China and South Korea have agreed move beyond a year-long stand-off over the deployment of the U.S.-developed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (“THAAD”) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, a dispute that “has been devastating to South Korean businesses that rely on Chinese consumers,” according to Reuters. The nations’ reconciliation will certainly be a significant reprieve to South Korean tourism and retail industries, as well as to K-pop stars and filmmakers, alike, who have found themselves unofficially unwelcome in China over the past year.
But that year was not lost on some of the Korean nation’s most influential pop culture figures and most famous cultural exporters. Locked out of China both physically and online (Chinese authorities reportedly blocked online sharing platforms that facilitate access to Korean dramas and music in light of the THAAD dispute), touring K-pop brands wasted no time looking West for opportunities.
It is no secret that Western fashion and cosmetics giants, for instance, have been keen to rely on wildly influential K-pop stars – including G-Dragon and Taeyang, both of boyband BigBang; CL and Dara, formerly of 2NE1, both of whom have embarked on successful solo careers; Sehun, Zico, the boys of EXO and BTS, and many others – as a way to boost their sales in the Far East.
But as indicated by the presence of these figures in more than merely Eastern-specific advertising campaigns – and in ads and on red carpets in the West – it is apparent that their appeal is increasingly growing on an international scale.
CL, for instance, has appeared in ad campaigns for Alexander Wang, Taeyang for Fendi, and G-Dragon for Chanel – just a few of the examples on a relatively long list of partnerships between brands and K-pop stars. In addition, many of these same mega-stars routinely turn up at fashion month events, either in New York, London, Milan, or Paris – and land on the websites of the Western fashion press, where they have created interest thanks not only to their unique style.
One of the standout moments from this year’s Billboard Music Awards red carpet came by way of BTS – the seven-member South Korean boy band – who arrived at the event in Las Vegas in head-to-toe Saint Laurent, marking their American red carpet debut. They were on hand to accept their award for Top Social Artist Award, and to tour three cities in the U.S. in March and April and finish off their sold-out world tour in Japan in July. (They are expected to attend the American Music Awards this month in Los Angeles).
As noted by CNN in May, the China, South Korea stand-off resulted in “a marked upswing in K-pop acts touring in the U.S.,” much to the joy of Westerns fans, who have been increasingly exposed to these stars thanks to social media and the embrace of Western brands.
Having dominated the market in the East, such groups have begun looking to Western cities for additional growth, and it has started to stick. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, global revenue from K-pop concert tickets, streaming music, and related merchandise and services amounted to a record 5.3 trillion won ($4.7 billion) in 2016, with at least a portion of that coming from the U.S.
According to CNN, “In 2013, there were seven [K-pop] concert tours in the U.S., 14 in 2014 and 2015, then 20 in 2016.” As of this May, there were 14 tours that made stops in the U.S., “including the recent tour announced by K-pop icon G-Dragon.”
Another one of those touring groups? SHINee, the South Korean boy band, whose five members include Onew, Jonghyun, Key, Minho and Taemin. 2017 marked their first-ever tour that included U.S. cities, where they have found fans, in part, thanks to the fact that most K-pop songs are English language friendly. The lyrics during the chorus of most songs, for example, is in English - a smart play for a broader audience. The shows were, according to Los Angeles-based production company SubKulture Entertainment, almost entirely sold out.
SubKulture’s CEO Derek Lee told CNN this summer that his company was able to sell so many tickets for the group’s U.S. shows by targeting fans online, since most discovered SHINee through YouTube. "Our customer base, like most millennials are very Internet savvy and acquire most of their information about K-pop via social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.), which is where we like to focus the majority of our marketing efforts," he said.
Most of Korea's K-pop stars boast truly significant followings online, even on Western social media platforms, such as Instagram.
As Bloomberg noted earlier this year, “K-pop may be South Korea’s best-known export after smartphones and cars.” And now that the U.S. has had a more formal introduction over the past year, in particular, it seems unlikely that K-pop is going to go away any time soon.