In the last decade, exports of K-pop albums saw a consistent year-on-year rise, breaking the $100 million mark in 2020 and then the $200 million in 2021, even as the world was beset with a pandemic.
Since the explosion of Psy's hit single Gangnam Style in 2012, what had been a niche art form with limited international appeal suddenly grabbed mainstream attention.
The term coined for pop music hailing from South Korea has emerged as a global power. K-pop now rivals the United States music industry for influence and cultural relevance.
Of course, K-pop had a strong following before 2012, but the attention the genre attained in the midst of Psy's success was unprecedented.
From Dictatorship to Global Dominance
Psy's mainstream success was the tipping point for a well-oiled machine that had started after South Korea's modernization post-military junta in 1987. Heavily influenced by U.S. pop music and Japanese idol culture, K-pop slowly became its own giant with the arrival of late 90's idol groups like HOT and SES, the so-called First Gen of K-Pop.
More groups would spring up over the years. The local industry was at its prime by the time Psy came onto the scene. Psy's success — particularly in the United States, the capital of global entertainment — opened the door for K-pop to be recognized globally.
Since then, more K-pop groups have been invited to appear on American television programs, including late-night talk shows and live New Year's Eve events. Led by mega-successful groups BTS and Blackpink, K-pop acts routinely play sold-out concerts worldwide. Their loyal fanbases transcend cultural and national barriers; all around the world, loyal fans host organic community events like streaming parties, buying up billboards to celebrate the idols' birthdays, doing singalong events, and even donating millions to charities.
K-pop fandoms are such an unstoppable force that big brands are now clamoring to make these idols their global ambassadors. In 2021, BTS, alongside Squid Game breakout actor Jung Ho Yeon, became Louis Vuitton's first global ambassadors from South Korea. Individually, BTS members would go on to strike endorsement deals with the likes of Tiffany & Co (Jimin), Calvin Klein (Jungkook), and Cartier (V).
Likewise, all four of Blackpink's members have been appointed global ambassadors for designer brands: Lisa with Celine, Rose with Saint Laurent, Jennie with Chanel, and Jisoo with Dior.
Besides those groups, there is also idol-actor Cha Eun Woo of Astro, who scored successive brand partnerships with Burberry and Dior, Girls' Generation's Yoona for MiuMiu, Miss A's Suzy for Dior, and the list goes on.
Even rookie K-pop groups immediately bagged luxury brand deals upon their debut. All five members of NewJeans, a girl group that debuted in 2022, signed deals with brands that include Burberry, Armani, and Gucci. The latter generated controversies among parents who feel that luxury brands are taking advantage of influential pop idols to market exorbitantly priced goods to minors.
The music world also took notice. Western musicians are joining hands with K-pop artists to release music together. A-list names like Coldplay, Selena Gomez, and Charlie Puth have collaborated with various K-pop acts, presenting the best of both worlds.
What Makes K-Pop So Influential?
K-pop is more than just music; it's a lifestyle.
The K-pop industry presents single releases as packages with visual aesthetics, intricate choreography, glitzy video productions, and catchy hooks.
With every EP and album release, idol groups continuously introduced brand-new concepts. One single could present a pure girl-next-door image, while the next one, which may only take a few months, could have an edgy concept. While evolving images are nothing new in the U.S. music industry, K-pop does it at a different level and with intensity. The average lifespan of an idol group is 5-6 years. By doing fast releases, idols get to milk the market before younger idols take their place. This rapid-fire cycle forces idol companies to get creative.
Korea also has an established idol culture. Idols are trained to appease fans with service. Personal connections are encouraged by introducing specialized platforms where idols can interact directly with fans. Idols routinely participate in variety shows to display their less polished sides. These are done intentionally to create relatability.
But the music is where organic relatability truly starts. K-pop music explores themes that are relevant to the younger generations. Songs about love are popular, but there is an increasing emphasis on female empowerment, self-love, mental health, self-discovery, and other current social issues.
BTS released an album titled Love Yourself, discussing at length the social pressure that drives South Korean youths to mental health issues. With their chart-topping hit Nxde, girl group (G)I-DLE confronted the sexualization of female artists, while singer Hwasa touched on Korea's narrow beauty standard with her song Maria.
The South Korean government recognizes K-pop as the nation's soft power. From 2015 to 2019, K-pop's contribution to the South Korean economy nearly doubled from $5.7 billion to $10 billion. That's not counting the billions of dollars in tourism revenue flowing into the country thanks to K-pop's popularity. Likewise, South Koreans' strong sense of national pride fosters a thriving environment for K-pop artists to grow.
Make Way for K-Pop
With K-pop's increasing global appeal, the industry itself is becoming more globalized.
In 2021, HYBE — the company behind BTS — merged with Scooter Braun's Ithaca Holdings, the home of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. The company's looking to expand beyond its flagship group with new acquisitions and fresh blood like NewJeans and Seventeen in their roster.
JYP Entertainment, the company managing internationally successful groups like Stray Kids and Twice, is holding a reality competition to form a new group with girls of multiethnic backgrounds. This builds on the longstanding traditions of K-pop labels holding global auditions. Every year, these international auditions attract Asian entrants from all over the world.
No longer limited to Korean entrants, these auditions are now open to young teens everywhere from Thailand, China, and Japan, all the way to the U.S. The racial barriers are beginning to ease up.
With this latest step, the face of K-pop is about to get more diverse.