The inescapable pop song “Gangnam Style” is the most-watched YouTube video ever. But PSY, the man behind the horsey dance, is now sharing the YouTube chart stage with his fellow South Korean pop stars, big names in the genre known as “K-Pop”—nine of them, to be exact. The K-Pop megagroup Girls’ Generation (also known as SNSD is Korea) released a new album in Korea at the beginning of this year. Its catchy, multi-genre, Korean-language title track, “I Got a Boy,” has garnered more than 25 million views since Dec. 31. On the YouTube music charts, the song is at No. 2—behind, of course, “Gangnam Style.”
But many of the video’s viewers are not in South Korea. Jane Choi, the band’s U.S. marketing rep, spoke to TIME about what’s next for the band—and she says that the biggest market for the video’s YouTube viewership is in the United States. Every Girls’ Generation release is seen as global, says Choi, but the band’s management feels “like the U.S. market has been wanting the Girls.” With that in mind, later this year Interscope Records is in talks to release a version of I Got a Boy as the Girls’ first full-length American album; details, including the album title, have not yet been settled. (Last year, they brought out an English-language version of the single “The Boys.”)
Mere months after PSY completely dominated global pop culture, what does it mean for a K-Pop group to challenge him at the top of the YouTube charts, even if a billion views is a long way off?
For one thing, not all YouTube numbers are the same. New York Magazine calculates that, shortly after PSY broke the YouTube record in late November of 2012, his approximately 850 million views translated into about $1.7 million for PSY and his team (most of which came from video ads rather than from actual ownership of the song in the U.S.). According to the Associated Press, ad rates in richer countries like the U.S. are higher, meaning that not all YouTube fans are equal to pop artists hoping to strike gold—and those ads don’t even have to air before the official video; parodies and tributes that use the song also contribute to revenue, which is one reason going viral gives artists so much of a financial bump. Choi could not comment on Girls’ Generation’s earnings from YouTube ads, but the Girls’ complicated choreography does mean the average camera-phone owner can’t just pop out an “I Got a Boy” video of her own. (A Girls Generation hair-tutorial YouTube video, on the other hand, is another story, but the group only gets paid if their music is used.)
And YouTube is just one platform. Choi guesses that perhaps the U.S.-dominant YouTube watching is due to the fact that, in Korea and elsewhere in Asia, they can be seen live, watched on TV and heard on the radio. “I don’t know if [YouTube numbers] directly translate to sales on iTunes, but it does really help get the song out to new fans, internationally,” she says. Girls Generation does have American fans already—Choi says she was surprised at the level of excitement among non-Asian fans when the group came to promote “The Boys” on David Letterman a year ago—but, away from YouTube, the group is still listed on Billboard’s K-Pop Hot 100 (at No. 1 this week) rather than the mainstream Hot 100 (where PSY is at No. 14).
To make that move, the group must find out whether they can get air play. “Even though a lot of people do just turn to YouTube for music these days, we think that radio is still important. That’s what mainstream music is,” says Choi. “I don’t think we’re at a disadvantage because we’re not as funny and the dance isn’t as easy to follow as the horsey dance.”
Finally, there’s the fact that many American audiences—guilty as charged!—will make the inevitable PSY comparison. PSY is the biggest name in K-Pop in the U.S. but Girls’ Generation and their colleagues have been around since way before “Gangnam Style.” And while the acts are listed on the same music charts in South Korea as well, they’re not very similar. “‘Gangnam Style’ and what Girls’ Generation is doing, even though they’re labeled under K-Pop, it’s completely different, just like how in the U.S. there’s rock and there’s pop,” says Choi. It’s not just gender and numbers and fashion; if PSY sounds a bit like LMFAO, Girls’ Generation would be nine Miley Cyruses or Destiny’s Child times three.
The goal, as for many artists—and not just musicians—trying to break into the U.S. market from other countries, is to be seen as pop stars, not Korean pop stars.
Not that being lumped in with PSY is all a bad thing.
K-Pop is not a zero-sum game, after all, and Choi says that PSY’s success has been good for Girls’ Generation. Pop songs in other languages are novelties for American listeners, but PSY showed that the unfamiliarity doesn’t have to hold an artist back. Interest in K-Pop, specifically, is running high. And there’s the obvious moral to the story, too, at least where Girls’ Generation’s U.S. hopes are concerned. “[‘Gangnam Style’] helped open the door, but did it affect how we approach our music? No,” says Choi. “If anything, it just proves that music is universal.”