It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who coined the term “K-pop,” but Billboard first used it 20 years ago, in a news piece about South Korean music spreading into the Japanese market.
Since the story ran, on Oct. 9, 1999, Billboard has become one of the few American media outlets to regularly cover the rise of South Korea’s “idol” pop-dominated music scene. By 2013, the publication had launched a column dedicated to the industry, K-Town. Today, South Korean acts regularly rank high on Billboard’s primary charts, and BTS has captured the top spot on the Billboard 200 four times, most recently the week ending Feb. 27, when the group moved 422,000 equivalent-album units (according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data) of Map of the Soul: 7 in the first week of release — a career high and the best first-week results of any act so far in 2020.
“Korean pop music wasn’t that visible on my radar screen until K-pop took off,” recalls Steve McClure, Billboard’s former Asia bureau chief, who is now a Tokyo-based writer-editor-narrator. “I remember how impressed I was with the slickly perfect pop of Girls’ Generation’s [2009 hit] ‘Gee.’ That’s when I really began to ‘get’ K-pop.”
Although Korean writers like Cho Hyun-jin and Suh Byung Hoo — the father of influential Korean hip-hop icon Tiger JK — served as correspondents for Billboard for years, South Korean music received minimal coverage in the outlet until the late 2000s. During that time, McClure remembers the scene becoming a subject that was consistently covered after K-pop hit its stride in Asia thanks to a series of viral hits. “When groups like Kara [2007-2016] began to make inroads into the Japanese market, I took serious note of Korean pop music,” says McClure. “At that time, there was a ‘Korea boom’ here in Japan, mainly because of the huge popularity of South Korean TV dramas with [a] primarily female audience.”
The “boom” McClure refers to is part of what is known as Hallyu, or the “Korean wave” of cultural influence, which has ebbed and flowed in various regions across the globe over the past few decades. The aughts saw major interest from Japan as acts like TVXQ!, SS501, Kara, Wonder Girls, BIGBANG, Super Junior and Girls’ Generation rose up.
It was Wonder Girls’ 2008 single, “Nobody,” that led to one of the most significant early features about a K-pop act. Published by Billboard in late 2009, a Breaking & Entering column on the Wonder Girls focused on the then-five-member act’s pivot toward the U.S. market after having viral smash hits in 2008-09 with “Tell Me,” “So Hot” and “Nobody.” The last of those had an English variant that became the first-ever K-pop song to debut on the Billboard Hot 100, at No. 76 in October 2009.
Crystal Bell, who wrote the piece while interning for Billboard, and today works at MTV News, says, “I’ve always been a fan of K-pop, and when Wonder Girls first started I thought, ‘That’s a great story for a digital feature.’ Everybody in the room was very much like, ‘Yeah, if you can figure it out, get the sources, then let’s tell these stories. We don’t really have anybody on this beat, and it’s something big to cover.’”
Bell ended up speaking with not only the Wonder Girls but also J.Y. Park, founder of one of the “Big Three” K-pop labels, JYP. “They invited me to their studio in midtown Manhattan, and it was really cool. It’s the kind of access that everybody now really craves: ‘Come to the studio, this is where the girls record music, meet JYP. We’ll tell you everything you want to know.’”
The next year, Billboard published a full-page print profile and featured performances by JYJ, a trio spun off from TVXQ! after that hugely popular K-pop boy band’s much-publicized breakup in 2009.
In 2011, the site’s first K-pop columnist, Jeff Benjamin, wrote his first piece on the scene, covering SM Entertainment’s companywide SMTown Live concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. In 2013, the K-Town column debuted when Billboard relaunched its website.
“Giving K-pop space among the other major genres that Billboard covered showed that K-pop was significant and worthy of its own dedicated coverage,” says Benjamin.
“The K-pop industry itself has continued to level up and deliver quality content,” adds Benjamin. “The [Billboard] K-pop vertical would not still exist today if the K-pop scene itself wasn’t also growing and expanding in meaningful ways.”
Tamar Herman began covering K-pop for Billboard in 2016, and currently leads the website’s coverage.