YouTube and International Music Fan Communities: K-Pop

A version of this was presented at EMP Museum Pop Conference by Keidra Chaney, inspired by this post

Girls Generation's I Got a Boy
Girls Generation’s I Got a Boy

This presentation is about the interaction between social media and international online music communities, with K-Pop serving as an illustrative example. In 2013, YouTube’s first-ever music awards surprised a lot of U.S. music fans with what seemed like an upset: K-pop group Girls’ Generation beat out Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and One Direction in the” Video of the Year category.”

While blogs and websites asked “Who’s Girls Generation?” There’s another story at play here, as Girls’ Generation victory was built from a history of global K-Pop fan activity on YouTube that existed long before their win. YouTube has played a catalyzing role in K-Pop’s growth in the U.S, and other non-Korean countries, based on the mobilization of fans and label marketing and interaction. More specifically, it’s how old and new media have been able to facilitate the flow of media across cultures, how YouTube as a platform and a company has played a specific role in connecting and catalyzing this international online music community, and how K-Pop fandom serves as both a cultural practice and a market catalyst.

I. The Evolution of YouTube Into a Global Music Discovery Platform

In the 2006 book Convergence Culture, scholar Henry Jenkins described an impending shift in modern popular culture that would redefine the boundaries and opportunities by which old and new media consumers, creators, and owners would interact; as both a bottom-up, and top-down process by which media consumers negotiate their right to participate and interact with new media tools at the same time media owners negotiate with creating new revenue opportunities and normalize consumer behaviors. YouTube’s evolution into a media company and their changing relationship with fans is an example of this convergence in action.

YouTube plays a unique role as a community-curated archive of television shows, commercials and music videos – from the early days YouTube that made the “Lazy Sunday” skit from SNL one of the first viral hits of the social media age to now, YouTube exists as an example of the how a social network evolves into something different than its original use, based on the collective and intertwining actions of online communities.

When YouTube launched in 2005, the platform was widely viewed as a dumping ground for home videos or among the alarmist set breeding ground for porn and video piracy. Google’s acquisition of the company in 2006 was derided at the time. Since then, YouTube has become Google’s star acquisition, successfully experimenting with revenue models and partnerships to evolve as an entertainment and media network. In the fall of 2008, its monthly global audience grew dramatically from 344 million unique users to 500 million, partially because of its global community growth endeavors. It is notable to mention that 2008 is also the year YouTube was introduced in South Korea.

YouTube is a platform that makes it easy for fans and music creators to connect and communicate with each other but also cultivated that growing community with tools and functionality – video tagging, annotations, its Google search-engine powered “related videos” suggestions and user playlists that create an aggregate power in fan-community driven activities like response videos, parody videos and lip-sync/dance/cover videos.

YouTube exists as a video-sharing platform for user-created videos but also for easy music video and audio sharing among music fans. The file-sharing wars of the early 2000’s deterred many music fans from online sharing and for a long time there was a dearth of platforms available for easy sharing. As a result, YouTube emerged as a music directory of sorts. A similar activity happened with television fans and YouTube but video streaming and the television industry was quicker to catch on to the trend. YouTube started to become a point of reference for curious music fans doing informal research on a pop culture reference or to catch up on a band’s discography. Fans rely on YouTube for background on, say, a 70’s classic rock song played in Guitar Hero or a 80’s musical reference from Family Guy.

Similarly, we’ve seen YouTube’s role in launching the careers of pop artists like Justin Bieber and One Direction, both of whom had thousands of YouTube fans and millions of views before being accepted by the mainstream music industry. Music covers are the medium by which fans can share and show their appreciation for an artist but also for burgeoning musicians to cultivate a YouTube fanbase.

For U.S. teens in particular, YouTube has become a place for new music discovery. In a Nielsen Music 360 report from 2013, 64% cited YouTube as a source to discover new music. YouTube has responded with recent efforts in the past two years to create formal partnerships with major labels through the platform Vevo. YouTube’s expansion into global content concert streaming was deliberate as well. YouTube has had much success with globally broadcasted live concerts for U.S. festivals like Coachella, and U.S. bands with large global audiences like Bon Jovi.

II. K-Pop Labels vs U.S. labels

One of the major reasons for the differences in how YouTube is used by fans of K-pop has to do with how different contracts with artists are for Korean and American based labels. For Korean artists, the term “label” is a misnomer — or at least not a complete description. Their management companies/labels serve as a complete 360 level management of everything they bring to the public. What this means is that there is only one place and one company to contact for licensing from everything from commercial products to television/movie productions to music, including recording, videos, and touring.

So for Korean artists, everything is in the control of, like for Girls’ Generation — SM Entertainment. So if SM wants to promote SNSD worldwide, they can truly speak with one voice. If they want to allow for fan-created remixes and dance videos to be allowed on YouTube, they can do so — without having to check with other license holders.

While this is not the place to talk about whether or not this “one voice” approach is a good deal for performers, it is a great one for fans. While SM, for example, could change its mind about YouTube, the uniformity of allowance culture means that fans don’t have to worry about the same back-and-forth licensing issues that fans of American label music do. For example, there can’t be the same artist puts up a “leaked” track, label takes down or the marketing department promotes putting up remixes, legal sends takedowns, seesaw that confuses and limits fan activities for K-pop.

III.YouTube and K-Pop Fandom Synergy

But even before YouTube’s evolution into a media company, the growing online K-pop community in the mid 2000’s used the service as an an easy, consistent way to upload and share videos. Licensing restrictions meant that a limited catalog was available in most non-Korean countries for newer fans to dive into and restrictions in character displays meant that fans that did not read Korean would have a hard time identifying artists and songs. Both restrictions made a deeper dive in to K-Pop difficult for fans outside of Korea. (A non-K-Pop example. J-Pop singer Namie Amuro’s discography was missing from iTunes for a couple of years, presumably because of licensing issues.) However the functionality of YouTube made it possible for a global audience to upload, share and tag videos for each other.

Additionally, the visually-focused media of K-pop is an ideal fit for a video-based platform such as YouTube. K-Pop is a visual genre that uses the music video format to gain popularity and launch artists. Stylistically, the colorful videos and sophisticated dance routines lend themselves to a global audience. In addition to music videos, K-pop is known for the use of dance practice video footage of the groups as a form of promotion among fans. Since there is so much visual content to share and comment on, YouTube is a more natural hub for global audiences, particularly non-Korean audiences to connect with each other and speak to each other with a common language. Because so much of K-Pop’s fan activity is video/visual based, much of the fan mobilization activity is based on YouTube. Much in the way that fans use Twitter trending topics to boost the signals of their faves, global fans use dance cover videos or tactics like boosting the views of music videos to increase awareness, as a YouTube-specific fan communication. In this way, the medium and the functionality of the platform work synergistically with each other.

What is unusual about K-Pop and online fandom is its direct interactivity with K-Pop labels via YouTube. While J-Pop labels began to aggressively police YouTube in recent years to remove video content (and U.S labels too, before Vevo) Korean labels not only allow their music video content on YouTube but use the content as has a direct effort to connect with fans (through sponsored fan dance cover contests) and is not shy about using YouTube to mobilize them. For example, YG Entertainment’s Big Bang created an English video on YouTube to recruit fan activity for a YouTube Campaign. SM Entertainment basically bribed fan of Girls Generation with a dance practice video if they increased the music video YuTube view-count for “Mr. Mr.”

The intertwining, mutually beneficial relationship between YouTube, fans and labels was a snowball that led to Girls’Generation’s YouTube win. Rather than being a fluke, the win was the outcome of a long thread of interactions and iterations between participatory communities, emerging social technologies and a disrupted global industry. It will happen again, and keep happening until the next evolution of this relationship occurs.

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