As K-pop’s popularity expands beyond South Korea, industry leaders are expanding to the American market by joining hands with large American record labels – HYBE, the entertainment company that manages the popular band BTS, announced a partnership with Universal Music Group. Meanwhile, another major South Korean entertainment company SM signed a similar agreement with MGM. These partnerships hope to gain a greater foothold in the American market by exporting domestically-trained K-pop bands or by creating an entirely new group, recruited in the United States to specifically target an American audience.
There are organic efforts to form a K-pop band from outside Korea as well – one of the most famous examples of this trend is Bora Kim’s EXP Edition, the world’s first non-Korean K-pop band. What started as an academic project of Bora Kim’s Master’s degree at Columbia University soon turned into a real boy band with six members seriously considering a career in becoming K-pop stars. EXP Edition went through a “DIY” expedited training process – Korean lessons, vocal lessons, dance lessons – before releasing their first single in 2015. Despite none of the members being Korean, their music and music videos do have a distinctive K-pop feel.
These recent announcements and debut of non-Korean K-pop groups have sparked a discussion on what defines “K-pop.” If the original songs are not sung in Korean, can the music still be defined as K-pop? What if the artists are not from Korea?
Members of many non-Korean K-pop groups have received backlash for “culturally appropriating” K-pop, sometimes even receiving death threats. However, K-pop is outgrowing its roots, and gatekeeping the genre would also stymie the organic evolution of the genre. Groups like the EXP Edition and those created by Korean entertainment companies in the United States could mean that “authentic” K-pop is no longer confined to the Korean Peninsula.
This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.
Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sean Blanco, Marina Dickson, and Jina Park. Picture of EXP Edition