Increasingly, K-pop songs are being measured outside of South Korea by chart performance. This relatively new development puts greater emphasis on using charts as metrics for popularity, which some equate with music value. However, such metrics are not neutral, and obscure other ways of ascertaining popularity among K-pop listeners.
While subcultures in several countries have enjoyed it for years, K-pop music has recently experienced mainstream popularity, particularly in countries like the United States. K-pop artists such as BTS, NCT 127 and GOT7 have appeared on American television, and several other groups, including MONSTA X, BLACKPINK, and Red Velvet, are embarking on tours of the United States in 2019. With this increased popularity has come increased attention to the performance of K-pop songs on music charts. In 2018, Billboard announced that it would include plays from services such as Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify and SoundCloud in its chart calculations, giving them more weight to plays on services like YouTube. Such changes gave K-pop fans more incentive to mobilize to increase the visibility of their favorite groups on such charts. Unofficial fanclubs rally their members to stream and view in large numbers.
In “Reading the Charts – Making Sense With the Hit Parade” from the academic journal Popular Music, Martin Parker explains that music charts are unique in their role as reference points for music listeners (205). On one hand, music charts serve the interests of the music industry: “The sales charts empirically demonstrate the successes and failures of record companies, producers, designers, managers and recording artists, on the assumption that the more units sold the better the individuals have done in their respective jobs” (208). On the other hand, Parker also argues that “the consumer is more deeply ‘involved’ in the play of figures and faces than the professional ever is, the latter’s enthusiasm ending with the (relative) autonomy of leisure, when the former’s begins” (209). Fans also have an investment in artist performance on the chart.
However, this was not always the case with K-pop music, especially for the global fan. Before the ease of access afforded by Spotify and iTunes, global K-pop fans relied on file-sharing sites like 4shared and MediaFire to obtain music. Fans also depended on other fans to upload K-pop music videos and music to YouTube, resulting in several versions appearing on the platform. However, that scenario does not help with chart performance, so increasingly, the number of copies of music videos dwindled as fans encouraged others to view the “official” versions.
A close look at the kinds of media on YouTube by K-pop artists shows how fans now view with an eye to charts rather than enjoyment of the music. K-pop media outlets frequently report the number of views a music video receives over the course of its life on YouTube, from the first 24 hours to milestones of millions of views. However, they do not disclose the views of other kinds of media related to K-pop artist, such as comeback stages on music shows, which are part of the promotional cycle for K-pop artists. Any comparison of music video views and views of music show appearances show a significant difference.
The rise in the significance of views and streams reflect a more active listener interaction, but Parker suggests that it is also tied to the increased interest in K-pop by the music industry, including the music industry media outside of Korea: “In terms of the music industry this myth of democracy tends to conceal the extent to which the agenda of consumer choices is set in the first place by an oligopoly of transnational entertainment corporations based on a logic of profit” (211). In other words, fans may be the ones doing the viewing and streaming, but it is corporations that have granted value to the activity and act as arbiters of the measure of popularity, the music charts themselves.
At the same time, Parker notes that as prominent as music charts are, they are not the only measure of popularity: “The chart is not central to all consumers and producers of pop music. Many either do not care about it or actively resist it” (206). This is true of K-pop music. Global fans make music recommendations through sites like Reddit, which completely bypasses the charts. Fans still upload songs, and in some cases, whole albums, which allow fans to listen new music without caring about chart performance. K-pop fans continue to introduce others to K-pop music through recommendations on their personal Facebook pages as well as tweets. Even as K-pop music continues to gain more global popularity driven by corporate interests in the mainstream, K-pop fans continue to determine popularity for themselves beyond the music chart.
Billboard Staff. “Billboard Finalizes Changes to How Streams Are Weighted for Billboard Hot 100 & Billboard 200.” Billboard. 1 May 2018. https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/8427967/billboard-changes-streaming-weighting-hot-100-billboard-200 (8 Mar 2019).
Parker, Martin. “Reading the Charts – Making Sense With the Hit Parade.” Popular Music. 10.2 (1991): 205-217. https://www.jstor.org/stable/853061.
Streams and Views: What the History of Music Charts Can Tell Us About Popularity and K-pop by Crystal S. Anderson, PhD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.