Colgate sociologist and music industry expert Paul Lopes helps explain the global emergence of K-pop

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In South Korea, they call it Hallyu. Translated, it means the “Korean wave” — an explosion of pop culture that’s rolled from the small East Asian peninsula across the world in recent decades. “It’s about television series and film, and then from about 2005 on, it’s music,” says Paul Lopes, associate professor of sociology. In previous generations, South Korea had made its mark on the world with electronics (Samsung, LG) and cars (Kia, Hyundai), but this was something different. “It really meant a lot to the Koreans that they were exporting culture.”

Lopes explores the unexpected rise of Korean pop music — or K-pop as it’s better known — in a special issue of Asia Pacific Business Review, which he co-edited with Korean sociologists Ingyu Oh, Lynn Pyun, and Jangwoo Lee. A longtime expert on the American music industry, Lopes was contacted by Oh a little over a year ago to take part in a January 2023 conference on K-pop, from which the series of articles in the journal emerged.

The startling success of K-pop has been woefully understudied, Lopes says. After all, in 2022, Korea had two of the top 10 musical acts in the world, with the boy bands BTS at #1 and Seventeen at #6 according to rankings by the (anachronistically named but influential) International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou was #9, while the rest were American stars like Taylor Swift and Bad Bunny, and Canadian rapper Drake. In 2023, BTS only dropped to #2 behind Swift.

“[K-pop has] a huge fandom, not just in Korea, not just in Asia, but across the globe,” Lopes says. “So that’s a phenomenon worth asking questions about.” It’s all the more surprising given the small size of Korea, compared to other Asian markets such as Japan and China, and its status as a “postcolonial” country, having been liberated from Japan just after World War II.

In part, that is due to the uniqueness of the music itself, which emphasizes concrete narratives over more abstract themes, one paper in the issue argues. Another finds the music particularly catering to a female fan base with something it terms “gendered melancholia.”

“It’s that sense of sadness that comes from being marginalized in the way you are viewed by society,” Lopes says. “That is universal for women.” Even the male-fronted K-pop bands don’t express masculinity in a typical style of a hip-hop or rock artist, he says. “It’s still masculinity, but it’s softer and it’s about healing,” says Lopes. “It’s one that feels very different than the masculinity women typically experience in their everyday lives or in other pop culture. It’s a kind of masculinity that accepts them and is comfortable with them.” Another paper in the issue looks at K-pop fandom across the world to find that, indeed, it is women who are driving the global phenomenon through online forums, where they often serve as hubs connecting different fan communities.

Other scholars in the issue look at the business of K-pop, finding its success in the deliberate strategy of its producers, especially record label SM Entertainment. The birth of K-pop stars started in the mid-1990s when they were manufactured by labels in something called the idol system. While that first attempt died down, SM Entertainment resuscitated the phenomenon in the mid-2000s, with something it called the GLG strategy, standing for global-local-global. “SM Entertainment and the other major labels said, ‘We need to go out into the world and find creators successful in the mainstream popular music market,’” Lopes explains. They found songwriters and musicians in Los Angeles as well as in London and Sweden, who created the scaffolding of songs that then were brought back to Korea.

At the same time, there was no point in having foreign artists create foreign music for the Korean music industry. So SM Entertainment followed a very deliberate process of making material local, putting together supergroups of up to a dozen performers — in training since their early teens — who shot elaborate music videos that featured coordinated group dancing. Finally, SM Entertainment pursued a global strategy of distribution; locked out of mainstream channels, they concentrated on getting music directly to fans online. “It’s by distributing K-pop music videos on YouTube that really makes it a global phenomenon,” Lopes says.

His own scholarly contribution to the issue looks at a paradox of K-pop’s success; despite the popularity of the music worldwide, and even in the United States, few Korean bands have achieved the ultimate triumph: hitting the Billboard charts. One exception is BTS, which charted on Billboard once it signed with the major label Sony. Lopes, with his co-authors Hyeseon Hwang and Ingyu Oh, argue that that is no accident. While Billboard keeps its formula a closely guarded secret, it revealed a decade ago that its charts were based on about 9% record sales, 34% radio airplay, and 27% streaming.

That means that 61% of the determination comes from channels controlled tightly by the major labels, says Lopes. “You’ve heard of pay-to-play or payola?” Lopes asks rhetorically, referring to the illegal practice, exposed in the 1950s, of paying radio stations to play songs. “Well, it never went away.”

While cash payments might be verboten, labels find other ways to offer perks, including free trips for station staff or increased advertising payments to encourage radio stations to play their artists. As far as streaming goes, Lopes adds, many people don’t realize that the largest streaming service, Spotify, is part-owned by Sony, Warner, and Universal Music Group, which run many of its playlists. “So even though BTS was #1 in 2022 and #2 in 2023, it’s not on these playlists,” Lopes says.

There’s not much that can be done about that, Lopes says, meaning that if K-pop bands want to break into the American charts, they need to follow in BTS’ footsteps and make deals with the major international labels.

Either way, K-pop continues to thrive even as it evolves. As the members of boy band BTS have all gone into mandatory military service, a new wave of female-fronted bands is gaining prominence. Meanwhile, SM Entertainment exploded last year over a feud between founder Lee Sung-man and his nephew and current CEO, Lee Sung-soo. But it is already charting new futures. At a news conference in December, Sung-soo outlined a big play to bring K-pop to the multiverse. Whatever lies in the future for K-pop, Lopes has been glad to bring a better understanding of the U.S. music industry to Korean scholars — and to help international scholars and the public at large better appreciate the “Korean wave.”