K-pop has established itself as a global phenomenon over the past decade. The sheer magnitude of its popularity is no longer a surprise to anyone, and new names continually emerge, keeping the genre fresh and ever-evolving. It’s taken over the American charts, and it’s only getting bigger and bigger.
So, what’s next for K-pop? One of the industry’s biggest players aims to prove that K-pop can transcend its Korean roots and succeed with American artists via an exciting new online reality series that’s about to conclude, resulting in a new major test for the future of the genre.
For several months now, K-pop enthusiasts worldwide have been glued to a new reality competition series called A2K, short for America 2 Korea. The YouTube-based program airs twice a week, offering viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the process of creating a new girl group through a well-established K-pop training system. What sets A2K apart from similar shows is that all the contestants vying for a spot in the future K-pop girl group are American.
The real question isn’t whether these girls possess talent or if their music will be any good. What remains to be seen is whether Korean audiences, the ones who made K-pop the juggernaut it is today, will embrace an all-American vocal group and support their unique take on the genre.
A2K hails from JYP Entertainment, the conglomerate behind some of K-pop’s most successful acts, including Twice, Nmixx, Stray Kids and Itzy, among others. This ambitious project also enjoys the support of the American record label Republic Records (along with Federal Films), known for signing major artists like Taylor Swift and Drake. If anyone can make such a bold endeavor a success, it’s giants like these.
The show’s unique gameplay involves contestants earning “stones” for achieving specific goals—such as improving their dancing, singing or proving their character—which they then fit into a necklace. The entire process is overseen by K-pop mogul JY Park, who founded JYP decades ago during his own musical career’s peak.
About the discovery process, Park explained during a recent interview that “This is what I have been doing for 30 years.” He insists that the criteria contestants must meet to earn these coveted stones aligns exactly with what he’s always looked for in talent, and what’s new with A2K is nothing more than “making a necklace out of it.”
Jimmy Jeong, the CEO of JYP, adds that A2K’s basic structure aligns with the company’s past successful endeavors. He admitted, “We did the same thing in Japan and Korea already.” Jeong also highlighted that while he may be the more business-minded of the two (according to Park), his colleague is the one with the “instincts” to make the series a winner.
A2K offers an authentic K-pop experience, mirroring popular music competition programs in Asia. The editing style and on-screen graphics stay true to the format that has birthed beloved K-pop bands, and which audiences of millions have come to expect…but that’s not what Americans are used to.
Park noted, referring to the visual style of A2K, that “We realized that’s fresh to the American audience” based on research Jeong did that stated that a lot of views of similar K-pop programs came from the U.S. Park further stated that is exactly why “we intentionally made it typical Korean style.” K-pop’s popularity has grown beyond just the music, and some fans in the United States want all things related to that world, and JYP is giving it to them.
K-pop’s popularity in America is on the rise. According to Luminate’s mid-year report, nine of the top 10 bestselling CDs in the U.S. in 2023 are K-pop albums. Acts like BTS, Blackpink, NewJeans, Fifty Fifty, Stray Kids, and Tomorrow X Together rank among the country’s biggest and bestselling artists. As the genre expands into other mediums, like television, its popularity continues to branch out and grow.
During its development, A2K was initially intended for a traditional cable channel launch, but Park explained that it didn’t work out as planned. “We did talk to American networks and we almost agreed to air it on American TV” he explained, but it came down to creative differences. JYP walked away from the deal, which allowed for more creative control on the company’s part…but that move also necessitated a much more substantial investment.
Both Park and Jeong acknowledged that recouping the investment from the show itself is “impossible” with YouTube ad revenue, even though the views on each episode of A2K can quickly rise into the millions after only a day or so.
Park laughed, saying, “The best scenario will enable us to recoup 10% of what he invested regarding the show itself.”
The show will conclude with a two-part series finale, with the last episode airing on Thursday, September 21. Viewers will get to hear new music from the band, which will also be made available to buy and stream shortly after they air for the first time. These songs are called “pre-debut” in K-pop terms, and they serve as a tantalizing preview of what’s to come.
The ultimate challenge awaits—how will Korean listeners, the core K-pop fan base, respond to this American girl group working in their style? “We want to start with K-pop fans and K-pop fans care about being authentic in Korea,” explained Park, continuing, “So we have to make sure it gets its respect from Korea.”
This sort of experiment, at least at this level, has never taken place before. It’s a gamble, and a big, expensive one, but one that was inevitable given K-pop’s global prominence. K-pop’s reach is too extensive to ignore, so some move like A2K was likely going to happen one day.
Park compared his endeavor to Dr. Dre’s introduction of Eminem to black audiences in the rap world, emphasizing the importance of receiving approval from the originators of the music. The success of A2K hinges on whether Korean consumers embrace and support the music the group releases with streams and, most importantly when it comes to K-pop—and not just in Korea, but globally.
While most people notice A2K because the focus is on the fact that its members are American, Park stresses that nationality isn’t as crucial as one might think, even when it comes to K-pop. “I’ve been doing this with Korean kids, Japanese kids, Chinese kids and American kids now, and I can confidently say that a lot of times, I forget their nationality” the producer shared, smiling. “There’s more similarity between nations than differences.”