#Queens vs. #Directioners: What Billboard means to K-pop and K-pop means to Billboard

Quite a storm was caused a couple of days ago when T-ara’s fans Queens beat out One Direction fans in Billboard’s second ever Fan Army Face-off. It was a heated competition which escalated to the point where a select few on each side were hurling offensive and sometimes racist insults.

But as the drama and hashtags begin to fade away, the question that remains is: Does any of this actually matter?

Billboard is an interesting case study in the spread of K-pop and its increase in value to online music news platforms. The physical print magazine is the gold standard for music charts and industry information in the US with readers who are naturally interested on emerging music industries and trends that offer new business opportunities. But of course music fans also want to see the latest charts and so Billboard also has a large web following of fans looking for their latest news and interviews.

It’s this position serving both industry and consumer which makes it unsurprising that Billboard was a fairly early adopter of K-pop. They first started covering it in 2009 when Wonder Girls’ Nobody broke the Hot 100 and then inviting JYJ to perform in their studios in 2010.

But K-pop really arrived at Billboard in 2011 with the Korea K-pop Top 100 created for strategic business reasons as an attempt to reach out into the Korean music market. It aimed to provide a more accurate weekly chart than the ones offered in the country at the time. The chart was hosted as part of the Korean language Billboard Korea website and then reproduced in English on Billboard.com.

Billboard Korea - a website which no longer exists

Billboard Korea – a website which no longer exists

Around the same time, K-pop started to gain steam overseas with Girls’ Generation’s attempted US advancement, more and more concert dates and then it was all blown into the ascendency with Gangnam Style. But like much of the K-pop writing on mainstream online publications, what really made K-pop an established, regular presence on the website was a writer carving a niche for his or herself with the genre. In this case, Jeff Benjamin.

According to his website, Jeff started off as an intern at Billboard in 2011 but by 2013 he was given his own K-pop column when a more fan-focussed rebranding of the website was launched. Even when Billboard Korea and the K-pop 100 was scrapped in 2014, the K-Town column continued which highlights the complete turnaround in target audience from Korean professionals and fans to English-speaking international K-pop fans.

In establishing his own career, he has also increased K-pop’s exposure in more mainstream online music media while Billboard simultaneously clocked the value of existing K-pop fans in their readership. As a result, K-pop is now an integral part of the Billboard.com editorial mix and they have a history of interactions with K-pop fans far bigger than almost any other western non-K-pop publication.

They are so aware of the social media power of K-pop fans, that when they designed this year’s Fan War Face-off – which, let’s be honest, is basically an attempt to trend on Twitter and pull in more pop fans – they did it in such a way that the entire K-pop fandom would inevitably be set against the biggest western pop fandom.

With a whole category for pop and a whole category for K-pop, the battle would eventually come down to a K-pop fandom versus One Direction fans (the Beliebers ain’t what they used to be) in the fight to become the fandom who takes on the Beyhive – let’s not even pretend there was competition on that side of the chart.

But the thing is, you don’t pit A K-pop fandom up against the fandom of a western group like the Directioners, you pit THE K-pop fandom against them. The fact this all happened in support of ‘iljin thug bullies’ T-ara, probably the most controversial and divisive group within K-pop, is testament to K-pop fans’ ability to close ranks at any hint of an opportunity to win something over another pop fandom.


K-pop fans, on the whole, have a tendency to view themselves as the perpetual underdog. There’s a constant tension between the knowledge that a pop group can be as profitable and successful as a top western act without ever having success in the US and the knowledge that for most non-K-pop fans, American success is still the bar by which success is measured which drives everyone a little neurotic. Oh, and technically the One Direction fandom is still bigger than any single K-pop fandom which only adds to the determination to beat them.

For those living outside of the parts of North and South East Asia where K-pop has entered the mainstream, Korean idols do not get the same kind of exposure in traditional media that virtually all the other pop acts competing in the face-off do. K-pop fans then are fighting for the exposure and recognition everyone else already has.

One Direction fans, on the other hand, don’t fight for this. Directioners are surprised when their favourite group DOESN’T win something like this. That may also account for some of the most hostile comments directed at K-pop fans.

But while, to some extent, this is an understandable position for K-pop fans to take, it is misguided. Yes, T-ara beat One Direction and may well go on to beat Beyonce but does anyone who could make a difference to T-ara’s career actually care? Not really. Does T-ara even need any publicity in the west? Not really, they’ve got it pretty sweet in China right now.

The only people who really care about this are the people taking part. I’ve found almost no mention of Fan Army Face-Off anywhere outside of Billboard itself and a few K-pop blogs.

A bit of competition is fun sometimes and it’s nice to see fans of different groups work together for once but really the main beneficiary of this whole drama is Billboard. What do K-pop fans really get from this? A few more One Direction fans know what K-pop is and many of them have a bad impression of it. That’s about it. What does Billboard get? What every online publication wants most: clicks, social ‘buzz’ (as I hear the marketing folks like to call it) and revenue.

Not that that’s a bad thing. As someone who currently is making her living as a journalist (albeit broadcast), I am supportive of any publication’s initiative to keep itself relevant and profitable so it can keep employing people to do quality writing. This is a very clever ploy by Billboard to bring exactly the kind of people who would want to read their content to their website.

“It’s the taking part that matters” is a phrase that may not soothe a competitive soul but this time it really is true. K-pop’s relevance will not be proven when a K-pop fandom wins, it was already proven when Billboard effectively guaranteed a K-pop act a place in the semi-finals. After that it doesn’t really matter.

The Fan Army Face-Off is an interesting indication of where K-pop has grown to and what it has become outside of Korea but really that’s it. It’s not a major victory. It’s not a war. It has no real world consequences. All it is, is a very sophisticated popularity contest. It’s just a game.

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