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For decades, K-pop has thrived in Asian markets and in other parts of the world like Latin America. But there was always one pop market it couldn’t quite penetrate—the US. The US and UK have produced the best-selling artists of all time, making English-language music a powerful mainstream force. No matter where in the world you are, you’re bound to hear a top 40 US or UK hit blaring—but it’s rare to be able to say the same in reverse.

That changed in 2017. K-pop superstars, BTS, broke records with the release of two songsDNA and a remix of MIC Drop in collaboration with Steve Aoki. Both ranked as the highest-charting Hot 100 hits by a K-pop group. After wildly popular performances by the band at both the American Music Awards and Billboard Awards in 2018, and a presenting slot at the 2019 Grammy’s, it seemed as though the music establishment was giving this formerly niche genre its blessing. Not that it needed to.

Something has changed in music. Plenty of former chart toppers incorporate musical influences from elsewhere into their songs. Think of Justin Bieber’s dancehall-inspired Sorry or the reggaeton beat in Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You. But they’re usually fronted by western artists, and almost always sung in English. Yet when you look up Youtube’s top global charts, most of the top tracks aren’t sung in English. And this is significant because almost half of all global music streaming hours came from YouTube in 2017.

K-pop itself reverses the cross-cultural collaboration that mainstream English language pop has leaned into to stay relevant. K-pop label behemoths like SM Entertainment, YG, and JYP have turned going global into a science, by collaborating with Western artists, like Jordan Young, better know as DJ Swivel, who’s recently worked with BTS.

“If you listen to records I mean they have influences from every style of music,” says Young.

Hybridity is a distinguishing element of K-pop as it draws on other genres, like R&B, hip hop, pop, EDM, and more. K-pop labels have also assembled groups with members from places like China, Thailand, Japan, the US, even India to target specific powerful music centers. They even have manuals dictating how to craft videos or present the most optimal group to a specific market. 

No matter who you are, or how much Korean you speak, K-pop is built to be accessible and sound familiar. These labels are playing the game and it’s working because K-pop has gone from being a niche genre to a $5 billion global industry. You haven’t heard the last of it.

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Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.

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