K-Pop in 2018: 3 walls of prejudice are breaking down

Whether it be chance of success, music genres or fields of activities, K-Pop is now no longer limited to the “safety zone” that existed for so long.

It seems that every year, the music industry of Korea receives warnings from the experts saying that it would experience setbacks. However, just like other music industries, K-Pop does not stick on a plateau, but always finds new paths to avoid what the experts have warned. 2018 witnessed many dramatic changes from Korean pop culture; one of them is the breaking down of the three prejudice walls and repetition of “the success formula”.

Only large entertainment companies can manage a famous group:

Debuting under large companies comes with many benefits; a rookie debut from any of big companies garners a big response, even before their debut, thanks to the company’s financial capacity. Besides that, their chance to work with famous producers and create high quality MVs will also be higher. With the growing size of the whole Korean music industry, it will be easier to stand out if you come from a large agency; it is not prejudice, but a fact in this competitive market. However, we are now witnessing a strange truth in K-Pop this year: the groups with a strong backing can also become formidable opponents to those who were born with a “golden spoon”.

SM, YG, JYP – “the Big 3” companies have the biggest names in K-pop. Eight months into 2018, it seems like only JYP and YG have a surge in market value. Besides that, the gap between the music quality of groups coming from the Big 3 and others is not a huge distance anymore.

Excluding familiar names like Red Velvet, Twice and BLACKPINK, there are now too many good songs coming from rookies or small companies’ groups that enter the charts and become popular. The first group that we must mention is (G)-IDLE. This rising Korean girl group hit big with their debut single “Latata” and recent comebacks with another catchy track “Hann”. With good music and unique concepts compared to female idols these days, (G)-IDLE is expected to make it big soon.

Besides (G)-IDLE, it is easy for K-Pop fans to mention MAMAMOO when talking about “summer goddess” after Sistar or MOMOLAND, with their hit “Bboom Bboom”. It can be said that the ability to create a hit, raise its popularity in the public and the uniqueness in the music of the mentioned groups with the famous ones are almost the same.

“Bboom Bboom” - the song that gave MOMOLAND further recognition and beaome the most popular song of the year.
“Bboom Bboom” – the song that gave MOMOLAND further recognition and beaome the most popular song of the year.

We cannot be sure whether these girl groups can reach the peak that the groups from Big 3 did, but the girls are proving the wall of prejudice between Big 3 and non-Big 3 is breaking down.

K-Pop is predominantly the domain of idol

It is a truth that when people are talking about “Korean singers”, they always think of the immaculate choreography, eye-popping videos or songs with catchy lyrics, but have no meanings. These formulas to create an idol group are considered as “safe zone” for companies to make money. However, because of this, many people misunderstand what K-Pop really is. Moreover, fans are constantly being judged and claimed as a joke of teenagehood.

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With more and more groups either producing their own music or being involved in the writing and composing process, new genres and styles are now highly appreciated.

Starting from indie band like Akdong Musician or “digital monster” Bbolbbalgan4, the definition of indie is not “underground” anymore. People are now starting to turn to Urban Zakapa and Standing Egg to listen when they are bored of commercial idol songs. You have probably never heard these groups’ songs, but they are not familiar names in Korea.

One of the factors that have big influence on indie music is Hyukoh, the band nominated in Song of the year and won Best Band Performance at MAMA 2017. Hyukoh is under Highgrnd which is the sub-label of YG entertainment. This leads to the fact that their style is rather “weird”, though their songs are a jewel; it is such a pity for those K-Pop fans that leave Hyukoh out in their playlists.

MV “Gondry” – Hyukoh

If Indie is already smoldering flames from last year, EDM has recently been garnering attention from netizens and becoming a phenomenon with the rising artist, Shaun. However, in response to his famous song “Way Back Home”, many netizens expressed their disapproval and began criticizing the artist. He had been suspected of manipulating his place on the music rankings by inflating purchases online. No matter what the truth turns out to be, it is likely that Shaun’s belated fame will come with some stigma as being involved in scandal tends to hurt one’s reputation. Nonetheless, his music now went viral on the social world, the songs started to get exposure on TV and digital trending charts.

Europe and the United States are not likely markets for K-Pop to break in

Beside domestic markets, Japan and China have always been a big target markets for K-Pop from 2002 to 2016. The Korean wave, or Hallyu, saw its biggest success in Japan, where stars like BoA, TVXQ!, Kara and Girls’ Generation embedded themselves into the local entertainment industry, and the past few years have seen a shift on K-pop’s part towards China; but that’s changing. With the Sino-Korean THAAD dispute still causing political strife, the lucrative financial relationship between Korean entertainment and Chinese financiers is seeing a lot of strain. As a result, Korean companies have begun to search elsewhere for audiences, looking towards old and new markets alike in attempts to revitalize the entertainment industries.

K-Pop in 2018: 3 walls of prejudice are breaking down.

K-pop has been trying since the mid and late-2000s to break into the United States market. “Gangnam Style” of PSY was K-pop’s big crossover moment in America and around the world, but it never got the one trophy that would have cemented this in many people’s minds. His song gained mainstream recognition in the U.S. on the back of his viral hit “Gangnam Style,” but was somewhat of a novelty act stateside, despite being a chart-topping musician in South Korea.

K-Pop in 2018: 3 walls of prejudice are breaking down.

After Wonder Girls first cracked in 2009 with their crossover hit “Nobody” and CL landed on the Billboard list twice since 2015, it seems like there are no groups that can takeover Wonder Girls and CL place in the State market. This is when BTS appeared and became an uncontested US phenomenon in 2017. Unlike PSY, BTS had to take a while to get where they are now. Besides writing and producing most of their work, the group succeeded thanks to their high-quality music and a loyal fandom. 2018 witnessed dramatic changes not only from BTS, but also from other groups like Got7, Monsta X,… in America – one of the most difficult markets in music industry. Now, K-pop has become a global phenomenon and surprised people with their music, choreography and fandom culture.

BTS confirmed their pioneering position in the most difficult markets with three gold records from the RIAA (“Recording Industry Association of America”) – the gold certification means that the song has achieved 500,000 units through digital downloads and audio and video streams in the US, according to the RIAA audit requirements.

BTS at Billboard Music Awards, latest single “Fake Love” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 10 and being on The Ellen Show all proved that they can par with international pop artists.

After BTS’ achievements in external markets, GOT7 also gained 8 concert tours around Europe and America this year. GOT7’s promotions have become more and more international as time goes on. They are performing in a wider range of countries and are continuing to expand their horizons. Besides that, their album acknowledged just shows how much their music has been able to reach their international fans.

The same thing goes with Monsta X with their appearance on Good Day New York, a famous morning show of America. They also had their songs frequently requested on the radio, another popular promoting channel not many Korean fans have thought of before.

The initial success helps pave the way for other K-Pop groups break in US-UK music market. With the hit “DDU-DU-DDU-DU”, BLACKPINK received many positive feedbacks and YG Entertainment is rumored to be preparing to possibly debut BLACKPINK in the US. The K-Pop industry has high expectations for BLACKPINK’s possible venture out into the US.


No matter what safety zone Korean groups are stepping out of, the fans had the highest benfit. Increasingly witnessing changes of pop culture, more and more high-quality music will be produced to satisfy listeners. This proves that K-Pop will not only decline, but also will reach new heights in the future.

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