NPR’s Planet Money podcast is one of my favorite things to listen to when I’m running. In a recent episode, “Why K-Pop is Taking over the World,” they discuss how South Korea has positioned itself to be a major player in pop music all across the world. It’s kind of strange to think of pop music as a commodity, but it really is, and one we’ve exported to the rest of the world for a long time. It took us more than 100 years to establish a pop music industry in America, and by making smart investments, learning from us ( and getting a bit lucky) Korea’s managed to kickstart a pop music industry in just 20 years by—as the Planet Money folks put it—figuring how to “manufacture, distribute, and ‘package’ ” music.
Most of the episode is devoted to showing how they’ve done this, how all of that work has laid a foundation for songs like Gangam Style. The song’s symbolic of the fact that Korea has become a real player in the world’s larger cultural industry. For the Koreans, investing in the industry was in many ways a brilliant economic strategy. Planet Money makes the case that when people in other countries listen to our music, watch our movies, and so on, they become much more likely to buy our stuff, visit our country, and associate things made in the US with quality. A strong cultural industry is an incredible form of soft power: it gives us the ability to influence the values of a large population of the world without fighting wars or giving them money.
So it seems to me that it’s in America’s best interests to maintain our edge as net exporters of cultural products. After listening to the episode, I kept thinking how valuable long-dead artists and musicians are to cities all across Europe. It’s always valuable to debate whether investments we make will return value to US taxpayers, but this episode in particular made me think how difficult it must be to calculate the real value of investing just a dollar into something like arts education.