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Article. Seo Seongdeok (Music Critic)
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI)’s annual Global Music Report, BTS has been the best-selling artist for two years running. The group had also accumulated 28.2 billion streams on Spotify, the world’s largest streaming service, as of earlier this month, placing them at 10th overall and number one among groups. They had six number ones on the Billboard Hot 100 during 2020 and 2021 as well, including “Dynamite,” “Life Goes On,” “Butter” and “Permission to Dance.” The feat only took them a year and one month from the time they got their first number one, nearly tying the Beatles’ record of a year and two weeks. BTS’s concert in LA at the end of 2021 attracted 2.14 million attendees over the course of four days and earned them $33.3 million in sales, making it one of the most successful concerts in history. With the members of the group all working on individual endeavors as well, all seven have now charted on Billboard’s Hot Trending Songs, with RM being the final one admitted thanks to his appearance on the Balming Tiger song “SEXY NUKIM.” All this goes to show that BTS has outgrown the K-pop label and become both a historic boy band and musical group in general.

When people look back someday to write about the history of K-pop’s expansion into overseas markets, one major chapter will likely be dedicated to when they went knocking on the door of the US market. Does this mean BTS is the most recent group to succeed in this long tried-and-true approach? This is actually not the best way to look at things. Such an view positions a number one on the Billboard 200, then a number one on the Hot 100, and then a Grammy as a kind of step-by-step assignment for conquering the US market. That may have been true in the past, but it’s not how things work anymore. The success of K-pop and BTS with it has led to the expansion of a now more mature music industry. TOMORROW X TOGETHER’s minisode 2: Thursday’s Child debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 shortly after it was released in May, landing finally at number 179 for the week of August 27 after spending a full 14 weeks on the chart. This kind of performance can’t be achieved through sales that are all concentrated in a one- or two-week period.

Stray Kids recently made the cover of the September 8 digital edition of Billboard, and the magazine put out a separate collector’s edition package for $35 as well. As the subtitle on their feature article says, “With a No. 1 project and two mega-labels behind them, the K-pop group and its fans are here to STAY.” The article covers their recent US concerts and their April release, Oddinary, that debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Their label, JYP, is also working with Imperial Music, a label under Universal Music Group. According to the article, Imperial had started planning six months before the release of the EP to sell the limited-edition album package at major retailers in the US with the intention of reaching the top of the Billboard 200. They plan to target the radio waves starting with their next album. Whether newly debuted groups expand their reach globally or keep active mainly within Korea, their success can nonetheless be gauged on a global scale. Similarly, NewJeans were noted for their performance on both the Korean charts and Spotify’s global weekly and daily charts.

The market has already stopped looking at an approach of groups starting off in Korea, picking up popularity in Asian or Latin American markets and then breaking into the US. It’s considered an outdated path and no longer the one to follow. Behind this dramatic shift is the rapid growth of the streaming market. Looking at IFPI’s 2021 report, streaming makes up 65% of all music revenue. Streaming has made it possible to measure actual engagement with music rather than album sales alone. It could be said that it also allows the entire global market to be on equal footing. Once streaming overtook piracy, the industry became aware how much Latin Americans listen to music and how focused they are on their own musical styles and musicians, leading to new markets in the US that target the Latino population. Bad Bunny, for instance, was the most streamed artist on Spotify globally in both 2020 and 2021. His 2022 album Un Verano Sin Ti has risen to the top of the Billboard 200 a total of 10 times since it was released back in May, driven by 100,000 unit-equivalent streams every single week. The market was always there; it just took streaming to prove its worth. Targeting is key when it comes to marketing. Now, more and more Latin American artists have increasingly straightforward opportunities in the US market.
K-pop was presented with a similar opportunity immediately afterward. The genre proved its worldwide influence over social media and streaming and has recorded significant sales of digital music, physical albums and concert tickets in the US despite language differences. The reason this article brought up the rise of Latin American artists isn’t just because they faced a similar situation. The reason is that K-pop—a gigantic, maturing, well-planned industry—is now taking an objective look at the US consumer market for the first time. The demographics of K-pop listeners was never a secret: A look at the Korea Creative Content Agency’s Consumer Research Report on Korean Contents in the US Market (K-pop), published just before the pandemic started, shows the market breakdown of Americans who listen to K-pop is 29.7% Korean or Asian, 23.8% Hispanic or Latino and 24.9% white. (For a full breakdown including all races, see page eight of the report.) Compare that against figures from the US Census Bureau, which says the country’s population is 6.1% Asian, 18.9% Hispanic or Latino and 59.3% white. Even though these statistics can’t give us the full picture, and the figures from the US government are more recent than those from the KCCA’s report, the makeup of K-pop listeners is clearly very different from the makeup of the US population in general.

These statistics aren’t here to draw any hasty conclusions about who makes up the population of K-pop consumers. Instead, it’s here to rethink a long-standing question surrounding K-pop: If girl groups with strong images are well-suited for the US market, would a group with a different image be able to make it there, too? Let’s look at the concerts TWICE put on there back in February. The group put on nine performances in the US this year, with over 100,000 people coming out to see them and making over $16 million in revenue. It was a stunning turnout for a girl group in the US. TWICE doesn’t have the strong image that’s commonly known as the “girl crush” style in Korea, meaning they were meticulous in planning who to target and how. That’s not to say it all happened overnight; TWICE spent two or three years carefully responding to the US market and targeting its consumers appropriately. What is this if not the very definition of success? Rather, it asks us to look at whose tastes, exactly, so-called “American tastes” are meant to reflect.

The main takeaway is that race and ethnicity are never absolute predictors. Professor Young A Jung at George Mason University says there is a connection between the preconceived notions/stereotypes placed upon different genders and races and K-pop. She explains that the mutual support and active engagement of fan communities help white and Asian women to build a positive self-image. We still don’t have all the answers and so the question has to be explored further, but some things are certain: Just because there appears to be a correlation between K-pop and certain genders or races doesn’t mean it simply has the power to attract particular people. There’s something to K-pop that nothing else can provide—that only a few of the artists in the genre have to offer, in fact. There is no single taste in the US market, and even if there were, K-pop wouldn’t have come this far by trying to corner it. Not, that is, if it wants to be a stable market in the US.