F8 (pronounced like “fate”) is an eight-member, all-male K-pop band signed to RBY Entertainment. A look at their official Instagram page shows the group performing in concerts, posing for shoots, and smiling on rooftops in eclectic but color-coordinated outfits. The group advertises an upcoming show and profusely thanks its fans, which it refers to as “F8 Nation.” It looks very much like the Instagram page of many other K-pop groups that a scrolling fan might stumble across.
Except: F8 isn’t real. It’s a fictional band from KPOP, a musical that opened on Broadway on November 27th and is now, following mixed reviews and low ticket sales, set to close after just two weeks. In the month leading up to its opening, and in the weeks since, KPOP has marketed its characters over social media, leveraging some of the same tools and tactics that brought K-pop’s biggest names to widespread fame. Unfortunately, KPOP’s fictional groups haven’t yet reached the same success. Creating internet fandom, it turns out, is hard to do.
KPOP — a musical centered around a fictional South Korean boy group called F8, a girl group called RTMIS, and a solo artist named MwE, and the various drama that ensues as they prepare for a performance in New York — was unique and groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was the first Broadway show with a female Asian composer and saw 18 API artists make Broadway debuts. It also took a particularly interesting approach to its social media marketing. The team attempted to create fandom, not only of the show but also of the characters in the show. It created social media presences for the groups it portrayed and promoted them the way a label might market real artists.
Prior to KPOP’s opening night, official Instagram profiles for F8, RTMIS, and MwE appeared. The team behind them utilized photo collages (where multiple posts create one large picture on an account’s feed), a technique that real groups often employ. The photos looked remarkably like photos you’d see on the pages of real artists, from the scenery and styling to the bilingual captions.
Elsewhere, the groups did TikTok dance challenges to each other’s songs (that is, numbers they performed in the show) and challenged viewers to follow along. They named their fans — F8’s were the “F8 Nation” and RTMIS’s the “Demis” — as real groups do. “You’re always are by our side cheering us on. You give us strength every time we perform,” F8 captioned a recent Instagram post. “Thank you for your endless love and support, my very special fans,” MwE wrote in another. The moment F8 first appeared onstage was a big one in the show I saw, preceded by dramatic music and followed by a pause for cheers and applause. Despite the fact that the audience had never seen this fictional group before, we were expected to know them already.
As a K-pop fan, I’ll admit that I was impressed with the authenticity of the social profiles and how well their creators clearly understood today’s online K-pop scene. While I can only guess at the KPOP team’s mindset when laying out their social media strategy, I imagine that building a fandom for their fictional groups might’ve seemed like a decent way to introduce an extremely online audience to the show. And why not? It’s worked well for dozens of real groups — why couldn’t it work with fictional ones?
I currently have a playlist full of BTS content from the past few weeks alone that I need to catch up on, including V’s recent concept film, the Instagram photos from RM’s album release, RM’s tiny desk concert, J-Hope’s new dance practice videos, and the various TikToks from the #RunBTS dance challenge. For many of today’s most recognizable K-pop acts, social media is a central element of brand. To be a K-pop fan is to keep tabs on a constant stream of online content.
And while that avalanche of media is probably a lot of work for artists to produce, the payoff can be huge. BTS was responsible for the most retweeted and second most-liked tweets on all of Twitter last year, the latter of which was literally a selfie. BTS member V’s Instagram, which he created last year, shattered a laundry list of records and became the fastest profile to ever reach 10 million followers. And BTS is hardly the only group following this playbook. Many modern bands are even more active on social media, particularly on TikTok. There are certainly K-pop fans who discover their favorite artists through their music, but I know just as many who have been roped in through social media content — TikTok dance challenges, behind-the-scenes interviews, and viral variety show moments — and discovered the music after the fact.
I’ve been part of all sorts of fandoms that have used technology to connect with fans. (Remember One Direction’s Twitcam livestreams?) Over the years, as tools like Instagram and TikTok have become bigger and bigger drivers of fame, I’ve heard many conversations about the formulaic nature such online environs impose. Do the kids these days even care about music or artists, I’ve heard members of my generation lament — or are their musicians simply the ones with the best Instagram game?
By leveraging the tried and true K-pop formula, KPOP may have ironically slated its fictional artists as the control group of this experiment. Could the K-pop machine, known for churning out fame — or rather, a Broadway musical attempting to emulate that K-pop machine — create a fandom for artists who, literally, did not exist?
One does not need to understand Korean in order to follow or appreciate the show
The answer is no, or not in the short window that KPOP was given. As of this writing, MwE has 284 followers on Instagram, RTMIS has 374, and F8 has 661. That’s not zero, but it’s eclipsed by the followings of many of the cast members who play those fictional artists — the incredibly talented Luna, who plays MwE and is a real K-pop idol, has 1.5 million followers.
On the one hand, these are very new Instagram profiles. On the other hand, they had access to a much larger audience than most new Instagram profiles do. KPOP’s cast included both Broadway and K-pop veterans, with a combined following of millions across Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok who were widely promoting its content. I have no doubt that these profiles reached K-pop circles and K-pop fans — but they didn’t find a footing there.
As both a longtime K-pop listener and avid theatergoer, I am as squarely in this musical’s target audience as a person can get. I saw KPOP during previews. It had some very catchy songs. I wasn’t prepared for the way it would feel to see a cast full of Asian and Asian American performers take their bows on Broadway. Contrary to what some reviews have claimed, one does not need to understand Korean in order to follow or appreciate the show. I had issues with KPOP’s pacing and character development, but those were in no way the fault of the fantastic performers.
But to me, parts of the social media push didn’t ring true. Some of them, I think, may be inherent to KPOP’s status as a Broadway production.
For one, it was confusing. It was never clear to me whether the TikToks and Instagram posts were meant to portray the fictional bands or the actors playing them — whether I was being addressed as a real fan or whether I was witnessing characters address fictional fans. The fact that many of the actors are visibly older than real early career idols, who commonly debut during their teens, probably put more cracks in the illusion. (Again, not a criticism of those actors, who did a great job.) And there was the fact that some of the performers (presumably, those who were not native Korean speakers) overwhelmingly had English lines in the songs and show — which, while a completely understandable creative choice from the KPOP team, is not something you generally see with real groups.
Parts of the social media push didn’t ring true
These are all very reasonable choices that, in an obviously fictional Broadway musical, an audience will likely suspend their disbelief for. When a production tries to transfer a fictional story to a real fandom, and to court diehard fans who are intimately familiar with every convention of the genre that production is portraying, it’s perhaps a harder sell.
But I also found — and I cannot speak for all K-pop fans here; this was just my experience as one — an element of personality missing from F8’s, RTMIS’s, and MwE’s social media personas. It is not just a preponderance of TikToks and Instagram posts that creates celebrity, even if that content is very well produced. One need only look to Luna’s own profile, much more popular than that of her fictional character, which includes photos with friends, photos with pets, photos in bed, and proclamations of love for her co-stars alongside posed shoots and promotions for the show.
This is where I believe that Instagram’s and TikTok’s skeptics can take comfort. It may appear that social media has transformed the concept of stardom since the days of the Jonas Brothers and Twitcams. But for me, KPOP has become a reminder of how much remains the same.
What gives top K-pop artists such mastery of the internet isn’t just the deluge of online content — it’s the human that exists within that content and the way that humanity connects with that of others online. That’s what shines in the online content of groups like BTS, even in a simple selfie with a kissing face as the caption. That kind of quirk and humor and vulnerability would be difficult for any fictional character to replicate — it’s likely part of what sets today’s more viral social media stars apart from the rest. At the end of the day, technology alone is not enough. The artist still needs to connect.
I encourage you all to listen to KPOP’s upcoming cast album and grab tickets to whatever projects its excellent performers do next.