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Why K-pop's future is in crisis, according to its chief guardian

Bang Si-hyuk, chairman of HYBE, speaks during a debate hosted by the Kwanhun Club in Seoul, South Korea, on March 15.
Kim Hong-Ji
/
Reuters
Bang Si-hyuk, chairman of HYBE, speaks during a debate hosted by the Kwanhun Club in Seoul, South Korea, on March 15.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean pop has quickly grown into a global phenomenon, and its popularity seems to only expand. But a leading figure of the industry says K-pop "is in crisis."

Bang Si-hyuk, who chief produces the megahit group BTS, gave the assessment in a rare press conference last month. He said K-pop's business growth has slowed or even turned negative in some markets.

This trend is especially concerning, he said, because K-pop is yet to have an economy of scale. Despite the explosive growth both in business and cultural impact in recent years, major K-pop companies account for only 2% of global music record and streaming sales, according to Bang.

"K-pop exports hit a new high last year," says Kim Jin-woo, the head researcher at Circle Chart, one of the most influential Korean popular music charts. "But nevertheless, there are signs of slowdown."

South Korean customs data shows that K-pop album exports last year exceeded $230 million, marking a 4.8% growth from the previous year. That figure is dwarfed by previous years' growth — 62.1% in 2021 and 82.6% in 2020.

Kim says the slowdown is noticeable in some of the most important markets. The U.S. share of total K-pop album imports has remained at 17% for two years. The United States is the third-largest importer of K-pop albums after Japan and China. And in Southeast Asia, album sales dropped in all major countries other than Vietnam last year.

BTS' break is seen as a big factor

While it is difficult to determine the reasons for the downtrend — which could vary by country — Kim agrees with Bang that BTS' hiatus as a group is a main one.

The seven-member band announced a break last June to fulfill mandatory military service and has since focused on solo projects.

But Bang and experts also say that there are bigger troubles than the group's absence.

Visitors pose with cardboard cutouts of K-pop group BTS members at a tourist information center in Seoul on June 15, 2022.
Jung Yeon-je / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Visitors pose with cardboard cutouts of K-pop group BTS members at a tourist information center in Seoul on June 15, 2022.

As the first Korean act to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart and to grab Grammy Awards nominations, BTS has achieved unprecedented success, especially in the United States.

"The biggest influence of BTS is that they increased K-pop's dependency on the overseas market and made it truly a part of the global popular music market," says Lee Gyu-tag, an associate professor at George Mason University Korea who has studied the globalization of K-pop.

And they transformed the entire K-pop industry in their wake.

"We raised our bar so high," says music critic Kim Do-heon, about expectations for K-pop artists from both the industry and fans.

An increasing number of K-pop groups are going on Billboard charts and holding large-scale concerts overseas at a faster pace than BTS. But their achievements no longer receive the kind of nationwide attention and celebration that BTS did, in a sign that success in the global market is now almost anticipated of K-pop idols.

Critic Kim, however, says the K-pop industry lacks infrastructure and a system to continue to progress.

Problems range from unhealthy management structure of some major companies, to the regularized production system that can hinder originality, to treatment of artists' rights.

Even South Korea's declining population will make it harder for the industry to find new talents inside the country, Kim predicts.

And these issues may make Bang's diagnosis more evident in the near future, says Kim.

Professor Lee thinks a "transitional period" is a more fitting description for the current status of K-pop than a "crisis," with a new generation of artists emerging in BTS' absence.

K-pop pivots more ways than one

K-pop has a distinct "total management" system that is both credited for success and criticized. Companies recruit and train young talents into all-around performers and manage almost every aspect of artists' activities — records, stage performances, music videos, media appearances and so on.

And the role of owner/producer of major companies like SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment has long been crucial in shaping artists' styles and music.

But in recent years, companies like Bang's HYBE began to diversify and give more autonomy to producers.

"I think a generational shift is happening in K-pop not only of the owners but also the creators," says the critic Kim Do-heon.

Another change is happening in the way companies localize global business.

At least three groups, selected through auditions in the United States by Korean companies and their U.S. partners but trained in South Korea, are scheduled to debut in the U.S. later this year.

A similar model of artist development achieved considerable success in Japan, with the most prominent example being NiziU.

The girl group was created through an audition program jointly made by Sony Music Japan and JYP. All nine members are Japanese, and they mainly perform in Japan.

BLACKPINK performs onstage at the 2022 MTV VMAs at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Theo Wargo / Getty Images for MTV/Paramount Global
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Getty Images for MTV/Paramount Global
BLACKPINK performs onstage at the 2022 MTV VMAs at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

Circle Chart's Kim Jin-woo says the industry has now evolved from introducing artists already popular in South Korea to foreign audiences.

Kim says the nascent model of "combining K-pop's producing technology with foreign talents" will eventually move on to the next stage: non-Korean producers developing local artists in the K-pop model.

And that, he adds, is how K-pop "lives forever," as something anyone can recreate anywhere regardless of nationality.

Critic Kim Do-heon says such creation can be an ultimate symbol of K-pop's influence.

HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk also said in the press conference that he thinks "the letter K needs to be diluted" because K-pop is "a culture encompassing everything from fans, their consumption behaviors, production and industrial system" rather than a music genre.

Bang said he believes being free from the "K" identity will ironically help K-pop resolve the current crisis.

"K" is already fading from music by artists with bigger foreign following, such as South Korean girl group BLACKPINK, says Circle Chart analyst Kim, with some songs sounding indistinguishable from American pop songs.

Will, and can, K-pop go so far that it becomes disassociated from Korea at all?

Professor Lee Gyu-tag says the Koreanness, however it is defined, will survive.

"Just as hip-hop retains its identity as Black music even in the genre of Korean hip-hop," Lee says, "K-pop's identity as a Korean music genre will not disappear, even as it evolves into American K-pop or Japanese K-pop."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.