Viewpoint: Sammy Andrews on the rise of K-pop and TikTok

Viewpoint: Sammy Andrews on the rise of K-pop and TikTok

I am reading the most fascinating book at the moment. It’s called New Kings Of The World, Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-pop, by Fatima Bhutto.

It’s an intriguing look at everything mentioned in the title and some of the pages have made me think a little more widely on the major plays being made across continents right now; be that labels and streaming services clambering over themselves to have a presence and do deals in developing territories, K-pop and Bollywood smashing global streaming and exploring to the West, or Chinese apps breaking barriers and artists.

The book houses some incredible little nuggets about K-pop’s dance with pop and politics. There was the time when, in response to North Korea claiming they tested a hydrogen bomb, South Korea blasted K-pop across the border for so long (and so loudly) that North Korea declared it an act of war! Then there’s the very telling fact that, after economic breakdown, Korea required a new export in its re-imagined economy and, drawing on inspiration from North America and Britain, they ploughed money and infrastructure into technology and entertainment, notably K-pop. The government invested heavily in setting up creative agencies within their ministries, helped design guides on how best to export K-pop to other territories and installed broadband to the entire nation as early as 1994! Yes, that’s right… Nineteen-ninety-fucking-four. In 2014, South Korea had an internet connection 200 times faster than the average connection in North America.

Many of us in the business have spoken for some years about the opportunities that would arise as the rest of the world came online and it is absolutely coming to fruition right now across places such as India, Africa and South America (many of which bypassed those painful dial-up years and went straight to data plans!). Fast connections aside, K-pop is making serious waves right now.

Earlier this month K-pop all-star group SuperM debuted at No.1 on the US albums chart. Every major label without exception and most big indies are signing K-pop at a rapid rate, big Western promoters are opening huge stadiums in Korea, companies on this side of the world are snapping up big K-pop managers and labels are flocking to Asia to open imprints.

But K-pop isn’t the only thing that that’s coming in hard from the East right now. I’ve written about TikTok a few times this year, but now feels like a good time to delve back into it given recent developments.

Firstly, the idea that a Chinese-owned app (and social network) would take hold in the way it has across the West would have been unthinkable to most a few years ago but, as I write, TikTok was reported to have had in the region of one billion downloads by February this year. Yes, you read that right. It also spent over a year as the top app on the iOS store. Those figures dwarf any streaming service you can name. It’s also been aggressively hiring over the last few months, reportedly head hunting some very established and respected industry veterans and rising starts to build out its music relationships. The platform has spawned stars including Lil Nas X and is launching tracks into the stratosphere at an incredible rate.

At Deviate Digital, we are seeing absolutely insane figures from all ads we place there in comparison to any other social network, but TikTok is facing some pretty serious challenges, too. Many are aware of some of the licensing deals in place, but right now it faces major push back and copyright disputes from organisations including the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and ICE. It has also faced criticism for censorship in some parts of the world and sparked security concerns.

TikTok is owned by fast-growing giant Bytedance, which in 2018 was valued at $78 billion. Bytedance is looking to launch a streaming service and, if rumours are to be believed, they are looking to do so soon. With the momentum TikTok has already generated in the West, imagine the impact that kind of service could have.

One thing is for sure, the coming months and years will see global cultural trends change in ways most could have never have imagined. In a time where some are keen to see walls go up, it’s nice to see music continually smashing borders.

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