Asian representation in Western media has always been low and the music industry is no exception, as Andrea Andres explains.
Can you name any Asian artists in Western mainstream music? The West is a market that Asian artists have tried and failed to make ripples in; whether they were born and bred in the West or coming from Asia, the music industry seems to be an elusive frontier that Asians can’t seem to break through. Even with hard work and dedication, they still can’t seem to garner the acknowledgement of the music industry. To say Asian musicians are woefully underrepresented in Western mainstream music is an understatement.
The very first Billboard number one from Asia was Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki” in 1963. It would be another 49 years before another Asian hit would land the top spot in the Billboard charts-that was PSY’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012. PSY was able to make another hit the year after with “Gentleman”. Even though he was signed to manager extraordinaire Scooter Braun, PSY failed to make any meaningful waves in the West and has largely fallen from the radar.
An English album and immense success isn’t even enough. A case in point is Japanese-American singer-songwriter Utada Hikaru (you may know her if you play Kingdom Hearts), was widely successful in Japan and is credited to completely changing the face of the Japanese music scene. To put it simply, she’s an icon there. But despite her success in Japan, it didn’t translate well overseas. Her English albums “Exodus” and “This Is the One” failed to make any impact in America. “Exodus” peaked at #160 in the Billboard Top 200 and “This Is The One” peaked #69.
Even Asian American artists tend to not find an audience here, Far East Movement, an Asian electronic and hip-hop group, who landed the hit on the Billboard charts with “Like a G6” found themselves in obscurity afterwards with some minor hits. They were supposedly difficult to market. Talking to Bustle, Korean American musician Paul Kim or P. Keys also echoed Far East Movement’s problem. He described music executives having difficulties trying to market him as an artist. It was “a huge risk, and no one has yet taken that risk." If they are part of the select few that succeeded in this industry, like Bruno Mars and Nicole Scherzinger, it’s because they look ethnically ambiguous. Both artists are of Filipino descent, but because they’ve no distinguishing Asian features they’re easily marketable.
But the Korean seven-member boyband, BTS somehow thrived in a music industry that shut Asians out. They crossed over to the US when other Asians artists couldn't. All while singing and rapping in Korean. They’ve appeared on major American late night shows like James Corden, Jimmy Fallon and Steven Colbert. They’ve performed for millions of people on SNL. They have four number one albums, three top 10 hits and sold out arenas across the US. In the process, they’ve inadvertently become the prominent Asian representation in music in the Western mainstream at the moment.
But BTS are still shunned by the wider music industry despite proving their worth over and over again. They’re pigeon holed and relegated for an award like “Best K-pop” (a new category by MTV Video Music Awards) or fan-voted awards. They’re still considered not good enough to compete with Western artists like The Jonas Brothers or their collaborator Halsey. If they weren’t a foreign K-pop act, their success would have been hailed by critics and touted as remarkable. They would be a shoo-in for top awards and maybe even the Grammys. But because they’re foreign, even if they worked twice as hard and achieved thrice as much as any other Western artists, the music industry won’t recognize their hard work simply because they’re too foreign, too Asian for Western standards.
But that’s not to say that Asian musicians aren’t making headway elsewhere. Steve Aoki, Yaeji and Tokimonsta are all very well-known and celebrated in the electronic music scene. Steve Aoki and Tokimonsta have both been nominees for the Grammy Award Best Dance/Electronica Album. Perhaps because of the scene’s nature they aren’t inhibited from promoting their music as image and therefore race doesn’t matter as much.. Other Asian musicians like Jay Som and much acclaimed Mitski have turned to releasing their music through independent labels and therefore are not curtailed by difficulties in marketing them due to race or ethnicity.
The landscape is slowly changing however. 88rising, a mass media and music entertainment company is helping to carve a niche where Asian artists weren’t welcome before. The company represents Joji, Rich Brian, Niki and a whole slew of other Asian artists. Joji was the first Asian artist to gain a number one spot in the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Album charts in 2018. K-pop groups are also being signed into American music companies such as Monsta X signing with Epic Records for their English recordings. As more K-pop washes over the West and more Asian artists emerge from other scenes and into the mainstream, perhaps the future won’t be as exclusionary.