Right now, it seems like K-pop is everywhere. Acts like BTS have made the rounds on shows like “The Tonight Show” and K-pop groups are commanding slots on huge festival bills. Earlier this year, Blackpink made history as the first female K-pop group to play Coachella, while Monsta X will perform at this year’s Life is Beautiful in Las Vegas.
Needless to say, K-pop is finally making waves on a mainstream level in the United States. What makes K-pop’s ascendance so impressive, though, is that groups have bypassed the music industry’s tried and true avenues to pop stardom. When it comes to K-pop, all roads lead back to YouTube.
PSY Walked So K-pop Could Run
In YouTube land, a K-pop video premiere is an event. It wasn’t always like that, though. In fact, you’d probably have to go back to 2012, a simpler, less chaotic time, to see this firsthand. It was 2012 when the internet lost its sh*t over “Gangnam Style.”
The single by Korean singer-rapper-performer PSY had a lot going for it. The video had a big budget with enough zaniness to hook anyone watching it regardless of the language barrier. It was catchy, the song came with a dance, and it was a video unlike anything being produced by American artists at the time. “Gangnam Style” created the perfect recipe for immense virality.
The video climbed its way to history as the first YouTube video to hit one billion views. Since then, K-pop groups have upped the ante and have also figured out ways to optimize their videos for massive viewing numbers. In fact, K-pop labels and bands have their techniques down to a science. If anything, K-pop is a useful primer on how to make eye-catching, addictive content in the online video age.
For instance, videos contain every editing and video production trick in the book including quick zooms, breathtaking drone shots, CGI, and outlandish set design. Another leg-up for K-pop artists is the number of band members that groups typically consist of. A K-pop group generally features four to seven members. This allows videos to focus on multiple stars so as to not get boring. It also, crucially, allows fans to pick favorites. Much like boy band culture, this is an important facet of K-pop fandom.
Things Don’t Stop at the M/V
One way that K-pop videos differ from other pop stars’ is their ripple effect following the initial release. The music video is the main course, but groups offer up all sorts of addendum content that fans eat up. A hallmark of nearly all K-pop videos is the inclusion of laser-focused choreography that is unique to each song. Groups will frequently post choreography tutorials, behind-the-scenes videos, member spotlight videos and more that feed fans the add-on content they crave. Monsta X member I.M. told The Verge that using choreography makes the songs easier for “the audience to understand,” thus expanding the music’s footprint.
K-pop groups also benefit from a hefty dose of user-generated content. These homemade fan videos spread the music beyond the core audience. Fans will upload reaction videos and shots of themselves performing the dances while many also provide translations of the lyrics in different languages. So, although K-pop groups have their YouTube practices down like their choreography, their fans do too.
In today’s music landscape, the market is oversaturated. Yet, discovering new music is easier than ever. Everyone has a new single, a new album, and/or a new video. The big hurdle for artists in the coming years will be the same as it has always been: standing out from the crowd. While K-pop operates at a grand scale with huge video budgets and arena tours, the reason for its growth comes down to something as simple as savvy optimization of YouTube (and, of course, wardrobes and choreography). Now, K-pop is on its way to becoming a dominant force around the world.