How tech-savvy K-pop group NCT is winning the COVID-19 economy: thoughts on cultural technology

Do you know that “cultural technology” is a term coined by South Korea to promote K-pop?

Before we go any further, let me introduce the newly-released ballad by NCT U called “From Home”. This song features lyrics in English, Korean, Mandarin and Japanese. Not only that, but this song highlights the members’ vocal prowess, which many listeners may dismiss when they think about K-pop.

I have been following this inventive concept of a boy band collectively known as Neo Culture Technology, or NCT for short, since 2018. I discovered them as NCT 2018, an 18-member group, which now composes of 23 (YES!) members currently known as NCT 2020.

How this group works, in a nutshell, is that members are dynamically selected and restructured into sub-groups to perform a song or an album based on the concepts, whether K-pop, J-pop, Mando-pop, ballad, hip hop, teen pop and so on. Presently, their sub-groups compose of NCT 127 (most concepts except Mando-pop), NCT Dream (teen pop), WayV (Mando-pop), and many, many units of NCT U[nited] (all concepts, experimental, based on the songs).

I know, that’s a lot to take in. In any case, this should give you an idea of how innovative NCT is.

Not surprisingly, the founder of mega-talent agency SM Entertainment was the person who proliferated the cultural technology concept which has become a playbook for subsequent talents in late 1990s and beyond. From this, NCT was able to differentiate themselves in more than just its group concept.

Win #1) Daily online content

SM Entertainment did right by NCT in starting a YouTube channel called NCT Daily very early on during their debut. As anyone of their fanbase (called NCTzens) would agree, we’re a pretty spoilt bunch. EVERY SINGLE DAY without fail, NCT Daily has been posting all kinds of videos, short series, behind-the-scene takes, vlogs and cover songs, notwithstanding the usual music videos and external content from other online broadcasters and channels.

One of their famous series is Johnny’s Communication Centre, a vlog done mostly in English by Chicago-born member Johnny. The members also get up close and personal with NCTzens via VLIVE chat daily.

So what’s an NCTzen to do with all these content? Make memes, of course!

Let me get you in on a not-so-secret secret: memes convert. I don’t have to explain how viral memes can get.

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Add this to the fact that 1) NCT is within the entertainment domain, and 2) NCT is marketed as a brand instead of just a K-pop group; hence, this becomes one of the most powerful and memorable marketing tool a business can have. This is one of the keys to the cultural technology concept SM Entertainment strives for.

Ultimately, because this is digital, there’s no need for physical contact, making it COVID-19-proof.

Win #2) Leading-edge virtual concert

Sure, online concerts have been around for a while. Still, nothing can compare to the quality that SM Entertainment delivered at their recent string of Beyond LIVE concerts. From augmented reality, on-stage virtual interaction with fans, to fancams angles and top quality CGIs, SM spared nothing when they produced these immersive hi-tech shows.

Pay particular attention starting at timestamp 0:18, where the following teaser gives you a glimpse of exactly what I was watching during the live stream of SuperM concert.

Teaser video of SM Entertainment’s Beyond LIVE concerts on VLIVE app

Even on my small smartphone screen, the Beyond LIVE show seems surreal and incredible. The AR was strangely mind-blowing. A few times I would find myself adjusting the angle of my phone to figure out how in blazes those red triangles came zooming at me in 3D WITHOUT 3D glasses; the falling gates and the horangi (tiger) you see in the preview are AR as well.

What you saw in the trailer was just the sampler. The surround screen enclosing them definitely added to the feeling as if you’re not merely watching it from a screen or at home.

Screenshot of NCT 127’s multi-cam stream for VLIVE’s Beyond the Origin concert

NCT 127’s Beyond the Origin concert featured the multi-cam focus for the first time. For most of the concert, each member has a dedicated camera focused exclusively on them.

This is such a clever strategy by SM Entertainment, knowing that the NCTzens definitely have their own biases to follow, and with so many members, there’s always bound to be that one member that’s frustratingly less highlighted by the camera than others. Hence, more personalisation. Again, cultural technology in action.

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What elevated this online show ahead of the rest, is the online interactivity which felt both special and intimate. A mega screen displayed at least a thousand fans audibly uwuu-ed and screamed atop a reinforced background sound effect of a stadium crowd, as the group performed and chatted.

I’m astonished that these effects manage to evoke a similar heart-warming feeling and excitement as if you’re in an actual concert venue.

Overall, this is taking Creative Tech to a whole new level.

SM Entertainment’s production quality of what feels like a visual, musical, and emotional banquet of a concert, are worth my every buck, especially at this solemn time where we need all the pick-me-uppers we can get.

If we keep getting this kinds of virtual concerts, I’m just… happy, man *insert contented sigh*.

Win #3) Localisation AND globalisation at their best

Say what you want, sure, K-pop groups like BTS and BlackPink (which I also adore), are also big in other countries like NCT is, okay yeah yeah.

NCT, on the other hand, speak the locals’ languages, and at most times are natives of those countries. Other than all of them being able to converse in fluent Korean and fairly in English, here’s what we got so far in terms of complete language fluency:

  • Johnny, American, speaks English;
  • Mark, Canadian, speaks English;
  • Yuta and Shotaro, Japanese, speak Japanese;
  • Ten, Thai, speaks Thai, English and Mandarin;
  • YangYang, Taiwanese, speaks Mandarin, English and German;
  • Hendery, Macanese, speaks Mandarin and Cantonese;
  • Lucas, Hong Kong Chinese, speaks Mandarin and Cantonese;
  • XiaoJun, Mainland Chinese, speaks Mandarin and Cantonese;
  • Kun, ChenLe, RenJun, Winwin, all Mainland Chinese, speak Mandarin;
  • Honorary mention: JaeHyun, Korean, speaks Korean and English.

You’ll find some of their online content where they learn how to speak other languages or experience culture in different countries. They even cover songs in different languages, often English and in the YouTube below, Indonesian.

NCT’s HaeChan and DoYoung singing Indonesian song “Cinta Luar Biasa”

Mando-pop? Of course. English songs? Check. Japanese songs? Check.

How much localised can you get? Oh, on second thought, I’m sure SM can think of many other creative ways to achieve that due to its cultural technology mantra.

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What’s more important is the added advantage for existing and potential media exposure this gets them in terms of interviews and show invites. The less language barrier there is, the higher the chances for them to grab a bigger share of the market of different countries.

Especially in this COVID-19 economy where origin of product matters, localisation helps local economy associate businesses as part of their market. In this case, NCT’s staying power and growth potential globally is in having different nationalities as part of the group’s lineup, which fans can relate to easily.

Summary: Neo Culture Technology is already ground-breaking in itself

Dozens-member groups aren’t entirely a new concept. Admittedly, Japan started it. In addition, for many people outside of Korea and Japan, a group with this many members can be a put-off. I still hear gripes on how it could take away attention from other group members, be it due to visuals, talents, or personality.

However, this is K-pop. NCT is supported by a music industry that is known for its polished performance, systematic marketing, sharp and catchy music, stunning visuals, and (sadly) squeaky-clean idol image, based in a country that managed to put COVID-19 to a halt heads on. To top it off, SM Entertainment has been getting better at handling their talents despite numerous controversies, with a habit of experimenting.

And, maybe I’m the only one who noticed this, but SM seems to be listening to the fanbase a lot more. Like, REALLY LISTENING. NCTzens have specifically been crying out for a repeat of NCT 2018 concept, and — BOOM! — here it is!

Not only that, we’ve also been asking for certain members to have their own content or concept, which SM actually made happen! The recent TaeIl and HaeChan combo is *chef’s kiss*.

TaeIl and HaeChan #WELCOME_TO_SUN_MOON #FOREIGNSWAGGERS episode

Now that’s what I call a people-focused business strategy. Thanks for putting your customers first, SM.

NCT is clearly cultural technology in action.

Lastly, as an NCTzen myself, I would like to say this to NCT (quoting the wise TaeIl): we’re always thankful, and we love you.

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Posted on 19 October, 2020 under Life in reality and tagged with , , , , ,