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In-Depth | K-pop sweeps Indian youth off their feet: What is its magic formula and how it pushes Korean business fortunes

In-Depth | K-pop sweeps Indian youth off their feet: What is its magic formula and how it pushes Korean business fortunes

Korean music and drama found a place among the Indian audience in early 2000s. However, the first time most Indians became familiar with K-pop was in the summer of 2012, when Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ became a viral hit. Since then, there has been no looking back

“Our prayers are with India,” said BTS, a Korean pop band, when the nation was grappling with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and asked their fans to “never lose hope” as the country faced a dire shortage of medical oxygen, essential medicines and hospital beds.

The globally popular K-pop septet, comprising RM, V, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin and Jungkook, enjoy massive fan following in India. BTS' fans are go by the acronym 'ARMY' ― or Adorable Representative MC for Youth. It carries quite some meaning, given that 'Army' is associated with the military, body armour and how those two things are always together, the fandom name basically means that fans will always be with BTS.

While BTS, also known as the Bangtan Boys, is very popular among Indian youth today, K-pop was famous in India even before the band officially made its debut in 2013.

South Korean drama, anime and music had found a place among the Indian audience in early 2000s. However, the first time most Indians became familiar with K-pop was about the same time as the rest of the world ― in the summer of 2012, when Psy’s "Gangnam Style" became a global viral hit.

The song, which was followed by a thousand versions and even parodies, racked up more than three billion views on YouTube, reigning as the most-viewed video in the platform’s history before being dethroned in 2017. The video currently has had over four billion views so far on the video-streaming platform.

Members of K-pop band BTS perform on ABC's 'Good Morning America' show in Central Park in New York City, United States (Image: Reuters) Members of K-pop band BTS perform on ABC's 'Good Morning America' show in Central Park in New York City, United States (Image: Reuters)

Rushda Anwer, 23, an avid K-pop fan and a social media professional from Noida, puts it in perspective: “It was in 2011 when I was first introduced to Korean entertainment through Winter Sonata ― an animated version of the K-drama. The story line, actors, food, music, topics, etc. attracted me and I kept watching more K-dramas. It’s an inevitability that if one is watching these shows, they will come across K-pop as these artists often sing for the shows and do cameos. However, it was in 2012 when Psy’s Gangnam Style came and I got into K-pop. After this, I decided to take a look at K-pop and came across Girls’ Generation ― a nine-member girl group from South Korea. They really got me into K-pop and after that there was no looking back.”

The popularity of Psy’s blockbuster song and BTS can be estimated by the fact that Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, chose to mention them in his speech at an official banquet hosted for South Korean President Moon Jae-In in 2018.

“Korean popular culture has also charmed us. From Gangnam Style to Korea's band 'BTS', our youth are captivated by the tunes of these iconic pop groups — even if many of them have never visited Gangnam!” President Kovind said.

However, it is not just a song and a boy band that has created a fan base in India. There are many other bands that are immensely popular India's music aficionados — Blackpink, Super Junior, Girls' Generation, EXO, (G)I-dle, Red Velvet, Mamamoo and Kard, to name just a few.

With booming fandom, the popularity of K-pop has led to a happy economic upside — the creation of a market for Korean items.

Let’s discuss the popularity of K-pop in India, its influence on youth and the opportunities it has spawned both in India and Korea. But before that, let’s take a look at K-pop in detail.

K-pop's origin

K-pop is Korean popular music, but it is not limited to pop as the name may suggest. The present form of K-pop includes different musical genres under its umbrella , including rock, hip hop and electronic music.

It is a fairly new form of music, which was formed around the 1990s with increased liberalisation of media and further developments in communication technology in South Korea.

Hannah Waitt, entertainment editor of moonROK, a K-pop news portal, pointed out in her series on K-pop history that Koreans gained easier access to American popular culture and artists in the 1990s, and they liked what they saw.

The 1990s was also a time of economic boom for Korea, boosting disposable incomes and purchasing power, as well as leisure time for the country's youth, who were the primary consumers of popular culture.

It was in this environment of pop culture curiosity and economic prosperity that 'Seo Taiji and Boys', a band, first took South Korea by storm.

K-pop is often considered an unusual genre because it has a definitive start date unlike others. It began in 1992 with one electric hip-hop TV performance by Seo Taiji and Boys — a single “Nan Arayo (I Know)”.

A global phenomenon

In the 1990s, the world witnessed a 'Korean wave'. The phenomenon, called Hallyu in Chinese, refers to increasing popularity of South Korean culture globally.

It is the effect of Hallyu that over the years, Korean culture occupied space in everything Korean – from dramas to skincare products and even food, which occupies a place in people’s favourite local menu.

By 2000s, K-pop had caught the attention of the global audience. And in 2012, as mentioned earlier, Gangnam Style took K-pop 's popularity to greater heights.

After winning fans around the world, K-pop has now entered the final frontier: North Korea. The growing influence of K-pop recently prompted the leader of the totalitarian state, Kim Jong-un, to declare a new cultural war to stop it.

Kim has reportedly called K-pop a "vicious cancer corrupting young North Koreans' attire, hairstyles, speeches and behaviours.” But even he may have trouble holding back the tide.

According to a report by The New York Times, South Korean entertainment which is smuggled on flash drives from China, has stolen the hearts of North Korean youngsters who watch it behind closed doors and draped windows.

The presence of South Korean entertainment in the North has become so concerning to the regime that it enacted a new law in December 2020 under which a person can be sentenced to 5-15 years in labour camps for watching or possessing South Korean entertainment items.

Interestingly, in 2018, South Korean K-pop singers had performed in North Korea, watched by a crowd of hundreds including Kim himself. “[Kim] showed much interest during the show and asked questions about the songs and lyrics,” South Korea’s then cultural minister Do Jong-hwan had said after the show.

Kim was "deeply moved to see our people sincerely acclaiming the performance, deepening the understanding of the popular art of the south side," CNN had reported citing North Korea state news agency KCNA.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets South Korean K-pop artists in Pyongyang on April 2, 2018 (Image: Korean Central News Agency - KCNA/via Reuters) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets South Korean K-pop artists in Pyongyang on April 2, 2018 (Image: Korean Central News Agency - KCNA/via Reuters)

K-pop's breakthrough in India

In the past decade, Korean music has caught the imagination of India’s effervescent youth. The trend, which began in Northeast India where teenagers have closer interaction with East Asian cultures, soon spread across India.

“The entire Northeast region of the country goes to great lengths to access Korean content through various means, despite the challenges posed by weak network infrastructure. K-dramas and K-pop are the front runners in terms of demand. Nationally, younger populations and Gen Z females in particular, are a highly immersed demographic for K-dramas and K-pop,” Hyunwoo Thomas Kim, Co-Founder, President and CEO of Kross Komics told Moneycontrol.

There are millions of K-pop fans in India and they seem to be very engaged, said the CEO of Kross Komics, which has brought the Korean webtoon ― a digital comic format content ― to India.

“According to Facebook analytics, there are over 15 million fans of K-culture in India, which includes its music. The country is now the sixth-highest consumer of K-pop music in the world,” he highlighted.

“K-pop is a different universe where it makes it 100 times more interesting. It's a genre that once you get hooked to, there is no going back,” said 20-year-old student Sumedha Chakraborty from Hyderabad, who was introduced to the music through K-dramas.

India has also seen an annual K-Pop contest since 2013. “K-Pop is a genre of music that the Indians are finding attractive with Psy and his iconic Gangnam Style working as an initiation into the genre for those who were new. So much so, that even in a Punjabi wedding in North India, you can see people grooving to the beats of the song," the K-pop India Contest 2021 website suggests.

"The contest has grown over the years and the Korean Cultural Centre, India, in association with their partners brings you this opportunity to be a part of this even bigger festival, to be held again this year," it adds.

In 2021 edition of the event has been postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Though the music had reached the Indian youth, its breakthrough moment in India was during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Members of South Korean boy-band Super Junior perform during the third Incheon Korean Music Wave concert in Incheon, near Seoul (Image: Reuters) Members of South Korean boy-band Super Junior perform during the third Incheon Korean Music Wave concert in Incheon, near Seoul (Image: Reuters)

Pandemic as an opportunity

During the coronavirus-enforced lockdown, more people found time and inclination to explore different kinds of content. With exceptionally high-quality performance, synchronised dance moves, simple songs with addicting hooks and the glamour associated with the groups’, K-pop caught the attention of Indian music lovers.

The rise in K-pop’s popularity during the lockdown can be seen in music streaming platforms’ data, which reveal how the genre's consumption spiked in the second half of 2020, thanks to the passionate fan bases of both BTS and Blackpink. The data also suggests that K-pop's popularity spans the length and breadth of the country.

In January 2020, before the pandemic, BTS was ranked 68th with approximately 780,000 streams among audiences that listen to English music, The Economic Times reported citing data from JioSaavn music streaming service. In October, the boy band had moved to the eight rank with over 2.3 million streams, the service's spokesperson told the newspaper.

Also, BTS’ 'Dynamite' spent 10 weeks at the No. 1 rank on Spotify Charts (September-November 2020), amassing around 15 million streams during that period, said Kross Komics' Thomas Kim.

Members of K-pop girl group Red Velvet leave for North Korean capital Pyongyang at the Gimpo International airport in Seoul, South Korea in 2018 (Image: Reuters) Members of K-pop girl group Red Velvet leave for North Korean capital Pyongyang at the Gimpo International airport in Seoul, South Korea in 2018 (Image: Reuters)

For 22-year-old Shreya Singh, who started listening to K-pop in November 2020, the sound is very distinct. “Some call it manufactured but to me it was the peculiar amalgamation of rap and vocal parts and the extremely addictive melodies and harmonies. Their music videos too are so creative. There is a burst of colour and creativity that K-pop brings to the sound of music that I found really fascinating,” said the final-year law student from Gurugram, Haryana.

The pandemic's second wave may have subsided in the country but K-pop's popularity remains high. Girl group TWICE’s 'Alcohol-Free' was on the No. 1 spot on Indian iTunes, said a June 15 report by Kpophighindia. On YouTube, Indians have given 15.1 million 'likes' to the song, the report added.

This makes it India's no. 2 when it comes to the top streamers, with Japanese in the lead, the report suggested. "The Indian fan base has massively contributed to the music video’s views. With 76 million views at the moment and counting, Indian YouTube is responsible for 15.1 million of the views. This makes India #2 when it comes to the top streamers, with Japanese Onces at the lead."

Language barrier? No problem

A language barrier exists for most Indian fans, but the inability to understand Korean does not deter them from enjoying the music thoroughly.

“The language barrier is always there in the beginning, but after sometime we tend to grasp it. When I started listening to K-pop I would have to search the English lyrics to know the meaning of the song. Of late, I can understand a word or two to get the full sentence. And my understanding in the language has improved due to K-dramas,” Chakraborty pointed out.

Aruna relies on subtitles. “Because of the huge fan base around the globe, subtitles are more common than one might think. In the rare case where there are no subtitles available, there are always fans, who go out of their way to translate lyrics/interviews so that those who don’t understand Korean can enjoy it too,” she said.

However, for many Indian fans, subtitles are not enough and they are keen to learn the Korean language. According to a 2020 language report by Duolingo, a language-learning app, India figured in the list of top-five countries with the most Korean learners.

Rushda, a Noida-based social media performer, is one of them. “I would love to learn the language and not depend on subtitles at all. So, I am learning it,” she said.

Merchandise of K-pop idol boy band BTS are seen on display at a pop-up store in Seoul, South Korea (Image: Reuters) Merchandise of K-pop idol boy band BTS are seen on display at a pop-up store in Seoul, South Korea (Image: Reuters)

How K-pop has opened business opportunities

There are many companies that have entered the Indian market riding on the Korean wave to cash-in on K-culture's popularity over the years.

But K-pop has opened the floodgates to Korean culture in India and consequently, all things associated with it like skincare, healthcare, food, literature, films and consumer products are in demand, said Kross Komics' Thomas Kim said.

“The popularity of K-pop and K-dramas opened up the market for us,” said Seo Young Doo, the founder of Korikart.com, an India-based online marketplace for Korean products and brands, told Mint Lounge. He first came to India working for a Korean company and later started his own venture of running Korean-speciality products in the country.

Seo Young Doo had told Moneycontrol earlier that "the popularity of K-beauty made us think we can launch a multi-brand store that will cater to the people who are familiar with Korean music and dramas."

He launched Korikart.com in December 2018 as an online marketplace for Korean products and brands across categories such as beauty, food, pet products and lifestyle, among others. The company has been experimenting with shop-in-shop models across select cities, but has now also ventured into its own full-sized outlet.

"Korikart has grown extremely well in India since March 2020. We have expanded nearly 300 percent across the country, including by two-folds in K-fashion and K-beauty. The brand has gained momentum with 40-60 percent growth on a monthly basis," Seo Young Doo had said in an earlier interaction with Moneycontrol.

Apart from Korean products, there is a demand for K-pop-inspired merchandise. McDonald’s too, recently launched a limited edition meal (across multiple countries) inspired by BTS, sparking excitement among fans.

“If the BTS meal, which is collaboration with McDonald’s, is available in my region, I will surely grab it,” said Chakraborty.

McDonald’s is also introducing a new commercial featuring the band’s new single 'Butter' on the heels of BTS Meal and has also launched exclusive BTS x McDonald’s merchandise on the WeVerse Shop App. “This head-to-toe collection is inspired by some of the menu items from the BTS Meal, with dynamite threads like hoodies, purple bathrobes, socks and sandals,” Westlife Development said in a press release.

Russian fans of BTS enjoy McDonald's BTS meals during lunch hour at its restaurant in Seoul, South Korea (Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji) Russian fans of BTS enjoy McDonald's BTS meals during lunch hour at its restaurant in Seoul, South Korea (Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

Besides K-pop merchandise, the country is a market for various types of Korean products, ranging from automobiles and electronics to food, skincare items, cosmetics and healthcare products.

Even the Indian government has set up the India-Korea Startup Hub to bring Indian and Korean startup ecosystems closer and to facilitate joint innovation between the two economies. After all, a dose of bilateralism is just what is needed to hurtle K-pop further into a 'cult' in India.

The cover image was made by Suneesh Kalarickal.

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