Blackpink only needed three minutes and thirty-six seconds to blow Jeremy Erlich's mind. Erlich was working at Interscope Records when a contact in Korea sent him the video for "DDU-DU DDU-DU," the lead single from Blackpink's 2018 debut album.
"Put aside the fact that I couldn't understand half of it, the visuals are incredible, the girls are stars, the music is good and it's catchy," Erlich recalled. Erlich set up a meeting with YG Entertainment Inc., during which the Korean music giant outlined the goals for its new four-member girl group. "The ambition was to be the biggest band in the world," Erlich said. "They said 'how do they become the Spice Girls?'"
That dream is now a reality. Blackpink has been the most popular act on YouTube for the past couple of months, generating more than 1 billion views in October alone. The group was also the second most popular act on Spotify. While their album failed to debut at #1 in the U.S., it was still one of the 10 best-sellers in the country for the month. All told, Blackpink is the biggest music act in the world, according to Bloomberg's Pop Star Power Rankings.
Alongside the boy group BTS, Blackpink has achieved a level of global popularity unprecedented in the history of music. Musicians that speak English have traveled all over the world for decades. Musicians that speak Spanish have started to top the charts across the Western hemisphere over the last decade. But only in the past couple of years have acts from Asia developed such strong followings across the US, Europe and Latin America.
Prior to the internet, overseas bands had to tour, or rely on radio play and TV appearances to develop a fanbase in the US, the world's largest music market, or in Western Europe, which is home to several major markets.
But social media, paired with global distribution from YouTube and Spotify, has enabled K-Pop bands to develop followings all over the world with minimal touring. The U.S., Brazil and Mexico are three of the six biggest markets on Spotify for Blackpink's new single, "Lovesick Girls." At the same time, BTS has more Spotify listeners in the U.S. than in any other region.
"Language doesn't seem to be a barrier in today's world," said Erlich, who is now Spotify's co-head of music. "K-Pop has really broken into mainstream culture."
Asian pop groups have been traveling to the West for a couple of decades now, dating back to Japan's Arashi and South Korea's Big Bang. But the groups never sustained a large following outside of Asia.
That all changed with BTS, the seven-person boy group from Seoul that scored four #1 albums in the US in just 21 months—the fastest of any group since The Beatles. The group has also sold out venues across the US and Europe, and hosted late-night shows in English.
The band's success has inspired many other Korean acts to try and be the next BTS. Last year, Red Velvet, Oh My Girl, Sunmi and Tiffany Young toured the US.
But it's Blackpink, whose members speak English, Thai, Korean, Mandarin and Japanese, that broke through first. Blackpink planted its flag in the U.S. last year, building a promotional tour around a performance at Coachella, the largest music festival in North America. The band received strong reviews from the local press and further boosted their global fandom with a tour of Europe.
Though the group can't return to the US this year because of the pandemic, promotion for their first full-length album started in the spring with an appearance on Lady Gaga's new album. In the past few months, the group has released collaborations with Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and Cardi B—three of the biggest pop stars in the world.
Blackpink's growing support in the US was enough to convince Kelly Deen, the vice president of global brand marketing for Jazwares LLC, a Florida-based toy company, that the time was right to bet on K-Pop as a new global phenomenon.
Jazwares has a habit of spotting trends early and turning them into top sellers. In just the past few years, Jazwares has created toy lines based on the popular YouTube channels Cocomelon and Blippi, on a Pokemon game and on Ultimate Fighting Championship. It's a field in which the key to success is timing. Bet on a trend too early, and nobody buys the toys. Bet too late, and your competitors will beat you to it.
Earlier this year, Jazwares released a new line of toys based on the four members of Blackpink.
"We see a lot of opportunity with Blackpink, and we're just getting started," Deen said. "The opening product line is very much celebrating the Blackpink fan, and we've seen tremendous success." Jazwares is in discussions for another toy line but declined to disclose any details.
The success of BTS and Blackpink reminds entertainment executive Van Toffler of the rise of NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, Toffler was running MTV, the most popular music cable network in the world, when a few pop groups emerged from what he calls "the Orlando school," a euphemism for "The All-New Mickey Mouse Club," a popular and influential show on The Disney Channel. Bands affiliated with the program ruled the charts of MTV's "Total Request Live," a daily show that was a key barometer of pop stardom.
Like the boy bands of yesteryear, today's K-Pop stars have been put through a rigorous audition and training program. "They can dance and sing, they get along and are great on camera," Toffler said. Unlike those boy bands, they are multilingual, which gives them even more global appeal.
All of which made Blackpink the perfect opening act for Toffler's new YouTube show, "Released," which highlights the best upcoming music for any given week. The four performers answered questions about their vices and tics, leading up to the release of the video for "Lovesick Girls." Since its debut, the video has already been viewed more than 150 million times.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.