Parties seem amiss until everyone starts dancing wildly to the 2012 anthem Gangnam Style. At some point over the past year, BTS must have popped up in your newsfeed as their music has been rising up in the Billboard charts, with their collabs with international artists, AMA and BBMA performances or even appearances on Ellen, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Kimmel’s talk show and so on. Perhaps you or some friends in your social circle are extremely passionate about some of these K-pop acts including not only boy and girl groups but also indie Korean bands, rappers and soloists. While the ‘Hallyu’ (meaning Korean) wave seems to have appeared out of nowhere, the gradual takeover of K-pop in the global music scene is not accidental but has been the very goal Korean music companies have been actively striving towards. The penetration into the global market is not limited to the United States, but K-pop has also garnered a massive fan following in South America, South-East Asia, China, and almost all of Europe. The ability to product differentiate and effectively segment the market have contributed to creating a need for K-pop in the global music industry today.
Korean Pop is an industry in itself rather than a genre. There are often boy groups and girl groups formed wherein the performers called ‘idols’, generally make songs that involve singing, dancing and rapping. Each of these groups also attempts to adopt a certain concept which is suitable for certain segments in the market. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, all of K-pop doesn’t adopt a similar sound but is rather differentiated based on the segment of the audience they are targetting. A Unique Selling Point (USP) of these groups is in the skilful combination of synchronised dancing while singing, which is a rare musical act in other countries where even accompanied dance and song are not matched in terms of their impact. The industry has also been dominated by mainly three entertainment companies – SM, YG and JYP who used to hold dominance in the entertainment industry with each of their brands also representing distinct music styles that the music industry demands. For instance, SM is focused on the visual aesthetic of their groups and placed emphasis on the vocal abilities of their artists. JYP artists excelled in creating iconic hook dance steps and YG entertainment caters to the hip-hop scene that is widely predominant in South Korea with quality rappers.
With these initial comparative advantages, South Korea entered into the export market, beginning by creating a market in Japan for K-pop. SM made the earliest move by propelling artists like BoA and TVXQ!, back in the 2000s that still have a raging fan following in those countries even today. SM and JYP dreamt of penetrating the US market, and hence, modelled their newer artists at the time, the Wonder Girls and Girl’s Generation towards the American audiences by making English versions of the songs. These songs were promoted in US television shows, and ultimately the songs did perform decently on the Billboard charts. However, they were unable to sustain in the market because their music was moulded around American tastes with subpar English rather than using the uniqueness of their language and skill to draw in audiences. After repeated failures of establishing K-pop in the United States, the company strategies changed.
In 2011, SM debuted a boy group EXO, which also consisted of two subunits EXO-K and EXO-M, who perform in Korean and Mandarin, and consist of, members from South Korea and China respectively. The group was a super hit, garnering a wide fan-base who called themselves EXO-Ls in both South Korea and China. With China’s large population, the revenue from exports was massive. YouTube played a significant role in delivering K-pop to the world. The infamous Gangnam Style music video was a satirical representation of the rich in South Korea. Globally, however, the social commentary was overlooked and the music, as well as the video, was trivialized as ‘cringe pop’. K-pop as a genre, as a result, also began to be viewed with the same connotation. Nevertheless, capitalising on the popularity of visual media, K-pop acts began investing in their music videos to draw in viewers from across the world, who were drawn by the weird aesthetics and storylines developed in the videos. A fellow YG act, BigBang became extremely famous through their music videos for songs like Fantastic Baby, and Bang Bang Bang, opening up the supply of their music to the world. BTS also started gaining recognition in 2014 for their Young Forever and eventually Wings album for the intricately thought out interconnected storylines.
At the same time, the very definition of idols began to evolve. Idols began to marketed as holistic packages and as people who were perfect ideals. Each member would be differentiated and moulded to fit a certain artist ideal. For instance, there would be members who are known for their looks, then, main vocalists, then main dancers. Some members would take on a funny character who was entertaining and goofy, another member would be forced to be a tsundere style cold personality. Members would also diversify into other professions like acting, modelling and music production. While the forcible shaping reduced the individuality of the artists themselves, the strategy worked in drawing in more attention to K-pop. Marketing also including the intelligent use of emerging social media platforms to forge a personal relationship between idols and their fans, making fans believe that the musicians were more genuine and cared about their fans. BTS’s success is largely attributed to their use of Twitter to engage with their fans and interact with them.
On the supply side, K-pop groups also differentiated themselves in the very way the ‘product’ of music was delivered to their fans. Albums were carefully designed with a different version to appeal to varied visual aesthetics. The packages included not only CDs but also carried posters, bonus tracks, personal messages from artists, and photobooks. The design in their product and promotion also played a pivotal role in creating a niche with the music market.
The industry strategies were successful and K-pop eventually attracted global attention and passionate fanbases. KCONs, concerts in which multiple Koreans artists performed, engaged audiences in 8 different countries from around the world. The size of these audiences increased exponentially year after year, however, K-pop still struggled to expand into the US market. BTS pioneered the US market penetration and they achieved this through the combination of tactics they employed. Surprisingly, their apprehension towards making English versions of their songs is often quoted to be their key to success. BTS is the only group housed by a small, now large company BigHit Entertainment which has now asserted its dominance in the Korean music industry amidst the Big 3 of South Korea. Following their incidental success, SM, YG and JYP are also adopting strategies to gain a stronger base in their international consumers. Blackpink, a YG girl group, has become a predominant global player in the K-pop industry, with their music videos accumulating millions of views in mere hours, and even collaborating with artists like Dua Lipa despite having debuted only two years ago. They have gained fans from their concept being more ‘girl crush’ rather than ‘cutesy’ as in the past norm. The girls have also drawn attention because of their advertising contracts with major luxury brands like Chanel. SM has skilfully segmented each of their artists with the aim of targeting one part of the world. Super Junior has collaborated with Latin artists, NCT promoted in the US, a subunit of NCT China is aimed at attracting Chinese audiences after the dissolution of EXO-M and Red Velvet, their resident girl group, being moulded to the taste of Korean audiences.
These Korean groups are also quick to respond to audience preferences with the emergence of Latin-infused Korean music after the success of songs like Despacito and Havana. Hence the very nature of the industry in being market-oriented has made them extremely successful.
The tangible transition towards the East for entertainment has culminated through the dedicated decision making of businesses towards making that a reality. Their responsiveness to audiences and also sound marketing strategies within the product, promotion and place domains have placed them in the stead of global domination. K-pop has skilfully created a niche market that is now opening up to becoming a mass-market as internationally dominated US acts are losing their distinct flavour. Examining the causes of the radical shift in the music industry is also indicative of the need for industries to be market-oriented, dynamic, and innovative in order to sustain themselves in this competitive age where change is the only true constant.