With BTS now adding the record of being the fastest to reach one million followers on TickTok to their ever-growing list of world records, many of us are wondering where their fame came from and how far it will take them. To understand how this genre of music rose to become a $5 billion industry we need to go right back to the beginning.

The Korean wave is called ‘Hallyu’ and has been growing for the past two decades; to understand how K-pop began to take shape however, we’ll need to go back a little further. The biggest hit Korea had in the 80’s was a ‘healthy’ patriotic song called ‘Ah! Korea’. It was promoted by the government and its dictator Park Chung Hee. In spite of this, things took a surprising turn in 1992 when a group called Seo Taiji and Boys debuted on a music show for the first time. They got horrible scores from the judges but started climbing the charts despite this. They were so different to anything that Korea had seen before and the younger generation couldn’t get enough of them. They began to create some of the first trends for K-pop with rapping, choreographed dances and early 90’s American clothing. Their rebellious lyrics against the older generations were seen as so disrespectful that some of the songs were banned from being broadcasted altogether.

Seo Taiji and Boys retired in 1996 but during this time Korea’s GDP had risen from $3.9 billion (1990) to $598 (1996). A man called Lee Soo Man saw the new potential in the music industry and said that Korea should begin to “market music as a cultural commodity”; He went on to create Korea’s next big boy band called H.O.T.. The Korean government had the same ideas as Lee Soo Man and after the Asian Financial Crisis they passed the Basic Law for Promotion of Cultural Industries and vowed to dedicate 1% of the state budget to developing culture. Grabbing this financial opportunity by the hand, Lee Soo Man set up his own entertainment industry called SM in 1995; two others followed suit with JYP being erected in 1996 and YG in 1997. These companies are responsible for some of Korea’s biggest hits such as NCT, Blackpink, Red Velvet, 2NE1, Shinee and more. According to IFPI, Korea’s global music ranking went from 29th worldwide in 2005 to 6th in 2018 due to these groups becoming such big hits not only in Korea but all over the world.

K-pop’s first break into the American market was in 2009 when a girl group called Wonder Girls charted on the Billboard Hot 100 with the song ‘Nobody’. The next time the western world heard about K-pop was with Psy’s pop culture phenomenon, ‘Gangnam Style’. However, despite how big of an icon Psy became with his hit, the American market was still very reluctant to let any music not written in English into the industry. It was the boyband BTS who changed this and is still continuing to change it today. Many of their fans – who have nicknamed themselves ‘ARMY’- like to say that BTS has “paved the way” for foreign artist in the American music industry. Not only are they now the first K-pop group to have a Grammy nomination, but they have also given a speech at the UN, hold the record for the most views on a music video in 24 hours (stealing the title from Taylor Swift) and became the first group since the Beatles to send three albums to the number one spot in America in less than a year. But you might be asking what makes these bands so successful?

Its no understatement to say that most K-pop groups are extremely manufactured. Companies open auditions and go scouting from what they call ‘trainees’. If they like what they find they end up training them in dance, singing, rapping and etiquette for at least 2 years before finally assembling them into groups. These groups usually have a range of personalities and strengths to make them interesting to potential fans. They usually have roles such as the ‘leader’, the ‘main rapper’ and the youngest member (yes this is an important position) assigned by their companies. They do their best to maintain a clean image with no scandals, no drugs and no relationships. Group names are usually written in English and try to be as short as possible; this allows them to be marketed easily and has probably made them easier to market in the Western industry too.

K-pop gaining the exposure it has not only changed attitudes in the Western market but in exposing itself to other cultures and countries, K-pop has started to evolve as well. The first openly gay K-pop artist called Holland debuted in 2018 with his first song ‘Neverland’. The music video had millions of views within a matter of hours. Relationships involving K-pop artists have now also become more acceptable; millions of fans went to defend K-pop idols, E’Dawn and Hyuna when their music label – CUBE entertainment – fired them due to their relationship being exposed.

K-pop now holds the Western music industry to a higher standard. With its polished choreographies, addictive tunes and extensive production values, fans feel that they are getting more for their money. Fans are also encouraged to feel like a family – take BTS’s fans name ARMY as an example. This feeling of connection to other fans and to the idols themselves is probably why fans are so passionate about their favourite groups and solo artists. The western industry has a lot to learn from K-pop and we’d be better off accepting these changes rather than fighting against them.

By Amelie H