The American pop industry is deadish. Long live K-pop

Long live middle class pop and K-pop!

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“The American pop industry is deadish. Long live K-pop. “ Just joking. But also not, considering that there was a very buzzy article from Billboard earlier this month that was making the rounds on music journalism Twitter (what is left of it that’s still hanging around on X) bemoaning the current state of things.

Titled "Pop Stars Aren’t Popping Like They Used To — Do Labels Have a Plan?" and written by Elias Leight, published Aug. 2, it explored how music executives at the major labels in the US are struggling to keep up with the current state of the music world and consumer behaviors in the era of TikTok and digital streaming platforms (DSPs).

“‘Nobody knows how to break music right now,’” one senior executive told Leight. “‘I think they’re all lost.’”

“Still, many music executives remain worried about stagnation beyond a single musical style,” wrote Leight. “They scan the landscape and see “moments,” as one put it, that can fade, rather than genuine breakthroughs that endure.”

There was, of course, a lot of discourse, including from yours truly, about how we ended up here, where nobody knows how to create pop stars that hit it big in the zeitgeist. Investing in viral hits and not investing in talent, and similarly just assuming audiences will stay with the viral stars, has, shockingly, not worked to create an environment where artists can invest in long careers supported by audiences.

Tweets by Tamar

But see… The pop stars already exist. They’re just not playing on the terms these industry players expect them to be, because they’re either not in the “mainstream” in the western industry, or they’re excluding them, because they’re coming from Asia.

Today, Shaad D’Souza wrote about pop’s middle class for the New York Times.

“They are undoubtedly celebrities, with considerable social media followings. They may have tasted a version of popularity — a Hot 100 hit, a moment of TikTok virality or simply a very faithful (though modest) collection of devotees that allows them to sell out concerts at midsize venues around the world. But they have yet to make the leap to, or have failed to remain at, music’s mainstream center.

Instead, they build careers off hooky, vividly toned meta-pop — songs that seem to actively address and play with the tropes of pop history — and with the help of fan bases that treat them as if they were as big as Taylor Swift. For these artists, pop stardom isn’t a commercial category, but a sound, an aesthetic and an attitude.”

I got to see CRJ last week in an intimate 150-person venue after a rain show, and it’s up there as one of the best concerts of my life.  I guess this makes me a middle class pop lover because I am a fan of a lot of the artists mentioned, especially Jepsen and Rina Sawayama.

Honestly, they’re just pop stars who don’t have Taylor, Ariana, or Beyoncé-sized budgets or audiences. Why the local industry has decided there’s no reason to invest in them, but rather look to new talent that they don’t bother investing in in the long term, is kind of heartbreaking. Other genres are flourishing, which is wonderful, but pop deserves its laurels as well and it’s a sad state of things.

Carly Rae Jepsen performing amid a small crowd
Carly Rae Jepsen was supposed to be performing at the Pier 17 Rooftop venue in NYC last week, until an electric storm led to a rain cancellation 4-songs in. She then moved to a small 150-person venue, the Rockwood Music Hall, and I ended up in the last showing of three that night, all the way at the door. When we’re talking about intimate pop experiences, I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything more exhilirating.

A lot of the same re “pop’s middle class” can be said about K-pop stars, with a distinct industry, aesthetic, attitude, and dedicated fanbases that all aren’t quite what exec big wigs in the US think they should or can be. They’re not necessarily the commercial “mainstream” in America’s industry, yet they’re widely lucrative. (I’ve discussed the mainstream-ness of K-pop before, and whether or not it really matters, considering that success and fans are what’s more important nowadays, so go back and read some of the older newsletters if you’re interested in my take.)

These two articles back-to-back, coming out of a whole lot of discourse in the industry regarding pop music’s future in the US music world, just feels oh-so gratifying. It feels validating that industry execs, as relayed by Billboard’s reporting, are pretty baffled over how to change from the paradigm of what they know and joining the rest of us in the world of already loving and supporting “middle class” pop stars.

We see time and time again that music labels do think occasionally to tap into K-pop stars or these “middle class” – mid-tier would probably be more correct – pop singers. But when they, or the any other latest flavor of the week, don’t have a release that instantly takes off and tops the target market of Top 40 Radio, they wash their hands of them and move on to the next hopefully big viral thing.

What K-pop stars and these “middle class” pop icons are doing is sticking with it. They put in effort, and grow their audience over time, steadily. They’re not here for a one-hit wonder. They might get boosted by TikTok or other social metrics, but the big show of being a success is having fans. There’s nobody more succesful in the music world nowadays, it feels, than these artists with intimate, albeit parasocial, relationships with their audiences.

Pop music at its heart is about feeling connected, both through music and to one another. That’s what all the greatest pop stars do, and have done for time immemorial. Some get lucky, and just take off, but for the majority it’s a matter of time and effort, building who they are and what they stand for, and sharing it with audiences.

Billboard recognized “moments” fade. That’s true. Stars do too, but they leave something behind, whether it’s discographies or feelings. Cosmically, there are many types of stars. Pop stars also come in all shapes and sizes. It’s time the industry stops imagining there’s only one type and sound.

What I’m Working on

KCON season is here! I’ll be at KCON LA this weekend covering the event for a few outlets. If you’re there, hit me up. Let’s say hi! I’m not on or hosting any panels this year, but I’ll be around doing some reporting.

What I’m Reading

Not reading but I was skimming BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears because my book baby is officially 3-years-old as of last week and writing a book over three years ago means I don’t remember a lot of what I wrote. I’m so smart, guys!!! Joking aside, it’s a book I’m really proud of and it’s about a subject matter close to my heart, so I hope people have enjoyed and learned from it over the past three years. I started getting teary eyed thinking about the first time I got to hold a copy of BTS:BST, and well… It was an emotional few days!

Liz Cook has attempted to create an exhaustive list of all the K-pop and K-pop-associated concerts to ever take place in the US and Canada. It’s a lot of data, and as a history nerd I’m obsessed with it. Liz is still looking for info about some shows, so if you are aware of some information, please do reach out.

Kpop4planet launched their "Unboxed: High Fashion, High Carbon" campaign, calling on fashion brands to be more sustainable and not relying on K-washing, or K-pop artists and fans’ support, to ignore pledges to become more sustainable.

What You’re Listening To

Paid subscribers get to suggest a song or album for people to go check out after the sign up. This week, one subscriber asked me to share Hyolyn’s See Sea from 2018, naming it as a perfect song for August. Thank you, Jenna, for supporting!

She also suggested f(x) and EXO’s d.o’s Goodbye Summer, because the lazy, hot days of summer demand throwback feels.

I’m also listening to Kim Taehyung aka V of BTS’s Layover releases, but I think I may write a newsletter about those or at least release the whole album, so stay tuned.