In the late 1990s, the early K-pop pioneers began their international venture with the neighboring Asian markets: Taiwan, Japan, and China. But the United States — the world’s largest market and the fountainhead of modern pop music — has always been the ultimate prize. BTS finally claimed that prize earlier this year, when their Love Yourself: Tear album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Yet the way BTS cracked the American market is quite unlike how other K-pop groups have approached the international market in the past.
“Localization” is the word that summarizes K-pop’s conventional strategy toward global preeminence. K-pop’s supposed advantage was its ability to overproduce. The labels that released K-pop were able to push out acts that flexibly met the demands of any given market. There is a vaguely industrial quality to this process, as if the labels were thinking of the bands the same way a car company thinks about producing weather-resistant vehicles for cold-weather markets.
BoA, an early manifestation of K-pop’s international success, is an archetype of this strategy. SM Entertainment recruited BoA as a 12-year-old, giving her the code name “Project Mystique” [신비 프로젝트]. To mold the preteen BoA into an idol artist, SM Entertainment invested approximately $3 million, a staggering sum in the late ’90s South Korea that was still reeling from the East Asian financial crisis of 1997. BoA’s rigorous training regimen included singing and dancing lessons, as well as regular travels to Japan to learn Japanese. She debuted in South Korea in 2000, and in Japan in 2002, with different albums for each market — a Korean-language edition for Korea, and a Japanese-language edition for Japan. At the time, this was a matter of necessity: K-pop was a relatively unknown quantity internationally, and few would bother to listen to a song presented only in Korean, especially in a market like Japan’s, in which domestic pop music dwarfs the international one.
Subsequent K-pop acts mostly followed the same template. A K-pop idol group, for example, might strategically include one or more members from abroad. Tiffany, who is in Girls’ Generation, is a Korean-American; Victoria from f(x) is Chinese; Tzuyu from Twice is Taiwanese. The non-Korean members served as ambassadors for the international market, in which the K-pop group would put out different albums and concerts in the language of that market. They may even change their aesthetics to be more aligned with the needs of any given local market. During their U.S. tour, Wonder Girls adopted Korean-American-style makeup — which made them appear darker and their eyes narrower — to the consternation of their fans in Korea. This method did find some success in the U.S.: the English version of Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” was the first K-pop single ever to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, clocking in at No. 76.
Yet BTS employed none of these localization tactics. The group has no non-Korean member, nor does it have any song sung entirely in English. It’s not likely that BTS could have successfully emulated the conventional localization strategy (they tried once, earlier in their careers, without much luck. Their Japanese-language album, Wake Up, faced anemic sales when it was released in 2014): Their production company, Big Hit Entertainment, is more like an ambitious start-up in the K-pop world compared to the Amazons and Googles that are SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, whose market capitalization approaches a billion dollars.
But BTS had something else going for them: authenticity and a narrative arc. Although BTS’s members did undergo the training typical for a K-pop idol group, they participated in the music-making process from the beginning, creating music that they could call a product of their own minds, rather than something concocted by their label. The natural result of this authenticity is that BTS created a succession of albums that formed a compelling story of a group of young men’s struggles as they came of age. BTS’s singles, EPs, and albums came in a series: first the acclaimed “School Trilogy,” followed by The Most Beautiful Moment in Life parts one and two. Taken together, the group’s discography presented a coherent narrative of growth, which their fans could participate in and empathize with. The authenticity shines through in BTS’s visual presentation as well. They’re less interested in looking like American hip-hop stars, and more interested in simply presenting who they are. The cumulative effect is that, compared to the previous hip-hop-based K-pop idols, and in fact even compared to the earlier phases of their own careers, BTS’s interest in hip-hop comes across to their fans as an expression of themselves, rather than an affectation they put on for commercial gain.
It is not yet clear whether BTS’s “narrative authenticity” strategy truly presents a meaningful alternative path for other K-pop groups — but other groups are certainly trying to walk that path. More K-pop groups, such as Seventeen and Monsta X, are producing their own music. Monsta X and Got7 have even put out conceptual trilogies of their own. JYP Entertainment’s new group, Stray Kids, is the “narrative” strategy on steroids: Rather than a series of albums, the group stars in a season-long reality television show in which they work together to make a debut album. While it is very early in Stray Kids’ career, they had a strong reception at KCON New York in June; not unlike BTS, they are beginning to become more popular in the U.S. than they are in Korea. The future of Stray Kids would go a long way toward showing whether BTS truly offered a new alternative model whose success may be replicated by other K-pop acts.
Yet this summer’s record-breaking success of Black Pink, the latest girl-group production from YG Entertainment, indicates that it is far too early to write off K-pop’s localization strategy entirely. In June, Black Pink’s “Ddu-du Ddu-du” became the most viewed Korean music video of all time within 24 hours of its release, breaking the record previously held by BTS’s “Fake Love.” “Ddu-du Ddu-du” was also the second most viewed music video ever in the first 24-hour period of its release, trailing only Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” (With their new single “Idol,” however, BTS took back the title for the most viewed music video in 24 hours, surpassing both Swift and Black Pink.)
Black Pink is the evolutionary next step of 2NE1, YG Entertainment’s last great female K-pop group, which peaked around 2013–14 and disbanded in 2016. As with 2NE1, Black Pink’s music is centered around producer Teddy’s Korean-ized take on hip-hop, and Black Pink’s visual presentation uses a similar strategy. The end result is something that is familiar to K-pop fans: attractive artists performing precise and disciplined choreography accompanying the latest offering from YG’s in-house production team.
There are also some parallels between BTS and Black Pink. Using hip-hop as their musical calling card is an important commonality. But unlike BTS, Black Pink continues the localization strategy with its members. Lisa is Thai, and Rose is a Korean–New Zealander. The group collectively speaks Korean, English, Japanese, and Thai. The addition of a Thai member is a nod to Southeast Asia, a relatively new but booming market for K-pop. This strategy appears to be working across the board. In the U.S. market, Black Pink’s album, Square Up, debuted at No. 40 on the Billboard 200, the highest ranked album from a female Korean act ever.
Meanwhile, SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment — the other two heavyweights of the K-pop industry — are rolling out an even more radical version of the localization strategy. In a keynote speech titled “JYP 2.0,” Park Jin-young, the founder of JYP, noted K-pop’s internationalization progressed in stages: first by exporting Korean music and artists, followed by blending in international members into a K-pop act. The next stage, in Park’s vision, is what he calls “globalization by localization”: developing, producing, and releasing music using international talents recruited locally. In June of this year, JYP Entertainment debuted Boy Story, a six-member boy band recruited entirely out of China who performs mostly in China. JYP is also planning an as-yet-unnamed girl group based out of Japan to debut in late 2019.
With its group NCT, SM Entertainment arguably is a step farther than JYP in terms of localization. In 2016, SM’s founder Lee Soo-man outlined his vision of “Neo Culture Technology,” which forms the basis of the plan behind the group (as well as its name). It is not clear if NCT are a “group” or a “band” in the traditional sense; a term like a “format” or “brand” might be more appropriate. Under the banner of NCT, SM Entertainment formed a number of subunits made up of members recruited locally, using the K-pop trainee system that SM pioneered. NCT currently has three subunits based in different cities around the world (NCT U, NCT 127, and NCT Dream), with an additional subunit based in China to debut soon. The subunits sing different songs and offer different visual aesthetics, tailor-made for their markets. Unlike BTS, NCT does not offer a coherent team with a continuous narrative; instead, they have modules that can be plugged in and pulled out at will. NCT currently has 18 members in total, and new members will be added as the group launches new subunits. The closest analog to NCT might be the Mickey Mouse Club, a platform through which individual stars like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears emerged.
K-pop’s international growth is one of the most significant events in global pop culture of the 21st century. In the past 20 years, South Korea became the epicenter of virtually all pop-music trends that did not originate from the Anglophonic market. In the century’s second decade, however, there were concerns that K-pop’s growth may not be sustainable, or limited in some way. The golden-age generation of K-pop bands that found international success — Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, Big Bang — were beginning to fade, with no immediate heir apparent.
Despite years of trying, K-pop’s appeal in the U.S. market initially appeared to have a ceiling. But with BTS, K-pop broke through once again. Crucially, the narrative strategy of BTS and the localization strategy of Black Pink and NCT are not in direct competition with each other: Plenty of K-pop fans like all three groups. The point is not to see which strategy wins the race; rather, it is to anticipate the path of global K-pop in the coming years by observing the two models’ call-and-response.
Youngdae Kim is a music critic and author of two books on the history of Korean pop music. He is a voting member of the Korean Music Awards.
T.K. Park is a blogger for Ask a Korean!