strict."
When G-Soul admits that he thinks some of American hip-hop music is "stupid," Park pats him on the thigh, a subtle warning that his choice of words is incorrect. G-Soul looks down at his hands. "I tell my kids that after your third album with me, I'll respect your opinion," Park says. "Until then, you do what I say."
A classically trained pianist since age four, Park majored in political science at Yousei University, one of South Korea's top three universities. After working as a backup singer for another top Korean artist in the early 1990s, Park went solo with a debut album, Blue City, in 1994.
He claims that many of his lyrics were "banned" for sexual contentbut today, he says, the Korean government considers him a top export and representative of the "Korean Wave." His artists, meanwhile, have put out 23 albums, 18 of which have gone to No. 1 in Asia.
Park says that 90 percent of JYP's music sales are digital downloads. He refers to CDs as "souvenirs." To insure a larger distribution of digital music, in 2002 Park sold half of his company to SK Telecom, Korea's top mobile-communications company. The deal means that all of JYP's music is made available on the largest digital platform in Korea, including its music site Melon.com, which according to Park is light-years ahead of iTunes. Park estimates that sales at his company are increasing by 20 percent each year.
But he misses his own performing days: After he's done building his American empire, he says he'll return to the studio and then finish his career touring.
Park prides himself on only sleeping five hours a night, but he looked exhausted as he sat in the studio late one night, feverishly fine- tuning a demo for J Lim. He was flying to Chicago the next day to play J Lim and G-Soul's music for R. Kelly, the r&b king currently under indictment for soliciting a minor for child pornography, who Park says has taken an interest in working with his young artists.
This isn't Park's first foray into the American music scene. Park moved to Los Angeles three years ago with samples of his work; he wanted to see if he could sell his music and produce songs for American artists. In less than a year, he'd sold songs to Will Smith, r&b songstress Cassie, and rapper MA$E. "All the songs I did placed on albums. I was the first Asian to sell music to top artists," he boasts, but it's difficult to confirm his claim. "This made me and my board members comfortable to make the move to America."
He knows that part of his challenge is getting Americans to be more receptive to the outside world. "American people think that this is the world," he says. "In baseball, you call it the World Series. That's weird to us. In the movie Mars Attacks, they go to the White House to surrender." He shakes his head in bewilderment at the American ego. "If America really opened its eyes to the world, it would help them to be a true leader."
To find the young and talented, Park holds open auditions each year in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore. Each audition brings out between 1,000 and 5,000 kids, who are quickly whittled down to only 10 to 12. The chosen few are then moved from their homes to a JYP training facility where, for the next six months to several years, they constantly train, working on their singing, dancing, and actingand also learning a second language of Park's choice. Only one in 10 make it through the training process.
The hopefuls: JYP trainees G-Soul, Min, and J Lim with CEO Park
photo: Kate Lacey
For the first round of his U.S. gambit, Park has placed his bets on a cherubic 16-year-old named Min. The pop and r&b singer has been training with him for four years, the last three in Los Angeles and New York.
"I've spent over $500,000 on Min," Park tells the Voice. Confident that South Korean techniques are about five years ahead of the American music industry, Park has looked for local partners to bring along. For Min's first album, Park has teamed up with the King of Crunk, Lil Jon.
"It's kind of like Fame, but it's on a different level," says Lil Jon, who plans to release Min's album in the late fall. "That's a lot of patience and a lot of vision. You have to see that talent way in advance. . . . When we first got in the studio together, [Park] came with all of his stuff together; there was no half-ass-ness at all. He's a stand-up guy."
Park knows that the gradual preparation of artists is something American labels no longer have patience for. One example he offers is the fate of the rapper Mims, who had a huge success with the single "This Is Why I'm Hot."
"His song was No. 1; the album came out and flopped. American record labels are still looking for that one song." To fight off the one-hit-wonder phenomenon, Park has refined what he calls "one source, multi-use." All of his artists have more to offer than music: They craft personalities, hone their acting and dancing skills, and develop fan bases that remain loyal for years.
"I hope American record labels go back to doing things this way," says Park. "I hope my being here can contribute to that. I don't think they should learn from me; they should learn from Motown. That's who I learned from."
Taking a break from his late night of mixing, Park explains his approach to music. "Michael Jackson is a bible to us," he says. "I train them solely on American samples. I don't want my artists to look fake. I want them to look real, not like just another African-American wannabe." Park encourages his students to study African-American culture and takes them to see black singers in concert and films like Dreamgirls and Stomp the Yard. This can lead to some cultural misunderstandings, as when a black reporter from the Voice put out her hand to say hello to G-Soul and got a "pound"an urban handshake that ends with a snap of the fingers. Someone, apparently, had been watching too much BET.
On a recent afternoon, Mary J. Blige was blaring from a small boombox, and Min was giving it all she had. Her long brown hair whipped through the air as her oversized, sweat-drenched shirt and sweatpants clung to her five-foot-one-inch frame. Her every move was being videotaped by a JYP staffer for her development archives. Periodically, Park will look over the tapes to see if Min is improving, note where she needs work, and give suggestions to the choreographer. She has recently completed her freshman year at the Repertory Company High School for Theatre Arts, a small Manhattan school of 180 students. With high school out for the summer, her days are composed of dance, vocal lessons, English and Chinese classes, and trips to the gym.
When the music stopped, Min walked over to watch the video of her footwork. Two JYP staffers watched alongside her.
"She's a little sloppy," one staffer said.
"Well, this is only her second class since she's been back," the choreographer responded, jumping to her defense. They carried on talking about her as if she wasn't in the room. The criticism doesn't faze her. This is what the last four years of her life have been about. Park believes in natural talent, but he doesn't believe in putting someone before the public until they've been tested, trained, and educated. (The same philosophy applies to his executivesthe CEO who replaced Park in Korea first shadowed him for two years.)
After six months, a trainee is evaluated by Park, and either dropped or allowed to continuethose who make it are divided into two tracks: one track focusing on dancing, acting, and modeling, the other on learning an instrument and composition. Min is in the first category.
Park says the focus is necessary to produce a well-rounded star. "I don't want my artist to get onstage and look a mess," he says. When he signed Rain in 1999, for the first year Park required him to read the newspaper every day and write a report on it. Rain wouldn't release an album for another three years. "I'm testing character and dignity," Park says. "In 11 years, not one of my artists has gotten in trouble. I don't want an asshole on my label. Nobody smokesnot even a cigarette. I want to be happy with a good kid. All of my artists have longevity. If you want to be a star, pay the price."
Koreans, meanwhile, track the number of years an artist has spent training with Park like sports fans talking about a professional athlete's stats. Park, in turn, credits the devotion of his trainees to the general mind-set of Koreans.
"South Korea is the 12th-wealthiest country in the world," Park boasts. "We have no natural resources; we're half the size of Florida and only have 50 million peopleone-fifth the total of America's population. We're the home of Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and Helio. Ten-hour days are standard for us, because we know if we don't work, our country won't succeed." For the last 15 years, Park has committed himself to working 16-hour days, breaking them down to know exactly how much time he spends per day eating (two hours total), working out (three to stay ready for his comeback), and showering and grooming (one and a half).
Min, however, isn't quite so regimented. She's showing some rustiness because she's just returned from spending two months visiting her parents in South Korea. It was the first time she had seen them since leaving to train with Park three years ago.
JYP regularly sends parents videos of their children performing. On YouTube, there's a video of Min at age 13, singing a Beyoncé song. There's another of her dancing in the studio, and more of her training as Park looks on and corrects her.
"My trip was OK. It wasn't great," Min explains outside of earshot of the JYP staf- fers. "I'm so different now. I didn't think I would have to be away from them for so long. I left home at 11. I thought I would see them after six months."
Most of Park's trainees are plucked from poor families, and they worry about supporting their parents back home. Park knows he can count on that worry to motivate them.
"Here, being poor gives you street credibility," he says. "In Korea, it means nothing. [But] I have found that it's the poor ones that work hard and really want it."
Min's parents aren't compensated for their daughter's time in training. They pay nothing, however, for their child's housing, schooling, and artistic lessons. All of that Park recoups when he puts out an album.
"I get a monthly allowance of five dollars," Min says when asked if she is paid anything now. "I mean, $500," she corrects herself, laughing. "I lost my English a little since I got back."
All this talk of rigorous training and kids not seeing their parents for years is starting to sound weird, even downright cultishand the JYP staffers seem to know it. They start crafting responses that play down the training process and make it all sound less odd. But the harder they try, the weirder it sounds.
"We're more like a family structure," says the vice president of operations, Jay Kim. "Our company has a lot of credibility, and parents know we are trustworthy. From the parent's standpoint, their child is getting a better education and opportunity being here with us." A special department manages the company's relationships with parents. Park thought about living with the kids, but instead got his own penthouse on 42nd Street.
He's living in Trump Tower until that renovation is finished.