The Legacy of ZanyBros
Meet the dynamic duo behind the glorious music videos of the K-pop industry
If I had to pick one thing that makes the South Korean music industry stand out from the rest, I would choose the music videos. With balanced combinations of aesthetic colors, beautiful idols, complex plot lines and sharp choreography, the visuals make pulling in new fans a relatively easy task. Now an industry leader in today’s global music scene, K-pop still conquers hearts largely due to this intricate art of world-building in less than four minutes.
When we investigated where it all began, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that all that we see today is the product of a legacy created by two dudes who just really love rock and roll rebellion. Founded in 2002 by director Hong Wonki and videographer Kim Junhong, ZanyBros is by far the most influential music video production company in South Korea—if not in all of South Asia. They’re responsible for most of the awe-inspiring visuals in K-pop artists’ music videos and have tackled everything from revolution to glamour, societal pressure and romance and more. They’ve worked with the likes of K-pop originator Seo Taiji, current industry leaders BTS, icons like PSY, Epik High, SHINee and HyunA, and almost everyone else in-between including Mamamoo, EXO, KARD, Super Junior, Wanna One and Girls Generation. In fact, it’s possible that every single K-pop act you know of has at some point collaborated with ZanyBros. “Sometimes we get asked, ‘What kind of artists did you work with?’ And I tell them it’s faster if you asked me who I didn’t work with!” Kim says at one point during our conversation.
We meet the co-founder at the company’s headquarters in Seoul, situated right above their famous Zany Café which houses memorabilia from several music videos they have worked on. Boy group VIXX’s scepter from the set of “Voo Doo Doll” is a crowd-puller, as are the dozens of Polaroid shots and autographs by various Korean celebrities on the walls. It’s a little overwhelming to realize just how much they’ve contributed to K-pop’s bold global identity. “The name ‘Zany Brothers’ comes from the original Korean meaning of the word ‘Zanie’ meaning ‘outrageous’ or ‘really out there,’ ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid brothers’,” says Kim with a grin. “That’s what we were thinking. We did a lot of stuff that was completely out of the box, that people didn’t expect and that’s why we became famous in the scene.”
In this exclusive interview with Rolling Stone India, Kim talks about ZanyBros’ journey from a cult favorite beloved by indie artists, to becoming the leading music video production company in Asia, the tremendous impact they’ve made around the world, and diving into artist management with their subsidiary company ZB Label. Excerpts:
Could you tell me a little about how you started ZanyBros and became interested in making music videos? Was it something you always wanted to do since you were a kid?
So, a music video for artists is like a combination of everything that they do. It has not just their music, but also their beauty and their music, their fashion, artwork, everything. It’s like a box of chocolates with everything in it. I’ve always been interested in music videos ever since school and I would watch Michael Jackson music videos and Metallica… I thought they were great and I had the dream to work for them. In college I worked with Hong, my partner. We were supposed to do a graduation piece and we wanted to do a music video. The professor said, ‘Hell No!’ but we said we were going to do it anyway. We did a music video and we almost didn’t graduate because of it, but after that, we set up this music video company. But because we didn’t know any artists, we had no network whatsoever. Hong had been in a rock band ever since he was younger, so we first started with making music videos for underground indie rock bands or indie bands for free. Then after a while, we got a reputation as the best music video production team for all underground or indie bands.
In 2008, we were able to do the “Moai” music video for Seo Taiji and Boys, who were considered the ‘Metallica of Korea.’ Because of them, we became very famous and that was around the time that K-pop really started booming. It was like the birth of K-pop, so to speak. You had groups like Big Bang, 2NE1, TVXQ, 4MINUTE and groups like that. So, we started making music videos for K-pop idols for the first time. I would say we made music videos for about 80 to 90 percent of K-pop groups and artists.
So, at the time when K-pop started spreading around the world, there was kind of a murmur or superstition where people were saying that if you don’t do a music video with ZanyBros, you’ll never get up to A-grade level kind of artists. Now we’ve grown into, I think the largest music video production company in East Asia.
I did want to ask you about your process of conceptualizing a music video. Because every video you’ve done is so unique, so memorable, and fits the artists so well.
It all starts from the lyrics and the music genre. We talk with the artist and the music composer and they have an image in mind that they want to present. For the ideas that we get for the videos, we’re inspired by all kinds of media, like movies that we like to watch, or documentaries or even the news. We have been doing this for a long time and in some cases, a new entertainment company would work with us to develop the concept for a new idol or idol group, and also their style. And we would help them make that. One example is (girl group) GFriend. That group, we worked with them from a very early stage. Then in the case of BTS, we worked with Bang Sihyuk, the CEO of their company BigHit, and he explained that BTS was going to be a hip-hop group and he wanted to show how students deal with school life. It was like a coming of-age, he wanted to show them growing up. So we watched them from the beginning. Of course, we had no say whatsoever in who would become the final members, but we watched them grow into the group.
Speaking of BTS, I wanted to get your opinion on the symbolism, literature and long-term story lines we are now seeing in music videos in the last five years or so. What does it take to build something this complex, especially in terms of the contribution the artists, you and the label make? Also why are K-pop music videos so different from Western music videos when it comes to following this sort of plot-heavy format?
The entertainment company has the plan to start off with the concept for the album and that comes first before the music video. They do the basic sketches and then we color it in and bring it to life. And the artist or producers that they have come up with the idea or add to it, and then we polish it. We draw in the details and develop the story line. If you look at most of the K-pop music videos, you’ll see that they have a certain kind of format and we’re the ones who came up with that, so many of them have very similar characteristics. Those elements are things that fans want to see, especially international fans. So, the ability of the producer, the music video producer is reflected in how well they’re able to incorporate what the fans want or what they want to see. It’s important that we make the artist look their best and it’s also important that we hide their flaws or shortcomings.
As for the story line that you see in K-pop music videos, that you don’t usually see in a Western video, it has to do with the oriental culture of detail, so to speak. For Korean music videos, in the beginning it started off just like American music videos with images and just [paying attention to] the overall tone. Then as K-pop became more and more established, so did the music video makers way of incorporating oriental culture [for perfection and detail] and expressing it on the screen. And so now we have a new type or new form of music video that reflects that. That’s what spreading throughout Asia now.
How do you feel about the kind of impact you’ve had globally as individuals as well as a company, and the kind of legacy that you are creating?
When we first started making music videos, we were focused on making a video that went really well with the music, that was basically our goal. But with the spread and the success, the boom of K-pop, more and more people started seeing our videos and they were moved. We saw how they responded to the videos and that really moved us—we felt that this was a great reward. Regardless of the money that we could make from that, the fact that it was touching people’s hearts around the world… it was already rewarding enough for us, enough so that when we were thinking, ‘Wow, you know, in our next lifetime, we’ve got to do this again.’ That’s how great we felt.
When we hear about how very short music videos, something like three or four minutes long, influenced not just the artist’s fans but also other people and it changed their life somehow, that puts a lot of pressure on us and it makes us think, ‘Oh my God, we need to do a better job. We have to be really careful about what we do.’ For example, when the video for Seo Taiji’s “Come Back Home” came out, there were kids who had run away from home, but saw that video and then went back. So just like that, we still get calls from people who contact us to say, ‘Your music video for that song changed my life in this way or that way.’ It makes us think that we can’t take our job lightly.
What do you feel is going to be happening next as more and more people from different countries discover K-pop’s stunning visuals? Do you think like it’s going to lead to more changes in production even in other countries? What do you think is going to happen even with K-pop’s images as a visual product?
K-pop has become popular and very well known all around the world and so K-pop music videos have also spread. But I don’t think that the K-pop style of music video will work with an artist who is not Korean. K-pop music videos are effective because the artist is Korean and it contains the Korean sentimentality and Korean culture, and the music video reflects that. It goes with that. So, for example, if you were to have an Indian artist do a music video in that style, yes you should take the logic or the format or the formula of K-pop music videos– but for the culture and the emotions, you have to localize it. Otherwise I don’t think it would succeed. Right now, we’re working with a lot of artists who are not Korean and in the beginning, they ask, “Please make our video like a K-pop video!” but that’s not going to work. It’s important that we understand their culture and its sentiments. Before we do that, we localize it to suit them. So, if you’re going to have an Indian pop or I-pop music video, then you have to reflect that localized culture.
I think that K-pop, the music, the music videos, the fashion, the choreography, all of that has to keep developing. It has to keep getting better and better in order for there to be a future. I think fundamentally what can literally grip the hearts of fans and reviewers alike are the sentimentality, the emotions, and how effectively it is shown.
Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to also branch out into training artists and how you chose your current trainee AleXa? How do you want to make your artists stand out from everybody else in the industry?
I think that right now, the conventional method of artist management doesn’t work anymore. We see more and more production companies crossing over to entertainment business, entertainment companies crossing over and doing production themselves. We’re starting off with Alex and we’re going to develop the artist, grow the artists in our own way, the ZanyBros way, and use social network marketing or ‘social marketing,’ which is the thing to do now. It’s going to be like a test-bed for our future. Because we are the best of what we do—we make the greatest music video productions— we use that as our forte to train our artists to become big, not just in Korea, but in the entire world as well. And that… that is our goal as a company. People will ask, ‘Why Alex?’ Alex is not Korean, but we were thinking that there are many, many K-pop fans around the world that are just like Alex who would like to be like Alex, they would like to be successful as a K-pop artist just like her. And so, she is a symbol of their hope. I think it would inspire them to go for their dreams and think, ‘Well if I work hard, I could also be a big K-pop star like Alex.’ I think it would inspire fans around the world.
Are you looking at recruiting more artists from different countries or do you want to now look at more Korean artists? When you look at trainees or people who audition, what kind of artist ticks all the boxes for ZB Label?
Gradually we will bring in more and more global trainees. We will also have some Korean trainees. As for the international trainees, the criteria would be they have to know about Korea and they have to like Korea. The most important thing is that they have to have a lot of passion, because the culture is so different here. If you don’t understand the culture, you’re not going to succeed here and they need to understand that. They have to have a very strong sense of purpose and know what their goal is and where they’re headed. That would give them a much better chance of success.
From the outside, everyone sees just all the glamorous parts [of K-pop] and they don’t realize how much blood, sweat and tears they have to shed, because this is not shown. So if they come here with a half dream or less than their 100 percent, then they will fail 100 percent. For example, someone would come here and say they’re really good at dancing but no they’re not. Then they have to start from scratch. So, when you come in here, you start from the bottom.
Is there anything from India that you have noticed? Anything that you’ve liked in terms of movies, visuals or artists? Is there anything that you’ve seen that stands out to you?
I was very impressed with how India manages to film so many people together. For example, I think we were watching the cover that Alex is doing… “Bole Chudiyan”? Yeah. There are things that India is really good at doing and there are things that Korea is really good at doing, I think it would be interesting to mix and match the two and come up with something completely outrageous—a new form of localization of K-pop. We’ve been working in several other countries and it’s really, really important for us to also learn about their local culture. And you can’t learn that from someone who lived there before or from a Korean who is living there. You have to get it from the local people. Like Bollywood: Bolly-pop! [laughs]
What are some of your goals for 2019?
In addition to music videos, we’d like to produce contents across the board. We’ve already started the works on making movies and also entertainment programs for TV. We’d like to expand our spectrum of work. And in the case of music videos, we’d like to work with more new artists and try to make AleXa a success.