“I stood in line for like, 13 hours and when the concert was about to start, I fainted.”
Said Quinty, a 23-year old K-Pop (Korean pop) fan from Rotterdam. She was one of the 17 thousand who went to see Bangtan Sonyeondan, better known as BTS, live in Amsterdam back in 2018. She described it as “one of the most beautiful concert experiences” that she had ever seen.
Staying true to her interests, Quinty works as project manager at Strictly KPOP Europe, a K-Pop event promotion company based in the Netherlands. The company hosts three to four K-Pop themed parties around Europe every year, where hundreds of youngsters would sing, dance and mingle with fellow K-Pop lovers.
“Our aim is to build a community and a safe space for liking K-Pop.”
K-Pop is a music genre that rose to worldwide popularity in early 2010s, when Korean pop star, Psy broke the internet, as the music video of his hit song “Gangnam Style” became the first video on Youtube to gain over one billion views.
The internet sensation has since paved the way for other South Korean artists to global superstardom; as of 2023, Korean household names, BTS and BLACKPINK are named the most streamed boy and girl groups on Spotify, with over 31 billion and 8 billion streams, respectively.
According to South Korean economist, Dr. Sungkung Choi, K-Pop gained popularity around the world by focusing on the selling point of the idol-fan relationship; the Korean entertainment industry has strategically made their idols do livestreams of their daily lives that could go on for hours at a time. Choi believes that this level of marketing is the future of global entertainment.
She said, “You would eventually get attached to these artists, because they sell more than their music; you are seeing what they’re eating, what they’re wearing, what they’re doing behind the scenes,” she then added, “so when these artists release new music, a certain level of popularity and fanship is already promised.”
“They treat us like family, they are so thankful for their fans, and they know very well that without their fans, they wouldn’t be here […] so that’s why they do a lot for us.”
Said Amy Staal, owner of Kpopers Academy, a K-Pop school based in Leiden, Netherlands. She opened her business back in 2022, after seeing a massive demand for a speciality in K-pop dancing in the Netherlands during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve had a handful of my students who came to me, because they have aspirations to become K-Pop idols themselves.”
Staal’s path as a K-Pop educator started more than a decade ago, after watching SM Entertainment’s boy group, SHINee back in 2009.
Ever since then, Staal began enriching herself with Korean culture by visiting South Korea every year to receive all-things K-Pop lessons, including the Korean language. As an avid K-pop fan and a performer
herself, Staal is very proud to have had the chance of getting trained by SM Entertainment’s choreographers back in 2017.
“Korea is my home away from home.” Said Staal.
Cultural diplomacy researcher at the University of Groningen, Djamila Boulil explained that K-Pop has been recognized as a potential soft power by the Korean government, and therefore, it is constantly being pushed to represent South Korea as a nation through all possible channels.
“The audiences are now on the internet, so these diplomacy exchanges that were previously done solely on the political level, are now also entering the public sphere through a direct link for the audience to consume culture across the globe.”
There have been numerous studies on why K-Pop has successfully broken into the Western market. Sociologist, Dr. Seonok Lee found that in Europe, K-pop music is well appreciated within minority groups, more specifically, the LGBTQ community.
“In Europe and North America, there are certain gender norms and image of what is considered masculine. The members of the LGBTQ community don’t see those traditional masculine norms within them, so they turn to K-Pop.”
Appealing to European Gen Z
“We used to provide information sharing sessions for parents, because they often ask us ‘what is this K-pop thing, and why is my child watching these dancing boys?’”
Said Stella Elhorst, owner of K-Pop merchandise web shop, I.wonchuu, in Rotterdam. She explained that parents and guardians of young K-Pop fans make the majority of her clientele. According to Elhorst, younger K-Pop fans in Europe have become more aware of up-in-coming groups, instead of following the mainstream.
“Our followers tell us what to stock up, they’d send me messages, informing me of the groups that are still underground but shows potential, they’d tell me, ‘please give them more attention.’”
Some of these newer groups that have gained popularity among European Gen Z are Stray Kids, ATEEZ, AIMERS and Monsta X.
Although she thinks that K-Pop has not entered the mainstream in Europe yet, Dr. Seonok Lee noted that the K-Pop industry has adapted to become more appealing to the Western audience through its music and image.
“Korea’s entertainment companies are hiring Western producers and songwriters to work with their artists. A lot of them come from Sweden.”