K-pop is redefining music marketing in the U.S.

Why do people like K-pop?

“All of the work that the artists put in from their trainee days until they debut is something admirable,” answered Jorge Solis, a member of TCN Pulse, a K-pop organization at DePaul. “To see the work they put in for each dance, each song, is something that attracts [fans].”

Korean popular music, also known as K-pop, is a music genre that has garnered a growing global fanbase for its emphasis on creating an entertainment experience that goes beyond just music. 

“People are attracted to the music, [and] dance performances,” said fellow TCN Pulse member Kylie Mikunas. “Sometimes the meanings of the songs are very important as well and K-pop creates a sense of community.”

In addition to the entertainment experience, Audrey Redifer, the president of TCN Pulse, got into K-pop for different reasons. 

“I was also drawn to the marketing and the business side of the industry,” Redifer said. “It’s so complex and calculated.”

As a marketing major, Redifer was fascinated by the integrated marketing techniques used in K-pop. 

“I rarely see other people that care more about the companies than the [musicians],” Redifer admitted.

While it may be uncommon for K-pop fans to be more interested in the companies than the artists, the music industry at large is paying close attention to the non-music side of K-pop. Integrated marketing techniques such as photo cards and other CD inclusions drive physical album sales. Variety shows highlight the talents and charms of each group, and eye-catching choreography creates memorable performances. 

The global music market has had its eyes set on the mass appeal of K-pop for some time. While a few international labels have tried to emulate the K-pop style, like Simon Cowell and his “UK-pop” or the London-based K-pop group KAACHI, none have been able to achieve the same level of success as true Korean pop groups.

Universal Music Group is tackling the “K-pop style” differently than Cowell and KAACHI. It is going straight to the source to create a new chapter in music history by bringing K-pop to America in a whole new way.

In February, the Big Hit Labels YouTube page released a video announcing a “strategic partnership” between music industry titans Big Hit Entertainment and Universal Music Group.

Big Hit Entertainment, or Big Hit for short, is the entertainment company of K-pop megastars BTS. Big Hit has mastered cutting-edge integrated music marketing techniques. Universal Music Group, or UMG, is a network of music labels and distribution companies in over 60 countries. The global music superpower represents major talent such as Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Olivia Rodrigo. 

This “strategic partnership” is not a merger or an acquisition, but a collaboration between the two companies. Big Hit and UMG have collaborated to play on each other’s complementary strengths while still staying independent from one another.

UMG brings expertise in music production and global distribution using its wide network of industry connections. Big Hit brings expertise in discovering and training artists, content creation and building connections between artists and fans.

Sir Lucian Grainge, the chairman and CEO of UMG, announced three goals of the strategic partnership: a joint launch of a global boy group, an integration of K-pop platforms and technologies to UMG artists and an emphasis on enhanced fan and artist experiences.

Although it is an America-based company, UMG has been attentive to innovation in music around the world. With this partnership, it looks like the company is ready to tap into the integrated marketing techniques of K-pop. The integration of K-pop techniques into the American market is a huge implication of this deal. While UMG has had amazing success with its artists, there is a lot that the company can learn from Big Hit.

“[Korean music companies] are not as hung up on old traditions in music,” said professor Edward Glayzer of DePaul’s Global Asian Studies department. “They have been very keen to take the best parts of globalized music, the best parts of other groups from around the world, and not be ashamed to mix and match just because one is very old and out of style and one is very hip and in style. They will take whatever they think is good and mix it and create something new. They’re better than anybody else in my opinion in doing just that, whereas other countries like the United States, in particular, tend to be a little bit locked into [their] own conventions.”

In short, this partnership means that with Big Hit’s guidance, UMG may innovate like never before, especially when it comes to technology. Big Hit has not only been mixing and matching music conventions, but the company has been mixing and matching social media platforms to create a giant super app: Weverse.

The Weverse app is a one-stop-shop for music fandoms. Music fans have the opportunity to become a part of a community where they interact with fellow fans and even the artist that the community is centered around. For example, BTS has their own Weverse community where they write messages, share photos and even comment on fans’ posts. Weverse operates as a conglomerate of social media features. Each fan community has a feed of posts from fans, a feed of posts from the artists, music videos, a trending tab, interviews with artists, purchasable content like movies and recorded concerts and even a merch store.

“The goal of [Weverse] is to expand the experience of fans, the most important entities in the music industry,” said Big Hit Entertainment Global CEO Lenzo Yoon in the announcement video. “We will continue to craft a global-standard platform that is open not just to our artists, but any artist who wishes to take part.”

Thus far, Weverse is the most tangible evidence of the partnership between UMG and Big Hit. Before, only Big Hit Label’s K-pop artists like BTS, TXT, GFriend, NU’EST and Seventeen had fan communities on Weverse. Now, UMG artists like Alexander 23, Gracie Abrams and New Hope Club have joined the platform. Weverse shows UMG and Big Hit starting to tackle two of their goals: utilizing K-pop platforms and technologies for UMG artists and emphasizing enhanced fan-artist experiences. The last goal, the launch of a global boy group, is also in the works.

Big Hit has been collecting audition tapes from aspiring singers, rappers, dancers and models for an unknown project through their website bighitaudition.com. There is no application period, and they are “accepting auditions at all times,” which may suggest that some of the auditionees could be candidates for the joint “global boy group” project with UMG.

The boy group will be formed through an audition program that will air in 2022 with a media partner in the U.S. Based on Big Hit’s previous ventures, the program will most likely chronicle the training and selection process of the final line-up of the group.

Although the global boy group produced by UMG and Big Hit has not been labeled as a K-pop group, it is clear that there will be K-pop influence regardless of the nationalities or ethnicities of the members. The new group will likely follow the “K-pop style” of catchy music, powerful performances, trendy fashion, big-budget music videos and high engagement with fans.

This global boy group will have the tools that it needs to survive in the music world because it has the backing of two major music companies. Big Hit will use its integrated marketing techniques to create a successful brand for the group, while UMG will ensure that the group receives the best music production teams and media coverage.

“What we see, as time goes on, is a process of transnationalism accelerating and becoming faster,” Glayzer said. “It could be in not that many more years than we’re really seeing the elimination of a non-transnational industry.”

Encyclopedia Britannica defines transnationalism as “economic, political, and cultural processes that extend beyond the boundaries of nation-states.”

Korean pop music does not solely cater to South Koreans, nor does American pop music solely cater to Americans. This combination of South Korean and American music practices is bound to create something powerful. In the next few years, K-pop integrated marketing techniques are sure to make their way into American music companies and the new global boy group might just dominate the music market.

The partnership between Big Hit and UMG will be a catalyst for the music industry. America will break out of its contentions as music, entertainment, and culture are shared across countries, continents, and the globe.