In the last four years that I’ve had Spotify, Kpop has always come out on top during my end of year ‘Wrapped’, (a summary of what music you’ve listened to throughout the year), which surprises people who don’t know me very well and continues to amuse people that do. I’m not sure why there’s such a stigma attached to enjoying music that comes out of Asia, especially as the most popular artists predominantly target Western markets nowadays, but I’m a strong advocate for listening to music from all over the world. But is the music industry really too anglocentric?
Looking at the top 20 most streamed artists on Spotify, as of 2021, only 3 don’t write songs in English (BTS, Bad Bunny, and Arijit Singh), despite the music streaming service being available in 178 countries. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, as 527 million people speak English as their first language globally. However, Chinese has more native speakers than any other language (1.39 billion), followed by Hindi and Urdu (588 million). This isn’t accounted for in Spotify streaming statistics, as Spotify is blocked in China — although Arijit Singh being in the top 20 artists represents the popularity of Hindi and Bengali music worldwide, as well as the huge market for music in India.
Spanish-language songs are growing increasingly popular, despite the language being less commonly spoken than those mentioned above. At the time of writing, Bad Bunny is topping the global weekly artists on Spotify and there is a trend for blending English and Spanish in popular songs. Back in the early 2000s, artists like Shakira and Ricky Martin pioneered this movement in the UK, and songs like ‘Despacito’ have entered the charts year after year. While Latin pop has long held an influence, there’s no dispute that it is growing more widespread.
Very few Kpop artists break into the global mainstream
Meanwhile, Korean pop music (shortened to K-pop, Kpop, or KPOP, depending on what kind of mood you’re in) began to climb the international charts in the early 2010s, with Spotify releasing its flagship Kpop playlist in 2014. The genre’s popularity has only continued to grow, with the biggest fans (outside of Korea) residing in countries such as the USA, Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, and Brazil.
Boy group BTS are on track to become one of the most popular artists of all time, especially since they have increased their marketing outside Korea — as well as blending English words and phrases heavily with Korean lyrics, they now release songs and albums exclusively in English. They have also been involved in East-meets-West collaborations, working with Halsey, Nicki Minaj, and Coldplay. It seems that cornering a market in the West has become a hallmark of success for Kpop artists, as girl group Blackpink have also worked with American artists (including Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez) and made history when they headlined Coachella in 2019.
It seems that these (manufactured) groups have been intentionally designed to appeal to a Western market, although they are incredibly popular in Korea too. Very few Kpop artists break into the global mainstream and even those who are popular (such as Red Velvet, Twice, and TXT) don’t chart or travel away from home often. Despite Blackpink forming over two years after Red Velvet was established, the group’s ‘girl crush’ image and edgier sound are designed to appeal more to American audiences, while Red Velvet is more recognisable as ‘Korean pop’ in terms of concept and performances.
Due to the globalisation of streaming services, it’s now easier than ever to explore different genres of music from anywhere in the world
Paradoxically, the popularity of Kpop in mainstream media demonstrates how anglocentric the music industry is. The most popular artists have assimilated in order to succeed outside of Korea, leaning heavily on American pop culture to maintain fanbases abroad. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s definitely a lesson in good marketing.
However, the last 5 years have seen a decline in the popularity of English-language songs on a global scale: in Spanish-speaking countries only 14% of hits were in English, and in countries like Brazil, France, and Japan only 30% were, down from 52%. The Economist created an interactive feature with the most streamed songs in 70 different countries over the course of 6 years, divided by language. This might suggest that the music industry is shifting away from being anglocentric, at least on a global scale, and that we may be entering a new era of ‘world’ music. Due to the globalisation of streaming services, it’s now easier than ever to explore different genres of music from anywhere in the world, as long as you’re willing to look.
The main problem with arguing that the music industry is anglocentric is that it encourages us to value the ‘success’ of music based on its popularity in the US and UK. Many songs achieve popularity in Europe or Asia but, if they don’t make it onto the British radio, we’re completely ignorant — despite them being undeniably popular. It may be true that the music industry is anglo-biased but we, as listeners of music, are responsible for taking the first step towards broadening our interests. After all, in the modern world, everything is at our (digital) fingertips.