James Doyle investigates the international phenomenon that is K-pop

8 minute read

City Centre regulars may have noticed the innocuous, illuminated sign of KStars hidden just behind Harvey Nichols and Selfridges on Deansgate. The shop sells merchandise and CDs relating to the genre of K-pop. 

K-pop simply means Korean pop music and it has become increasingly popular in the last decade with its addictive melodies, the choreography and the fashions of the performing stars. 

Sometimes we’ve had queues outside the shop because we can’t handle the amount of people.

K-pop stars are mentored and groomed by managers and agents for years before they release their first song. They spend years working hard within studio systems where they learn to sing and dance with the perfection demanded by the genre and the audiences. The industry is now worth £4.2bn. Many Korean artists feature on the US Billboard Charts. It’s par for the course that K-pop artists Black Pink have had brand deals with Gucci.

Check out this Youtube clip and you’ll get the idea.

KStars has been thriving since its inception in November 2021. But why in Manchester?

Sales assistant and K-pop fan, Alex Youngs, 27, provided some background. 

“Manchester is a culturally diverse city. There is a huge Far Eastern population who are interested, not just Koreans. We have some Chinese people who we see three or four times a week, so it makes sense culturally to have it in Manchester, it's a melting pot for everything.

Ksmart Kpop Shop Manchester City Centre Deansgate Drinks And Soft Toys
Drinks, toys and K-pop goods for the masses Image: Confidentials

“The demographic of people we see here is so broad; you can’t even pinpoint one specific age group, we have kids who are really into this one group and then we have these two older customers who come in and spend about £200-£300 every time on something else. Everyone comes in here. It gets extremely busy and sometimes we have had to form queues outside the shop because we can’t handle the amount of people.”

Alex also suggested additional reasons why the genre of K-pop is so famous: “The performers are pushed by the major companies, so whichever company it is deals with their fashion, their music and their choreography, and they give lessons on how to respond to the media.

Kstars Kpop Shop Manchster City Centre Deansgate
K-pop merch galore Image: Confidentials

“Some groups have more freedom with fashion, such as BTS who have brand deals with FILA, while some groups have deals with Samsung.”

Big companies pushing the stars is a major factor in K-pop success. Bands and groups don’t come to prominence through their own efforts, they are released and promoted by the companies, such as HYBE, YG entertainment and JYP entertainment. This means there is a lot of excitement and intrigue around the new performers, but are there ethical issues surrounding the performers created by large commercial entities? 

Wdzy Merchandise At Kstars Kpop Shop On Deansgate Manchester
WDZY merch on the shelves at KStars Image: KStars

Alex said: “Some groups have members as young as 13, and they are in seven year contracts which are hard to break out of, and with the training it means they spend a lot of their young lives doing this music. There is a group called Luna that weren’t actually getting paid but being charged for music videos meaning they’re in debt. Some companies also take as much as 95% of the group earnings.”

There can be a dark side to the light and frothy character of K-pop. 

Max Gregory, 18, a customer, came up with a curious reason as to why he likes K-pop. “I struggle to process the words in English songs. As I don’t speak Korean I can listen to K-pop on repeat, and I don’t have to get caught up on the fact I’m not processing the lyrics. I think that’s part of why it is popular (outside Korea). It gives people the chance to learn another language in action, I personally started learning Japanese about two months ago and a lot of the groups have Japanese releases.”

Kstars Kpop Shop On Deansgate Manchester City Centre
K-pop is just pop in a different language, but it has a dark side too Image: KStars

Max also provided some insight into why K-pop is so popular amongst young people of all nations. 

“With the music itself, there is a lot more interactivity, and with the celebrities you can actually get personality from them. The branding makes it addictive too. K-pop isn’t really a different genre, it’s just pop in a different language, the branding however, for each group is a lot more intense, so you can get caught up in it and them and their fashion easier. It’s popular with my friends, but each friend likes one specific group and nothing else.”

There are numerous reasons for K-pop’s popularity, but branding is crucial along with the formats and the choreography. Then there’s the apparent innocence, the youthfulness. If there is any ‘attitude’ it seems part of the act, not sinister or heavy. With all that corporate control it’s hardly going to be a genre for those seeking hard, gritty reality.  

Kstars Kpop Shop Manchester City Centre Deansgate Signage
KStars is down at the bottom of Deansgate Image: KStars

KStars is, at present, the only store of its kind in the city but it encapsulates the growing genre, along with blasting music and a heavy focus on those all-important visuals. The shop employs staff who are fans of the music and this works, creating an attentive atmosphere. The shop is cute enough to cater for international shipping too, which makes it a tourist attraction. 

KStars, that odd little shop at the tail-end of Deansgate, is here to stay it would seem.

KStars, Unit 4, No 1 Deansgate, Manchester M3 1AZ

Read next: Manchester United looking backward to push forward

Read again: Read all about it: House of Books and Friends

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