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How Korean Pop (K-Pop) Became Popular?

Jun 8, 2019 6:32 AM 6 min read

Music as an art-form is deeply intertwined with a country’s local culture, drawing from it and giving back to it in equal parts. Thanks to the advent of globalization in mid-to-late 20th Century, music quickly became a worldwide phenomenon, with people from different countries gaining seamless access to each other’s sounds. Given its status as the world’s lingua franca, it came as no surprise when English demonstrated a natural advantage over the rest in the global music market.


However, one can’t help but notice a recent change in this trend, signified by the growing popularity of local music throughout the world – specifically, Korean Pop or K-pop.


A Brief History of Korean Pop or K-Pop


K-pop, short for Korean pop, refers to a genre of music originating from South Korea – characterized by synthesized sounds, colorful costumes, and dance routines.


The origins of contemporary K-pop can be traced back to the early 90s, when the musical landscape of Korea changed significantly for the first time, stepping away from popular American and Japanese-style ballads called ppongjjak to “more modern” styles of music.


It was a group by the name of “Seo Taiji and Boys”, who in 1992, revolutionized Korean music by becoming the first to successfully bring western elements (such as rap, and the use of MIDI technology) while incorporating dance routines in their performances, a model that is to-date followed by most modern K-pop groups.


K-Pop's Strong Backing and Growing Popularity


One of the major reasons for K-pop’s rise is the role played by the South Korean government. The seed for this was sown in 1994, when the Presidential Advisory Board on Science and Technology prepared a report for the President, suggesting the government to promote media production as a national strategic industry. The report illustrated that the total revenue earned by the Hollywood Blockbuster Jurassic Park was roughly equivalent to foreign sales of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. Given that Hyundai was the pride of the nation at that time, this comparison resonated with the government and prompted it to take the idea seriously. The state quickly realized the immense scope of exporting its culture as an industry, leading to the establishment of the Cultural Industry Bureau within the Ministry of Culture and Sports.


The first definite steps taken by the Korean government in this direction came in the wake of Korea’s 1997 financial crisis and the need to repay International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) $58.4bn bailout.


The government laid aside 1% of its national budget for subsidies and low-interest loans to its cultural industries, launched agencies to promote and expand K-pop exports, and set up more cultural departments within universities.


Investments were made under the Kim Dae Jung government (1998-2003) to build concert halls and improve visual effects technology to support the music-form.




The push to the cultural industry was prompted by two primary reasons:


First, the government intended to target the entertainment industry as a means to restart the economy post financial crisis, and second, an attempt to preserve the Korean culture from the Japanese. The crisis was followed by the liberalisation of Japanese imports, and this had re-awakened the colonial-era fear of Japanese cultural domination, leading the government to invest heavily on its entertainment and culture industries.


While the government policies gave K-pop the initial push that it needed, it was Lee Soo Man, Founder of SM Entertainment, who took advantage of the building momentum to truly launch K-pop into the global sphere.


SM Entertainment trained and managed boy-band H.O.T., girl-band S.E.S., and teen sensation BoA –who became the first K-pop acts to break into Japan and China.


K-Pop - boA


Asian Domination, and Beyond


The need for cheaper programming in other Asian countries such as China (considering Japanese or Hong Kong TV dramas were four to ten times more expensive than Korean dramas) further fueled the Korean cultural industry’s expansion. The term “Hallyu”, or Korean Wave, was coined in Taiwan in 1997 to refer to the global spread of Korean dramas, films, and music.


Until a few years ago, the success of K-pop had been confined to Asia despite its multiple attempts to crack into the West. That however changed, with the recent and sudden explosion of boy band BTS and girl band Blackpink.


K-Pop - BTS


BTS frequently discusses serious and relevant issues such as mental health, the fear of failure, dreams, and ambition in their songs, which resonate strongly with youth all over the world, thus resulting in a massive worldwide fan base. Western influences in their songs and active social media accounts which keeps fans engaged, are some of the reasons for their widespread popularity.


BTS’ past three albums all scored number 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart.


It seems that the government’s huge investments into Korean music have brought back returns after all, with K-pop having become a $5bn industry (2017), according to a report by Korean Creative Content Agency. The market experienced a 17.9% increase in revenue growth in 2018 and was also ranked at no. 6 among the top 10 music markets worldwide, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s “Global Music Report 2019.”




K-pop has also helped other sectors of the economy to flourish, especially the tourism and beauty industries, with BTS alone having attracted 796,000 tourists (7.6% of the total tourists) to Korea in 2017 through concerts, exhibitions of behind-the-scenes photos, and fan meetings. Exports of BTS-related products, such as albums, merchandise, and products that they endorse made up 1.7% of total South Korean consumer goods exports in 2017, according to Hyundai Research Institute.


Other markets have also tried to export their culture to reap economic benefits in a similar way – case in point being the “Cool Japan” fund of 2013, which sought to promote Japanese culture through J-pop, manga, and anime, among other things, to which the Japanese government committed a sum of $500m over 20 years. However, this movement has received a lot of criticism through the years on grounds of poor management of funds and improper execution.


Countries like France, Spain, Italy and Portugal have also made efforts to spread their culture globally – for instance, through language. The governments of these countries have established language-training institutions with multiple centers worldwide, e.g. Instituts Français and Alliances Françaises for French.


Promoting local languages globally helps in the growth of local businesses around the world. It also causes the influx of more foreign students, with these making 60% of the total students in France.


Lessons for India


It is rather evident that the benefits of promoting local culture worldwide, if done properly, are immense.


India, with its rich musical heritage can use this to its advantage and emerge as a soft power. There are some natural alignments such as for Punjabi music, owing to the large Punjabi diaspora in countries such as US, UK, Australia, and Canada. Punjabi musicians also emulate Western styles like EDM or rap, thereby making their music more acceptable to Western audiences. At the same time, they maintain their localized touch, which could engage the diaspora by invoking nostalgia and re-enforcing their cultural identity.


Promoting local musicians on global stages is another low hanging fruit. In 1999, H.O.T. and S.E.S. performed alongside Michael Jackson at a charity concert in Seoul that was broadcast across Asia. India could do something similar, for instance, by staging cultural performances at the Cricket World Cup, which it will host in 2023. Promoting Indian music with a Westernized touch on such a platform would help people from foreign countries gain exposure to a culture which has been mostly limited to the subcontinent.


Economic benefits aside, expanding its culture worldwide to become a soft power would aid India create a certain image for itself across the world, and a positive one could even help in improving diplomatic relations with other countries. In a world where there is no escape from globalization, a “glocalised” approach to preserving culture – that is, keeping its local aspect in mind while also redefining it with respect to the rest of the world – could thus prove to be very advantageous.