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K-Pop Groups With No Korean Members Try a Proven Formula for Global Success

In a marketing strategy, girl group XG eschewed their native Japan to launch their first two singles on Korean TV shows - joining other non-Korean acts who have followed a similar path.

TOKYO — This summer, the Japanese entertainment company Avex launched the seven-member girl group XG on a weekly music TV show — in South Korea, instead of Japan. The move was strategic. Rather than promote the group, which was five years in the making, at home, Avex leveraged Korea’s K-pop-rich media market to make an international splash.

It’s a prime example of the newest chapter in K-pop’s globalization: non-Korean acts tapping into the training, promotion, styles and strategies that made the genre an international success.

Korean networks’ many music programs showcase dozens of bands and live performances, which are readily available on YouTube — a key factor in K-pop’s international expansion, according to industry experts. In stark contrast, Japanese TV networks have been slow to embrace YouTube because sharing original content there often leads to unauthorized reuse. “Japanese TV shows are really inside — we can’t really reach to the global fans,” says Reina Aiguchi, a manager in Avex’s digital marketing group who works with XG. “In order to gain the global fans, we had to go on Korean TV shows.”

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XG — like JO1 from Japan and boy band SB19 from the Philippines — followed the K-pop star incubation model, drawing their members from thousands of auditioning hopefuls and undergoing yearslong training regimens. Thanks to instruction from K-pop vocal coaches and choreographers, they appear to be gaining traction, accumulating millions of audio streams and YouTube views. What remains unclear, though, is whether they will lure non-Korean listeners away from Korean bands or grow the genre’s fan base by having lesser-known artists attract more listeners.

Either way, experts say the development could help boost K-pop’s long-term viability worldwide. Non-Korean K-pop bands may displease some existing fans, but this expansion evolves the genre beyond Korean pop. “If globalizing Korean acts was the model in the past, now the mindset is to create global-level groups around the world,” says Kim Young-dae, a Seoul-based music critic. “It didn’t happen overnight. This has been the goal that [the industry] has been working on for the last two decades.”

K-pop acts with members from outside Korea aren’t a new phenomenon. Starting in the 1990s, agencies recruited from the Korean diaspora and later expanded the talent pool to such key target markets as Japan and China. From Super Junior to TWICE to Aespa, bands have benefited from members who communicate with fans and media in relevant markets in their own languages.

But this latest wave of K-pop groups has no Korean members. Instead, they are working within Korea to take advantage of the know-how, distribution channels and global attention K-pop has established. They were often exposed to K-pop from childhood and see Korea as a platform for international stardom.

XG
XG Courtesy of XGALX

XG, for example, is produced by an agency led by Simon Jakops, a former K-pop idol who was born in the United States to Korean and Japanese parents. Avex selected XG’s members from a pool of 15,000 Japanese girls in 2017 and put them through five years of training — starting when they were ages 10 to 15 — to master hip-hop and R&B music, as well as English and Korean. They lived together in a dormitory in Tokyo and moved to Seoul during the pandemic. Singing and rapping in English — with the occasional Japanese word thrown in — the group made 14 appearances on six different Korean TV shows in June and July to promote its first two singles, “Tippy Toes” and “Mascara,” Aiguchi says. The group is marketed by XGALX, an agency overseen in Tokyo by Avex, which, in recent years, has struggled to repeat its J-pop idol successes from the 1990s and 2000s.

“We wanted to refer to K-pop and have those methods for XG,” says Yudai Hasegawa, manager for XGALX, speaking through Aiguchi’s translation. “Second is, we wanted to shoot those music videos in Korea, where they have good music video directors.” Such strategies appear to be making a difference: XG has about 700,000 subscribers on YouTube and around 600,000 on TikTok, while “Mascara” reached No. 14 on the Billboard Japan Hot 100, spending 11 weeks on the chart. In addition, the group won the Rising Star award at the MTV Video Music Awards Japan in November. Comments below the group’s videoclips contain English, Bahasa (Indonesia) and Spanish, alongside Japanese.

JO1, a Japanese boy band formed from the 11 winners of the 2019 reality TV contest Produce 101 Japan, also received training in South Korea. Their music, often a collaboration between Japanese and Korean producers, is sung in Japanese with English words peppered into the mix, a K-pop formula for upping the songs’ global appeal. The members have appeared on Korean variety shows and K-pop-focused YouTube channels. (Their latest single, “SuperCali,” borrows the famous compound word from Mary Poppins.) JO1 has racked up several No. 1s on the Billboard Japan Hot 100, including “Bokura no Kisetsu” (“Our Season”), which topped the chart last December and has nearly 420 million combined views on YouTube.

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Korean agencies in recent years have also launched non-Korean bands that perform K-pop-like music — notably SM Entertainment’s China-geared boy band WayV, as well as NiziU, an all-Japanese girl group from JYP Entertainment and Sony Music Entertainment Japan. 

After an open call for auditions beginning in 2014 involving hundreds of Filipino boys, SB19 was formed by ShowBT Philippines, a subsidiary of Korean agency ShowBT Group. The five-member boy band, which sings in English and Tagalog, trained in South Korea for three years before signing with Sony Music Philippines in December of 2019. They recently have begun cracking the Billboard charts and touring overseas, including a show at Los Angeles’ Avalon nightclub this past Saturday (Nov. 12). “They’ve really raised the bar, the Koreans,” Roslyn Pineda, general manager, Sony Music Entertainment Philippines, said in September. “Number one is the discipline” SB19 members learned in Korea, which led to a “sharpness of [dance] movements…that doesn’t lie,” she says.

“We can’t deny the K-pop influence [on JO1],” says Choi Shin-hwa, CEO of Lapone Entertainment, a joint venture between entertainment conglomerates CJ ENM of South Korea and Yoshimoto Kogyo of Japan that produces JO1. He doesn’t describe Lapone artists as K-pop, but rather envisions “a new genre that is a hybrid of K-pop and Japanese culture.”

In an interview in Tokyo, some members of JO1 told Billboard they grew up listening to K-pop CDs from boy band TVXQ and pop rock band CNBLUE, which their respective mothers, as fans, had played around the house. The members nervously denied they were already stars. “We keep on working with the hopes of catching up with all the awesome K-pop artists who are active today,” says member Issei Mamehara

Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo