BTS and Beyond: What K-Pop Does Differently

During the first day of Berklee's K-Pop Summit, Korean music industry insiders give a primer on the multifaceted genre.

June 14, 2021

Last year, as businesses around the world reeled from the impact of the pandemic, the recorded music market continued to flourish, driven in part by the ongoing K-pop boom.

Of the 20 best-selling albums in the world, six came out of Korea, according to the International Federation for the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). The only other country that produced that many of the top 20 albums was the U.S, also with six. Four of those Korean albums came from BTS, which outsold the second-most-popular artist in the world, Taylor Swift, by 400 percent. 

No longer can people talk about K-pop having a moment. The genre has bloomed into a culture—much like what happened with hip-hop—that’s here to stay and goes far beyond teen idol dance music. These days, the West is looking eastward to find out how they make their “secret sauce,” says Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based artist and label services agency.

Cho—along with Jae Chong, songwriter, producer, and member of group Solid; Eddie Nam, founder and CEO of EN Management; film editor Steve Choe; David K. Younghyun, cofounder of PRAUS and assistant engineer to Tony Maserati ’85; and MJ Choi, founder of I LOVE DANCE—appeared at the college’s first K-Pop Summit, which took place virtually from May 19 to 21. 

The inaugural event was originally scheduled for April 2020 but was postponed to this year. It was presented by the Berklee student club K-Pop Initiative, whose mission is to “extend the K beyond Korea,” as well as Global Initiatives and the Professional Music Department

The summit kicked off with an overview of K-pop by Cho and Nam, and was followed by master classes in K-pop music production (Chong), mixing and engineering (Younghyun), editing for Korean film and television (Choe), and an interactive class in K-pop dance (Choi). Below are edited highlights from the panel discussion with Cho and Nam. 

"Everyone seems to be talking about what’s going on in Korea.”

— Bernie Cho

What K-Pop Is Today

Cho: I kind of describe it as sonic bibimbap, in the sense that when you eat bibimbap you have all these different ingredients and flavors, all thrown in a bowl, mixed in, and you recognize all the different ingredients, the different flavors, and I think in this case the analogy would be those would all be different genres. And there’s nothing unique or exclusive about all these different...genres, but for some odd reason when it’s mixed up and a special sauce is thrown on top of it, all of a sudden that dish becomes uniquely Korean.

Nam: K-pop, from the outside looking in, is just super loud choreography; very, very hooky melodies; and of course fashion, style...and these high-budget music videos. But...a lot of it has changed and morphed. It’s no longer just this all-encompassing genre. There’s K-hip-hop, K-R&B, there’s the whole indie scene right now. It’s exciting to see. 

How K-Pop Has Evolved

Cho: Stage One, in the early ’90s, it was made for Korea, in the sense that the music was...only meant for the Korean market. Then, from the early 2000s to the early 2010s, it was really made in was starting to export across Asia and starting make waves beyond Asia, and right now, in the mid-2010s to today, we’re kind of Phase Three, which I would call the “made by Korea” phase, where you have Korean music either being made by Korean artists or Korean producers or by Korean music companies, but we’re starting to see a lot more globalization...often Korean music is being produced by people around the world, being choreographed by people around the world, and often being performed and sung by artists who are not only multilingual, but multicultural and multinational. 

Is K-Pop Always Pop?

Cho: One of my biggest challenges/opportunities is shattering the stereotype that K-pop is teen idol dance music because that is shorthand for a lot of Western music critics to say, “it’s shitty disposable music.” 

We have to move away from that stereotype. ...In many ways I would love to see K-pop be looked at and treated like, say, Latin music. When you hear a Spanish hip-hop song, or rock song, reggaeton, ballad, it’s all considered Latin music but it’s also recognized one level deeper for being an electronic, or a hip-hop, or a rap track as well. I hope K-pop starts being recognized for that diversity. At the same time, a lot of this boy band/girl band dance music—it’s great pop music. 

On K-Pop Fandoms 

Nam: K-pop labels and management groups have just done a very, very good job of cultivating fan communities and letting them drive this to the forefront… These people, they own Twitter. [BTS fandom] ARMY runs Twitter. K-pop runs Twitter right now. 

It’s really hard to cultivate true fans. I’m talking about people that really will go to multiple shows, stream your music, buy physical albums. I think it runs deep and it’s way more multilayered than just seeing this finished product of just a bunch of very good-looking guys or girls with good choreo and good vocals…. They’re really good at making you feel invested in the artist that you care about. 

On the K-Pop Business Model

Cho: The top Korean music companies,...they’re really hybrids of a talent agency, artist management, and record label…. When you look at their business model...we see that their revenue streams are incredibly diverse. ...For a lot of these big top companies, recorded music sales [are] only 25 percent of their total revenues. Korean music companies are generating 75 percent vis-à-vis through live concerts, or through merchandising and licensing, and then through talent management. I think this is one of the reasons why Korea was able to not only survive, but really thrive during this COVID situation. Hence, everyone seems to be talking about what’s going on in Korea. 

How the Korean Music Industry Wins

Cho: Each of these very distinguished music companies have a long history of having very well-developed systems. When you look to the U.S., none of these record labels or management companies have anything close to a system that successfully discovers and develops new music acts. ...Nowadays, a lot of the conversations that I have with U.S. music label executives are no longer in any way condescending or patronizing. They’re curious, they want to learn, and they want to find out what that formula is, what that secret sauce is, because the numbers are undeniable.