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Girl groups get the ears, boy bands the dollars

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Girl groups listened to the most but boy bands sold more albums, end-of-the-year data from K-pop market tracker Circle Chart revealed Friday.

Starting with sales, eighteen Korean albums sold more than a million copies this year, a 64-percent rise compared to 11 million in 2021. In 2020, only six Korean albums were million-copy sellers and in 2019, only one album, BTS’s “Map of the Soul: Persona.”

This year’s top three albums were by boy bands: BTS, Stray Kids, and Seventeen. Thirteen of the 18 Korean million sellers were by boy bands or male singers.

BTS’s “Proof” was No. 1 for the year, selling 3.58 million copies since its release last June, followed by Stray Kids’ “Maxident” (3.17 million copies), Seventeen’s “Face the Sun” (2.83 million), Blackpink’s “Born Pink” (2.51 million) and NCT Dream’s “Glitch Mode — The 2nd Album” (2.10 million). BTS had only one album in the top 18 — its only release this year — but the band has been the No. 1 selling Korean artist since 2016.

Six of the 18 albums were by artists represented by HYBE, the creators of BTS, and four by either JYP Entertainment or SM Entertainment. YG Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, KQ Entertainment, and Mulgogi Music had one album each.

K-pop boy band BTS arrives for the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, April 3. From left, V, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Jimin and J-Hope pose on the red carpet. AFP-Yonhap
BTS members pose for a group photo during the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, April 3. [BIGHIT MUSIC]

Boy band Stray Kids [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]
Boy band Stray Kids [JYP ENTERTAINMENT]

But it was girl groups’ songs that were listened to the most both in and outside of Korea.

Girl group IVE’s “Love Dive” was the most streamed and downloaded Korean song both domestically and globally. It was followed by Blackpink’s “Pink Venom” globally and (G)I-DLE’s “Tomboy” in Korea.

BTS’s “Dynamite” and “Butter” were the No. 3 and No. 4 most-streamed Korean songs in the world and (G)I-DLE’s “Tomboy” was No. 5.

In Korea, ballads by male singers followed in the third to fifth slots: Ballad duo Melomance’s “Love, Maybe,” singer Kim Min-seok’s “Drunken Confession” and Lim Young-woong’s “Love Always Runs Away.”

Female and male K-pop groups have different target audiences, according to pop music critic Cha Woo-jin. While boy bands focus on forming a deep, although the often narrow, relationship with their loyal fans, girl groups aim for a wider pool of listeners.


Girl group aespa [SM ENTERTAINMENT]
Girl group aespa [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

“Since the advent of streaming services, it’s become unnecessary to buy albums to listen to music, which means that those who do so out of loyalty,” Cha said.

“Boy bands’ fandom has been considered to be sturdier than girl groups and that’s visible in the numbers. But what’s changing is that album sales for girl groups have increased in the last two years, especially for younger bands such as (G)I-DLE and aespa, who are appealing to both fans and general listeners.”

In fact, aespa’s “Girls — The 2nd Mini Album” was the seventh largest-selling Korean album in 2022 with 1.80 million copies sold worldwide. It was the first K-pop girl group album to sell over a million albums within a week of release last July, only two years after the group’s debut. IVE’s “After LIKE” was the 10th largest Korean seller, with 1.61 million albums sold since last August.

Girl groups’ success can be attributed to a change in their overall image, according to Kim Jin-woo, a senior researcher at Circle Chart.

Girl groups in the 2010s — such as Girl’s Day, Sistar, AOA, Nine Muses, and After School — went for a feminine, sexy concept that mainly appealed to male audiences. Newer bands typically referred to as the fourth generation, go for the so-called “girl crush” vibe attractive to female fans.

“With the expansion of girl groups’ fandoms, they are likely to change their target from general listeners to fandom-centered businesses,” Kim said. “Business-wise, the K-pop market may even be changed where it becomes meaningless to distinguish between boy bands and girl groups.”

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]