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K-pop knockoff groups surface in Asia

Clockwise from top-left are Billboard winning K-pop boy band BTS, J-pop boy band Ballistik Boys due to debut in Japan, Chinese girl band AOS, and K-pop girl band GFriend. / Graphics by Cho Sang-won

By Kwak Yeon-soo

As K-pop earns recognition and worldwide success, a new trend is rising in Asia ― the emergence of knockoff K-pop bands.

For those who may be familiar with OK Bang, a Chinese group that imitated K-pop band Big Bang in the late 2000s and possibly the progenitor of K-pop copycats, this might not come as a surprise, but recent global achievements of K-pop spawned another generation of imitations.

K-pop's unprecedented feat, which came after BTS' second winning of the Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Award and topping the Billboard 200 chart, is luring agencies in neighboring countries, including Japan and China, to create copycats of the original acts.

These entertainment agencies aim to benchmark Korea's success formula of developing an idol kingdom to boost the music industries in their home countries.

To revive J-pop idol culture, LDH Entertainment of Japan recently announced a plan to launch a boy band called Ballistik Boyz, also known as Ballibo. However, its members' appearance in promotional broadcasts has faced a backlash from K-pop fans since the group has many similarities with BTS.

Many viewers, including members of BTS' fan club ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth), claimed Ballibo's debut teaser images are similar to those of BTS in their song "DNA."

They also point out a few other similarities, in that Ballibo took on a similar hip-hop concept and the number of members ― seven, four vocalists and three rappers. They claim the group's name even resembles that of BTS, which means "bulletproof boys" in Korean.

"I'm confused, are they copying BTS?" tweeted a user nicknamed Kim ARMY. Another Twitter user Jung Ju-hyun wrote "I just wish they had a little more originality."

On the other hand, some offered support for the rookie group. "They are totally different from BTS. I can see the difference. If you can't support them then please don't judge them," Twitter user MoodLike wrote.

Just two years ago, a Chinese girl group named AOS came under fire for allegedly copying K-pop girl group GFriend.

Some viewers pointed out the choreography and style of AOS in their "With You" music video bears similarities with GFriend. A few angry fans criticized AOS for having parallel melody lines and appearing in similar school uniform.

Music critic Choi Kyu-sung said the emergence of rip-off bands is rather natural and exemplifies the K-pop sensation sweeping across the globe.

"This isn't the first time we're seeing rip-off bands. There had been hundreds and thousands of fake bands that made attempts to imitate popular bands," said Choi. "Even Korean music groups have imitated Japanese or American pop music until recently."

But Choi said second movers would always have to play catch-up, and thus be unparallel to original K-pop acts.

"Japan is still the world's second-largest music market, but people are leaning towards K-pop over J-pop. I'd call it a generational shift in taste," the critic said.

With Korea being the new forefront of youth culture, K-pop bands are rejoicing heady days supported by their devoted worldwide fandom.

"I'd say BTS and Wanna One are two leading trendsetters of K-pop at the moment, but they're faced with a challenge that they should keep ahead of others, or else fake bands might leapfrog over them," Choi said.

Copyright laws exist to prevent music piracy, but legal frameworks are insufficient and it is hard to prove similarities in melodies or musical concepts.

According to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the works of a country are protected under the domestic laws of that country. Korea, Japan, and China are all members of the agreement.

However, considering the long and complicated proceedings and close trade relations, it is not easy for entertainment agencies to actively cope with plagiarism disputes.

In the end, industry officials tend to laugh over such cultural phenomena. Daesung of Big Bang once said of OK Bang, "Since it's somewhat difficult to judge ourselves objectively, we are happy to see them imitate us."