By: Atmanah Parab
I would not be exaggerating if I said that music is the first and greatest love of my life, from looping “The A Team” by Ed Sheeran on my mom’s iPhone 3 to illegally downloading thousands of songs off Youtube (middle schooler me’s biggest flex), to learning guitar and joining choir and going to concerts. It is through music, I’ve experienced the purest and most undiluted joys of my life. The latest and greatest chapter of my love for music has been my discovery and subsequent love for the Korean septet BTS. I was introduced to them in my sophomore year of high school by my younger sister, but in typical teenage fashion, I held off truly letting myself fall in deep with their music for months and months. I was in intense denial of the fact that I liked something my younger sister also liked. In the many years since then, I count my decision to truly give BTS a chance as one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Not just on a personal level (believe me, that in itself could be an article as long as a book) but on the level of someone that is obsessed with the movement of culture, the institutions that shape culture, and most of all, music.
Flash forward about 4 years and the fresh-faced boys I first heard of in 2016 are one of the biggest acts in the world. Now, most of you reading this have probably heard BTS’s smash single “Dynamite” at least once (Samsung Ad anyone?). Bright, catchy, and fun, “Dynamite” is a burst of hope against the dreary background of a global pandemic. This track, as emphasized in interviews with the band, was intended to be a fun single to lighten the moods of listeners across the world. However, somewhat unexpectedly, it ended up becoming the band’s largest global hit yet. Despite this achievement for BTS and music lovers like me everywhere, the success of “Dynamite” shed light on the unsettling and complex relationship between industry awarded measures of success (such as radio hits and awards) and the very real, very pervasive effect of discrimination and tokenization in the industry.
Radio play is one of the most overlooked modes of othering that exist in the music industry. It sidelines artists who are not as “easily marketable” to the American population at large, that is to say: rich, white, and English-speaking. “Dynamite” blew expectations out of the water in terms of reception by the industry when it was quickly accepted into radio rotation. Fans noted that this attention from radio stations was likely the result of heavier involvement in promotion from BTS’ American record label, Columbia. Before the release of the song, a promotional truck was driven around Los Angeles where multiple radio DJs hinted at being allowed an advance listen to the single. In addition to this, a detailed schedule was released on their official media pages for fans and the industry alike to keep track of all the new content that would be released to promote and accompany the single. In the past, fans had to beg radio stations to play BTS’ music and send in flowers and cupcakes (despite BTS having the numbers proving their popularity), so this new acceptance felt extremely fragile. The issue here is ultimately, radio isn’t about music; it’s a sonic billboard. The goal for radio stations is always going to be amassing as large an audience as possible, but even by that metric, radio is stubbornly anti-global and incredibly divided by genre.
“Pay-to-play” radio policies were banned in the mid-70s but this tradition still plays a massive role in which music is promoted to the average American listener at a large scale, Bob Donnelly, a long-term entertainment lawyer, lays it out bluntly in Rolling Stone:
“When I first started, it was hookers and blow [to help get songs on the air],” Donnelly says. “Then that disappeared and it became sports tickets, trips, sneakers, and the like. It changed over time so that it became much more sophisticated. At the end of the day, the labels still wanted hit records and the radio stations wanted cash.”
Though the practice of pay-to-play has gone underground and manifested itself through far subtler interactions between promoters and radio stations, the music industry’s old habits die hard: two of the most important things to get a song on the radio are still money and marketability.
Even now in a post-“Dynamite” world, fans once again find that BTS is being given the cold shoulder by radio when their newest, more introspective, title track “Life Goes On” received next to no radio spins. Though “Life Goes On” is produced in-house, sung primarily in Korean, and thus feels more authentic to BTS, labels, and radios refuse to promote diversity in music because of the song’s language inaccessibility and the band’s race and nationality.
I have a love-hate relationship with institutions like the Grammys and the power they hold in bestowing “true recognition” upon an artist. Often, award shows serve to uphold barriers for musicians of color by those with the ability to shoulder the cost of hefty PR packages. All this despite reiterated platitudes on “valuing diversity” in art!
The recent Grammy nomination for “Dynamite” exemplifies this love-hate feeling. To see BTS, a group that has broken records, sold-out stadiums, and changed millions of lives, receiving acknowledgment from an industry institution is something worth celebrating in the sense that deserving artists are being rewarded for their efforts. For any music fan, a Grammys feels like a stamp of approval, a concrete recognition of something novel and amazing, especially for artists that break the norm. However, underlying the joy from these wins there is still frustration.
“Dynamite” earned a well-deserved music-based nomination (BTS had been nominated before for album design), considering its commercial success. However, by the band’s own admission, “Dynamite” has a simpler message (relative to their other work) and was born out of the desire to bring cheer and hope to their fans worldwide. BTS are known for their hands-on approach to music; the members hold many production and writing credits throughout their discography but they did not write “Dynamite”. The song was selected from a lineup written by Western producers David Stewart and Jessica Agombar before being sent to the label, where both the label managers and BTS decided that they would produce “Dynamite” as is, with its original English lyrics. Though working with Western producers is a familiar process in the making of K-pop, when BTS were nominated by the Recording Academy, this felt revealing of the fact that the Academy only recognizes pieces that are “westernized,” at least at face value. Take, for instance, BTS’ album released earlier in 2020, Map of the Soul 7 (MOTS7). MOTS7 had the highest global sales for any album this year and hit #1 in all global music markets — something not achieved by any other mainstream artist at the moment — and was highly rated by critics and listeners alike. Despite this, the album did not receive a single nomination, which projects a clear message from the industry about the types of artistic endeavors from “outsiders” (to the American music industry) that are rewarded. Compare BTS’ massive success to Justin Bieber and his multiple nominations for his single “Yummy” and his album Changes, for instance. Bieber’s album sold far less than the MOTS7 a, and was given lukewarm ratings from critics compared to MOTS7.
BTS are not the only artists deprived of recognition for their outstanding success; other notable snubs from this year include The Weeknd’s album After Hours and wildly popular single “Blinding Lights” and Rina Sawayama’s exceptional debut album SAWAYAMA that made many critics’ top albums of 2020 lists. While many artists of color and global artists are recognized by music fans, there is still a long way to go towards institutionally recognizing them in the incredibly diverse world of modern music.
As a 13-year-old, I was convinced that by the sheer power of will, I too could join a band. I imagined myself as a member of a band like Paramore. I could scrap together an album in a garage somewhere, send it to a label, and watch the music-making magic happen. I used to see the music industry in a romantic light, but over time I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that music and the entertainment industry are not immune to the effects of the complicated intersections between culture, ownership, discrimination, and oppression. One of the biggest reasons I’ve come to root for BTS so hard is because I see myself in them. I see my friends who love to dance, my dad who loves to sing, my friends who walk the line between Americanization and cultural tradition. In BTS, I see artists who have succeeded despite an industry that’s been designed to be unwelcoming toward them.
The galvanizing force of the internet and the backing of passionate fans allow for generation-defining acts like BTS to be forces of change. At the time this article was written, BTS’ most recent single Life Goes On stood as the Number 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 (despite near-zero radio play). If a global artist and their fanbase can redefine what it means to be a globally popular modern artist, one has to wonder when, or even if, radio and award shows will rise to meet them.