Can K-Pop be Used to Teach Economics?

A look at why I started to be more deliberate about selecting the pop culture I use in my classroom, and why I started with K-Pop.

One of the motivations for starting this newsletter was a conversation I had with Abdullah Al-Bahrani on his YouTube series, Coffee with Dr. A. Both of us put a lot of energy into improving economics education, but after we finish a project we move on to the next thing on our list. We share our work in progress with a few dozen people at conferences each year, but we could do a better job sharing our projects after they’re published.

I’ve reserved the first Monday of each month to highlight current and finished projects I’ve been working on. The audience for this newsletter is already becoming pretty diverse, so my hope is that you will find the projects interesting, even if you don’t teach economics. For my friends, family, and former students, you’ll get to see a side of my work that you may not have ever realized existed. For economics educators, I hope you find a new way to teach economics that you can incorporate in your classrooms.

Last week I (virtually) presented at the Robert Morris Economics Teaching Conference. You can actually watch the entire presentation on YouTube if you’re so inclined. If you don’t have 45 minutes to set aside, this edition will give you a brief rundown. I presented a recent project that demonstrated how K-Pop can be used to teach different concepts in a principles classroom. The paper is under review right now, but you can download the resources on SSRN.

Before I give you all the reasons you may be underestimating the prominence of K-Pop, let me bring Abdullah back into this story. Last year, Abdullah wrote a paper on how economic educators could create a more inclusive classroom. One recommendation from the paper that resonated with me was how educators should be more proactive in using diverse resources when teaching. The goal is to create a classroom where students feel like they belong.

I use a lot of pop culture to teach economics, but nearly every clip I play in class is based on American culture. That may not be all that surprising since I do teach in the United States. My students, however, are not all from the United States. A little over 11% of students at Penn State’s University Park campus are international students. I met with some teaching friends about this and we discussed whether altering our pop culture mix could make our classrooms feel a little more welcoming. But why K-Pop?

The way people listen to music has changed a lot over the past few decades. Alan Krueger wrote a phenomenal book on the economics of music, which motivated our use of K-Pop. People tend to prefer music that comes from their home country, and for a lot of good reasons, but the share of popular music attributed to superstars has fallen. Part of the explanation for that is because transportation costs have fallen. Before 2000, if you wanted to listen to music from foreign bands, you needed to have a physical CD, cassette, or vinyl record shipped to you from that country.

I downloaded the data on the source of music revenue in the US to show different revenue streams since 1974. All the values have been adjusted to 2017 dollars. Once Napster launched in 1999, people started downloading music (illegally) from the internet, regardless of where the original song was recorded. Things only got worse (for the music industry) with the launch of the iTunes store. Despite the plunge from its peak, music revenues have started to bounce back thanks to growth in streaming services, like Spotify and Apple Music:

People can now listen to music from around the world with just a few clicks. Just as international trade agreements make it easier for us to consume goods produced around the world, streaming services has made it easier for us to consume music from around the world. In 2020, half of Spotify’s top artists for the year were from outside the United States.

You may be wondering how any performer could outrank Taylor Swift. That #6 spot was claimed by the K-Pop sensation known as BTS. That same group was named Time’s Entertainer of the Year for 2020. This isn’t some weird sample size issue where Koreans are only listening to BTS and people in the United States are listening to a wider variety of artists. BTS started their 2019 at the Rose Bowl Stadium in California and sold it out. Their hit song “Dynamite” spent 3 weeks at the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top Hits in the summer of 2020:

And that success brings us back to why we decided to develop teaching resources using K-Pop. I’m more of a country music fan myself, but my friend Mark Melichar has already done great work on teaching economics with country music. Broadway songs are also really catchy, but my friend Matt Rousu has already created a website and even written a book, on how Broadway can be used to teach economics. Other notable educators have even gone through the last 40+ years of top hits to identify the best songs that could be used to teach economics, but they were almost all from the United States or the United Kingdom. Thanks to Brian Hollar, that playlist is on Spotify now!

If you’re an economics educator, consider using one of our teaching guides in your class. Each guide has key lyrics, warm-up activities, and assessment questions. We’ve developed teaching guides on scarcity, externalities, and sunk costs. Do you want to see the videos, but not all that interested in the teaching material? Check out the Music4Econ website and search “K-Pop.” There are a variety of music videos that have economic commentary added to them.

Are you just looking for a new K-Pop playlist or maybe want to listen to some of the top songs? Spotify has you covered. I can’t begin to even tell you how or why the world has fallen in love with K-Pop, but this piece from The Grammys or this one from Rolling Stone is a good start. Our goal with the project wasn’t really to figure that out.

We updated the pop culture we use in class to make our students feel like they belong. Our class didn’t become an “Economics of K-Pop” class, but instead, we changed 1 or 2 media clips we had been using and changed them to K-Pop. Our hope is that a small, deliberate change from us can have a big impact on at least one of our students.

Facts and Figures You Didn’t Know You Wanted

  • 53% of K-Pop listeners (on Spotify) are between the ages of 18 and 24 [Spotify]

  • Spotify has 155 million paid subscribers around the world [Spotify]

  • BTS contributes $4.7 billion to South Korea’s GDP, similar to Samsung [Forbes]

  • Americans bought $619 million worth of vinyl records in 2020, which accounts for about 5.1% of all recorded music revenue [RIAA]

  • When BLACKPINK released “How You Like That'“ on YouTube, 1.6 million people watched the premiere at the exact same time [Guiness World Record]