Music and performance transcends language and countries and races,” Rapmonster (born Kim Namjoon), the leader of Korean Pop group BTS, says as he stands on the stage of the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. It’s the second night of their sold out North American tour. The impassioned crowd had just completed a successful project that involved creating a rainbow of lights across the packed stadium and holding signs with supportive phrases in Korean. BTS’s continual success internationally might prove Namjoon right – that despite cultural and linguistic barriers, K-Pop can not only enter, but profit in the American market.
With the rise of internationalism and social media, culture from across the globe can be more easily shared than ever. In the music sphere, this trend has contributed to the global phenomenon, South Korean pop music, most commonly referred to as K-Pop. It consists of a distinctly hyper-polished pop sound that borrows from music genres across the globe. A typical K-Pop song can incorporate American trap sounds and Arabic beats, all while maintaining a distinctly Korean sound. Most K-Pop groups typically consist of multiple members of the same sex who focus on creating a cohesive entertainment production encompassing music, videos, and live shows. Each K-Pop song released is usually paired with a high production value music video, a distinct concept to the song, intense choreography, and a hook in English, meant to appeal to international audiences.
An entertainment company, not the artists, fosters the entire production process. The company puts the members of a group together and manages them. Unlike the typical pattern in American music where artists control the creative process, Korean entertainment companies will bring together famous producers, songwriters and choreographers to make the most successful group. The typical K-Pop group does not have control over its musical process, although there are notable exceptions with groups that produce their own music. But to prosper in the global music industry, K-Pop has to move outside South Korea’s borders, and lately it has been very successful in breaching Japan and China’s large music markets.
However, due to increased tensions between South Korea and North Korea, and by proxy China, there is a large shift in the exportation of K-Pop. Recently China imposed new regulations that limits the amount of K-Pop allowed on all media platforms including TV and popular forums for music sharing, which will severely hurt K-Pop’s commercial performance overseas. As Tufts student Sitong, a Beijing native who runs a Chinese fansite for Namjoon, explains “it’s not just about K-Pop, it’s more of a social thing – even if you’re already a K-Pop fan, as you can get less and less access to your idols and people around you get upset if you even talk about Korean idols, really the industry is not going to have a good time in China.” The increased tensions go further than government regulation, with social pressure dissuading K-Pop fans in China revealing the precarious situation of K-Pop in one of its largest markets. Korean entertainment companies are adjusting by setting their sights on a new large market to make up on the loss from China: the United States.
With the exception of one hit wonders like PSY’s “Gangnam Style” and Keith Ape’s “It G Ma,” no single Korean artist has firmly established themself in the American market. Unlike most American bands, Korean pop groups typically have multiple singers and rappers in each group. This distinct change in group setup may provide a barrier to entry to the American market, which tends to favor the solo personalities of lead singers and individual acts. But America has a long history with boy bands, whose hyper-polished image and multiple personalities match up with how K-Pop groups are structured. Bands like NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys succeeded in creating large, adamant, and passionate fan bases, especially with young girls. This lead to large levels of fame and success for the groups, where fans picked their favorite members and felt like they actually knew the band. K-Pop groups use a similar tactic, but in a more profitable and streamlined manner. When these groups travel to do concerts in America, they’re marketed like early 2000s boy bands. The merchandise caters to each member and there are usually meet-and-greets in which fans can take pictures with their favorite members. Also, many passionate fans will choose one member of a group to photograph and sell merchandise of. This grassroots promotion of the members can be very profitable, with fansites for the group EXO purchasing a billboard in Times Square in New York City this year to promote their 5th year anniversary. Overall, the prospect of selling Korean groups in American markets is feasible once they have enough momentum to pull in fans who normally would turn to American boy bands.
K-Pop groups have been a small presence in America for a while. The former girl group The Wonder Girls opened for the Jonas Brothers on their North American tour, Girls’ Generation performed on the Late Show with David Letterman, and 2NE1 even appeared on The Bachelor. All these groups have managed to gather a large international following outside of South Korea, and very large support within South Korea itself, but they have not broken into the American mainstream yet. Currently, a member of the former girl group 2NE1, named CL, is working on her American debut. CL released a track entirely in English called “Lifted” which was created to appeal to American audiences with its laidback vibe and music video shot in New York City. She also toured across North America, playing small venues across the country rather than the coastal stadiums most K-Pop groups frequent. However, “Lifted” failed to chart higher in America than 2NE1’s 2014 album Crush, and most Americans who don’t follow K-Pop would be more likely to recognize her from her 2015 collaboration with Diplo, Riff Raff, and OG Maco, “Dr. Pepper.” CL’s inability to chart can either be seen as a failure on her part to break into the American market, or it can show the viability for Korean groups like 2NE1 to enter the American market without “Americanizing” their sound.
As Korean artists start playing more shows in America, they gain larger followings. Always on the edge of the American mainstream, or arguably just ahead of it, K-Pop has been slowly increasing its American presence. In 2016, rap group Epik High performed at Coachella and South by Southwest. The latter performance was so successful the group trended on Twitter across the country. Increasingly common collaborations between American and Korean artists can increase the Koreans’ appeal to Americans. Girls’ Generation’s “The Boys,” featured Snoop Dogg and boy group Big Bang’s G-Dragon featured Missy Elliot on his album Coup D’Etat. Recently, upcoming American R&B singer Gallant featured Korean singer Eric Nam and Epik High’s Tablo on the song “Cave Me In.” All three acts in “Cave Me In” speak fluent English and performed entirely in English. All of these collaborations represent a larger movement within K-Pop to enter the American market by appealing to American artists’ fan bases.
But K-Pop isn’t putting all of its eggs in the American basket. K-Pop groups commonly will perform their songs in multiple languages, even going the length to create distinct sub-groups to target specific geographic regions. K-Pop super group EXO had two groups EXO-M and EXO-K, the former group singing in Mandarin and the latter in Korean. Although the separate group idea was dropped, EXO still releases their albums with a Korean and Mandarin version for each song. EXO also has specific songs and releases in Japanese. It is possible that Korean entertainment groups will start the widespread use of this tactic to appeal to American audiences in order to break into the American market.
Korean entertainment company DSP Media recently created a co-ed K-Pop project K.A.R.D, designed with an international focus. Before their official debut the group has already released an English version for their song and plans to tour North America.
This current trend mimics the process K-Pop underwent as it attempted its entry