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Exclusive: Why Spotify India’s New Campaign Will Focus On K-pop

What BTS’ massive success in India means for the streaming giant’s plans for Korean artists in 2020

Riddhi Chakraborty Mar 16, 2020

In terms of which K-pop artists are most popular on Spotify, South Korean megastars BTS are the undisputed leaders globally, as well as in India. Photo: Courtesy of Big Hit Entertainment

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India’s relationship with K-pop has never been stronger. The last couple of years have seen a steady increase in the number of fans in the country, with voices louder than ever on social media. We’ve traced K-pop’s rise in India several times before–we know the how and why behind the phenomenon of Korean artists capturing Indian audiences attention–but a topic rather unexplored is the impact streaming can have on the rise of an artist’s popularity and presence in the country.

There were a lot of victories for desi K-pop fans in 2019. Artists like KARD, IN2IT, VAV, AleXa and more performed in India, making a significant case for more artists to add India to their tours. Social media trends, K-pop dance covers, and participation in competitions from India were massive–the 2019 Changwon International K-pop Contest’s India rounds saw over 3000 entries while hashtags like #BTSTourInIndia (begging the South Korean megastars to perform in the country) trended for hours on end on desi Twitter.

The game-changer

Over the past couple of years, two things have happened simultaneously–a massive rise in the number of Indians who use streaming services, and a massive rise in the number of Indians who listen to K-pop. The collision of the two was of course inevitable–but what’s worth examining is the platform the audience chose to listen to the genre.

For Indian K-pop fans, choosing the right platform was important because it directly tied into the artists being able to see if the country was worth touring. With the lack of local official merchandise and ticket sales, Indian fans saw streaming and charting as the only way to prove they deserved a tour as well. Worldwide Twitter trends are powerful, but don’t necessarily provide concise, reliable data that accurately measure the audience’s demographics–courtesy anonymous accounts and bots.

Since its launch in 2015, Apple Music seemed to be the number one platform for the majority of K-pop fans. It’s brand power and massive library granted it preference over Indian streaming companies like Gaana and JioSaavn who, while titans in their own right, focused more on Bollywood and regional Indian music and therefore had a very limited range of Korean discographies. Although K-pop artists like BTS, G-Dragon, NCT and BLACKPINK began to appear regularly on iTunes India’s charts thanks to Indian fans’ efforts, there was no clear understanding of what it all meant. Apple Music’s policy of not disclosing the number of streams added a question mark in the face of the answer Indian fans wanted most: how many of us exist? Are we enough of a number to warrant a concert?

Spotify, thanks to its transparent sharing of stats and demographics, soon became the clear choice for fans and artists alike. Through Spotify for Artists and the end of the year Wrapped program, musicians and their teams could now map their progress across the world by receiving a wide range of data. This included basic stats such as total fan hours streamed, highest number of fan streams per hour, increases in followers, total listeners, new listeners, streams, and playlist adds. The streaming also provided access to more nuanced details like the number of hours fans streamed between 1 am – 6 am (i.e. amount of sleep fans lost listening), the country that grew by the highest percent of listeners and the number of fans that had the artist as their #1 artist.

On the user’s side, the Wrapped program provides a detailed outline of which artists, songs and playlists they’ve streamed and how many times. With users registering with the service, adding their age and location, demographics are easier to determine–an extremely significant necessity for a growing K-pop market like India. It plays into providing more of an insight as to which cities are the best candidates to tour, which locations and ages of fans can be candidates for merch sales or other projects.

While K-pop fan clubs and associations kept record of the growing number of stans within each fandom (as well as whopping totals per city per fandom) Spotify’s presence added a sense of legitimacy that players within the music business could take more seriously, not to mention a more mappable and steady set of numbers than what online trends and movie ticket sales could provide. Additionally, Spotify India offers a free version–unlike its direct competitor Apple Music–that allows younger fans on a budget to join and stream.

With its entry into the country in 2019, Spotify would begin measuring the strength and growth of the K-pop fandom and giving said fandom and artists stats around the results of their hard work. It’s the main reason why streaming on Spotify has become a sort of campaign among Indian fans to ensure that their favorite artists are able to understand that there is a demand for their music in the country. The higher the number of streams, the more likely it is that the artist or their label will notice there are fans here.

BTS was among the top five artists streamed on Spotify India during its first six months in the country, and the only non-Indian act. Image: Courtesy of Spotify

In May 2019, we saw the first examples of a data-driven understanding of fans via Spotify. A six month sum-up report from the company recorded significant interest in K-pop from Indian listeners, with BTS being the fifth most-streamed artist on the platform at the time (the only non-Indian act to do so) and K-pop emerging as one of the top genres. The company also launched ‘India Discovers,’ a playlist of 40 tracks by several artists around the globe, emerging and established, to provide an insight into what our country’s Gen-Z listeners are discovering on a daily basis and sharing with their peers. K-pop emerged as the second biggest trend, with South Korean pop artists making up 25 percent of the playlist. Rookie boy group Tomorrow X Together led the way with seven-member group iKON close behind. Popular girl groups like ITZY, Twice, Mamamoo, (G)I-dle and leading solo artist Sunmi also made an appearance. “My number one surprise was how big K-pop is in India,” Spotify’s director of product growth, Owen Smith, said at a press conference around the same time. “I had absolutely no idea. And I probably should have. The days after launch, Twitter was just overtaken by BTS fans, screaming about how happy they were that we were [available in India]. They were having streaming parties in our honor, which I’ve never ever seen in any other market. I really did not expect that when we started working on India launch that I would be talking about the prevalence of K-pop and BTS fans.”

It’s all about the numbers

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Internationally, Spotify has been involved in promoting K-pop actively since 2014. That year the streaming giant launched its first K-pop flagship playlist ‘K-Pop Daebak’–still one of the leading playlists in the world. Between then and January 2020, K-pop’s listening on Spotify has increased by more than 1,800%, with over 134 billion minutes streamed. ‘K-Pop Daebak’ now boasts more than 2.4 million followers.

In the past year since its launch in February 2019, Spotify India has witnessed a somewhat similarly powerful rapid growth pattern for the genre in India. Streaming data from past three months suggests that India is part of the top 22% of K-pop listening in all of Spotify’s markets globally. Listeners range from Gen-Z (18-24 years old) to over 55 years. BTS, of course, lead the pack both internationally and in India, dominating all K-pop playlists across various demographics. Some of the other artists building powerful fan followings in the country include EXO, BLACKPINK, GOT7 and ATEEZ.

Also as part of its one-year trends, Spotify discovered love emerging for K-pop in unexpected states like Telangana and West Bengal, among unexpected demographics–the top tracks among users above 55-years were songs by EXO and BLACKPINK. Ahmedabad and Jaipur were also surprising additions on the list of top 10 cities that consume K-pop on Spotify India while Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura’s numbers were a little less surprising–the figures just reinforced the North East’s well-known and established love for K-pop.

According to Spotify, the top ten cities that draw the largest audiences for K-pop include:

2. Bengaluru
3. Pune
4. New Delhi
5. Kolkata
6. Hyderabad
7. Chennai
8. Guwahati
9. Ahmedabad
10. Jaipur

Namaste, BTS

In terms of which K-pop artists are most popular on Spotify, South Korean megastars BTS are the undisputed leaders globally, as well as in India. It’s not the biggest surprise, considering the septet are currently the number one band in the music business with the most powerful fandom on Earth: ARMY. The group gained recognition thanks to their authentic, relatable, self-produced music and groundbreaking performances, but also by building a positive relationship with their fans since their debut in 2013, imparting messages of love, kindness, friendship and inner strength. Over time, ARMY has become a movement, amplifying and evolving the role of the ‘K-pop stan’ into that of a more streamlined organization. The fandom increased their numbers and elevated BTS’ global popularity through carefully planned and executed teamwork, of which streaming and sharing the group’s music was (and remains) a key element.

BTS established dominance on Spotify India almost immediately after the launch–the group featured in a special video filmed by Spotify and greeted their users with a cheerful “Namaste, India!” that kick-started a global trending hashtag #NamasteBTS. It’s a trend that resurfaced last month when Spotify India celebrated their one-year anniversary and provided a second video of BTS greeting their fans and discussing their artistic impact in the country–a massive victory for fans who hoped the group would understand just how popular they are in India.

The septet’s music has been streamed more than eight billion times on Spotify and the top-streamed K-pop track on the platform is “Boy With Luv,” the group’s 2019 collaboration with American singer-songwriter Halsey (streamed more than 380 million times.) The impact of course echoes in India; BTS are the most streamed K-pop act in the country with their tracks making up nine out of the top 10 streamed Korean songs in the country on a list provided to Rolling Stone India by Spotify:

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1. “Boy With Luv (feat. Halsey)” – BTS
2. “Kill This Love” – BLACKPINK
4. “Make It Right” – BTS
5. “Mikrokosmos” – BTS
6. “Euphoria” – BTS
7. “Blood Sweat & Tears” – BTS
8. “Make It Right (feat. Lauv)” – BTS, LAUV
9. “HOME by BTS” – BTS
10. “Dream Glow (BTS World Original Soundtrack) – Pt. 1” – BTS, Charli XCX

We’ve examined BTS’ effect before on the charts in India with a focus on member j-hope–with the release of his solo mixtape Hope World in 2018, the rapper and producer hit number one in 72 countries’ iTunes album charts, including India. Even with the mixtape being available for free, it charted at Number One on the overall albums chart. There was a general feeling of shock among Indian ARMYs as they began to see results of their actions for the first time and just how powerful mass streaming and purchase can be.

Spotify India reinforces j-hope and BTS’ hold over the country with the revelation that he is currently the most-streamed solo K-pop artist on Spotify. An exclusive insight provided by Spotify into streaming patterns in India shows j-hope is also present on almost every other chart involving top-streamed K-pop artists in the country:

Most Streamed K-pop Artists in India Most Streamed Female K-pop acts  Most Streamed Male K-pop acts Most Streamed Solo K-pop artists 
1. BTS
3. EXO
5. Mamamoo
7. Monsta X
8. GOT7
9. j-hope
10. Stray Kids
3. Mamamoo
4. IU
5. Red Velvet
6. (G)I-DLE
7. Punch
1. BTS
2. EXO
4. MonstaX
5. GOT7
6. j-hope
7. Stray Kids
10. Eric Nam
1. j-hope
2. IU
3. Punch
4. Eric Nam
5. RM

The road from here on

Spotify India’s new campaign titled ‘Home of K-Pop’ plans to further promote K-pop in the country while also thanking Indian fans for their dedication. The campaign will see advertisements circulating the web that feature K-pop culture and music–led by BTS’ artistry. Ads will feature Easter eggs for fans to catch, visually recreate how K-pop has the ability to change lives for the better and therefore hope to spark an interest for the genre in new audiences.

“In a short span of time, K-pop has grown into a global phenomenon, and [we] recently shared interesting statistics around this genre based on insights from the platform,” shared Spotify India in an exclusive statement to Rolling Stone India. “Over the past year, India has contributed to this love for K-pop through community experiences (streaming parties), social media conversations, and discovery of all things audio for K-pop, on Spotify. We want more users to be a part of this community that has created over 93 million (user-generated) playlists on Spotify featuring K-pop tracks.”

The task is easier said than done; while the number of K-pop fans in India is currently at formidable numbers, the endeavor for Kpop artists to be noticed by mainstream Indian audiences is a tough one. BTS and BLACKPINK are some of the more prominent names thanks to their viral presence on music channels on television, some radio play and YouTube, but as of now none of it–including streaming–has been enough to make these artists consider India as a possible tour destination. The West and various other parts of the world have had the better part of a decade to build their streaming numbers and push K-pop into the mainstream market, so it will take time for India to hit a fraction of the streams the U.S. is currently at.

Spotify India however, remains hopeful, stating, “Just like the global fans, the K-pop fans here are deeply passionate and engaged with their favorite artists. Spotify’s ‘Home of K-Pop’ campaign is a celebration of that culture in India; it’s a love letter to the community that thrives on this genre, and a way to thank them for all the support they’ve shown us here. And we do hope that it brings new K-pop fans onboard.” It’s an indication they will take things one day at a time without putting pressure on fans, artists or themselves to hit certain goals. While there are numerous barriers that stand in the way of K-pop’s dominance in the country, Spotify India’s dedication to pushing it is a massive indicator of its growth in the country–this kind of campaign would not have existed even two years ago.

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