So you want to listen to some Kpop, but you’re not sure which site will give you the best experience and widest selection of content? If you’re anything like me, answering this question is a daily struggle, bouncing from site to site looking for the perfect Kpop player. There’s plenty of options out there, but which one is right for you? Let's find out.
[Editor's Note: All of the options below are completely legal.]
iTunes / iTunes Radio
In any tour of online music options, iTunes has to be our logical first stop. There are two parts to this service: the store, which allows you to purchase individual songs or albums, and the radio, which streams music based on an initial selection.
The iTunes store is probably the best place to buy digital Kpop music. Due to Korea’s draconian licensing issues, it’s near impossible for someone outside Korea to sign up for Melon, Bugs, and the like. But iTunes has nearly anything you would want. As a brand name, iTunes is well on the radar of every music executive in Korea, so you can be sure that just about everything will find its way to the store. If you’re looking for Indie Kpop, or some of the rarer songs, you might be out of luck. But, honestly, if iTunes doesn’t have it, it’s unlikely the others will.
Boasting over 27 million songs, iTunes Radio is an excellent addition to the store for those of us that can’t afford to purchase every new Kpop album. Finding your favorite artists can be tricky (spelling is a constant issue for all sites), but we really dig the ability to tweak the station toward popular music or “discovery.” Because some days you want to hear “Gee,” and some days you want to dive into M.I.B.’s third album.
It should also be noted that iTunes will be one of the easiest ways to move between your living room and your mobile. Both services will work flawlessly in either environment. There are, of course, some lingering questions with iTunes, especially given the recent acquisition of Beats Music. Will they combine to form an even more powerful music site? Will iTunes gain personally curated playlists, and, even if they do, will we ever see one for Kpop fans?
Bad: Buying music gets expensive. The radio option softens the blow, but iTunes remains focused on getting you to purchase music.
Spotify continues to be the poster-child of streaming music services. At least in the West. Streaming music requires a huge shift in the way that music executives think about making a profit (see Taylor Swift), so rolling the service out to other countries is hindered by all the legal tape. Even so, Spotify is starting to make an impression on Kpop CEOs. Until recently, only a very small percentage of Spotify’s 30 million song-catalog was Kpop related. But that list is growing all the time, and the heavily active user base makes exploration easy.
We found a good representation of major Kpop artists, like Girls’ Generation, 2NE1, Big Bang, Exo, Beast, G.NA, HyunA, U-KISS, Jay Park, 4Minute, and f(x). But too many artists offer only a partial discography. And if the early days of Kpop are important to you, don’t expect to find a single album released before 2009. Again, we expect the offerings to increase over time, but until Spotify is offered in South Korea, it will always be an afterthought.
Spotify is still a good mix between streaming on-demand and listening to radio recommendations. But be warned, Spotify will eventually confuse Kpop with American pop, and feed you a dose of Christina Aguilera or the like. That’s not really Spotify’s fault, given Kpop’s poor understanding of genre, but the radio service is unlikely to give you that set-it-and-forget-it feel.
Good: Good combination of radio and streaming on demand. Growing in popularity. Mobile is great for subscribers, decent for non-subscribers.
Bad: Not enough Kpop represented in the music catalog. Radio recommendations will eventually feed you American pop music.
With a catalog of 20 million+ songs and the ability to fine-tune streaming radio stations, Rdio would seem like an excellent option. However, the Kpop selection is smaller than Spotify’s, and some artists are only available to those paying for the premium service. With Spotify being the better option, you’re better off skipping Rdio.
Moving into streaming radio options, one of the most well-known Kpop options out there is SeoulFM. Boasting a deep catalog that includes all the top hits as well as Kpop rarities, SeoulFM should definitely be on anyone’s short-list. The obvious downside is that there’s no on-demand option, but the benefits may well make up for.
If chatting with fellow Kpop enthusiasts while you listen is your thing, then this is probably the site for you. SeoulFM places a chat window front and center to the listening experience. And although that is mostly a good thing, it also turns the interface into a gif-crazed madhouse of dancing images. Seriously, the look and feel of the website was bad enough for us to explore other ways to listen. And, thankfully, SeoulFM does allow you to stream through another player, such as iTunes.
In addition to the more social aspect of SeoulFM, we also love the ability to request a song. Much like a DJ, you won’t hear your song immediately, but that extra involvement is vital to keeping users engaged.
Good: Probably the deepest catalog of music you’ll find. Great social experience.
Bad: Interface can be maddening. Doesn’t play well with Safari and mobile can be touch-and-go. Korean language fonts do not display well.
This relative newcomer to the Kpop internet radio field promises to play you a constantly rotating mix of the top songs on the Kpop charts. Jombly spins about 150 songs at a time, and gives users easy access to the chart and recent movement. Like Rick Dees and the Weekly Top 40, this is a great option if you want to hear today’s most popular Kpop hits.
The user interface is clean and attractive, but there is one glaring option missing: the option to “like” a song. Jombly allows users to dislike and skip tracks, but there is no way to indicate a favorite. Streaming is based only on the Kpop music charts, so liking a song wouldn’t really affect that. But there is still something wrong with only being able to dislike songs. It’s...ugly. Even a simple favorite button that tracked which songs you enjoyed would make all the difference in the world. Keep your eye on this site, we expect good things to come.
Good: Perfect for a set-it-and-forget it way to listen to all the top songs on the Kpop charts.
Bad: Can be a little buggy at times. No option to like or favorite songs.
Pandora might be one of the longest-running sites in internet radio, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth your time. With only 1 million songs in the catalog, the best music recommendation system in the business isn’t going to be any help to you. We doubt your Kpop playlist will make it more than one hour before it recommends The Beatles.
YouTube / Google Play / Music Key
Last, but certainly not least, is the offering from Google. This is another multi-part service, combining a music store (Google Play) with a video streaming service (YouTube). But if you haven’t heard, there’s an enticing new option coming down the line called YouTube Music Key. This new service would give subscribers access to Google Play’s 20 million song catalog, radio streaming, and ad-free music videos via YouTube. Music Key is in a private beta at the moment, so we’re not sure yet how well it will integrate everything. It also remains to be seen whether paying for a formerly free site would entice users, but combining all three Google services into one makes it a true rival to iTunes and Spotify.
Of course, for anyone that is a music video fan, YouTube is hands-down the best site to find your favorite artist’s newest release. But it also boasts fancams, music show performances, covers, reaction videos, and original content. None of the other sites on the list come close to matching that. Our only gripe (and this is not YouTube’s fault) is that Kpop labels have a tendency to remove their older videos. If there were a way to keep all that old content available, YouTube would truly be unstoppable.
There are some downsides, of course. For starters, YouTube is not mobile friendly. Aside from the huge amount of data required to stream a video, the app won’t play music unless it’s active. Music Key promises to change that, but only for subscribers. We also don’t see YouTube as a logical choice for listening to music while you do other things. Sure, there are plenty of Kpop playlists out there, and YouTube can even auto-create them on the fly, but these playlists are nowhere near as powerful as streaming radio options.
As a music service, Google Play has always been a decent competitor to iTunes. Their catalogs are remarkably similar, and there is little reason to recommend one over the other. Honestly, it might come down to whether or not you sport an Android or iPhone, integration being the only thing that separates the sites. The streaming radio option from Google is also not much different from Spotify or iTunes. It’s the addition of YouTube that makes this a strong sell. Can’t find that Indie Kpop song on Google Play? Hop over to YouTube and it’s right there. Whether or not that upload is legal is another question entirely.
Good: Only place to watch music videos. Deep catalog includes user-created content.
Bad: Not yet a good option to set-it-and-forget-it. YouTube is nearly useless on mobile. If Music Key integrates well with Google Play, both those issues may be solved.
We haven't yet reached a tipping point where one service can sate all your Kpop cravings. For now, the best thing is to understand what it is you're looking for. If you need a social environment, SeoulFM is the place for you. If you want a set-it-and-forget-it playlist of the current charts, check out Jombly. iTunes is perfect for those wanting to both purchase music and listen to streaming radio. And if you need video, it has to be YouTube.
Even though there isn't a perfect, catch-all offering yet, things might be about to change. Google's upcoming Music Key, if done right, could soon provide Kpop lovers with the best of all possible worlds.