A lot of K-pop idols make more money abroad than domestically. Therefore, most K-pop groups now have foreign members to attract more global fans.
K in K-pop stands for Korea, but it’s been a long time since the genre was only popular within the country. Now, Korea is not even the country that consumes the most K-pop-related products and content.
According to data analysis by JoongAng Ilbo, the country that streamed the most videos and songs of BTS over the past year was Japan. BTS-related content – including MVs, official tracks, lyrics videos, and fan-made content – accumulated approximately 15.1 billion views between March 2021 and February 2022, 2 billion of which are from Japan.
BTS is based in Korea and all 7 members are Korean. But only 5% of the views (768 million) they achieved came from Korea.
A small number of views from Koreans
For BlackPink – the K-pop artist with the second most views (8.59 billion) after BTS, their largest viewership is from India with 820 million views. In the case of TWICE, ITZY, and Seventeen, the most views also come from Japan like BTS. For Stray Kids, Mexico tops the list. IU and aespa are two rare K-pop artists with the largest number of views from their home country Korea.
Thanks to its global popularity, physical sales of K-pop albums have also skyrocketed. After years of steady growth, K-pop album sales surpassed 50 million copies for the first time in 2021.
Research team leader Kim Jin Woo of album sales tracking company Gaon said, “According to the Korean Customs Service, K-pop albums worth 270.3 billion won ($222 million) were exported in 2021.“
Choi Bong Hyun, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Industrial Economics and Trade, said: “The globalization of K-pop is not random. K-pop has established a music production cycle, which includes training talented individuals, and developing their careers not only as musicians but also as television personalities and actors. After that, they took a break and came back with new music. The well-organized system has given K-pop a competitive edge in the global market.”
Mori Mayumi, former Singapore Office Manager of Asahi Shimbun, said, “K-pop’s high musical quality and performance is what makes it so popular in Japan. Whereas in the US, K-pop is seen as something new because there aren’t many American singers who can dance in sync in a group.”
Other K-pop groups have followed in the success of the international market paved by BTS. Stray Kids landed at No.1 on the Billboard 200 chart on March 28 with the latest album “Oddinary“. They became the third K-pop group to achieve this after BTS and SuperM. “Oddinary” sold 103,000 copies in the US alone in only 6 days.
This news is not surprising as Stray Kids has always been known to enjoy more popularity in North America than in Korea. They are the 4th most viewed group with 1.75 billion views, after BTS, BlackPink, and Twice. Korea isn’t even in the top 10 countries that watch Stray Kids content. The group has 45.4 million views in Korea but 178 million in Mexico, 146 million in the US, and 79.8 million in Brazil.
Stray Kids’ outstanding popularity overseas helped them recently set a new album record. The group sold 853,000 copies of the album “Oddinary” worldwide in one week. Recently, more and more K-pop groups are breaking their own records. Last month, NCT Dream recorded pre-order sales of 2 million copies for the album “Glitch Mode”. The group sold 700,000 albums on the first day of release.
In the same month, Red Velvet sold 440,000 copies of the album “The ReVe Festival 2022 – Feel My Rhythm” in a week. This figure is more than double the sales of the previous album “Queendom”, released in 2021. This is a remarkable achievement for a girl group that debuted in 2014 like Red Velvet.
Sim Se Na, Head of the PR department at Hanteo Chart, said, “BTS’s success has attracted more people to buy K-pop albums. As music consumption shifted to streaming and downloads, physical album sales fell in most countries, including the US. But K-pop fans are buying more and more albums. Right after K-pop artists release their albums, fans will unite and determine to set a new record for their idols.”
The focus has shifted away from the domestic market
Now, K-pop groups don’t need to focus much on being popular in Korea. Mnet’s survival program Girls Planet 999, broadcast in the summer of 2021, had never reached high viewership ratings. The 9-member girl group Kep1er was founded by the program and debuted in January. Domestically, the group’s achievements are also not very good.
However, the group is famous in the overseas market. Kep1er’s debut album, First Impact, sold 206,000 copies in its first week of release. The above figure helps Kep1er set a new record for debut album sales of a K-pop girl group. That proves popularity in Korea is not a reflection of how successful a group is.
Girls Planet 999 has the participation of 99 trainees from Korea, Japan and China. Out of the 9 contestants who made it to Kep1er’s debut lineup, 6 were from Korea, one from China, and two from Japan. This is the first Mnet program to receive votes from foreign audiences. This allowed foreign fans to have a say in who could enter the debut lineup. Girls Planet 999 attracted about 103 million votes, 90% of which came from abroad, according to Mnet.
Daniel, a British-Japanese viewer in his 40s, told Korea JoongAng Daily he watched the show in 2021 through the Japanese video streaming platform. Daniel voted for a Japanese contestant named Sakamoto Mashiro.
He votes for Sakamoto every day and together with other fans raises money to promote the female idol. In the last episode, Sakamoto Mashiro ranked 8th and won a slot to make her debut with the group Kep1er. Daniel said he bought more than 30 copies of the album First Impact to support the girl group.
From the point of view of K-pop companies, the nationality of fans and buyers doesn’t matter, as long as they actively stream music and buy albums or merchandise. Domestic popularity is no longer the main focus of entertainment companies.
A larger, more diverse audience means companies have to work hard to satisfy their tastes. Some Kpop groups are successful even though they don’t have any foreign members such as BTS, Red Velvet, ITZY. However, nowadays it is very difficult to find a group that does not have at least one foreign member. In addition, songs are often composed by Korean and foreign musicians. Entertainment companies also assign choreography to many choreographers around the world.
The production process of K-pop idols is now established as a global and systematic value chain. This system uses all available resources from all over the world. BTS’s hit Life Goes On (2020) is a good example. This is the first song with Korean lyrics to top the Billboard Hot 100. The song was not only made by Korean producers and some BTS members. Foreign musicians and producers including Ruth, Chris James and Antonina Armato were also involved in the production.
SM Entertainment has even run a “composer camp” since 2009 to gather Korean and foreign musicians. They and SM staff work together to make new products.