International Socioeconomics Laboratory
International Socioeconomics Laboratory

Why KPOP Is Profitable, But White-Washed


K-pop has been around for decades and has had tremendous effects in Asia since 1999. K-Pop has evolved from the first generation to the fourth generation and as it grew, so did South Korea’s economy. The increasing popularity of the K-pop industry has allowed for the propagation of K-pop to foreign nations through the Korean wave, known as Hallyu. The Hallyu effect has had a tremendous impact on Korea’s GDP, contributing to 0.2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) in 2004 (approximately $1.87 billion). As recent as 2019, Hallyu had an estimated $12.3 billion boost on the Korean economy.

Ever since K-pop music became popular in the West, the South Korean economy has been booming. A large percentage of listeners are Westerners, making a huge amount of the profits dependent on Western countries. As a result, K-pop entertainment companies are catering more to Western countries by whitewashing songs. Most songs that make it in America today have entirely English lyrics, stripping K-pop of its culture.

Up until the 1960s, South Korea was a desolate, primarily agricultural developing country with, according to the World Bank, a GDP of only $3.985 billion in 1960. This stands in stark contrast with South Korea today, where it ranked 11th in terms of GDP globally in 2021 at $1.74 trillion. This rapid economic growth prompts people to question how South Korea managed to do so.

Although various factors, like technology and innovation, contributed to this growth, K-pop has played a large role in transforming the South Korean economy. Over the course of 30 years, K-pop has grown tremendously. Not only did the popularity of musical groups increase, but the economy of South Korea also improved. Professor Kim Seiwan from Ewha Womans University says that based on official estimation, K-Pop generates about $10 billion for the country each year. One group that is extremely successful and continues to increase in popularity is BTS. In 2018, the Hyundai Research Institute (HRI) reported that BTS accounted for an estimated $3.54 billion of the South Korean GDP. This number has increased even higher in recent years.

Due to groups like BTS, “K-pop” is now a word that many of us are familiar with, but that wasn’t the case roughly 30 years ago. Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and BTS drew attention to the genre, and more people started to learn about K-pop. “Modern K-pop” can trace back to 1989 when Lee Soo Man founded SM Entertainment, which later became one of the biggest entertainment companies in South Korea. In 1997, Park Jin Young founded JYP Entertainment and in 1998, Yang Hyun-suk founded YG Entertainment. These three entertainment companies are known as the “Big 3” in South Korea because of their massive popularity and economic success; in 2018, SM Entertainment generated $532 million in revenue, YG Entertainment generated $248 million, and JYP Entertainment generated $109 million.

K-pop is divided into four general generations. The first generation of K-pop began in the early 1990s and 2000s with the formation of the group Seo Taiji and Boys. This group’s concept took inspiration from “Western-style pop music” and “Japanese idols,” setting the foundation for future K-pop artists. K-pop groups from this generation include Shinhwa, Sechskies, S.E.S., G.O.D., and Turbo, and K-pop solo artists include Rain, BoA, and Lee Hyori.

The second generation of K-pop began in 2003 and ended between 2009 to 2010. Prominent groups in this era include TARA, After School, KARA, Epik High, Miss A, Wonder Girls, Bigbang, 2ne1, Girls Generation, Super Junior, and SHINee. It was during this generation that K-pop began to grow more popular and expand globally because K-pop agencies and companies started using YouTube, allowing for a wider reach, attracting international fans. Notably, in 2012, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was released, rapidly garnering views. In fact, according to BBCNews, this video broke YouTube’s maximum view count limit of 2,147,483,647 views, causing YouTube to rewrite this limit, which now stands at 9.22 quintillion.

This rise of social media platforms expanded during K-pop’s third generation, where platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Naver were used alongside YouTube. During this generation, K-pop improved the quality of its music videos, choreographies, merchandise, and promotional content. Popular K-pop groups from this generation include NU’EST, EXO, VIXX, GOT7, BTS, Blackpink, Twice, Gfriend, and Red Velvet.

The introduction of the Produce 101 television series placed greater importance on consumer’s opinions in K-pop. In this series, “101 aspiring idols” compete to make it to a final group of 11, who will form a temporary project idol group at the end. The series’ purpose was for viewers to decide which idol trainees would debut and which wouldn’t. Due to this voting process and the show’s popularity, the generated idol groups from the three seasons of the series have achieved moderate to high success.

K-pop is currently in its 4th generation with groups like ITZY, ATEEZ, Stray Kids, TXT, and LOONA. Additionally, the possibility of fame and success lures many young children to train with the hopes of debuting as idols. This maintains the popularity of the K-pop industry, thus allowing it to continue benefiting the economy.

However, a large percent of K-pop listeners and thus South Korea’s music economy stems from Western listeners. According to an online census, 40.5% of K-pop listeners were white and non-Hispanic, and 56.8% of listeners lived in North America which includes the US and Canada. In an infographic by Spotify, the US is the top country streaming K-pop, and the music’s popularity continues to grow at surprising rates in other western countries as well. Because of this, South Korean entertainment companies have been catering to Western fans rather than Koreans. Korean music should not be solely for Koreans, but what is K-pop without Korean culture?

Most Korean songs that make it to the West are in English due to the language barrier, lacking a key aspect of Korean culture: the language. Songs like “Dynamite” by BTS and Blackpink Rose’s solo album show the lack of Korean influence when it comes to pop culture. Though these songs have made it big because of western K-pop listeners, in the end, they are still Korean songs that actual Koreans can’t sing along to. K-pop has taken influences from Western pop but has since evolved. The choreography, energy, and language are unique to the genre. It should not have to change to earn a spot in your playlist because, as another genre of music, it should be respected as is.

K-pop music is still on the rise, gaining more listeners in the future, but if K-pop continues westernizing, it will lose its unique qualities and poorly define Korean culture. However, another thing K-pop groups are known for is their loyal fanbases. Hopefully, dedicated fans like them can dive deeper into the genre and learn the culture for themselves. However, it is still a problem when newer listeners hear a song such as “Gone” by Rose and mistake it for a Western song instead of a K-pop song. Without any cultural appreciation or acceptance for Korean music, it will continue to go underappreciated and dismissed.

Overall, the westernization or whitewashing of Korean music exhibited a boost in the South Korean music economy but ultimately led to a lack of cultural uniqueness that was once there. K-pop is making progress in the US, and soon perhaps K-pop songs that are actually Korean can be nominated for Grammys or played on the radio. This is a cross-section of profit or cultural morality but Westerners must be open and appreciate the culture of K-pop so they can be successful without having to stray further from their culture. If you are an ally of the Asian American Pacific Islander Community that has faced years of xenophobia, appreciate the uniqueness of K-pop, the danceability, and tune, especially if the language is different.

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