In the middle of Texas should be an unlikely place for a sold-out K-pop show. But in the Smart Financial Center outside of Houston at the end of July, thousands of fans gathered with self-made banners, tribute costumes and armful of merchandise while waiting in line to see Monsta X, a K-pop group, on their third world tour. These fans did not come here because of radio play or by combing in a music store. Instead, everyone I ask says they've appeared thanks to a specific site: YouTube.
Online, addictive music from K-pop and videos with a large budget raking in billions of streams, creating new fans around the world and constantly breaking YouTube records. Stateside, acts as BTS and Blackpink become red carpet regulars and sell stadiums, as Monsta X has for the show where I am in Texas. So how did this genre go across the borders of South Korea to & # 39; the world's largest stages? The rapid growth of YouTube is a crucial part, but it is also the way K-pop is packaged so perfectly to spread on YouTube itself.
"They are the Olympic athletes of the pop world," says Steve Aoki, who recently collaborated with Monsta X on the single "Play It Cool". "" They are trained athletes in what they do. Whether it is about media training, their dances, their singing. Koreans have mastered that, so everyone has to catch up, or at least become acquainted and learn. "
The first modern K-pop group, Seo Taiji and Boys, debuted in 1992. But most Americans would not be familiar with the genre until two decades later when Psy & # 39; s "Gangnam Style" became the first video on YouTube to be reach 1 billion views in 2012.
"The history of K-pop outside of Korea is really closely linked to the spread of technology that people use to discover and listen to it," said Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends on YouTube.
YouTube already saw rapid leaps in views of K-pop videos & # 39; s when in 2011 jumped three times up to 2.3 billion in a single year. Those views mainly came from international fans, and it still is. "If you look at the top 25 most viewed K-pop groups of the past year, 90 percent of views come from outside South Korea," says Allocca.
K-pop had its audiovisual formula long before YouTube became a popular destination for discovering music, giving the genre an early advantage as YouTube matured. In the 90s, Lee Soo-man, founder of the South Korean company SM Entertainment, developed a brand strategy called & # 39;cultural technology"That was meant to make huge hits and"set global trends, of not only music, but also costume, choreography and music video. "
SM Entertainment literally wrote a manual for its employees about how Make K-pop artists popular outside of South Korea using these elements. According to The New Yorker, it describes things like “the precise color of eye shadow that an artist in a certain country should wear; the exact hand gestures that he or she must make; and the camera angles to be used in the & # 39; s video (a group photo of three hundred and sixty degrees to open the video, followed by a montage of individual close-ups). "
Those techniques have been refined over time, resulting in modern K-pop videos that are designed to attract people in the first few seconds, even if the viewer does not understand the text. They use things like fast cut, fast zoom, tons of locations, flashy sets and, of course, flawless designs.
Super-sharp choreography has become a hallmark of K-pop and acts as Monsta X for every music video new routines. This is also not your normal choreography. It is fascinating to see how a group performs complex movements with razor-sharp precision. Because it's so important, songs are often written with this in mind. "While I'm working on the drop, I want these guys to dance to the song," says Aoki about his collaboration with Monsta X. "Because 50 percent of the song is the visual part of it."
Monsta X member I.M says the video & # 39; s also make each song easier for & # 39; the audience to understand & # 39 ;, helping them make contact with a wider set of viewers. "K-pop is more than just music, because we always prepare choreography with the stage number," says I.M. "That's why we prepare music videos & # 39; s every time."
The formula works and K-pop can spread faster on YouTube than any other music style. "Half of the largest 24-hour debut on YouTube are all K-pop groups," says Allocca. Moreover, he says that the top K pop songs also get almost twice as many likes and five times as many responses as the top songs from other genres.
Once fans are on board, there is more to attract them. K-pop acts publish additional content around the music videos for fans to watch, such as behind the scenes, videos that emphasize different members of the group, "dance exercises" video & # 39; s that teach fans the choreography of a song and video & # 39; s on learn the chants that you should use during the show. As Simon van Eat Your Kimchi told you before The edge, “The record labels will actually release a song to the official fan clubs before it hits the actual ether. The fan groups can remember a fan song from a song so that they can sing along with the actual debut performance of the song. It is a crucial part of marketing. "
The fans also create a lot of content for YouTube themselves. They make video response & # 39; s, dance cover video & # 39; s, Guides giving new fans crash courses on groups and offering lyrics translation into other languages. Everything helps people gain access to and participate in the K-pop fandom, regardless of the language or wherever they are in the world. "Being a fan on a deeper level with these artists means getting in touch with them in ways that go beyond just listening to the music," says Allocca.
"They are not passive listeners," says Aoki from K-pop fans. “They know every number. They watch every video. Each of those people is a representation of every video that has been viewed 500 million times on YouTube. "
The official video & # 39; s produced by the biggest K-pop acts could be unbelievable reference–close, creating a rich mythology for fans to unpack. Some symbols are less concrete than others, so it is up to the fans to find out what they all mean, and that often happens online. "One of the places that these communities can gather is in the comments," Allocca says, "and they will both discuss things, but they will also point things in the video or give you some kind of a path to something that they have noticed to help you rate this thing as the work of art they see. & # 39;
There are a lot of Easter eggs in the English video for Monsta X and "Play It Cool" by Steve Aoki, including the words "Airplane Mode" that appear in Korean, a reference to the lyrics in the Korean version of the same song. But many of the other videos from Monsta X go even further. They have had videos & # 39; s in which stories are being bullied time travel, social reforms, and the seven deadly sins, which led to tons of fan theories being hashed in YouTube responses.
Before streaming and social media, music was largely composed by a select number in the record industry – entities such as radio DJs, labels, and critics. Now it is composed by the masses, by fans who can choose exactly what they want to see and listen to. "It is a very large platform," says Minhyuk of Monsta X. "And K-pop is not just the music." I.M nods in agreement. "It's really easy to get into that channel and see what you want," he says. “You can also see a video that is related to that video. So I think it's really important to us. "" Everything is available, "whistle in bandmate Kihyun." There is no limit. "
People now discover music differently, and K-pop makes the best of it on YouTube. Online platforms enable people from all over the world to dictate what is popular and connect – not just with the artists but with each other – in new and often meaningful ways. "I am surrounded by non-Koreans who sing Korean," says Aoki. “I think it's great that a non-dominant language becomes a force. I am glad that I am part of this time in which I can be part of that process and that can help reach the world. Because the world is much bigger than just English. "
I.M smiles as he talks about the future. "We hope the world prepares us."