Evolution of K-pop Series – 2000’s and beyond

**Last updated on 17 October 2020**

In the last blog post, I talked about the K-pop revolution brought by Seo Taiji & Boys who laid the foundation for the modern K-pop and the creation of the first-generation young idol groups in the 1990’s.  From then onwards, K-pop has been designed to target the teenagers.  In this post, I will talk about the 2000’s in which we saw the aggressive large-scale expansion of K-pop to other countries as part of the Korean Wave.

Large-scale Overseas Expansion of K-pop

After the IMF crisis in 1997, the South Korean economy was in bad shape.  In order to survive, the Korean music industry could not just rely on the limited local market and had to explore the overseas markets.  The overseas expansion of K-pop was helped by the following factors:

(a) The 2002 Korean TV drama, Winter Sonata, and subsequent Korean dramas gained huge popularity in Asia and sparked off the Korean Wave in this region.  For example, in 2004, Rain starred in the heavily viewed TV drama, “Full House”, and became a pan-Asian star in the same year – his album, “It’s Raining”, sold 500,000 copies in China and about 150,000 copies in Thailand and South Korea.

(b) Digital music in the form of MP3 players was introduced in 1996.  With the debut of YouTube and similar video-sharing websites in 2005 and the explosive growth of social media, YouTube and social media became a key force in promoting K-pop to the worldwide audience.  With digitized music and music videos disseminated through the social media with relatively low cost, K-pop was able to reach a mass audience all over the world without a massive investment.  The translation of music videos by fans from all over the world have also helped the spread of K-pop to other countries.  For example, in 2008, a powerful U.S. blogger, Perez Hilton, uploaded Wonder Girls’ music video “Nobody” on his popular site and the video clip was seen by America’s largest entertainment agency, the Creative Artists Agency, and through signing contract with this agency, the girl group entered the U.S. pop music market.  In 2012, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became a global smash hit with more than 1 billion hits and became the most-watched music video on YouTube.

The results of the overseas expansion of K-pop in different countries are summarized below:

(a) Japan, being the world’s second largest music market, was an obvious target of K-pop’s overseas expansion. Expansion to the Japanese market was helped by the huge popularity of the Korean drama, Winter Sonata, in Japan.  Initially, the K-pop artists portrayed themselves as J-pop stars and recorded original Japanese songs.  For example, SM Entertainment hired leading Japanese voice and dancing instructors for BoA who also underwent intensive language training so that she could speak and sing like a Japanese native.  The agency had invested US$3 million in her debut in Japan. In 2002, BoA’s single “Listen to My Heart” reached number 1 in the Japanese pop charts.  The boy group, TVXQ!, debuted in South Korea in 2003 but after 2005, the group’s activities were focused on Japan and became very popular in Japan. Subsequently, groups like Girls’ Generation and KARA presented themselves under the K-pop brand instead of being J-pop stars. They recorded Japanese version of their Korean hit songs for release in the Japanese market but still achieved huge popularity in Japan.  For example, the first Japanese album of Girls’ Generation sell more than 500,000 copies within 1 month of its release and later ranked first on Japan’s Oricon weekly album chart.  KARA’s single “Jet Coaster Love” sold 123,000 copies within the first week.

(b) China was growing rapidly and became a target too.  In 1997, H.O.T. released its first Chinese album which gained popularity among the Chinese audience.  Sub-groups of K-pop idol groups targeting at the Chinese market were also created, for example, Super Junior-M which is the sub-group singing Chinese version of songs of Super Junior, and more recently, EXO-M which is a sub-group of EXO.  These K-pop groups attracted a large number of fans in China.

(c) The initial expansion to the U.S. market did not met with great success. For example, JYP Entertainment, riding on its domestic success, attempted to break into the U.S. market with Wonder Girls and Rain.  Although Wonder Girls’s English version of “Nobody” reached number 76 on Billboard’s “Top 100” chart in 2009, Rain and Wonder Girls could hardly be considered a great success in the U.S.  However, significant successes were witnessed later with idol groups like BTS and Blackpink topping the US billboard charts.

(d) K-pop also began to spring up in Europe.  For example, SM Entertainment held two hugely popular shows in Paris in 2011 and the boy group, JYJ, held concerts in Barcelona and Frankfurt.

Contemporary K-pop Formula

As K-pop expanded overseas, its style has also changed.  Wonder Girl’s 2007  song,”Tell Me”, with its infectious techno beat, its catchy and compelling refrain peppered with simple English phrases (e.g., “tell me”) and easy-to-copy synchronized signature group dance moves provided the formula for the contemporary K-pop. Fans found such K-pop songs easy and fun to follow and this helped reduce the language barrier and assisted the viral spread of the songs among fans.  For example, the “Tell Me” video generated copycat videos by students, police officers and even soldiers.  Other idol groups also followed this formula, for example, Girls’ Generation’s “Gee” and Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry”, and achieved huge popularity.  Psy’s smash hit, “Gangnam Style” also possessed this K-pop formula of catchy and compelling refrain (i.e., “Hey, sexy lady” and “Gangnam Style”) and signature dance moves (e.g., pony-riding gallop), resulting in a lot of imitations through cover dance videos on the YouTube.

You can listen to the following K-pop songs and try to appreciate the winning K-pop formula:

“Tell Me” sung by Wonder Girls

“Gee” sung by Girls’ Generation

“Sorry Sorry” sung by Super Junior

“Gangnam Style” sung by Psy

Second-generation and Subsequent K-pop Artists

Although many of the first-generation K-pop idol groups (e.g., H.O.T., S.E.S. and Sechs Kies) disbanded or stop performing in 2000’s, the second-generation K-pop idol groups like TVXQ!, Big Bang, Super Junior, SHINEE, 2PM, 2AM, Girls’ Generation, KARA, 2NE1, Miss A and f(x) appeared.  Given the entertainment agencies’ strategy to expand overseas, we could notice the inclusion of members from other countries in the second-generation and subsequent K-pop idol groups. For example, Nicole of KARA, and Tiffany and Jessica of Girls’ Generation are Korean-American, Amber of f(x) is Taiwanese-American, Victoria of f(x) is Chinese, Nichkhun of 2PM is Thai-American, Jia and Fei of Miss A are Chinese.

With the increasing popularity of K-pop on a worldwide basis which represents a much larger market, a lot of K-pop artists are crafted to satisfy the demands during this period.  From 1998 until 2008, about 30 K-pop groups, duos and solo artists were introduced each year.  In 2009, the number jumped to more than 40. In 2010, it reached nearly 70 and in 2011, more than 100.  For profiles of the current K-pop artists, you can read the book written by Mark James Russell referred to in the “References” section in this post.

Changes in the Star-making System

So far, the Korean star-making model is that entertainment agencies recruit new talents through auditions and the new recruits become trainees who undergo rigorous training programmes including singing, dancing, languages and how to be a star for several years.  The trainees usually live together in small dormitories near the main studio.  It is expensive for the entertainment agencies to craft a star and it is estimated that the training costs (including dorms, food, classes, transportation, clothes) amount to around US$100,000 per trainee per year.  That’s why the entertainment agencies want to sign long-term contracts (as long as 13 years) and take a large cut of revenues.  However, once the trainee has become a star, in some cases, the validity of such long-term contracts has been questioned, resulting in court cases between the artist and the entertainment agencies.

Starting from around 2010, we saw a change in the way K-pop stars are made.  With the increasing popularity of American Idol-style audition programs (e.g. Superstar K and K-pop Star) in South Korea, entertainment agencies source new talents through these audition programs broadcast on the TV. As the winners and finalists have already got excellent performing skills and some may even compose songs themselves, shortly after the entertainment agencies sign on them, they can already release albums, and given that they have already attracted a high level of attention through the TV broadcast, the cost and time of training and promoting such new talents can be much lower than the trainee model.  Recently, a number of artists making debut actually came from such TV audition programs, for example, Roy Kim, Lee Hi, Busker Busker and Akdong Musician.

You can listen to the songs sung by the following artists who came from TV audition programs by clicking the links below:

“Bom Bom Bom” (봄봄봄 – “Spring Spring Spring”) sung by Roy Kim

“One, Two, Three, Four” sung by Lee Hi

“Cherry Blossom Ending” (벚꽃엔딩) sung by Busker Busker

“200%” sung by Akdong Musician

Internationalization of K-pop Production

The production of K-pop has become international with songwriters, lyricists, choregraphers, performers and fans coming from different countries all over the world.  For example, Girls’ Generation’s “Run Devil Run” was written by US-based Busbee, UK-based Alex James and Sweden-based Kalle Engston. Psy’s “Hangover” featured the American rapper, Snopp Dogg.  BTS collaborated with the American entertainer, Steve Aoki, in the single “MIC Drop” and has made a remix of Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat), a song by New Zealand music producer Jawh 685 and American singer Jason Derulo. That’s why some may argue that the present-day K-pop is in fact not purely Korean in nature but represents a fusion between the Western and Korean pop music styles.

You can listen to the following songs created through international efforts by clicking the links below:

“Run Devil Run” sung by Girls’ Generation

“Hangover” sung by Psy (featuring Snopp Dogg)

“MIC Drop (Steve Aoki Remix)” sung by BTS

“Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat) (BTS Remix)”

Worldwide Recognition and Reach

Starting from around 2015, the reach of K-pop has expanded much further over the world through the intensive use of online social media platforms, and K-pop artists have received significant awards and attention outside Korea. For example, the girl group, Blackpink, topped the US Billboard Artist 100 chart (dated 17 October 2020), followed by BTS at number 2.  For the US Billboard Hot 100 (dated 17 October 2020), “Savage Love (BTS Remix)” sat at number one with “Dynamite” sung by BTS at number 2.  BTS is the first group since the Beatles to get three No.1s on the Billboard 200 album chart within a year.  It is worth noting that the billboard charts use a number of factors like album sales, digital downloads, radio airplay and streaming for their calculation.  BTS won the Top Social Artist Award at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, the fourth year in a row.  Blackpink has also become the first K-pop artist to be the subject of a Netflix documentary called “Light Up the Sky” to be released to 190 countries – the documentary is a behind-the-scene look at the group’s journey to superstardom.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made the online platforms even more important as in-person live shows are not possible with the travel restrictions and the social distancing measures.  The Korean entertainment agencies (like Big Hit Entertainment, the management company of BTS) which have been using online platforms before the pandemic found an alternative by holding concerts online which can be viewed by fans from all over the world and utilize digital technologies like extended reality and augmented reality to make the stage fancier and more colourful, “multi-cam” function to allow viewers to toggle through different angles and/or to enjoy zoomed-in images of a particular artist, online chat room to allow fans sharing comments among themselves and with the artists, etc.  Although fans cannot attend the concerts in person, their faces can be shown in small screens on a background wall so that the fans and the artists can see (and even talk to) each other.

The online concerts have become a profitable revenue source for the entertainment agencies.  For example, SuperM launched their first paid online concert on 26 April 2020 which was aired live for 120 minutes with over 75,000 viewers from 109 countries and regions, and the concert is estimated to have earned over 2.4 billion won in ticket sales.  BTS held a paid online show on 14 June 2020, with 756,600 viewers from 107 countries and regions which is 15 times more than the 50,000 spectators that an average large-scale concert venue accommodates – this has set a Guinness World Record for being the most viewed live-streamed music concert.  The concert is estimated to have earned 22 billion won from selling tickets and also generated revenue from two 100-minute commercial periods played in between concert streams (vs 4.6 billion won from streaming BTS concert at Wembley Stadium in London on Naver in June 2019 attracting 140,000 people).  Another BTS online concert held on 10-11 October 2020 attracted 993,000 viewers from 191 countries and regions – you can watch highlights of this online concert by clicking this link.

This is for the time being the last blog post in this Evolution of K-pop Series.  As K-pop continues to evolve, it may take on new shape in the future.  I will write or update blog posts on this topic again when I find something interesting to share with you.


Related Blog Posts:

“Evolution of K-pop Series – An overview” dated 25 February 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – Birth of K-pop to 1940’s” dated 27 February 2015

Evolution of K-pop Series – 1950’s and 1960’s” dated 4 March 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 1970’s and 1980’s” dated 6 March 2015

“Evolution of K-pop Series – 1990’s (Rise of Modern K-pop) dated 9 March 2015



BTS wins Top Social Artist award at Billboard Music Award“, The Dong-A Ilbo, 2020-10-16

Kim Dami, “Blackpink and BTS rank No. 1 & 2 on Billboard Artist 100 Chart“, Arirang News, 2020-10-14

BTS takes top 2 spots on Billboard Hot 100 and ends “MOTS ON:E” attracting 993,000 global viewers“, Yonhap News Agency, 2020-10-13

Yoon So-yeon, “BTS feels the love during its second online concert“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2020-10-11

BTS to hold online concert on Saturday; featuring innovative technologies“, Arirang News, 2020-10-10

Kim Jae-heun, “K-pop suggests concept of ‘future concert’“, The Korea Times, 2020-07-02

K-pop concerts go online in time of pandemic“, The Korea Times, 2020-05-15

BTS becomes 1st band since Beatles to score 3 Billboard No. 1 albums in single year“, The Korea Herald, 2019-04-22

John Lie, K-pop: popular music, cultural amnesia and economic innovation in South Korea, Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015

Mark James Russell, K-pop Now!: the Korean Music Revolution, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2014

Daniel Tudor著, 胡菀如譯,《韓國: 撼動世界的嗆泡菜》,台北市: 聯經出版事業股份有限公司,2013年版, 273-276頁

John Lie, “What is the K in K-pop? South Korean Popular Music, the Culture Industry and National Identity”, Korea Observer, Vol. 43, No.3, Autumn 2012, pp.339-363

Korean Culture and Information Service, K-pop: A new force in pop music, Republic of Korea, 2011




59 thoughts on “Evolution of K-pop Series – 2000’s and beyond

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