K-pop Singled Out By US Music Market: Recognition or Restraint?

Between Billboard’s introduction of K-pop categories and Grammys failing to nominate K-pop artists, questions have been raised

On November 14, an article from 10Asia attempted to answer the question of the US’s music market’s reaction to K-pop. This question is stemmed from the fact that Billboard has introduced various categories only for K-pop, whilst Grammy rarely ever nominates K-pop artists (with K-pop receiving no nominations this year). 

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For 4 years in a row since 2019, BTS has received Grammy nominations, however, the world-famous group has never managed to secure their own trophy. Now in the latest list of nominees for Grammys, K-pop artists are missing altogether. 

With these facts to consider, 10Asia posed the question of whether Billboard’s introduction of separate K-pop categories is a genuine effort to acknowledge the unique qualities of this genre or, conversely, if it unintentionally acts as a form of discrimination by separating K-pop from mainstream genres in prestigious global music awards. This debate touches on broader issues regarding the representation and integration of K-pop within the global music award system.

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As mentioned earlier, this year, BTS did not receive any nominations for the 66th Grammy Awards (scheduled for February 2024), even though all the group members – currently focused on individual activities, including military service obligations and other commitments – submitted entries in various Grammy categories. Specifically, Jin submitted the single “The Astronaut” for Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Music Video; RM submitted the solo album “Indigo” for Best Pop Vocal Album and the track “Wild Flower” for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Music Video. Meanwhile, SUGA aimed for the categories of Best Rap Album, Best Rap Performance, and Best Music Video with the solo album “D-Day” and the title track “Haegeum”; J-Hope strived for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Music Video with “On The Street”, and V attempted for Best Pop Vocal Album with his solo album “Layover”, as well as Best Pop Solo Performance and Best Music Video with “Slow Dancing.”

In the past, BTS had been nominated in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance category from 2020 to 2022, so expectations for their nomination this year were high due to their individual achievements. For instance, Jungkook set a record for the highest first-week sales for a solo K-pop artist in the U.S. with his debut solo album “Golden”. V’s solo album “Layover” entered the main “Billboard 200” chart at number two, surpassing 100,000 units in the first week in the U.S. The disappointment of not receiving nominations is, therefore, more significant.

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Criticism is growing surrounding what is perceived as favoritism at the Grammy Awards, especially after BTS failed to win for the third consecutive time despite being nominated. Known as one of the major music awards, along with the American Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards, the Grammy Awards are praised for their emphasis on musical quality. However, this prestigious award is currently facing accusations of favoring English-speaking artists, resulting in the exclusion of K-pop artists this year. Such actions are seen as reinforcing a “barrier” in the industry, limiting the acknowledgment of the global musical talent of K-pop.

On the other hand, Billboard seems to have a different approach than the Grammys, as evidenced by the creation of specific K-pop categories, including Top Global K-pop Artist, Top Global K-pop Album, Top Global K-pop Song, and Top K-pop Touring Artist. BTS members Jimin, Jungkook, and SUGA, along with NCT, BLACKPINK, TWICE, and TXT, were nominated in all four of these categories. Despite concerns about exclusive contracts in South Korea, the rookie group FIFTY FIFTY, with significant global online presence, was nominated for Top Duo/Group and Top Global K-pop Song. This demonstrates the recognition and influence of K-pop in the global music market, emphasizing that K-pop has been acknowledged as a dominant trend even in the U.S., the center of the global music industry.

However, there is also criticism of Billboard having separate categories for K-pop. Some argue that this is Billboard’s “double standard” in dealing with K-pop. In particular, they believe that the U.S. music award is attempting to limit the influence of K-pop by confining artists to a separate “K-pop genre,” potentially hindering their integration into mainstream music markets. As a result, there is concern that categorizing K-pop separately from English-language songs may impede open competition.

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The American Music Awards, after introducing K-pop categories last year, witnessed BTS winning both Duo or Group – Pop/Rock and Favorite K-pop Artist in 2022. Before that, they had won Artist of the Year, Duo or Group – Pop/Rock, and Song Pop/Rock in 2021.

According to some Korean analysts, this situation reflects a complex motivation within the U.S. music industry regarding K-pop, balancing between recognition and restraint. With South Korea’s increasing soft power, there are also concerns that the center of the global music market, currently in the U.S., might shift to South Korea, the birthplace of K-pop. It is a situation where an award should be given but is being hesitatingly withheld. Clearly, this can mean K-pop as a whole has been singled out by the US’s music market. 

Source: 10Asia via Daum, K14