“Ten years ago, BTS wouldn’t have made it in the U.S.,” says Shin Cho. “Western audiences just weren’t ready. Now, people get it.”
Cho is the new head of K-pop for Warner Music Asia, where he leads strategy for the genre’s global growth. For Cho, who joined Warner Asia nine years ago and moved up the ranks from its marketing team into his new role last year, the popularity of K-pop is well-established — but its staying power will depend on how labels position artists beyond Asia.
Cho has championed collaboration, believing that the best way to bridge the gap between East and West is by tapping into an easy commonality: good music. He’s scoured Warner’s extensive roster of artists to find meaningful — and often surprising — pairings that prove doubly fruitful. He put together Lizzo and K-pop rookies AB6IX on a Korean-language remix of “Truth Hurts,” for example, got K-Pop diva Hwa Sa to feature on a remix of Dua Lipa’s “Physical,” and placed one of Korea’s biggest rappers, CHANGMO, on a remix of U.K. rapper Stormzy’s Ed Sheeran co-write “Own It.”
To help Western artists break in Asia, Cho has marketed them through K-pop culture — and he’s used those same artists to promote local K-pop artists to new territories. Meanwhile, he’s doubled down on a blueprint that’s become a staple of K-pop 101: creating a fervent fan base to help promote an act and ultimately propel them to success.
When Korean DJ-producer SHAUN released his EDM track “Way Back Home” in 2018, it performed so well on the charts that management was accused of running a streaming scheme. But as Cho had correctly predicted, it was simply the effect of hundreds of thousands of fans sharing the song organically through social media, or the Korean texting app Kakao. “The music spoke for itself,” Cho says. “The songwriting and melody was so good.”
Some suggested pulling the track to push back against chart manipulation rumors. But Cho pushed for an international version instead with U.K. singer Conor Maynard and Dutch DJ Sam Feldt. “A lot of people didn’t think it was a good idea, but I was like, ‘I need to try this,’” Cho says. “’This needs to go global.’”
“Way Back Home” has now topped 3.4 billion streams globally, and was one of the most streamed K-pop tracks on Spotify in 2019. For Cho, it was yet another example of the power of collaboration.
“People are often like, ‘It’s not going to work,’ or, ‘This is not how you market K-pop artists,’ but we have to be flexible and try new approaches,” Cho says, attributing Warner’s success to its ability to understand the cultural differences between audiences. “We’re trying different things other labels in Asia haven’t done before, and I think you’ll be seeing more of these hybrid, genre-bending, collaborative tracks and projects that break the wall between K-pop and American music.”
It’s not just fans who have been receptive to the pairing of K-pop groups with international acts. Cho says Western artists have welcomed the opportunity to reach a new audience with their songs too. “Lizzo was blowing up in the States, but not so much in Asia, and at the same time, AB6IX was one of the hottest rookies in the K-pop scene,” he says. “With the “Truth Hurts” [remix], we were able to utilize their fan base to widen Lizzo’s fan base, and get her coverage she had never had before.”
Cho, who was born in Seoul and raised in Virginia, says the acceptance of K-pop in the music industry is reminiscent of another Korean staple that’s now commonplace. “Twenty years ago, there would be so many people who would try kimchi for the first time and be like, ‘Oh, gross, I don’t know about that,’” he says. “But nowadays they have kimchi at Whole Foods.”