BTS was supposed to usher in the K-pop invasion. Where is it?
K-pop band BTS’s hit “Dynamite” was one of the biggest songs of 2020. It broke one record after another, including becoming the first K-pop song to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Days after BTS performed the song at the Grammys this past March, it also became the first K-pop song in history to achieve a double-platinum ranking.
“Dynamite” paved the way for another BTS hit: “Butter,” the breezy bop that just spent a record-setting six weeks straight at No. 1 following its debut. The song’s chart ascendency may end only because of yet another BTS single, “Permission to Dance,” which debuted at midnight on July 9.
These milestones have helped BTS make unprecedented inroads with US radio — but so far they’re the only K-pop group to truly break through. According to the analytics platform Soundcharts, which tracks radio play across 400 US stations daily and collects data from several on-demand streaming platforms, the majority of K-pop artists have received very little airplay on mainstream Top 40 stations over the last few years, despite their streaming dominance.
The absence of most K-pop from US radio doesn’t make sense. K-pop has enthusiastic fans all over the world, including within the US. After “Dynamite” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 — a chart whose rankings factor in data from numerous sources, including YouTube and other on-demand music-streaming platforms like Spotify — many of those fans hoped the song’s success would make it easier for more K-pop groups to draw American attention.
Soundcharts data suggests that isn’t happening. Despite BTS’s repeat success, few other K-pop bands have managed to achieve even a fraction of the band’s radio play and chart rankings.
In a quest to find out why so much fan energy and global interest hasn’t crossed over to US airwaves, I talked to a number of experts, from radio station programmers to chart analysts, about what factors determine which songs get radio play and why.
Predictably, there’s no catch-all answer for what makes a surefire hit — especially since on-demand digital music platforms like Spotify are changing the music industry. Such platforms make it easier for listeners to self-curate and be algorithmically directed to music that fits their tastes; they also provide easy access to countless artists that listeners typically wouldn’t hear on mainstream Top 40 radio. The result is something of a gap between the internet’s power to expand the musical landscape and increase our exposure to a broad variety of artists and a mainstream radio culture that has struggled to diversify and take risks.
Yet even as artists have more ways to reach listeners than ever, radio play is still the most prominent metric for determining mainstream success, at least in the American recording industry. Radio play contributes to chart rankings, signals name recognition, and boosts an artist’s overall profitability. No wonder achieving No. 1 on the Hot 100 remained BTS’s primary goal for years — until, after steadily working to break into the US market, the band finally achieved that goal four times in a row, with its most recent four singles.
So why, in 2021, is K-pop still a big risk for radio?
The BTS effect — or lack thereof
Many people view BTS’s stratospheric success since the band’s 2013 debut as a barometer of changing music industry culture — a sign of globalization and the decreasing importance of traditional radio in an increasingly virtual world.
Before “Dynamite,” however, it was incredibly difficult for BTS to attain US airplay, despite being both the biggest name in K-pop and the most successful band in the world. The band’s first big 2020 single, “On,” managed to debut at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 2020 — a then-unprecedented feat, particularly because it happened almost entirely without support from US radio stations. The song’s chart ranking was driven entirely through digital sales and streams; it received very little radio play.
Many media outlets (including Vox) have long criticized the American music industry for gatekeeping BTS prior to “Dynamite,” with many leveling charges of xenophobia at radio stations and industry executives. But once the band released a song in English, many stations abruptly embraced them. They followed the lead of BTS’s American distributor, Columbia Records, which made a unique effort for “Dynamite”: The label commissioned a pair of songwriters to craft the song for the band, specifically requesting all-English lyrics — a feature that Columbia then heavily emphasized to radio stations.
Via Soundcharts, here’s a visualization of BTS’s radio play across all of the band’s songs for a 365-day period between March 2020 and March 2021. See if you can spot the moment “Dynamite” appeared.
As the band’s first all-English song, “Dynamite” is truly iconic: It even reached No. 5 on the US pop radio chart, which measures mainstream radio play. After the August release of the single, according to Soundcharts, BTS went from receiving a paltry handful of plays to more than 1,000 plays per day at the band’s airplay peak in mid-November 2020 — meaning BTS was played nearly as often as every other top-performing artist on the radio. All in all, BTS has received more than 160,000 plays in the 11 months since “Dynamite’s” release.
Hard on the heels of “Dynamite,” BTS released two other fall chart-toppers in rapid succession. First, the band was featured on a remix of Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love” in October 2020. Then, in November, it dropped “Life Goes On,” the pandemic-themed single from the fall 2020 album Be. Both songs debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s easy to assume these follow-up successes heralded a permanent change for the band, and K-pop at large, especially as “Butter” has since followed suit.
Yet each of BTS’s first two post-”Dynamite” singles was quick to fall off the charts. (Although “Savage Love” was a big hit for Derulo, Billboard noted that “almost all of the song’s overall airplay” went to the version he did with Jawsh685 and not BTS.) “Life Goes On,” which has predominantly Korean lyrics, tumbled to No. 28 in its second week, and never managed to make it onto any US radio chart. According to Billboard, only one radio station in the country played “Life Goes On” enough that it reached double digits — Oklahoma City’s KJYO (KJ103), where it was heard a mere 13 times.
So far, “Butter” — its six weeks atop the Hot 100 notwithstanding — has had mixed results on air. In a historic development, “Butter” was the first K-pop single to receive airplay at every reporting Top 40 radio station in the US in its first week. The song’s reach could be a major, precedent-setting indicator of how fully BTS has penetrated US radio. However, after scoring a whopping 2,000 radio plays within a day of its release and getting significantly more daily airplay than “Dynamite” initially did, the song has yet to crack the airplay top 10; as of July 10, “Butter’s” current position is No. 11.
What’s more, while “Butter” has increased the number of radio stations that are playing BTS, the song’s total airplay lags behind most of the other hits with which it shares the charts. For example, over one recent chart week, “Butter” had just 28 million total audience impressions (the number of people listening when a song is played on the radio), compared to 57 million audience impressions achieved by the song in the No. 2 position, Olivia Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U.”
K-pop radio play in the US is nearly nonexistent
While “Dynamite” definitely opened some doors to US radio, it didn’t open any floodgates — not even for BTS itself.
Rather than receiving an auxiliary bump in airplay from BTS’s success, other K-pop bands are actually faring poorer in comparison. Most K-pop bands have yet to receive even the meager amount of attention from US radio that BTS received before “Dynamite.”
Let’s consider a quantifiable success metric: the top 10 most-streamed K-pop artists globally on Spotify in 2020. It is reasonable to expect many of these 10 artists to have decent radio play, especially if a US K-pop invasion is really happening, as many, many, many media outlets have suggested over the last decade. But according to the Soundcharts platform, except for BTS and Blackpink, none of Spotify’s top 10 K-pop artists came close to getting a significant amount of mainstream US radio play over the last 12 months. (Note: Soundcharts does not track US stations fully dedicated to Korean music, such as K-pop Sirius channels.) Meanwhile, other top Spotify artists typically receive plenty of radio play.
Like BTS, Blackpink made inroads in American pop culture by building a loyal fan base, playing major shows — they were the first K-pop group to headline Coachella — and collaborating with major US-based artists. Blackpink’s English-language collaborations, “Ice Cream” with Selena Gomez and “Sour Candy” with Lady Gaga, drove the overwhelming majority of their US radio play, which totaled 18,500 plays across 142 radio stations in 12 months. That’s a far cry from BTS’s 160,000 plays but still an impressive showing.
But after Blackpink, the radio play for Spotify’s K-pop Top 10 drops off to an astonishing degree. The third-highest-ranking band on the list, Twice, only received 38 plays across eight US radio stations, most of which were college stations.
Additionally, most of the radio plays for every single band on Spotify’s list of the most-streamed K-pop artists came from just one tiny dot on the radio landscape: KNHC / C89.5, a 50-year-old dance music station funded by the Seattle public school district and housed in a high school. KNHC’s embrace of K-pop is thanks to 17-year-old Dakota Fox, who fell down “the BTS rabbit hole” in 2017 and began a crusade to bring K-pop to her community. Fox cohosts a twice-weekly K-pop segment, K-Plus, that over the last four years has drawn a steadily growing audience.
“My main motivation for doing the show was my love for the music,” she told me. “I felt like it deserved to be on the radio. It was so popular and it still wasn’t getting played, and it was so odd.”
Fox’s interest reflects a growing national interest in K-pop. Across the US, college radio stations, in particular, have started to embrace K-pop bands like Twice, Ateez, and Stray Kids; major mainstream pop stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago have also occasionally played artists like Seventeen and NCT, albeit only a handful of times.
Eric Bradley, music director at Chicago’s popular Top 40 station B96, told me that fans’ responsiveness makes a big difference. “[The] K-pop groups we’ve played have always been very well received,” he said in an email. “Their fan bases are extremely active on socials, and they’re always so grateful to hear their faves in regular rotation on B96. Some of the songs go further or do better than others, but the full embrace from the fans is always so impressive to witness.”
Even with fan enthusiasm, however, supportive individual radio stations are outliers; most mainstream stations ignore K-pop.
Radio stations claim they’re open to playing K-pop. So why don’t they?
A few recurring themes factor into K-pop’s low airplay numbers.
The first is well-known: the language barrier, namely a hesitance among radio stations to play music with lyrics that aren’t in English. In 2018, Chattanooga KISS FM deejay Sassy, a K-pop fan who’s spoken often about how her station’s embrace of BTS has brought it huge success, blogged a number of reasons why other deejays might be averse to playing K-pop. First and foremost was singing predominantly in Korean.
“The facts are this,” she wrote. “America is an English speaking country and many people won’t give BTS a chance simply because the song is not English.” Although Spanish-language songs like “Despacito” and Bad Bunny’s 2020 hit “Dákiti” have found success on US radio, they’re part of a trajectory that has taken decades to build, and they were still met with industry friction and resistance.
The counter to this argument is that many, many K-pop songs are mostly or partially in English, and very few of them have achieved any notice from US radio. Still, it’s clear that when a band has buzz and momentum behind it, an English-language bop like “Dynamite” or “Butter” can get radio attention.
Having a song that’s upbeat also helps. “What helped ‘Dynamite’ wasn’t just being in English but being uptempo,” Sean Ross, chart analyst and writer of the Ross on Radio industry newsletter, told me in an email. He suggested that “Dynamite” by BTS reminded radio programmers of the 2010 hit “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz, “which is what a hit single still sounds like to [them].”
One big reason radio programmers might be a decade out of date is that corporate consolidation has fueled the increased homogenization of Top 40 radio. Without an infusion of new music like K-pop helping to diversify and enliven an increasingly sanitized and monolithic music industry, the Top 40 airwaves subtly perpetuate the idea that “American” music has to sound a particular way.
“It’s bordering on a sociopolitical statement to get radio stations to play this music,” Andrew Harlander, a radio programmer who is also Fox’s K-Plus cohost, told me. Harlander discovered K-pop when he attended BTS’s three-hour Rose Bowl concert in 2019 with Fox and her mom and was blown away.
An industry veteran who’s worked as a programmer and show host for numerous radio stations including CBS Radio, Harlander does see radio’s reluctance to engage with K-pop as ultimately rooted in xenophobia. After all, K-pop artists are no strangers to overt racism and xenophobic belittlement of their achievements.
“The idea of a music format that’s so diverse being treated as though it’s not commercially legitimate kind of pisses me off,” he said. “This music is just as legitimate, just as commercially viable, and just as deep as any music genre or radio format out there.”
It’s also important. K-pop performers spoke out against Asian American hate in the wake of the March mass shooting of six Asian women, and hearing more K-pop on the radio could potentially change the way the average American radio listener thinks about racism and Asian American identity.
But convincing programmers that K-pop is commercial may be difficult. Ross stressed that radio, even fully corporatized Top 40 commercial radio, still needs listeners to be profitable. “Top 40 had its worst ratings in 25 years last fall for a variety of reasons, from streaming to changed listening patterns during Covid-19,” he said. “For example, if there’s no carpool, there’s no mom/daughter listening time in the car, which is where Top 40 was usually heard.”
In that context, K-pop is a bigger risk to many stations in 2021 than it might be in a more typical year. As chart analyst and pop critic Chris Molanphy, who hosts the Hit Parade podcast and writes about chart-topping songs for Slate, pointed out to me over email, “radio programmers … are leery of trying anything that will weird out their audience. And for Top 40 radio, ‘weird out’ is sometimes as simple as a Taylor Swift song that sounds too ‘indie’ for the format.”
That perceived risk is often also ageist. Top 40 radio needs audiences with purchasing power and thus courts a young adult audience demographic, roughly 18–34. This is why a string of teen pop idols throughout the ’90s and aughts never had a No. 1 single, including Backstreet Boys, Justin Bieber, and One Direction.
“Harry Styles only finally went to No. 1 after he was perceived as an adult star,” Molanphy told me. “And the same goes for the Jonas Brothers, much more popular at radio in the late ’10s (“Sucker”) than in their ’00s teen-scream heyday.”
K-pop, however inaccurately, has largely been lumped in with these kinds of pop idols as “teen” music, regardless of either the actual ages of the idols themselves — BTS’s members are all in their mid to late 20s at this point — or the fandom’s actual demographics, which are predominantly millennials and Gen X-ers.
According to Charlie Harding, cohost of the Switched on Pop podcast, the result is something of “a catch-22,” where stations are waiting to see if a song and an artist can be commercially viable — while refusing to give them platforms on which to become commercially viable. “They are probably waiting to see bigger domestic audiences [paradoxically, from radio play], but not playing on the radio is preventing those audiences from reaching their true potential,” Harding says.
Even BTS has been subject to that “wait and see” treatment. “Whether by purpose or laziness, [radio stations treated] ‘Dynamite’ like a one-hit wonder,” Harlander told me. “Like [BTS is] a novelty act because they’re Korean.”
Still, Molanphy stressed that there’s no tried-and-true formula for radio success — that “what works on American radio is,” simply, “an undeniable song.” And that’s exactly what’s so frustrating about the dearth of K-pop on the air. It’s frankly impossible for me, as a fan who’s been listening to K-pop since 2005, to imagine the best K-pop songs — for example, Ikon’s 2018 earworm “Love Scenario” — failing to catch on with the US audience.
Perhaps this is why K-pop fans have all but given up on American radio. Instead, they’ve turned predominantly to streaming — and to an intensified form of manual labor — to make sure K-pop artists have a chance to be heard.
K-pop fans are replacing the influence of radio spins with an intense form of fan labor
Three broad (and rather fraught) metrics factor into a song’s Billboard chart ranking: radio play, physical and digital sales of the song, and digital streams. Because radio play is essentially denied to most K-pop artists, streaming is the mechanism by which fans show their support and boost the chances that their favorite bands will chart.
Billboard has included digital streams in its Hot 100 calculations since 2007, and the relationship between streams and charts is a very big deal to many music fandoms — one that’s transformed fan streaming into a complex system of labor. “Dynamite”’s chart success happened partly because Columbia gave it a concerted label push, but fans increased their own role with an elaborate, months-long, fandom-wide system of organized goals aimed at streaming the song as much as humanly possible. Army (as BTS’s fandom is known) re-initiates this labor campaign each and every time a potential milestone presents itself, whether it’s a new BTS song, a new album, or even just a birthday for one of the band members.
The agency that fans have over streaming counterbalances the importance of radio play within the K-pop industry. BTS targeted mainstream US radio play for years, but increasingly K-pop artists seem to be finding alternate routes to charting.
“One of the reasons that labels don’t pursue radio is that they have other ways to reach fans now and also because the Hot 100 game has changed,” Ross said. “Once ‘Dynamite’ had proven that BTS could have a US radio record, there was not apparently the same incentive to pursue ‘Life Goes On’ [the band’s No. 1-ranked November 2020 single, sung mainly in Korean] especially after going No. 1 on the Hot 100 with minimal radio.” Essentially, with “Life Goes On,” BTS learned it could now chart at No. 1 with a relatively small amount of radio play compared to other top artists, albeit only briefly. The fan-driven streaming machine could do the rest of the work.
This step back is part of a larger ongoing shift away from radio across all genres. Streaming platform subscriptions are rising and radio ad revenue is falling. More and more, it’s worth less to K-pop artists to fight an uphill battle for attention from radio programmers who think they’re a risk to begin with.
Ultimately, there’s more than one path to the radio for K-pop
While there’s no clear formula that guarantees radio glory, more K-pop artists have started to establish new strategies for cracking the airplay code. BTS’s long-game strategy prior to “Dynamite” was to steadily build its fanbase with frequent albums and single releases — so that when Columbia finally gave “Dynamite” a promotion effort, it worked.
Meanwhile, performers like the band Loona and Chinese K-pop artist Jackson Wang have found radio success through other methods.
Loona built its fame very deliberately. The band announced its members over a year and a half beginning in 2016, cultivating anticipation for its eventual 2018 debut. In 2020, Loona’s management company, Blockberry Creative, spent months marketing the band’s all-English song “Star” in Los Angeles.
The strategy paid off when fans flooded iHeartRadio’s popular Saturday night live request hour, #MostRequestedLive, ensuring that the song received regular radio play for weeks. Loona has garnered 6,300 plays across 103 radio stations within the past year, with “Star” reaching #31 on the Billboard Pop Airplay chart, all without help from a major US distributor. Blockberry Creative is a boutique label, but its success with “Star” indicates that distribution effort and strategy go a long way — and that fan efforts alone aren’t always enough.
“The biggest explanation of what gets radio plays and what doesn’t still usually involves whether a label has actively promoted a song to radio,” Ross told me. “It doesn’t guarantee a hit, but it usually guarantees a hearing.” With “Dynamite,” Columbia gave BTS the label promotion that meant radio stations finally tuned in — and so far, they haven’t tuned out.
With “Star,” Loona got a hearing — and it may well make a difference in the band’s ability to gain US airplay in the future.
Meanwhile, in April, Jackson Wang performed his new all-English single “LMLY” on The Late Late Show With James Corden. Wang’s media campaign also featured interviews with US media outlets like GQ and Esquire — which may have helped him sidestep the music’s “for teens only” stigma. “LMLY” has since spent eight weeks on the Billboard Pop Airplay chart and has been played 3,800 times across 99 US stations.
“You can never predict what will be a hit,” Molanphy told me. “‘Dynamite’ was the most deliberate attempt ever to break a K-pop song in US history, and it worked — but it was after years of patiently building BTS’s US fanbase, and even then, the conditions had to be just right.”
“Butter” repeats the “Dynamite” template for a fun summer bop in English — and fans have already vowed to make sure the band’s new single “Permission to Dance” tops the Hot 100 in its first week of release, meaning even more potential radio saturation.
“The greater US popular culture bubble seems to have finally reached a consensus that BTS really is a big deal that ain’t going away any time soon,” Harlander told me. “‘Butter’ sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 for multiple weeks now might be the kind of indicator to finally wake some industry folks up to treat BTS like the deep catalog artists they actually have been all along.”
The real question, he added, is whether this shift will nudge US radio stations to finally make room for more Korean artists. “There are amazingly well crafted and catchy new songs — many in full English — coming out of the K-Pop genre on a weekly basis.”
It’s music that’s worth paying attention to, whether you hear it on the radio or not.
Author: Aja Romano