What do you think South Korea is best known for? Some may think of its innovative cosmetics and make up products, or its spicy cuisines such as Kimchi, and the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang may still be fresh in your memory. However, I imagine that many people would not think of K-pop, an abbreviation of Korean pop, which is now worth $5 billion and is South Korea’s largest export, according to Time magazine.
There was a “Gangnam Style” (a song released by South Korean singer Psy) fever across the globe in 2012, but the K-pop popularity has been increasing rapidly in the past few years. Korean boy band BTS debuted at No 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart (dated 5 June 2018) with its release Love Yourself: Tear. It was the first time in over 12 years that a foreign language album became No 1 on an American music chart. Furthermore, BTS attended the United Nations’ meeting in New York on 24th September, and one of the members, Kim Namjoon, gave an inspiring speech about loving and respecting oneself, which was aimed at young people around the world. Working with the UN and being a part of a global campaign marks yet another milestone in the group’s career and proves how much influence they can have, not just on their 13.4 million followers on Instagram, but on a larger scale too.
It is not just BTS who has a large global fan base; it is believed that there are 119 active bands within the Korean music industry and many of them have large numbers of international fans. KCON, which is an annual Korean music festival, is held in different countries around the world, including South Korea, the US, Japan, UAE, France, Mexico, Australia and Thailand, and KCON in New York and Los Angeles are said to have attracted a total of 128,000 fans. Originally, most of K-Pop’s audiences were in Asia, but now that the industry is growing world-wide, many artists travel to Australia, Europe, North America and South America for concerts and fan meetings.
For example, Monsta X, a seven member boy band, travels long distances regularly to see their international fans. They had their second world tour this year, visiting eighteen different cities, seven of which were in the US. As they have a large audience in Japan, they have visited Japan around eleven times this year already and will be visiting several more times in the next few months. Although having international fans is crucial for a successful career in the industry, the artists end up having to travel far and spend a lot of their time travelling. This is often linked to one of the biggest problems of the K-pop industry, which is the artists having to overwork and getting very little sleep to the point of illness or injury. Although not all of them, but many Korean entertainment agencies expect the artists to be “perfect” and because the artists are under too much pressure, it can be associated with health issues, such as depression. Last year, Kim Jong-hyun, who was a member of the boy band SHINee, passed away at the age of 27. He wrote a note before his suicide, in which he spoke about the pressure he felt from being in the industry. Although the reasons for his decision are not clear, his note revealed the disturbing reality behind the glamourous industry and more people became aware of the issue. I am sure that this is not the only case in K-pop industry, or in the western entertainment industry, and it made me think about whether it is morally right for us to support an industry where the artists are often not treated well, and whether there is anything that we, as fans, can do to make a difference in the way they are treated.
Links to some music videos: