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The K-POP Revolution

Have you heard of BTS? Maybe Black pink? These are just a few of the hundreds of K-POP groups that are revolutionising the music and entertainment industries. These young and vibrant performers with addictive melodies, slick and synchronized dance and production values are only making the industry more competitive and prosperous. In the last decade, the ‘Korean Wave’, or in Korean Hallyu contributed massively to the South Korean economy and global cultural influence. Hallyu describes the large influx of Korean culture into the world through music, beauty, TV shows and movies, video games, and food, triggering the rising popularity of South Korea as a travel destination.


The K-POP genre emerged in the 1950s in South Korea. The first group who laid the foundation for the K-POP culture were the Kim sisters but it was not until the 1990s that the first generation of K-POP groups appeared. Although the name suggests pop as the genre, this is misleading as K-POP music encompasses all kinds of genres such as pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B electronic, ballads, and experimental. Although most songs are in Korean, you can find groups that sing and rap in English and have even collaborated with English singers such as Monsta X ‘Who do u love?’ with French Montana. The composition of the group is quite diverse in all senses, with groups as small as 3 to 27 members. There are only-boy or only-girl groups as well as mixed groups, and subunits of groups such as NCT’s WayV who sing in Chinese. Today, we are witnessing the rise of the fourth generation of K-POP groups such as ATEEZ and ITZY with idols as young as 16 years old. Up to this day, there are some older K-POP groups that are still active in their group as well as solo artists. The industry is quite dynamic and fast changing as companies offer contracts that vary from 1 year to 7 years. Even though it is common for groups to disband and pursue solo careers after their contracts expire, every year new groups debut. Last year, around 43 new groups debuted and this year, around 21 new groups are set to do the same.


The global success of Korean music and culture has to be accredited to the third-generation groups, from the early 2010’s to 2020s, like SHINee, BTS, EXO and Twice that gained massive exposure through social media platforms. You might even remember the viral video of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’. Thanks to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, K-POP has become more internationalised, not only attracting Asian audiences but attention from all round the world. These platforms are more than sharing sites; they’re different avenues to entry, instead of just TV and Radio, where idols can connect personally with their fans. Despite the drawbacks of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the industry has only grown bigger as entertainment companies have found ways to continue the promotion of their idols through social media. 2020 saw the rise of online concerts and festivals. In fact, BTS broke the world record for hosting the largest online concert in history with over 750,000 concurrent viewers from around the world.


BTS is one of the most celebrated groups, which rapidly caught the eye of international audiences. Not only have they made a musical impact but they have positively influenced all aspects of the South Korean culture, economy and industry; known as the ‘BTS Effect’. For instance, one of the most recognised pieces of work that BTS has made is the ‘Love myself’ global campaign with UNICEF to fight against violence towards children and teens. Another example is how influential the BTS Effect has been in attracting and restoring Seoul’s tourism in the last 10 years, applauded by the Seoul Metropolitan Government.


The Korean Wave has helped massively promote Korean local tourism and culture globally. The industry has been continually growing and in 2020, South Korea had approximately 2.52 million inbound visitors. The growing recognition of the music has attracted the international audience to the Korean culture and language. According to Statista, international students enrolled at colleges in SK has been steadily increasing in recent years, apart from 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions in the country.


In addition, the Korean Wave has also had a cultural/political impact through events such as the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang where boy-band EXO were chosen “to perform at the ceremony not just because of their current popularity, but in part because of the unity they have represented in the region”. The spread of Korean culture has enabled the government to expand its soft power, even reaching North Korea. Recent refugees from North Korea have been influenced by the Korea Wave, awakening a political dissatisfaction with the DPRK’s government. A report by the World Economic Forum argued that BTS is changing and diversifying the American-led cultural globalisation, allowing not only South Korea but the rest of Asia to rise in cultural influence. Overall, the Korean Wave has “boosted South Korea’s cultural diplomacy significantly by the winning the hearts and minds of people across the world and the enhancing the national image of South Korea”, said Korean Consul General Kim Young-jun.


The economic impact that K-POP has generated in Korea is outstanding. IFPI’s Global Music Report 2021 named the South Korean music market as the fastest growing music market in the world in 2020, driven by K-POP’s rising popularity. Statista conveyed that the SK music industry amounted to around 564 million U.S. dollars in 2018. Many South Korean companies, namely Hyundai and Samsung endorse K-POP groups to promote products and/or services. One of the most influential endorsements was between group SuperM and Korean Air, where they created a futuristic safety video for the airline, including an original song and choreography. In 2020, Korean Air recorded a revenue of $11.2 billion with an operating income of $228 million. You might have even seen the iconic limited edition BTS meal at McDonald’s, available in several McDonald’s markets.


Hyundai Research Institute’s ‘Economic Effects of BTS’ reported that in 2018, the group’s annual production inducement effect reached US$3.67 billion and generated US$1.26 billion annually in added value. Even the president of SK, Moon Jae-in publicly congratulated BTS and its fan base ARMY for topping the Billboard 200 chart as the first Korean pop album. In 2020, BTS’s ‘Dynamite’ achieved No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and its MV “became the best-ever 24 hour debut of a music video on YouTube with more than 100 million views”. The group’s latest release ‘Butter’ also reached No.1 on the current Billboard Global 200 with 289.2 million plays on streaming platforms.


Previously, the Big3 companies, SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment dominated the industry. However, HYBE Entertainment, formerly known as BigHit Entertainment, and home to BTS has been included in the prestigious group, considering its revenues and contribution to the SK economy. According to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the founder of HYBE Co., Bang Si-hyuk is worth $3.2 billion after its agency rose 130% since going public in South Korea last year. In April 2021, the company took an ever-bigger step, announcing the acquisition of Ithaca Holdings, Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande’s company.


The Korean government’s push for cultural power has had amazingly quick success and despite the global pandemic, the K-POP industry has managed to stay relevant and reach all regions of the world. There is no doubt that Hallyu is contributing to South Korea’s diplomatic relations and economic growth. Yet this phenomenon is also indirectly playing a part in the de-westernisation of globalisation by giving the Asian region a greater voice in the global political economy. K-POP being one of Korea’s major sources of foreign revenue, the Korean Wave and the BTS Effect’s global influence are very likely to grow in the next few years.


Written by Sophie Hassam


Sophie Hassam is a columnist at DecipherGrey.