What comes to mind when you hear the word “K-pop”? Is it the global boy band phenomenon BTS, wearing studded jackets and dancing in perfect sync? Or the girl group Blackpink, performing at Coachella in trendy fashions and perfectly curled hair?
How about an “independent music collective” of casually dressed people, crowded around a mixing board in a one-room studio, across the street from a Seoul restaurant specializing in fried chicken?
“Give me some more bass,” said Omega Sapien, a vocalist with electric-green hair and grills, swaying his hips and grunting to the beat. The studio was cluttered with art, vinyl records, dumbbells and other odds and ends. Another singer lay prone nearby, nursing a bad hangover.
For Balming Tiger, this is daily life as an alternative K-pop band. Their music, a fusion of diverse genres from electro to hip-hop, is funky and edgy. Their look, unkempt and grungy, is far from the professional styling of the groups that most of the world associates with K-pop.
But they claim that label, too. K-pop is any music that comes out of South Korea, according to Omega Sapien. “Everything in that realm is K-pop,” he said.
“K-pop” is shorthand for Korean popular music, but it is often taken to mean something more specific: the boy bands and girl groups whose members are known as idols (partly because of their fiercely devoted fan bases). Their music tends to be formulaically structured, the performances tightly choreographed. Management companies invest millions in these acts and exercise strict control over the final product.
But in South Korea, it is not the most popular kind of music. Idol groups are far outnumbered by independent and alternative artists, according to government and industry data. Hyukoh, a four-member band from Seoul’s hip Hongdae neighborhood, and Leenalchi are two other well-known local alternative acts.
“These days, I get the sense that when most people hear the term K-pop — and by ‘most people,’ I mean people around the world and not just in Korea — they often just think of girl groups and boy bands that fit a particular mold,” said Regina Kim, a New York-based journalist who writes about Korean pop culture. When she was growing up in New Haven, Conn., Ms. Kim said, R&B and dance music from South Korea were also thought of as K-pop.
In 2023, almost a quarter of South Koreans attended a live concert, on- or offline, by an independent artist, according to a survey by the Korea Creative Content Agency. The same report found that ballads, not idol-group pop, made up the nation’s favorite genre, with over half of respondents identifying that slower-paced, less flashy category as the one they listened to the most.
Although Balming Tiger identifies as K-pop, they do not consider themselves idols. “Even if we wanted to be like idols, we can’t,” said Chanhee, a vocalist who also works on the group’s styling, videos and photography.
“It’s our imperfections that actually make us more attractive,” said another vocalist, Sogumm, one of two women in the group. “I want people to see us and think ‘K-pop is cool,’ not just in the frame of being pretty and handsome, but being something that appeals to a diverse audience.” It’s not the staggering levels of fame they are after, but rather, a wider acceptance and embrace of their version of K-pop. They are already succeeding by many measures, having just wrapped up a tour of Europe, Asia and the Americas late last year, all without the financial backing or marketing power of Seoul’s large entertainment companies.
Balming Tiger — the name comes from Tiger Balm, a Singaporean ointment — started out as a party crew, organizing events with DJs around Seoul.
Singers and producers gradually came onboard, and they evolved into a full-fledged performing act. Chanhee and Omega Sapien both left school to devote themselves to the group full time. (“At first, I lied to my mom, saying I had to take a break from school to go into the military,” Chanhee said.)
A grass-roots origin story like that is practically unheard of in the world of idols. The vast majority of them audition for a management company and then, if they make it, undergo rigorous training that can last years.
The companies’ authority over the groups goes beyond the music. Many idols are told what they can and cannot say in public; sometimes their diets are even monitored. Some idols have said that they were told not to date because their most devoted fans would feel upset or betrayed if they did.
The marketing works, said Daniel Anderson, a K-pop writer based in Seattle. Many fans are drawn to the personas that the companies create for the idols. “They know how to build and construct these stories,” he said.
“People will latch onto these narratives that could be genuine, but a lot of times these images are crafted,” Mr. Anderson said. “What they wear, what they say, who’s the funny one, who’s the introverted one.”
But at the same time, he said, “fans want these idols to be more authentic.”
Some observers of K-pop say its unyielding value system reflects a broader social pressure in South Korea that allows for no mistakes. The results can be compelling, as Ms. Kim, the journalist, noted. “Watching a K-pop music video often feels like you’re watching a short Hollywood movie with high production value, insanely good-looking people and amazing choreography,” she said.
But so many idol groups have entered the market in recent years that it is getting harder to stand out, said Shin Cho, the domestic marketing director and head of K-pop and its Japanese counterpart, J-pop, at Warner Music Korea.
“People were one-upping each other on the ‘perfect’ scale,” Mr. Cho said.
One way of standing out in that environment might be to do things yourself. Balming Tiger’s “collective” has 11 members, including people behind the scenes — producers, a writer, videographers. The music, videos and choreography are all theirs.
For the main dance move in one of their songs, “BuriBuri,” they simply stretch their arms out to the sides and sway their hips. “This isn’t something that professional choreographers would have come up with,” Omega Sapien said during a rehearsal in December. “It’s organic and comes from us. It’s better.”
The group members, back in their regular stomping grounds, are now performing around South Korea and working on new music. Whatever it ends up sounding like, they’ll consider it K-pop.
“K-pop has an edge, which is what is breaking through the market,” Omega Sapien said. “We are adding a different layer to that edge, which will be our legend and asset that we pass on to future generations.”