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BTS are one of the few K-pop groups to have broken into the global music mainstream, which currently focuses on the US. Photo: RIAA

Will the next BTS come from the US? K-pop companies look to the Americas for future stars

  • Hybe, CJ ENM and SM Entertainment all confirmed plans this week to move into the Americas to find talent via joint ventures with local partners
  • SM is partnering with MGM Worldwide Television Group on a competition series to create a US-focused team for its boy band brand NCT
Tamar Hermanin United States

South Korean K-pop companies are increasingly eyeing the North and South American markets for their future plans.

This week saw three power players in the K-pop world – Hybe, CJ ENM and SM Entertainment – confirm plans to move into the Americas to find talent via joint ventures with local partners.

Hybe (formerly Big Hit Entertainment), which houses BTS among other popular South Korean acts, recently acquired Scooter Braun’s US-based Ithaca, which manages the likes of Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. According to Hybe, the expansion was both to support its artists as well as to develop “new global artists based on Ithaca Holdings’ expertise and network in the US music industry”.

The confirmation of its plans to enter the US market arrived on May 4 during a shareholder update in which it also reported a strong first quarter 2021, with US$161 million in revenues, up 29 per cent year-on-year, and operating profit up 9 per cent over the same period.

Competition series like Produce 101 have become a mainstay in Asian music industries; now K-pop companies are looking to replicate the form in Western markets.

Its success, which is expected to continue, comes after a series of recent expansions. Earlier this year, Hybe also teamed up with Universal Music Group in the US to reportedly begin planning for a boy band project that would be created through a televised competition.

South Korean media conglomerate CJ ENM is also looking to the Americas for new K-pop-inspired talent, but focusing its attention further south.

K-pop group NCT Dream and ‘Baby Shark’ creators release song

On May 7, the WarnerMedia-backed streaming service HBO Max announced it had teamed up with CJ ENM to create a K-pop-inspired act through a star-search programme featuring contestants from Latin America. The two companies will work with Endemol Shine Boomdog, the Spanish-language arm of TV show producers Endemol Shine.

The series will seek out boy band hopefuls via an audition programme, which CJ ENM popularised through its successful, but corrupt, Produce competition series. Such series have since become a mainstay in Asian music industries, with thousands of young talents competing for their chance to debut in idol groups.
CJ ENM previously teamed up with Hybe to create the rising rookie group Enhypen, which were launched in South Korea last year.

NCT 127’s Taeyong and EXO’s Baekhyun issue new song Monroe

Latin America historically has an immensely strong K-pop fan base, and artists often toured throughout the continent before the coronavirus pandemic. Over the years, many popular artists, including Super Junior and Got7, have released songs in Spanish.

This would be the first such boy band created in Latin America, following the trend of South Korean entertainment companies increasingly launching idol groups across Japan and China, and K-pop-inspired groups becoming more popular across the world.

On May 6, SM Entertainment also announced plans to formally enter the Americas through what is known as “NCT Hollywood”, confirming plans for a project revolving around its boy band brand NCT. The company is partnering with MGM Worldwide Television Group to develop a competition series to create a US-focused NCT team; currently the team, which features 23 members, includes the Seoul-based NCT 127 and NCT Dream, and the China-based WayV. SM executives have brought up the idea of NCT Hollywood several times over the past few years.

NCT will have a US-focused team added to its line-up. Photo: SM Entertainment
The news followed a series of business misfortunes for SM this week, including being downgraded from a top blue-chip company to mid-tier business by the South Korean stock exchange. The company has restructured several times over the past few years at the bequest of shareholders concerned with its business plans, and earlier this year was fined severely by the South Korean tax authorities.

Other K-pop companies have expressed hopes of expanding globally, whether through promoting their own artists or through growing their roster, typically in partnership with foreign businesses.

Many of the earliest hip-hop and K-pop stars in South Korea during the 1990s were Korean-Americans, and nowadays many American and Canadian K-pop stars of Asian descent are featured across the industry.

The past two decades have also seen many K-pop groups attempt to break into the global music mainstream, which currently centres on the US, with the likes of BTS and Blackpink recently succeeding.