South Korea is one of the fastest-growing music markets in the world. The reason for this: K-pop. The international spread of the music genre earns the country several billion euros a year. The fact that South Korean pop music has become so successful is thanks in no small part to social media and a networked fan community, including in Germany.
But the hype doesn't stop there: People in more and more countries are getting excited about South Korean pop music. But why are they so fascinated with it?
A mix of fun and community
"K-pop is just something that brings me joy," says Melissa Ndugwa. The 21-year-old is the co-founder of K-Fusion Entertainment, the largest K-pop fan gathering in Germany. What excites Ndugwa about K-pop?
"Listening to the music, practicing the choreography and then dancing together with others is so much fun," says Ndugwa. Dancing together is not only a popular activity among fans but a central part of K-Pop. The performance of the idols, as the Korean pop stars are called, is as important as the music. The recipe for success is catchy melodies, sophisticated choreography and slick performers.
K-pop metropolis: Frankfurt
The K-pop stars are role models for many of their fans in terms of beauty ideals, as well. For some years now, Korean beauty and care products have been booming in Germany. There are salons offering Korean cosmetics and skin care in several German cities, including Frankfurt. This is where Germany's largest Korean community lives, and the city has now become Germany's K-pop metropolis.
In May 2022, Europe's first major K-pop festival was held in the central German city, with 70,000 spectators. Titled KPop.Flex, it was attended by stars such as Monsta X, Mamamoo and NCT Dream. The Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), a private television and radio station from South Korea, was also involved in organizing the event. Apparently, they suspected that Germany could turn out to be a lucrative market.
"Actually, the K-pop community in Germany is still small compared to the US, Asian and other European countries. But, this year, we've noticed a big change. There have been many more concerts by Korean artists. And there has never been a festival in Europe like the one in Frankfurt," says Kocky B, the leader of the K-pop dance group Shapgang. The 12-member group from Frankfurt performs at competitions and on TikTok, where they dance the choreographies of popular K-pop bands, but also perform their own choreographies.
The standard: Perfection
Kocky B says her fascination with K-pop comes from the focus on the visual elements, dance and the colorful, in-your-face, fun production, which she has not seen in the Western music industry.
"When we started, there were few people who even knew what K-pop was. It tended to be laughed at in the dancing scene," she says. "That has changed tremendously, because the K-pop industry offers many job opportunities for dancers. People now realize how significant this market is. Many Western dancers are hired by K-pop labels to develop choreography."
In K-pop choreographies, the stars dance in flawless synchronicity, and they do so in groups of up to 20 members. It's all about synchrony, community — and perfection. This also applies to the music, as Isabelle Opitz, editorial director of the German pop culture magazine K*bang Magazin explains.
"The music itself is produced to a very high standard, and songwriters from the European region are often involved. A label will bring a huge team to Korea. There's not much that can go wrong. As a fan, you know what you're getting right from the start," says Opitz.
Social media takes on a central role
K-pop also works so well because it offers a huge package of interaction opportunities, Opitz says. Fans watch every music video, every interview appearance and are well informed about the individual group members.
In addition, many idols star in series or movies, and communication via social media is perfectly coordinated. "Through platforms like Spotify and YouTube and social networks such as Twitter, K-pop has become more accessible; the community is more connected," Opitz says. "Even if you have nothing to do with K-pop at all, YouTube suggests content to you." Today, there is someone in every German school class who listens to K-Pop, Opitz says.
K-pop idols: Role models?
This success should not obscure the fact that there are also downsides. K-pop is a hard-hitting industrial product; the bands are put together by entertainment corporations. Young people are signed up and trained in a targeted manner — in sometimes exhausting and somewhat dubious programs. Those who are convincing get a place in a group.
The price of success is high: Time and again there is talk of gagging contracts that forbid the idols to have a relationship in public. There have been reports of eating disorders and even suicides among K-pop stars.
"Compared to the past, the community has become more attentive to the reality of the industry," says Melissa Ndugwa. Idols are still role models, she says, but are no longer glorified as much. "In K-pop, it's already a scandal if an idol dates anyone. There are stars who were ostracized for it and had to end their careers. At the same time, they are only human."
This article has been translated from German.