While K-pop acts like BTS and Blackpink may be getting more popular in English-language music markets, music in English is also gaining a larger foothold in South Korea, a sign of the increasing connectivity of global music industries.
Last week, K-pop girl group Aespa’s new single Savage replaced the long-standing chart-topper, Stay by The Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber, the latest example of the popularity of English-language songs in the South Korean music scene.
On Oct 8, for example, a few days after Savage dropped, out of popular chart Melon’s top 15 songs, three were by non-Korean artists, and four others, all by BTS, were in English, as well as their bilingual collaboration with Coldplay.
Across most South Korean music charts, Savage, Stay, and BTS and Coldplay’s My Universe have spent the past few days hopping between the top three spots.
While English hitmakers have regularly found love from local music listeners and occasionally chart high, the South Korean charts & streaming platforms are mostly dominated with releases from K-pop stars and Korean ballads, R&B, and hip-hop acts.
Occasionally, there are successes aside from one-off non-Korean songs, such as Anne Marie’s 2018 song 2002, which became a big hit in the country but didn’t gain the same fame internationally, and Bieber is a regular favourite of charts, but those one-offs are becoming increasingly more common in recent years.
According to industry insiders, there are a number of reasons behind the shift in consumer behaviour, but the biggest one is that while South Korean pop culture is gaining popularity beyond its border, the local scene is also becoming more international.
To some degree, this is intentional. Shin Cho, the head of K-pop and J-pop in Asia for Warner Music, says that just as Korean entertainment companies are looking to other music markets for audiences that are becoming more open to foreign content, overseas entertainment executives are seeing Korea in the same light.
In June, BTS producer and Hybe founder Bang Si-hyuk was seen in photos promoting The Kid Laroi’s release, days after The Kid Laroi signed with American music mogul Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Records, which Hybe acquired earlier this year.
According to Cho, getting a sign of approval from Bang, who has made some of South Korea’s biggest hits for decades, may have helped boost the popularity of Stay in the local market, by creating buzz and assuring audiences that a foreign release might suit local tastes.
As international deals between music and entertainment companies become more popular, local tastemakers’ credibility may boost popularity for songs that wouldn’t typically make their way onto local music charts.
Internationally popular releases also receive attention in the local market from films and television shows, while covers by popular South Korean artists have helped boost the popularity of English songs in Korea.
David Guetta’s Hey Mama with Nicki Minaj, Bebe Rexha and Afrojack is in the top 50 songs on Melon after it was featured in an episode of Street Woman Fighter.
Other factors are the rise of TikTok, which is largely music based and full of dance challenges from artists across the world, and recent rights tiffs between Spotify, Apple Music and South Korean music and tech giants.
“The barriers are breaking, because in the end it’s good music,” said Cho.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.