This story is part of Billboard‘s annual 40 Under 40 list, which spotlights the young executives who are pushing the music industry forward.
Joojong “JJ” Joe
Head of North America, YG Entertainment
When Joojong “JJ” Joe starts a typical day in Los Angeles, at around 9:30 a.m., a wave of emails from his colleagues at Seoul-based media giant YG Entertainment awaits him. By the time his day winds down around 5 p.m., those same colleagues are just arriving at headquarters — which means calls, meetings and more emails. It’s not uncommon for him to stay plugged in past 11 p.m. “You need a balance in your life,” says Joe, 39, with a laugh. “The thing is, if I don’t talk to Korea during the evening, the day just goes away. Sometimes I need an approval, and if I don’t get it overnight, I can’t progress the next day.”
The past few months have required plenty of late nights for Joe, who, by steering the strategy for YG and its roster in the United States and other English-speaking countries, helped propel girl group sensation Blackpink to a historic October: The group’s debut LP, The Album, hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — the highest-charting album ever from a K-pop girl group (and of any girl group since Danity Kane in 2008). The band was also the subject of an acclaimed Netflix documentary, Blackpink: Light Up the Sky, an intimate portrait of singers Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa and Rosé and their years as YG trainees prepping for pop stardom.
Building the relationships with media firms, streaming services and other companies that make such feats possible — and in a way that fits Blackpink — is at the heart of what Joe does. “If you want to have a broader audience, you have to sing in English,” says Joe — which Blackpink embraced more than ever on tracks like “Ice Cream,” a cheeky team-up with Selena Gomez. “But we’re always mindful of maintaining their identity as a Korean group. We don’t want to lose that.”
Joe’s first musical love while growing up in Seoul wasn’t glossy pop but grunge and nu-metal — Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine were early favorites. “At one point I wanted to be a rock star,” he says, “but I realized there were so many people more talented than I was. So I was like, ‘Well, I love every aspect of music — production, promotion, the live show, merchandise.’ ” After an early job advising Korean investors on entertainment-business opportunities, he got his MBA from the London Business School and made his way to Los Angeles, where he developed U.S. strategy for another Korean media company, CJ E&M. He joined YG in 2014 and started building its U.S. presence from scratch: finding office space, meeting radio DJs, networking with promoters and agencies, talking to labels. “Five years ago, our acts like Big Bang and 2NE1 were doing fine, but not at the scale of Blackpink,” says Joe, who also works with YG’s new boy band, Treasure. “I still had to explain what our music is and what we want to do.”
Today, thanks in part to Blackpink’s partnership with Interscope Records (announced in 2018), he doesn’t really have that problem anymore. “JJ understands both American and Korean culture perfectly,” says Spotify global co-head of music Jeremy Erlich, a former Interscope executive who went to business school with Joe and facilitated early conversations between the label and YG. “He’s a great bridge between the two worlds, and it’s his insight and demeanor that allow him to make sure YG maximizes their success both at home and abroad.”
Blackpink’s collaborations with A-listers like Lady Gaga and Cardi B have also raised the group’s profile this year. But all those big breaks didn’t just fall into Joe’s lap — they’re the result of all the time he spent laying a solid groundwork. “We’re talking about this stuff every day — it’s not like, ‘OK, let’s find somebody to pitch,’ ” he says. “We’ve been working in the States now for a long time. I got to know more people working with those big [American] artists. It’s not really hard to talk to them. And they know how to talk to us — they know we’re here.”