The Kpop (or Korean pop music) industry has expanded astronomically in the past years, outgrowing itself from the Western perception of a talent “factory” production to a global powerhouse of creativity and innovation. While people expect nothing but perfection from Kpop artists, the industry holds dark yet neglected undertones beneath its flashy facade. One of the glaring yet unexposed issues has to be Kpop’s mass streaming and fandom culture, where the fun and gratification from supporting Kpop are slowly reduced to cutthroat competition and trivial numbers.
Stream Like There’s No Tomorrow
Even if you are only faintly familiar with the Kpop scene, you might be well aware of the prevalent streaming culture. Fans go all in to stream (mass-watching or listening) their idols’ music videos (MVs) on YouTube, Spotify, and other local music platforms such as MelOn, Genie, Naver Music, Bugs, and Soribada. This practice is demonstrated by the list of the most viewed online videos in the first 24 hours on YouTube, dominated by Kpop tracks such as Dynamite from BTS (101.1 million) and How You Like That from BlackPink (86.3 million).
Views and listens are taken extremely seriously.
Digital streaming can be harmless, effortless, and costless. If you can’t afford to purchase your idols’ albums or merchandise, streaming is the easiest way to show your appreciation and support for their quality work. Hardcore fans often go the extra mile to make sure that every stream counts by designing streaming teams, projects, and guides to help others. Multiple detailed and meticulous “manuals” for streaming YouTube videos explain how fans must watch the videos in their entirety, clear their browser history, and are not allowed to repeatedly click on the videos; otherwise, their views will be recognized as spam or even deleted. Furthermore, while most streaming methods are free, local Korean music sites only allow streams from registered residents; therefore, many international fans often purchase accounts to stream their idols’ songs. Views and listens are taken extremely seriously, especially in big fandoms with millions of fans all mobilized towards streaming goals, doing whatever it takes to generate that stream. The Koreans even coined a term for this phenomenon, “sumseuming” (숨스밍) or “streaming music 24/7 as one breathes.”
The Toxicity of Streaming
So, why do streams and views matter so much, besides the bragging rights? Well, it’s a little bit complicated. According to PinkVilla, streaming offers exposure and recognition for the success of Kpop groups and the fandoms’ collective pride. As the Kpop race significantly intensifies, having more views can be equated to international success while earning first place on domestic music charts signifies local and public recognition. Streaming is a criterion for winning the weekly music show awards such as Music Bank, Inkigayo, and Music Core. Since awards are another marker for the songs and artists’ popularity, this further incentivizes fans to strive to achieve their streaming goals. Therefore, more views or listens can inform entertainment companies that the songs have achieved (commercial) success as agencies have full authority over whether the artists’ future albums will ever see daylight or more promotional content will be produced.
Prioritizing mass streaming takes away the joy and beauty of cherishing their favorite artists’ creativity and hard work.
Streaming in its natural form isn’t toxic, but the pressure to forcefully achieve streaming goals and its definitive role in determining success and quality are. While achieving streaming milestones should be rightfully celebrated by fandoms and artists, prioritizing mass streaming takes away the joy and beauty of cherishing their favorite artists’ creativity and hard work. In a way, it renders the process less than meaningful: while artists appreciate the overwhelming support from fans, replays should be reserved for the enjoyment of the musical production, where fans wouldn’t become sick of the songs from constant streaming. Furthermore, breaking records is always at the top of every big fandom’s agenda, and since they outdo themselves every time, the bars can only be raised higher and higher. Thus, views cannot always be attributed to popularity or quality when they are mostly contributed by fans and not organically generated by the general public. Think of the cultural reset and earworm Gangnam Style by PSY. It was the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views, and since there wasn’t a fierce competition between Kpop acts at the time and deeply ingrained streaming culture, the views came from audiences who genuinely liked the song, not mass streamers. Entertainment companies perpetuate this cycle, where they encourage streaming and celebrate these milestones by rewarding fans with special versions of the songs or MVs.
Hidden Corners of Fandom Culture
Streaming also wouldn’t be as toxic as it is without some individuals in massive fandoms fighting one another over holding world records, where it exposes the dark side of Kpop’s fandom culture. While Kpop groups have always been in fierce competition and fandoms have always clashed even in the pre-social media era, fandom culture in the social media era paints a grimmer picture. Some Kpop fans have adopted “toxic” practices where they not only support their idols but also attack and demean those they dislike. As social media allows fans to leave anonymous comments, they feel entitled to express their hateful views or defend their favorite artists, respectfully or not. Constant comparisons of Kpop groups have substantially sucked out the fun and steered the attention away from artistry to restless competition, where “haters” pick out the tiniest details or bring up the same topic repeatedly to criticize targeted artists. It’s like cancel culture, but there’s not much to cancel, to begin with.
The fandom culture’s toxicity extends not just between groups but also among group members, where some fans favor one member over the rest. These only fans are labeled “akgae” (악개) or “malicious individual fans,” where they habitually insult the other members while putting their favorite on the pedestal. Jihyo, a member of the female group TWICE, was body-shamed by other members’ akgae fans who claimed she “didn’t meet the standards for girl groups.” Akgae rivalries, in my opinion, are often even more hurtful because, in a way, you’re being backstabbed by your supposed group fans.
As Kpop continues to flourish in the international market, these underlying issues deserve to be put under the spotlight and scrutiny. Competitions can be healthy, world records can be rewarding, and fandoms can be proud and respectful. However, if taken to the extreme, which is often the case, Kpop will no longer be the comforting wonderland, where it becomes a wasteland of superficial numbers and people fighting over meaningless dominance. Yet deep down, I know the Kpop world has gone too far from saving itself: what makes it so great is also what will eventually destroy it. A graceful curse has bestowed on the Kpop world, and the antidote to lift it ultimately lies in the systemic changes in both the industry and fandom culture.
Cover: Roy Issa via South China Morning Post
Edited by: Margarete Schweinitz