The K-pop superfans who can make, and break, musical careers in South Korea
Koreans are used to seeing their music idols up close at meet-and-greet sessions and promotional events, but fans this invested can also turn on stars who transgress, and use the power of their wallets to bring them to heel
South Korea’s K-pop music is the unique product of a highly wired, tech-savvy society – one that sets fashion and beauty trends throughout Asia.
Its well-dressed, perfectly coordinated bubblegum girl groups and boy bands, such as Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, EXO and, more recently, BTS have global appeal, and have made K-pop one of the country’s biggest cultural exports.
In 2016, the industry was valued at US$4.7 billion, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency, a figure that is only expected to grow thanks to K-pop’s expanding consumer base. In the same year, the Korea Foundation, a diplomatic organisation under South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, estimated there were more than 35 million K-pop fans around the globe, an increase of more than 60 per cent from 2014.
Over the years, the K-pop fan base has become a major component behind the success of Korean idol groups both domestically and internationally. Fans have rallied in their millions to support and follow the trajectory of their favourite stars.
The K-pop phenomenon has been much more fan-driven than, say, Hollywood or American pop music. As with the music, K-pop fandom can be high-energy, high on passion and all-consuming.
Groups such as BTS, the most popular Korean boy band in the United States, owe much of their success to the hard work of fans who called American radio stations, bought their albums and congregated online to help the band enter the US pop charts.
BTS were the first K-pop group to crack the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their track MIC Drop, featuring rapper Desiigner and remixed by US DJ Steve Aoki.
Korean entertainment companies know the key to earning fans is having a good online presence, and are eagerly putting out content to capture that audience, says Jenna Gibson, a Korean pop culture enthusiast and director of communications for The Korean Economic Institute.
“From the agency standpoint, a strong fan base is the way to a solid bottom line,” she says.
With more than 9 million people living in the South Korean capital, Seoul, fan clubs and gatherings are easy to organise.
“When a group holds a meet-and-greet or a concert, a large number of fans can actually attend in person on a regular basis,” Gibson says. “Compare that to the United States, where fans of major stars who don’t live in New York or LA may have to wait years for their favourite singer to stop by on a concert tour.”
The physical proximity fosters a sense of emotional closeness between fans and their idols, says Gibson, who notes that K-pop companies work extra hard on events and promotions.
When there is a new single or album release, K-pop idols heavily promote them on social media, talk shows and other public events, and interact with fans on an otherwise unseen level in today’s post-John Lennon world, where most celebrities maintain a safe distance.
“Almost all K-pop fan events are open to the public,” Gibson says. “If you want to see your favourite group tape any of those weekly music shows, you can try to get in line early enough in the morning to do so.
“So unlike Western singers who may go on a few late-night shows here and there, and are otherwise inaccessible, Korean fans with enough time on their hands can see their idols live multiple times a week. This, of course, creates a far more invested fan base, and allows fans to meet each other.”
But this level of visibility and interaction has its downside, as K-pop stars are often held to account by their fans.
“Because fans have such loyalty and devotion, and because of the amount of time and energy fans put into supporting their favourite group, they naturally feel like they can make certain requests in return,” Gibson says.
Last year, when Big Bang member T.O.P was charged with marijuana use, he issued a lengthy hand-written letter saying: “I have left an irreparable scar in everyone’s hearts, so I believe I deserve to be punished.”
The singer was later admitted to hospital following a suspected suicide attempt, but has since recovered. While his supporters were initially disappointed and upset, they remained united.
Not all fans are so forgiving. The Korean term sasaeng is used to refer to overzealous fans who invade the privacy of their idols’ lives. Korean media reports have said major K-pop stars on average have from 500 to 1,000 sasaeng, and these people have been known to stalk, or even threaten their idols.
One extreme case came in 2006 when Yunho, a member of boy band TVXQ, had his stomach pumped after being served a drink laced with glue by an aggressive “anti-fan”.
Other stars, such as Sungmin from Super Junior, have been boycotted by their own fans for minor actions – or inactions; fans demanded that Sungmin be expelled from the boy band when he failed to alert them to his upcoming marriage.
And then there was Jay Park, who left the highly popular boy band 2PM at the peak of their prominence. Korean media uncovered a series of rants Park made to a friend on MySpace several years before, complaining about life in Korea with remarks such as, “I hate Koreans”.
Park, who has since launched a successful new career in the US entertainment industry, apologised several times before departing for America, after fans demanded that he leave.
Ultimately, K-pop fans can make or break a career. “If there is an issue or fans don’t feel they are being respected, they can easily band together and demand action,” Gibson says. “And in the end, where their wallets go, the entertainment companies will follow.”