2012 a tough year for idol groups as singers shine
Something is happening in K-pop. The times they are a-changin’.
Manufactured boy and girl idol groups are giving way to so-called “real talents,” singer-songwriter types scouted on TV survival shows.
On “Music Bank,” which aired Nov. 9, 12 of the 23 acts were idol singers: B2B, Big Star and Chaos to name a few. These bands of five to seven members looked interchangeable.
Despite their presence, the sheer number of these groups wasn’t enough to secure them top spots on the music chart and the winners of the night were Psy and Ailee, a teenager who rose to fame through homemade YouTube clips.
On Nov. 15 the online world, too, mirrored real life.
Melon, one of the most popular music download Web sites, revealed its chart for the week and again on top was “K-pop Star” contestant Lee Hi with her debut song “1,2,3,4.”
The only idol group in the top ten on the 100 Chart was Miss A.
With idol groups performing far below average on the charts, many are saying that the age of idols may be over, at least for now. As of November, more than 30 newbie idol groups had debuted this year.
SM debuted EXO, consisting of 12 members, with sub-units named EXO-K and EXO-M targeted toward the Korean and Chinese markets.
JYP gave us JJ Project, a male duo, while Cube and DSP offered up A-Jax and B2B.
But despite the anticipation, none of the groups has made it big.
According to Gaon Chart, which takes in stats from six major music download Web sites, not one new idol group made it onto the hottest 100 chart from January to June.
Time’s up for idol groups
To best explain the situation as it stands, “saturation point” is a good place to start.
After all, there are only so many potentially enraptured girl fans at any one time and supplying more bands than they can fawn over only leads to the neglect of many newbies who just want to be loved and have their faces printed on socks.
Another factor to be taken into account is that, for the most part, there is little discernible difference between one idol and the next.
An office worker named Park Kyung-tae put it this way: “A few years ago I loved seeing new girl groups, but now I can’t tell who’s who anymore.”
Music critic Kim Jak-ga says the phenomenon can best be explained by an uncertain shelf life. “You know an idol group has reached its expiry date when they fail to bring fresh tunes that set them apart,” he says.
There is also a train of thought that cites the inherent limits of music geared toward the eyes rather than the ears.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, agencies started to place more emphasis on the visual components of the groups and marketing K-pop as “music you can see.”
To reach the top, agencies must constantly improve aesthetics and have a recruiting system in place to find and train the best new talent. They are under pressure to push the envelope every time.
Music critic named Kang Tae-gyu says that as much as the agencies try, attempting new things is impossible in K-pop “because when one composer makes it big, all artists want to work with that one guy.”
Often, this leads to the composer churning out piece after piece that sound pretty much the same.
The fact that idol groups have underperformed this year comes as no surprise to their agencies, which nevertheless are united in their determination to go on producing more groups.
“We train these guys for about three years before their debut. So what are we to do but proceed?” says an agency representative.
Although they may not be much on the music charts, agencies are banking on making money from their investments in other ways.
The fact that singers are now more likely than ever to pursue acting is one more reason why the idol manufacturing process continues.
Another is the increasing acceptance - and profitability - of K-pop around the world.
“Yes, it’s true that saturation point has been reached in Korea, but we can’t overlook potential for the market abroad,” says an agency.
When idols take on TV
But agencies will be mistaken if they think that having “idol singer” on a CV will guarantee a stellar acting career.
Although acting is becoming a natural progression for young singers, their prowess in captivating TV audiences also seems to be on the wane.
Witness the KBS variety show “Immortal Youth,” which broadcast its final episode on Nov. 17.
The show seemed promising at first with its original idea of having girl group members take on the challenges of life in a fishing village, but its ratings soon sank. Not even the charms of Miss A’s Suzy, Kara’s Jiyoung, Sistar’s Bora, Girls’ Generation’s Hyoyeon and Jewelry’s Yewon could salvage the show, whose rating was 4.8 percent for the year and 3.7 percent for the Nov. 10 episode.
Meanwhile, there are other symptoms of the decreased popularity of idol bands.
The short-lived “Heroes” on SBS and “Bouquet” on MBC both shared a similar fate, proving that recruiting a bunch of popular idol stars was no guarantee of success.
Audition shows on the rise
As idol groups decline, the strongest contenders to take their place are contestants from singing-survival shows.
A case in point would be the success of “Super Star K” runner-up band Busker Busker, which dominated the charts during the first half of this year.
Unlike idol groups, the band’s simple heartfelt lyrics and natural melodies proved to be a resounding success.
Like most contestants from such shows, the group didn’t spend years being groomed and “trained” a certain way by an agency. The members are naturally talented singers praised for their skills by family and friends early in their lives and then by the public vote through TV.
Busker Busker’s debut album “Cherry Blossom Ending” was No. 1 on Gaon’s Digital Chart, and the group also managed to place 10 of its songs on the top 100 songs’ list.
To say that the group owned the first half of the year would not be an exaggeration. The only idol group that could stand its ground against the indie trio would be Big Bang.
Although Busker Busker was eclipsed by the Psy phenomenon, idol group singers were nowhere to be seen amid the rise of artists known for their vocals, such as K.Will, Naul from Brown Eyed Soul, Epik High and 10cm.
In light of the success of these vocalists who triumphed over pretty faces and glitz, Yang Hyun-suk of YG Entertainment agreed that idol groups were in for a rough time ahead.
“To regain momentum will take about five years,” said Yang referring to a pattern in the industry.
If you look back, there seems to be a five-year cycle that signals the rise and decline of idol groups’ popularity.
The first big boom was in the late 1990s with the emergence of H.O.T, Sechskies, S.E.S and Fin.K.L. Then around 2002, they were overtaken by vocalists like Brown Eyed Soul, Buzz, SG Wanabee and Tei, who were known more for their soulful voices than their ability to be the face of product branding campaigns.
Then 2007 saw the re-emergence of pretty-faced singers in the form of Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation, who were just as pleasing to see as they were to hear.
Although technically 2012 should signal the demise of TV-friendly vocalists, there are those who disagree.
Starship Entertainment Chairman Seo Hyun-joo argues that despite the strong competition, idol groups are not exactly on their way out, “although in the past idol groups were the focal point of K-pop.”
She says that there is room for both types of artists and that “next year we can expect to see an equilibrium between idol groups and powerful vocalists in the market.”
By Song Ji-hye, Carla Sunwoo [firstname.lastname@example.org]