In the mid-1980s, when Heather Kim and her brother were in grade school, they spent evenings at their parents’ truck-stop restaurant off Moreland Avenue. At night, the diner would morph into a hangout spot for Korean Americans, and their father—a guitarist who sometimes played with Lee Mi-ja, one of South Korea’s most famous singers, during Atlanta performances—would host impromptu jam sessions. “At the time, [Atlanta’s] Korean population was, like, 100,” Kim says. “I think he brought the entire community to his club.” The siblings were supposed to be sleeping in the kitchen, but sometimes, they couldn’t help but peek from behind the swinging door and watch the show. No one in Kim’s family, least of all herself, realized these scenes were a glimpse into her future.
Kim’s parents decided to get out of the entertainment business after only a couple of years, especially after they got robbed by gang members toting M16s. They steered their children away from the music industry, too. “My parents held very high expectations of me: You could be a doctor, a lawyer, a businessperson,” Kim says now. When she enrolled in college, she gave up spending Friday nights at a Korean nightclub in Doraville and turned to studying. At Georgia Tech, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, then later an MBA. By 2018, Kim had settled into corporate America, working in risk management for a bank.
But that summer, a visit to her parents’ native land rekindled her love of K-pop—a type of popular music originating in early ’90s South Korea that presents various musical genres in a characteristically choreographed, upbeat style. If I ever won the lottery, I would start my own label, she mused. When she got back to the States, she decided to give her dream a try. In January 2019, Kim held a press conference in Norcross to announce the launch of YMG Entertainment—claiming to be the first K-pop label out of metro Atlanta, home to 51,000 Korean Americans.
When Billboard created its K-pop 100 chart in 2011, the U.S. music industry regarded the category as a niche genre. But the following year, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” set a YouTube record for most views. Now, K-pop groups land on Billboard charts and perform at Coachella. Last summer, Lil Nas X tapped RM, a member of platinum-selling boy band BTS, for an “Old Town Road” remix. The language barrier isn’t an issue when the music—with its dizzying suites of genres as wide-ranging as EDM, hip-hop, and folk and a fanbase more rabid than Beatlemania—is this infectious.
Leading up to the founding of YMG—which stands for Yuri Music Group and is named after Kim’s daughter—Kim kept thinking about the moment that some critics consider the birth of modern K-pop: Seo Taiji and Boys rapping and dancing to Flavor Flav samples in the group’s 1992 TV debut. For Kim, then around 12 years old, that was music she “understood”—a departure from trot, the more traditional Korean tunes of her parents’ generation.
Kim, who is keeping her day job and funding the startup with her own savings, says her parents were surprised by her foray into entertainment. But, the 41-year-old music executive notes, “They fully support me because I don’t come to them for money.” In fact, they reached out to old industry friends, who helped connect Kim to potential mentors like Cho Yu-Myeong, founder of the South Korean-based K-pop label YMC Entertainment. Eventually, Kim met Elvis “Blac Elvis” Williams—an American producer who launched No. 1 hits for Beyoncé (“Ego”) and Fergie (“Glamorous”). Williams was surprised when Kim proposed a partnership, but he was also intrigued with the upstart entrepreneur’s fearlessness, not to mention the crossover success of “Gangnam Style.” He and one of his past collaborators, Mack Woodward, signed on to be YMG’s executive producers.
The talent search began last February, when 150 people nationwide submitted online auditions. The label’s first signee was 16-year-old Trinity Nguyen, whose follower count on Instagram—where she posts frenetic dance clips to global pop songs from her family’s basement in Atlanta—is 127,000. At Madison Records Studios in Chamblee, she has started work on her first original song. “Under the Sky” begins with buoyant electric guitars and a question: “Sunshine, do you see us together / riding the wave?” Woodward offers Ariana Grande as a reference point.
YMG is also assembling a group act, Next Rising Generation. But don’t expect a Korean version of Migos. The label aims to speak more widely to Georgia’s diversifying population, marrying Latin sounds with urban and even country music elements. So far, they’ve recruited Giselle Lin, a 16-year-old former trainee at South Korea’s FNC Entertainment, and brothers Justin and Anthony Hong, 18 and 16, who live in New York. [Editor’s note: After this story went to press, YMG Entertainment posted on Instagram that Lin “has decided to focus on school and other endeavors and [is] no longer part of the program.”] Signing artists has proved more difficult than Kim anticipated: A process that she’d hoped would take weeks has stretched into months.
Still, YMG execs are encouraged by how Georgia, with one of the fastest growing Asian populations in the United States, is embracing K-pop, and vice versa. In 2018, Big Hit Entertainment chose Atlanta as one of six cities to host auditions for its next boy band. Last May, Duluth’s Infinite Energy Arena hosted a sold-out Blackpink concert. That same month, the Duluth-based Korean broadcast network KTN hosted auditions for the 2019 Changwon K-pop World Festival, where Williams was a guest judge. Kim hopes all those factors will give YMG a competitive edge. “What separates us is that it’s not just going to be some K-pop music from anywhere,” she says. “It’s gonna be, ‘Oh, that’s an Atlanta K-pop kid.”