Ghia Lim, 22, is a die-hard K-pop fan. She streams her favorite idols’ music videos to help them win in Korean music shows. She creates original fan content and even hosts local K-pop events. For the college student and PR specialist, K-pop has always been a part of her life. “I’ve been into K-pop for as long as I can remember,” she said, listing off names of Korean supergroups. “My mom was a fan of BoA, and I naturally got started on getting into the male groups of SM Entertainment, like DBSK and Super Junior.”
While graduate student Mary De los Santos only got into K-pop during a trip to South Korea in February, it has already infiltrated her daily routine. When the 24-year old gets into her car, the first thing she does is crank up the speakers and blast her favorite songs. “Even when I study or work out, my ears are listening to K-pop nonstop… This is on a daily basis and honestly, I haven’t listened to English or Western songs in months.”
A global success story
Ghia and Mary are among the millions of Filipinos who have been swept by hallyu, or the phenomenal spread of Korean culture around the world. It made its introduction during the latter part of the 2000s, when acts like Wonder Girls, 2NE1, Big Bang, and Girls Generation released a string of hits that made it on international charts. It was in 2012, however, that K-pop made its grand entrance into the mainstream with solo artist PSY redefining vitality with his unprecedented hit, “Gangnam Style”. It was the first video on YouTube to hit a billion views. Today, those numbers sit well over three billion. PSY took Korean music out of the peninsula, and onto the global stage, making appearances everywhere from the American Music Awards to Ellen.
One can argue that K-pop has never been as big as it is today. Girl group Black Pink’s “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du” music video debut became the most-viewed on YouTube, garnering 36.2 million views in only 24 hours. Global sensation BTS released two albums in 2018 which both debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, a first for any K-pop act. Just recently, Spotify revealed that more than 14.2 billion K-pop tracks have been streamed globally, translating to a total of 46 billion minutes of listening since 2015. “[T]he hallyu wave is truly an Asian success story. For a genre that’s in a different language and from a very different culture, it is inspiring to see how K-pop is making its mark on the global stage.” said Eve Tan, Team Lead of Shows & Editorial under Spotify Southeast Asia.
This success story is very much felt here in the Philippines. Anne Curtis-Smith, a lover of Korean culture, performed a medley of K-pop hits in an afternoon variety show for her 21st anniversary in show business. There’s even a newly-launched online reality series, Hello K-Idol, where aspiring male Filipinos are trained for 10 weeks in the hopes of becoming a K-pop idol.
Figures and fandom
SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment, the “Big 3” of the South Korean entertainment industry, were valued at USD 772 million, USD 516 million, and USD 498 million respectively in January 2018. Clever marketing strategies might be one of the biggest factors behind K-Pop’s massive success. Embracing its global audience, songs are often released in different languages (such as the Mandarin, Spanish, and English versions of GOT7’s “Lullaby”), and groups like NCT are divided into sub-units to appeal to different age groups and demographics.
But marketing strategies are meaningless without the participation of consumers, and K-pop fans are a dedicated bunch. Ivanne, a 25-year old restaurant manager, owns 13 BTOB and three Super Junior albums, each costing P750 to P1,000. She has the official light sticks of both groups, which can cost up to P2,050. Ivanne has also attended several concerts, one of which is a BTOB concert in Jakarta. She shared, “A K-pop concert is one of the most magical events I’ve been to… It’s a phenomenon one should experience to be able to understand and comprehend.”
Ghia Lim, who professed to have “bought almost everything from albums to official tissue packets”, once flew to South Korea just to purchase Wanna One merchandise. Aside from the group’s official lightstick (the release of which she timed with her visit), she also bought their Lens Nine contact lens, Miniso figurines, Lotteria calendars, and even Ghana and Yohi chocolates. “If I put together everything that I’ve bought in the course of my life… I’d be able to send a few people to a private college,” she said.
For most, this all might sound a little absurd. But for these K-pop fans, it’s a way to give back to their idols. “I am willing to spend because I find true happiness, not only because of the albums and posters but because of these people [that] we idolize.” shared 14-year old high school student Dani*. “Fans go through a lot, and to us, our idols are our safe place, the ones that are there to make us happy even with just one video.”
And with that shared love comes a sense of community among fans. “When I first entered K-pop, it was an unfamiliar territory, but the fandom that I am in made that transition easy,” Ivanne said. “It’s one of the wonders of K-Pop actually, it’s truly a community. Despite the language barriers, at the end of the day we’re all like family.”
The swell of K-pop continues to expand, and the West is taking notice. Collaborations like Black Pink and Dua Lipa’s “Kiss and Make Up”, and Wendy (of Red Velvet) and John Legend’s “Written in the Stars” are testaments to the global recognition of K-pop’s unstoppable appeal. And artists are leveraging that appeal beyond YouTube and Spotify, with supergroup BTS recently speaking at the UN General Assembly and landing on the cover of Time Magazine as “Next Generation Leaders”.
While these are exciting times for the K-pop industry, many remain uncertain if hallyu will be a permanent fixture in the cultural zeitgeist. As with any fad, its staying power is only as strong as its fanbase. To that end, K-pop’s superfans are a strong indicator that the world won’t be saying goodbye to hallyu anytime soon.
Editor’s note: Some names in this article have been changed at their request.