The Korea Herald


Can K-pop thrive beyond its Korean identity?

While big agencies pursue localization strategies, critics remain skeptical

By Kim Jae-heun

Published : June 24, 2024 - 16:30

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Katseye (Hybe) Katseye (Hybe)

After K-pop's global success in recent years, music moguls have been grappling with the question of how to sustain the momentum.

They agree that localization -- by which they mean taking the K-pop style of discovering and training talent and applying it in different overseas market -- is a key strategy.

SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man introduced the concept in 2016 with a new boy band initiative that sought to expand and open up K-pop. His plans included groups based in cities around the world to which members could be recruited freely, with no restrictions on the number of members.

This vision gave birth to NCT (Neo Culture Technology), a sprawling boy band with 26 members arranged into several smaller groups, or subunits. But even though the group was formed with global ambitions and Japan- and China-focused units, its success has primarily been centered on Korea.

Part of this is down to timing. The group's launch coincided with geopolitical difficulties between Korea and China, when Beijing barred Korean pop performances from the mainland.

The unexpected global success of BTS soon afterward provided the impetus for K-pop leaders to revitalize their localization efforts as K-pop began to gain more recognition in America and Europe. But results have been mixed.

Early attempts by non-Korean groups to break into the K-pop scene, such as EXP Edition in 2017 and Blackswan in 2020, struggled to achieve stardom and ultimately disbanded.

Meanwhile, ventures headed the other way, such as SM Entertainment's WayV (a subgroup of NCT) in China and Hybe Labels Japan's &Team have just about managed to stay active.

NiziU, a Japanese K-pop girl group formed by JYP Entertainment and Sony Music Entertainment Japan in 2020, has seen success with several digital singles charting in Japan and the US, though their wider impact remains modest.

NiziU (JYP Entertainment) NiziU (JYP Entertainment)

Nevertheless, K-pop powerhouses such as JYP Entertainment, Hybe, and SM Entertainment continue to believe in localizing K-pop. But this time, they are collaborating with local entertainment juggernauts to test implementing the K-pop style of training and development system in the Western world -- particularly in the US

JYP launched the multinational girl group VCHA in the US earlier this year in collaboration with Republic Records, a US label. On June 28, Hybe is slated to debut Katseye, a global K-pop girl band with one Korean member only, in the US, in partnership with Geffen Records. Additionally, SM Entertainment will unveil an all-British K-pop boyband in collaboration with British producer Moon&Back Media later this year.

Appearing on the popular TV talk show "You Quiz on the Block" in November, Hybe Chairman Bang Si-hyuk emphasized the need for scalability to ensure K-pop's long-term sustainability.

"I think K-pop is in crisis at the moment. We should think about the next 10 years, not just tomorrow. To make K-pop sustainable, scalability is necessary," Bang said. "K-pop should no longer be confined to specific regions but should expand globally by discovering artists localized to each region through K-pop's training and development systems," he said.

Critics of localized K-pop groups argue their chances of success, particularly in the West, are slim. After all, can a group formed overseas, active overseas, and made up of overseas members really be called a K-pop band?

According to pop music critic Lim Hee-yun, it was the distinctiveness of Korean K-pop artists -- their appearance, stage style, and personas -- that captivated Western audiences.

"When K-pop first became popular in the US and Europe, people there were unfamiliar with K-pop artists, who wear thick make-up and stage costumes in aligned style. They are also friendly, almost to the point of being overly friendly, but they turn fierce when performing on stage. They found these strange, but appealing, at the same time," Lim said. "The less strange, the less attractive. In other words, (in the West) K-pop artists of non-Asian ethical backgrounds will appeal less to K-pop fans because they are familiar."

VCHA (JYP Entertainment) VCHA (JYP Entertainment)

Another pop music critic, Lim Jin-mo attributes much of K-pop's success to the Korean nationality of its artists.

"If there are one or two foreign members in the band, they can get the spotlight from fans in their respective countries. But if a group consists of only fellow nationals, fans will likely lose interest," Lim said on June 19. "I once asked fans from Thailand if they would like a K-pop group with Thai members only and their answer was no."

Grace Kao, a Yale University professor specializing in ethnicity, race, and migration, who also lectures on K-pop, pointed out that many K-pop fans like K-pop music and bands because they are from Korea.

"I think they (K-pop groups with non-Korean members) can succeed, but part of the charm of K-pop for the average American fan is that it is from Korea. We don't see Korean, Asian, or Asian American faces among Western pop stars. Many of us like the unique flavor of K-pop artists, songs, and choreographies," Kao told The Korea Herald.

"It's empowering for Asian Americans and other minorities to see artists who are from Korea and Asia. If the groups are not from Korea and the songs are not in Korean, it's harder for fans to identify it as K-Pop," Kao said.

Hybe is confident that Katseye will stand apart from other global K-pop groups that have seen limited success.

The yet-to-debut members are being trained by esteemed Korean idol producers and Geffen will assist in promoting them in the US, where they will be primarily be based.

“We are preparing Katseye with our best producers in Korea and the US under our unique training and development system. The group underwent a year of vocal and dance training at Hybe in Korea last year. The songs in the group's debut album will be produced by US songwriters,” a Hybe official said.