Koreans have been hearing that K-pop is growing bigger and bigger abroad since the 2000s, but was often disappointed when most of these reports turned out to be exaggerated PR stunts.
Then, K-pop started hitting some notable milestones in terms of global popularity. One of them was Spotify’s launch of its “K-Pop Hub” in 2015 — but that was just the beginning.
Fast forward to today, K-pop has undoubtedly become a tangible cultural phenomenon all around the world. It is hardly news anymore to see releases by K-pop artist’s top music charts across the globe. From tens of millions of CDs sold to the entire city of Las Vegas lit up in purple to greet BTS, K-pop has made its mark.
K-pop’s rise to international prominence has become increasingly visible over the past few years. One of the first signals was in 2018 when BTS entered the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 — the first for the band and the second time for a Korean artist following Psy in 2012. By 2020, BTS had become the first Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100, and K-pop as a whole had grown substantially. Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, numerous K-pop groups are off on world tours to experience this global popularity firsthand.
Over 7.8 billion tweets about K-pop were posted last year, and CD sales are expected to surpass 70 million copies by the end of this year, with the majority of them being sold outside of Korea.
As K-pop continues to reach new heights, the general Korean public often questions: How and when did all of this happen? The K-pop industry — idol groups to be specific — has existed since the ‘90s and first began to expand abroad, but mostly within Asia. So why did K-pop “blow up” worldwide in the past few years?
A match made in algorithm
Since the late 2000s, K-pop has been known for “hook songs” — optimized catchiness in music that is guaranteed to captivate listeners. K-pop music videos are also regarded for their emphasis on visual extravagance that entertains viewers with every frame.
Such trends are extremely suited for short-form video-sharing platforms such as TikTok, Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. These platforms are also where Gen Z — the young generation born between 1996 and 2010 — prefer to find entertainment and have become a crucial part of youth culture in the East and West alike.
More than half of K-pop listeners on Spotify happen to be between the ages of 18 and 24, and it is no coincidence that they’re also the age group most familiar with consuming short-form content on mobile devices. It is also how Aino, a 30-year-old Finn who works in the European live music industry, discovered K-pop in 2019.
“I discovered GOT7 through my Instagram algorithm, which then led me to more K-pop content,” she said. “There are so many accounts dedicated to K-pop, thanks to enthusiastic fans, that one is bound to show up in your feed one day. When you start taking an interest, then your feed will explode due to the algorithm. So even if K-pop isn’t on Finland’s mainstream media, it’s very easy to get exposed to it when you’re scrolling down TikTok and stuff.”
With the coinciding rise of short-form content and global interest in K-pop, the industry has strived to make idol groups’ music and videos even more “TikTok-friendly.” Songs are written to include brief, striking verses that are perfect as snippets on short-video platforms. Member Rei of the popular girl group Ive shared during an interview earlier this year that her training involved lessons on how to film and edit TikTok videos herself.
“It’s super entertaining on so many levels,” Aino said. “It’s so easy to become a fan because there’s so much material for you to potentially like. You can like the music, or maybe you don’t, but still can like the dance, how the members look, the jokes they make, the chemistry between members […] You’re likely to find at least one of those aspects appealing.”
Social media and its algorithms were key to K-pop’s expansion, but the industry had been laying the foundation long before its advent. Korean entertainment firms have been consciously exploring various approaches in order to cater to foreign audiences, ranging from multilingual subtitles to multinational members.
K-pop may have not started with globalization in mind in the ‘90s. But like most industries in Korea, which have a population of around 50 million, it soon realized the potential for a much larger market abroad.
It started with concerts and events abroad, then evolved into actually including foreign (not ethnically Korean) members in the idol groups. The earliest examples of non-Koreans in K-pop are Thai-American member Nichkhun of 2PM in 2008, and Chinese members Fei and Jia of Miss A in 2010.
The industry continued to diversify over the past decade, with members from Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Germany, and more. Nowadays, it is harder to find groups that only consist of Koreans. Foreign members often play a crucial role in their groups’ popularity in their home countries, contributing to high sales.
In another effort to cater to audiences from as many cultures as possible, K-pop groups’ music videos and reality shows on YouTube come with subtitles in multiple languages. Individual agencies usually upload videos with subtitles in the most sought after languages like English, Japanese, Spanish and Thai — over a dozen languages in the case of large firms.
It also helps that fans can add subtitles in their own languages and contribute to attracting more international viewers. And because nothing beats direct communication, learning foreign languages such as Japanese and English has long been part of K-pop idols’ training curriculums.
As a result, Korea is no longer the country with the most K-pop fans, despite being home to the genre. Twitter’s analysis last year showed that the top 10 countries with the most K-pop fans were Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, the United States, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, and Malaysia.
Jung Ho-jai, author and researcher at Korea University’s Asean Center says that another reason K-pop was able to appeal to the global audience was the country’s “universal” culture: a unique mix of Asian and Western influences.
“Korean culture is different enough to come across as interesting to foreigners,” he said, “but also Western enough to feel understandable. It’s important to note that Korean pop culture is closely linked with American culture because the two countries are so closely linked.
“So K-pop has been much more open to accepting Western influences than let’s say, the Chinese music scene or even J-pop [Japanese pop]. The mix of Asian and Western gives K-pop a sense of balance and inherent universality. It’s the same reason why Netflix makes so many Korean shows.”
The numbers add up
But even with all of K-pop’s strengths, a fundamental question remains in the back of the Korean public’s minds: If K-pop had these qualities all along, why did it only “get big” in the past few years? Was it a result of accumulated momentum or merely a matter of timing?
Researcher Jung and cultural studies professor Alex Taek-gwang Lee of Kyung Hee University both say it is not a coincidence that K-pop’s rise to global prominence overlaps with spurts in Korea’s economic indexes and political developments.
“Around the time K-pop started receiving attention in the West, the Korean economy saw quite dramatic growth,” said Jung, referring to 2015, when Spotify launched its hub dedicated to K-pop.
“Between 2016 and 2017, Korea’s gross domestic product per capita surpassed the $30,000 mark, and the index has gone up further since then.”
The following year, Korea’s gross national income per capita surpassed the $30,000 mark, which is considered to be the benchmark for economically developed countries.
“Asia as a whole has seen rapid economic development, and as a result, Asian culture has also increased in importance,” Jung added. “Although China and Japan still have larger economies, Korea has also significantly caught up over the years, laying the foundation for Korean pop culture to rise further as the leader in Asian cultures.”
Prof. Lee adds that 2018 was also an important turning point for most Korean industries, due to the U.S.-China trade war breaking out in July of that year.
“K-pop seeing success in the U.S. market was a definitive milestone that made people — around the world and in Korea alike — recognize K-pop has ‘blown up,’” he said. “K-pop had been growing in Europe prior to that, but Europe is a small market compared to the U.S., so success in the latter was crucial for K-pop to rise to today’s level.
“For K-pop’s success in America, many factors luckily coincided. The Asian-American community had been growing larger and more influential. The U.S.-China trade war opened up opportunities for Korean companies to replace Chinese ones in the U.S., further spurring Korea’s economic growth and consequently, cultural influence.”
“Of course, a country’s economic growth alone cannot explain the global popularity of its culture,” Jung added. “K-pop had its inherent strengths all along, but because the rise was so dramatic, many people have been searching for an answer. It’s a question with no clear-cut answer. Everyone is presenting their own theories, flabbergasted by the unprecedented phenomenon.”
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]