Regardless of how you feel about the music, you can’t escape the modern phenomena surrounding K-pop. More than a music genre, K-pop has become a cultural milestone all over the world. But its rise to the top of music charts and explosive fandom didn’t happen overnight or in a vacuum, particularly here in the U.S., where K-pop artists and their record labels struggled to grow through the early ‘00s.
Between 2008 and 2016, international political controversy, daily social media usage and the evolution of music streaming created a perfect storm to propel K-pop out of its niche into mainstream recognition, viral videos, and exploitable memes. The cultural rise and relevance of K-pop in the U.S. are closely correlated with our simultaneous shift towards mobile streaming and short-form video. Let’s take a closer look at the timeline of K-pop artists and the social media apps that pushed them into mainstream stardom.
2006–2009: K-POP SOLOISTS AND SOCIAL MEDIA’S INFANCY
Before the rise of K-pop groups, it was Korean soloists that began the uphill battle of bringing their music to the U.S. Between 2006–2008, artists like Se7en, Rain and BoA were three of K-pop’s biggest stars, though their international fortunes differed wildly. BoA became the first K-pop singer on the Billboard 200 in 2009 with her self-titled album. Despite a few English singles and her 2013 movie “Make Your Move,” BoA and her label struggled to find a foothold in the U.S. music industry and she returned to Korea in 2013 where she remains successful through today.
Rain achieved the highest U.S. profile of this era. He sold out two nights at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in 2006, and in the same year, Time magazine named him as one of “100 Most Influential People That Shape Our World.” Yet Rain’s U.S. career was ultimately cut short by his two-year mandatory military service in October 2011 and he quickly faded from US fame.
The social media sphere of this period was also in its infancy. YouTube was in its first full year following its 2005 launch and both Facebook and Twitter launched in 2006. Many first-time users in the US flocked to these sites but there wasn’t enough data or information to incentivize them to explore new music or trends outside the local communities they were just starting to reconnect with online. Similarly, legitimate music streaming sites were also in their early days with Apple launching iTunes in 2003 and Pandora in 2005.
2009–2012: GIRLS GRAB TRACTION IN THE U.S. AND SPOTIFY PROPELS MUSIC STREAMING
When SM Entertainment’s BoA and JYPE’s Wonder Girls became the first K-pop stars to chart on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 in 2009, they foreshadowed one of the fastest-growing music trends of this generation.
SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man had a vision of globalizing idol music, but the label’s roster, primarily K-pop acts with large group numbers, still appeared to be a tough sell for American audiences. However, that began to change in summer 2009 when Wonder Girls were selected to tour the U.S. as openers for the Jonas Brothers, who were in their heyday. The media exposure they earned on that tour solidified early interest from a younger fanbase, which boosted the girl band enough to headline their own North American tour and land a TeenNick TV movie in February 2012.
K-pop’s legitimacy in the U.S. music industry was supported by big developments in music streaming with Spotify’s U.S. launch in 2011. Spotify carved out a niche between two extremes in the music market. At one end were pirating and P2P services, which were hugely popular but illegal. At the other end was Apple’s iTunes, which sold songs individually for as much as $2 per track. This introduced listeners to more of an “explore page” feel where users could discover new artists they had never heard before and see what their friends were listening to. Alongside the early days of music’s streaming evolution, we get Instagram in 2010, which acquired roughly 2 million users in its first few months alone. Across the board, these tech developments shifted user expectations in terms of how much they could do, what they could discover and who they could follow. Then we get Psy’s 2012 smash hit “Gangnam Style.”
2012: PSY’S “GANGNAM STYLE” PUTS K-POP IN THE MAINSTREAM
Some may see it as a mere novelty song, but “Gangnam Style” is a significant paving stone in K-pop’s path to mainstream cultural phenomena. Prior to PSY, a lot of Americans were unfamiliar with the term “K-pop.” By 2013, it had entered our cultural lexicon. “Gangnam Style” opened up South Korean music (as well as food, style and K-drama) to Americans who were formerly unaware that the country had its own distinct entertainment industry.
PSY’s satire was a video monster, becoming the first YouTube video with more than 1 billion, and then 2 billion views. It is still one of YouTube’s most-watched videos with more than 4 billion views. The song reached №2 on the Hot 100 in 2012, making it the highest-ranked song from a South Korean artist. Behind the scenes, it was also a game-changer, as it helped hasten the Billboard charts metrics to allow YouTube views to be counted for a modern reflection of how audiences were consuming music.
2012–2019: K-POP TOURS, DESIGNER BRANDS AND INTERNATIONAL CONFLICT
As K-pop solidified its roots with American fans, events like KCON — a three-day, global K-pop conference with multi-group concerts — hosted its first event in LA in 2012, drawing 20,000 people. By 2014, it had grown to 42,000 attendees, with reportedly less than 10 percent of whom were Korean.
The style press introduced K-pop to audiences outside of its primarily younger demographic, while prominent K-pop artists formed brand partnerships with international luxury brands that shifted the stars’ fame beyond music. Brands like Chanel, Fendi, YSL, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Gucci increased K-pop’s global consumer influence and power through collaborations with K-pop stars like G-Dragon, Jackson Wang, Blackpink and, of course, BTS.
It’s in this period that we also see international political news influence the rise of K-pop in the U.S. In 2016, China’s dissatisfaction with a U.S.-South Korean missile shield system, known as the THAAD agreement, led China to ban all Hallyu (Korean pop cultural content), most prominently K-pop. It was a financial hit to SM, YG and JYPE, the three main K-pop companies, who began to focus on sending their artists to burgeoning markets like the United States. In the same year, TikTok was launched, which activated a new era of social media where users could create or participate in community trends alongside their favorite artists.
According to Nielsen Music, Korean music consumption in the U.S. doubled each year between 2016 and 2019. Korean stars became more prominent on American TV, with BTS appearing at the 2017 and 2018 Billboard Music Awards, the 2017 American Music Awards and the 2019 Grammy Awards.
On Twitter, fans amplify their favorite idols through hashtags, fancams, voting campaigns and memes. As a whole, K-pop fans racked up 6.7 billion tweets in 2020, boasting enough muscle to even shift the social needle beyond K-pop. In 2022, the likelihood of having never encountered a K-pop fan or content online is almost impossible, and this content avalanche has converted many “locals” (a nonfan) into K-pop’s clutches.
The K-pop world has always thrived in digital spaces, but as its presence grew on social media in recent years and digital music platforms multiplied, audiences beyond fan cohorts had the chance to catch up.
Spotify reports that K-pop’s share of listening has grown about 65 percent annually since 2015, and Apple Music had year-over-year growth of 86 percent in the U.S. between 2017 and 2018. In 2019, Pandora Music’s “K-pop Girl Groups” station grew by over 182 percent in year-to-year listens, while its “K-pop Boy Bands” station rose by 90 percent.
Expanded listenership and the spread of K-pop phenomena on apps like TikTok and Twitter have made the music genre an integral part of modern discourse, particularly amongst Gen Z. There are dozens of micro-communities within K-pop for brands to take advantage of, but they won’t be able to tap this consumer power without viral insights and meme fluency.
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