Most eruptions in pop music happen over a long period of time rather than immediately. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ was Elvis’s first US number 1, but his sixth single (albeit his first on RCA Victor). Even The Beatles had been plugging away for several years before Beatlemania happened.
The story of K-pop’s ascent to global preeminence is even more protracted, with the origins of the genre dating back to 1987. Last.fm listening data reveals there were a series of spikes that cumulatively had to happen before the genre became as established and as internationally powerful as it is now.
Psy: the first true global hit
Outside of South Korea and Southeast Asia, the first true global impact of K-pop was the release of ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy on 15th July 2012. Initially it was a viral video hit, but that soon translated over onto audio streaming platforms. However, it was really that most curious of creations: a novelty hit.
Last.fm listening data for the track shows that it peaked in late September 2012 and then began to tail off (although it was still getting a huge number of plays for a long period afterwards).
That could have been both the start and the end of K-pop’s Western crossover, but it managed to open the door for a range of well-drilled acts to come through who, individually and collectively, had such a solid and consistent release schedule that the dominance of K-pop became an inevitability.
“We can definitely see a growing acceptance or normalisation of K-pop over time,” says Mark Holland, C++ Developer at Last.fm. “It can be hard to seek out new or unusual forms of music. They’re initially difficult to find a service to listen to them on and, even if it’s available on a service like Spotify, you might not necessarily know to look for it. Conversely, once something has proven itself to be popular, or growing in popularity, then everyone spots the business opportunity and it becomes much more available, which is something of a Catch 22.”
A series of important leaps
There were five key moments in 2018 and 2019 where K-pop really impacted globally and started to properly bed in. Love Yourself: Tear by BTS became, in May 2018, the first South Korean album to top the Billboard 200 in the US. The following month, Square Up by Blackpink was released. Then three months after that, another BTS album (Love Yourself: Answer) was released, marking a rapid succession of album releases from the two leading acts in the genre.
A similarly intense release schedule – this time a double-whammy rather than a triple-whammy – happened in April with the release of Kill This Love by Blackpink on 5th April 2019 and then Map Of The Soul: Persona by BTS a week later.
“The major spikes do seem to push the overall listening trend up after that point, even if there’s a bit of a listener tail off immediately following a spike,” explains Holland. “I think it indicates that particular artist/release/track is reaching a wider audience at that time, some of whom perhaps become fans either of the artist or the genre more generally.”
Each release marked a listening spike, but the listening rate naturally settled down immediately after – but at a level that was higher than before each release spike. This was a consolidation in listening, each new album spiking and collectively raising all listening further.
Going into 2021 and 2022, this heavy-hitting and intense release cycle was becoming industrialised and, as such, perfected.
Perfecting the release cycle
Releases from major K-pop acts through these two years were unrelenting. In 2021, there was a BTS dominance in January (the ‘Black Swan’ single followed by Map Of The Soul: 7 album) and then June (‘How You Like That’ single), August (‘Ice Cream’ (ft. Selena Gomez) single) and October (Blackpink album) were powered by Blackpink releases.
The story by summer 2021 and into 2022 was effectively a further refinement of the first half of 2021, where the spikes were not always as high but the drops were not as sharp. All of this suggested a cementing of habitual listening. May, June and August had a swift succession of BTS singles that stabilised listening. That then carried into June, August and September for a trilogy of Blackpink releases.
While BTS and Blackpink are huge crossover global stars, it is important not to just explain the growth of K-pop as being down entirely to their chart duopoly.
“From our data, the spikes we see for BTS and Blackpink are indeed some of the larger artists in the genre, and so more visible for the overall K-pop chart,” notes Holland. “That said, we know the other artists do have their own spikes, which contribute to the overall K-pop graph but are not as immediately visually obvious. The other artists are definitely contributing to the health of the genre overall.”
Taking the long view, we can see how ‘Gangnam Style’ laid the foundations but also how things did not really get going until six years later. Thereafter, however, it was a flurry of releases and a cumulative ascent in listening.
The growth of K-pop starts to accellerate
It was this frequency of releases from 2018 onwards that really drove the growth curve upwards.
“Having a steady flow of K-pop releases helps all K-pop artists, in terms of keeping the genre fresh,” suggests Holland. “Both for the surrounding coverage of new releases and the marketing each band does, but also so that people don’t get bored listening to the same songs.”
While much of K-pop’s impact was down to that BTS/Blackpink pincer movement with their releases – not cannibalising each other and ensuring that collective momentum was maintained – the genre is now so established that other acts could shoulder the weight if either or both of the dominant acts go on a break (notably BTS members now having to do military service at home, meaning they could be musically inactive until 2025).
“At this point, K-pop is quite established, so I think other bands will fill the void if BTS or Blackpink go on a hiatus,” says Holland. “There are already bands like ITZY or Stray Kids making good music, so partly it depends on what the fans are looking for. If you want a similar sound, you may already have found similar bands you like; if you like the artists themselves, then maybe you won’t go looking. So does that mean K-pop will grow overall if that happens? I think it’s possible that we may see a bit of a pause for a period before the growth resumes.”
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