K-pop has developed over the past three decades into a multibillion-dollar industry that spans the globe. But recently, the industry has undergone major changes. In a dispute between two of its biggest companies, SM Entertainment, the founder of which created K-pop, and Hybe, home to the chart-topping BTS, tensions escalated as SM Entertainment attempted to merge with the South Korean technology company Kakao.
The two companies were vying for the chance to expand their reach overseas and tap into the global K-pop fan base. In the process, Korean fans have felt alienated and anxious over where their beloved music is headed.
At the center of the dispute was SM Entertainment, founded byLee Soo-man, the producer credited as the godfather of K-pop. In February, SM Entertainment alleged financial improprieties and pushed Lee out of the company, which he denied. During the takeover battle, Hybe accused SM Entertainment of “illogical behavior” and sought a court injunction to block the deal with Kakao. Kakao ultimately acquired 40% of SM Entertainment in a deal worth nearly $1 billion.
The merger raised the uncomfortable question of whether K-pop still needs the hometown fans or if the industry is now targeting a global audience. Many of the biggest K-pop songs are tailored to an American audience. Additionally, K-pop companies are now aiming for overseas growth with webtoons, games, and music in order to tap into the South Korean wave. This came to light when Hybe bought Ithaca Holdings, which manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande.
For Korean fans, fears of a change in their favorite artists’ freedom caused unease, as well as worries over album covers, fashion, concerts and merchandise design. This was an example of how the companies’ profit-driven motives are prioritised over the interests of artists and supporters.
While some fans feel insecure about the direction of K-pop, the potential for innovation is exciting. Kakao founded a girl group that exists only in the virtual world which has seen immense success with 20 million views on YouTube so far.
The dispute between Hybe and Kakao bought up the issue of whether K-pop needs its loyal local fans or if its expansionist goals can outweigh them. Overseas, there are fans with similar worries, stressing over what they perceive as the industry’s lack of prioritising music. But Hybe’s acquisition of Ithaca Holdings shows that K-pop has the capacity to have a global reach, while still giving fans the chance to just enjoy the music.