The mid­dle of Texas should be an unlike­ly place for a sold-out K‑pop show. But at the Smart Finan­cial Cen­ter out­side Hous­ton in late July, thou­sands of fans gath­ered with home­made ban­ners, trib­ute cos­tumes, and arm­fuls of mer­chan­dise as they wait­ed in line to see Mon­s­ta X, a K‑pop group on their third world tour. These fans didn’t get here because of radio play or by comb­ing through bins at a music store. Instead, every­one I ask says they’ve shown up thanks to one spe­cif­ic site: YouTube.

Online, K‑pop’s addic­tive tunes and big-bud­get videos are rak­ing in bil­lions of streams, mak­ing new fans across the globe, and con­tin­u­al­ly break­ing YouTube records. State­side, acts like BTS and Black­pink are becom­ing red car­pet reg­u­lars and sell­ing out sta­di­ums, as Mon­s­ta X has for the show I’m at in Texas. So how did this genre go beyond South Korea’s bor­ders to the world’s biggest stages? The rapid growth of YouTube is a cru­cial com­po­nent, but it’s also the way K‑pop is so per­fect­ly pack­aged to spread on YouTube itself.

“They’re the Olympian ath­letes of the pop world,” says Steve Aoki, who recent­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed with Mon­s­ta X on the sin­gle “Play It Cool.” “They’re trained ath­letes at what they do. Whether it’s in media train­ing, to their danc­ing, to their singing. Kore­ans have mas­tered that, so every­one else has to catch up, or at least take note and learn.”

Mon­s­ta X walk­ing onstage.

The first mod­ern K‑pop group, Seo Tai­ji and Boys, debuted in 1992. But most Amer­i­cans wouldn’t be famil­iar with the genre until two decades lat­er when Psy’s “Gang­nam Style” became the first video on YouTube to reach 1 bil­lion views in 2012.

“The his­to­ry of K‑pop out­side of Korea is real­ly close­ly tied to the spread of the tech­nol­o­gy that peo­ple use to dis­cov­er it and to lis­ten to it,” says Kevin Alloc­ca, head of cul­ture and trends at YouTube.

“K‑pop is more than just music.”

YouTube start­ed see­ing rapid jumps in views of K‑pop videos as ear­ly as 2011 when views jumped three-fold in a sin­gle year to 2.3 bil­lion. Those views were most­ly com­ing from inter­na­tion­al fans, and that’s still the case today. “If you look at the top 25 most-watched K‑pop groups over the past year, 90 per­cent of the views are com­ing from out­side of South Korea,” Alloc­ca says.

K‑pop had its audio-visu­al for­mu­la in place long before YouTube was a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for dis­cov­er­ing music, giv­ing the genre an ear­ly advan­tage as YouTube matured. In the ’90s, Lee Soo-man, founder of South Kore­an com­pa­ny SM Enter­tain­ment, devel­oped a brand­ing strat­e­gy called “cul­tur­al tech­nol­o­gy” that was meant to cre­ate mas­sive hits and “set glob­al trends, from not only music but also cos­tume, chore­og­ra­phy, and music video.”

SM Enter­tain­ment lit­er­al­ly wrote a man­u­al for its employ­ees on how to pop­u­lar­ize K‑pop artists out­side South Korea using these ele­ments. Accord­ing to The New York­er, it details things like “the pre­cise col­or of eye­shad­ow a per­former should wear in a par­tic­u­lar coun­try; the exact hand ges­tures he or she should make; and the cam­era angles to be used in the videos (a three-hun­dred-and-six­ty-degree group shot to open the video, fol­lowed by a mon­tage of indi­vid­ual close­ups).”

Those tech­niques have been honed over time, result­ing in mod­ern K‑pop videos that are designed to hook peo­ple in the first few sec­onds, even if the per­son watch­ing doesn’t under­stand the lyrics. They use things like quick cuts, fast zooms, tons of loca­tions, flashy sets, and, of course, impec­ca­ble per­for­mances.

Super-sharp chore­og­ra­phy has become a hall­mark for K‑pop, and acts like Mon­s­ta X devel­op new rou­tines for every sin­gle music video. This isn’t your nor­mal chore­og­ra­phy, either. See­ing a group per­form com­plex moves with razor-like pre­ci­sion is mes­mer­iz­ing to watch. Because it’s so impor­tant, songs are often writ­ten with this in mind. “As I’m work­ing on the drop, I want to imag­ine these guys danc­ing to the song,” Aoki says of his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mon­s­ta X. “Because 50 per­cent of the song is the visu­al part of it.”

“They’re the Olympian ath­letes of the pop world.”

Mon­s­ta X mem­ber I.M says the videos also make each song eas­i­er for “the audi­ence to under­stand,“ which helps them con­nect with a broad­er set of view­ers. “K‑pop is more than just music because we always pre­pare chore­og­ra­phy with the stage song,” I.M says. “That’s why we are prepar­ing music video[s] every sin­gle time.”

The for­mu­la is work­ing, and it’s allowed K‑pop to spread faster on YouTube than any oth­er style of music. “Half of the biggest 24-hour debuts on YouTube are all K‑pop groups,” Alloc­ca says. Addi­tion­al­ly, he says the top K‑pop songs also get almost twice as many likes and five times as many com­ments as the top songs from oth­er gen­res.

Mon­s­ta X fan in Sug­ar Land, Texas.

Once fans are on board, there’s more to draw them in. K‑pop acts pub­lish addi­tion­al con­tent around the music videos for fans to watch, like behind the scenes looks, videos that high­light dif­fer­ent mem­bers of the group, “dance prac­tice” videos that teach fans the chore­og­ra­phy to a song, and videos to learn the chants that you’re sup­posed to use when you’re at the show. As Simon from Eat Your Kim­chi pre­vi­ous­ly told The Verge, “The record labels will actu­al­ly release a song to the offi­cial fan groups before it hits the actu­al air­waves. The fan groups can mem­o­rize a fan chant of a song, so at the actu­al debut per­for­mance of the song they can sing along with it. It’s a cru­cial part of the mar­ket­ing.”

The fans also cre­ate tons of con­tent on their own for YouTube. They make reac­tion videos, dance cov­er videos, guides that give new fans crash cours­es on groups, and pro­vide lyric trans­la­tions in oth­er lan­guages. It all helps peo­ple access and par­tic­i­pate in the K‑pop fan­dom, regard­less of lan­guage or where they are in the world. “Being a fan at sort of a deep­er lev­el with these artists means con­nect­ing with them in ways that go beyond just lis­ten­ing to the music,” Alloc­ca says.

“They’re not pas­sive lis­ten­ers,” Aoki says of K‑pop fans. “They know every sin­gle song. They watch every sin­gle video. Each one of those peo­ple are a view on every sin­gle video that reached 500 mil­lion views on YouTube.”

Mon­s­ta X fan in Sug­ar Land, Texas.

The offi­cial videos that are pro­duced by the biggest K‑pop acts can be incred­i­bly ref­er­ence-dense, cre­at­ing a rich mythol­o­gy for fans to unpack. Some sym­bols are less con­crete than oth­ers, so it’s up to the fans to fig­ure out what they all mean, and that’s often done online. “One of the places that these com­mu­ni­ties can gath­er is in the com­ments,” says Alloc­ca, “and they will both be debat­ing things, but they’ll also be sort of point­ing out things in the video to each oth­er or giv­ing you a sort of a path­way into some­thing that they’ve noticed to help you appre­ci­ate this thing as the work of art that they see it as.”

There are tons of East­er eggs in the Eng­lish-lan­guage video for Mon­s­ta X and Steve Aoki’s “Play It Cool,” for exam­ple, includ­ing the words “Air­plane Mode” appear­ing in Kore­an, a ref­er­ence to lyrics in the Kore­an-lan­guage ver­sion of the same song. But many of Mon­s­ta X’s oth­er videos go even fur­ther. They’ve had videos tease out sto­ries deal­ing with time trav­el, soci­etal reform, and the sev­en dead­ly sins, which have led to tons of fan the­o­ries being hashed out in YouTube com­ments.

Before stream­ing and social media, music was large­ly curat­ed by a select few in the record indus­try — enti­ties like radio DJs, labels, and crit­ics. Now, it’s curat­ed by the mass­es, by fans who can pick and choose exact­ly what they want to see and lis­ten to. “It’s a very big plat­form,” says Mon­s­ta X’s Min­hyuk. “And, K‑pop isn’t just the music.” I.M nods in agree­ment. “It’s real­ly easy to get inside of that chan­nel and watch what­ev­er you want,” he says. “You can see some video what is relat­ed with that video, too. So I think it’s real­ly impor­tant to us.” “Every­thing is avail­able,” chimes in band­mate Kihyun. “There’s no lim­it.”

Peo­ple dis­cov­er music dif­fer­ent­ly now, and K‑pop makes the most of this on YouTube. Online plat­forms allow peo­ple from all over the world to dic­tate what is pop­u­lar and to con­nect — not just with the artists but with each oth­er — in new and often mean­ing­ful ways. “I’m sur­round­ed by non-Kore­ans singing Kore­an,” Aoki says. “I love that a non­dom­i­nant lan­guage is becom­ing a force. I’m glad I’m part of this day and age where I can be part of that process and help push that out there to the world. Because the world’s much big­ger than just Eng­lish.”

I.M smiles as he talks about the future. “We hope the world gets ready for us.”

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