New Delhi: The 1960s had rock’n’roll icons like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The 1980s had pop royalty like Michael Jackson and Madonna. The 1990s had bubblegum pop bands like The Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys.
Every generation has had their musical superstars who have transcended borders to court global stardom. If the current generation of tweens and teens were asked which singer or group epitomised the trend for them, the answer is likely to be unanimous: K-pop.
K-pop or Korean pop traces its origins to South Korea. It stretches across genres, and is primarily performed by attractive youngsters in fashionable clothes. The music videos often employ intricate storylines, and fans across the world are hooked despite the language barrier.
India’s affair with K-pop was slow to blossom, but today it has become a cultural phenomenon that manifests in frequent concerts, multiplex releases of documentaries, and a digital footprint to die for.
It was more than a decade ago, on 2 December 2008, that two performers, Isak and Ilac, associated with the South Korean TV channel Arirang, performed at the Korea-India Music Festival in Nagaland. The performance made the front page in the state’s English daily The Morung Express, headlined, “Arirang brings cheer to Kohima”.
Fast-forward to 4 December 2018, a Korean boyband, M.O.N.T. performed at the famed Hornbill Festival. Their India visit didn’t end in Nagaland, and the band went on to hold another concert in Manipur and a fan meeting in Delhi.
K-pop breached the Korean market to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia in the late 2000s, with popular artistes routinely touring the region. India got its first taste of a K-pop concert in 2014, when the boyband N-Sonic performed in Delhi as part of a K-Pop Festival.
Slow but steady rise
This marked a new trend for India’s K-pop aficionados, where at least one band or artiste from the school has performed in the country every year since.
The advent of the digital revolution has been key in fuelling the popularity of K-pop music, helping Korean artistes build robust fanbases.
It is today a multi-billion-dollar industry, with BTS, one of the biggest names in K-pop, earning a place in Time magazine’s 2019 list of the 100 most influential personalities.
Earlier this month, the song ‘Boy With Luv’ by BTS surpassed 100 million views on YouTube within 48 hours of its release.
Days before, on 4 April, the music video of the song ‘Kill This Love‘ by the four-member girl band Blackpink had notched 100 million views on YouTube in just over 48 hours.
K-pop fans also command a massive presence on Twitter. The social networking site announced “a new global record” when it got 5.3 billion tweets related to K-pop in 2018. India was among the top 20 countries that tweeted the most.
It was the onset of the digital age that catapulted the popularity of K-pop music in India. This coincided with the efforts of the Korean Cultural Centre India, the cultural arm of the South Korean Embassy, to make the peninsular nation’s culture accessible in Indians.
The centre has been organising an annual K-pop contest since 2012 and has started bringing bands to perform at the grand finale.
Last year saw three K-pop bands perform in India — Lucente in Mumbai, Snuper in Delhi, and M.O.N.T in Nagaland and Manipur.
So far this year, one K-pop band, IN2IT, has already performed in Mumbai and Delhi.
A concert film featuring BTS, Love Yourself in Seoul, was screened in 108 PVR multiplexes across India on 2 February. An official of PVR Line, a PVR offshoot that showcases documentaries and independent movies, said over 30,000 fans came to watch the movie. On account of the good turnout, Love Yourself in Seoul Encore, a rerun, was screened on 10 February.
The documentary ‘Burn the Stage, The Movie’, featuring behind-the-scenes footage from a 2017 BTS Tour, was released in India on 25 November 2018, across 17 states and 84 INOX theatres. An INOX official said a total of 243 shows were exhibited, which sold 33,654 tickets.
Pink Box Events, the event and artiste management company that brought N-Sonic and M.O.N.T. to India, sees the country as one of the growing markets for K-pop in Asia.
“When we first entered the market in 2015, we were the only company… involved in K-pop promotion and bringing Korean artistes to the country,” said Nicki Kanam of Pink Box Events.
“But for a few months now, other companies have also entered the market. This shows that the potential of K-pop having a market in India is being recognised,” she added.
According to her, it has become progressively easier to stage performances by Korean artistes.
“Earlier, Korean companies needed convincing to send their artistes to India, but now the companies know that a market exists and we have data to prove it,” Kanam said. “Hence, it becomes easier to deal.”
The numbers game
Keiko Bang, a media consultant based out of Singapore, told ThePrint that she had been tracking K-pop fandom in India since 2014, including the tweets and messages of local fans.
“We estimate maybe 12 million people in India are connected with Korean culture in one way or the other,” said Bang, whose company Namas-K organised the two-city concert by IN2IT.
“We have a big data analytics team in the US, South Korea and in India, and we are using them to completely understand the patterns of social media, so that we are sure to release the right kinds of things that people want from the right type of social media,” she said.
Despite the popularity of K-pop, cultivating a more packed calendar for fans is fraught with fundamental challenges. K-pop fans primarily comprise tweens and teenagers, who have a relatively lower purchasing power and may not be able to afford too many K-pop albums or buy concerts.
“India is unlike a lot of other countries where there is the concept of teenagers doing part-time jobs. Hence, we always keep the prices of the tickets low,” said Kanam of Pink Box Events.
Also, gathering fans, who tend to be spread across the country, at one venue is tricky.
While the frequency of K-pop concerts has gathered pace, the country is yet to see a performance by a major K-pop band, owing largely to this factor.
“The Korean entertainment companies, along with the fees, are also concerned about the numbers of fans that will attend the paid event,” she added.
“For them, it’s important to have a good crowd turnout, hence we try to bring as much audience as possible. Over the years, fans have started to understand the importance of supporting paid concerts,” she said.
“…But given India’s geography, it is difficult for fans to travel, and assembling a big crowd becomes difficult,” Kanam added.
The big picture
K-pop artistes believe the reason it has amassed such viral popularity is in the visual style of its music.
“People liking K-pop the most are the people of the younger generation, who are very used to images. It [K-pop] is less about texts and more imagery like film, and also digital,” said Jiahn, member of the K-pop band IN2IT.
“So together, it makes sense, as K-pop is a very visual kind of music style… It is influenced by Western pop, which was mixed with Korean-style passion, where they focus on sharp and synchronised choreography. And fans specially enjoy this visual presentation,” he added.
However, K-pop’s popularity in India faces some “inherent limitations”, said Professor Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra, who teaches at the Centre for East Asian Studies in JNU, Delhi.
“A lot of Indians cannot relate to a Korean artiste in terms of ethnic features, that gives people some kind of distance. We are also economically distant,” he added.
“Those cultural items are a product of an economic context, but we are still worried about three meals a day. Also, the rich culture of India gives people a kind of confidence and also resistance towards other cultures in a way,” he said.
According to him, the popularity of Korean cultural exports, including Korean movies, can be broadly categorised into two streams.
“One is the popularity in northeast India — that is a special case where mainstream entertainment products were not available. People relied on foreign, pirated items,” he said.
“Out of all of them, they realised Korean products were the best. It’s important to emphasise the good quality of Korean products because lots of programmes and dramas from Southeast Asian countries, China and Japan also arrived, but they couldn’t become fashionable,” he added.
“Moreover, ethnic features of the people are also similar, which helps them associate [with Korean performers],” said Mishra.
The second stream of Korean cultural popularity centres on metropolitan cities and was driven by the arrival of Korean companies as well as the internet revolution.
“And this phenomenon, I am not sure how sustainable it is,” he added. “Many teenagers, college students are interested but after 5-6 years, they leave.
Ultimately they need to have a career, one might like Korean pop music but that’s where it stops. Nonetheless, it is going to change their opinion about South Korea in a very fundamental manner. Even if they leave aside those interest in the future, there are going to be considerate towards the country” he said.
(An earlier version of the report said the company Pink Box Events was founded in 2016. It was actually founded in 2015.)