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#TrendsIMO: K-Pop Collabs – Mainstream Trend or Marketing Ploy?

From BTS and Coldplay to DJ Snake and more, blockbuster artist alliances blur the lines of mutual benefit and commercial value

Amit Vaidya Nov 10, 2021

Photo: Courtesy of the artists

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So let’s get this out of the way first – collaborations between artists are a great thing and we’ve seen them only grow exponentially in recent times. Beyond just features on the latest hip-hop records, we’re seeing multi-genre, multilingual songs vying for the top spot on the charts. On any given Friday, there’s a who’s who of musicians coming together and bringing fans worldwide along for the ride.

Last month, Coldplay and BTS came together for their number one hit “My Universe.” It was neither band’s first foray into collaborations. Coldplay has now been utilizing this successful formula for years – get the biggest acts in music at the time featuring on their projects – be it Jay-Z, Beyonce, Rihanna, The Chainsmokers or now BTS.

The K-Pop superstars have also done their fair share of collabs with artists ranging from Nicki Minaj to Halsey, Juice Wrld to Lauv.  So it’s no surprise they’d blindly say yes to Coldplay, a band they grew up admiring.

But was this blockbuster collaboration a mutually beneficial arrangement of creativity or commercialism? The cynic in me would say Chris Martin and his bandmates know they have to stay relevant and the best way to do that would be to work with the biggest band on the planet. It also makes them seem cooler and yes, opens up their discography to a whole new audience.

For BTS on the other hand, they get to say they recorded with Coldplay and yes, perhaps garner some appreciation from older generations and music critics who fail to understand their talent regardless of their tremendous global success.

But BTS has already had six number one hits in the past couple of years including the massive “Dynamite,” its follow up “Life Goes On,” their jumping on board for the remix of “Savage Love,” this past summer’s arguably biggest record “Butter” and its follow up “Permission To Dance.” So debuting at number one with “My Universe” seemed like a no-brainer as the band has been cranking out chart-topping hits like Mariah Carey did back in the Nineties.

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So did BTS actually really gain as much as Coldplay did with the collaboration? Coldplay managed to climb to the top spot for the second time, 14 years after their first, “Viva La Vida.” They also managed to generate far more buzz for their latest album Music Of The Spheres, an album that also features Selena Gomez, Jacob Collier and We Are King. The album debuted in the top five last month besting their last album Everyday Life, which was one of their poorest selling albums to date.

Do K-Pop artists really need to go “mainstream” when the truth of the matter is, they are the mainstream? Yes, you heard me right. For too many years now, we’ve seen non-Western English music spearhead what it meant to be a big star but today even if two of the biggest superstars (say Drake and Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber and The Weeknd) came together, they’d likely be unable to pull the same numbers and views as BTS. Or even BLACKPINK. Or even Adele!

Last month also saw the release of “SG” (an acronym for “Sexy Girl”), an English-Spanish moombahtan song by French record producer DJ Snake, Puerto Rican singer Ozuna, U.S. rapper Megan Thee Stallion, and Thai singer and rapper Lisa from the South Korean girl group BLACKPINK. The song on paper felt like a smash. With so many talents coming together, it was bound to open big. And it did – the music video was the most-streamed new video on YouTube for the day and the week respectively.

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But the song is stalling now. It’s no surprise as it has garnered dismal reviews. The song feels like another rehash of DJ Snake and Ozuna’s blockbuster hit “Taki Taki” but Cardi B has been replaced with Megan Thee Stallion and Selena Gomez with Lisa.

While K-Pop fans were thrilled to see Lisa’s involvement in the collaboration, when they hear her nominal contribution — it’s no surprise the initial curiosity has now resulted in stalled streaming numbers. In fact, when you look at the music video’s numbers — they are paltry compared to the solo single by Lisa “LaLisa” which came out just two weeks before “SG.” While the collaboration has crossed 70 million views, “LaLisa” has accrued over 320 million views.

So what does this tell us? Well, there really isn’t much interest in a K-Pop collaboration unless it’s a real collab. Frankly, “SG” wouldn’t even be as big as it is had Lisa not been featured. The one smart thing Coldplay did was make sure “My Universe” was a proper duet and not a feature with BTS.

As more and more K-Pop stars are lured by Western artists to join them on their latest albums and singles, they need to first ensure that they take stock of their own value. Of course, creatively getting acceptance and the ability to work with notable musicians is a great thing. But it’s very clear at this point that the trend now isn’t to make K-Pop mainstream, it’s for keeping waning Top 40 artists relevant and hip by working with K-Pop stars.

From Maroon 5 to Jason Derulo, artists have shown that they will literally go to any lengths to get a hit single. It seems like right now in this moment, going to South Korea is the ticket to chart success.

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