Struggles of girl groups point to crises in K-pop

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Struggles of girl groups point to crises in K-pop

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Argentine fans of K-pop group Super Junior react during their show in Buenos Aires in April, 2013. [Reuters/NEWS1]



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Psy moved K-pop into a higher gear, galloping across the world with the hit song “Gangnam Style,” while boy bands continued to make headlines by holding worldwide concerts and attracting massive audiences.

But it was the K-pop girl groups that first began to perform consistently overseas, starting in nearby nations such as Japan or China before spreading their wings further to countries like the United States.

Wonder Girls, of JYP Entertainment, strategically entered the U.S. market in 2009 as an opening act for The Jonas Brothers’ World Tour before becoming the first K-pop group to enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Another popular group, Kara of DSP Media, also garnered immense popularity in Japan, ranking as “Japan’s No. 1 Rookie Artist of 2010” by Oricon, the biggest chart in the nation, as soon as they entered the Japanese music market in 2010, four years after forming.

In 2011, Kara achieved their first No. 1 single on the Oricon chart, an unprecedented feat for an overseas girl group. After this, it was a matter of course that SM Entertainment’s Girls’ Generation would be dubbed the most influential K-pop girl group of the century, again by Oricon, especially while at their peak in 2011 and 2012. The nine members inched into the music scene in Japan in late 2010, releasing numerous songs in Japanese, and their debut Japanese album “Girls’ Generation” became the highest selling album in Oricon’s history for a K-pop group in 2011.

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Girls’ Generation

The number of appearances K-pop girl groups have made on TV programs, radio shows and films abroad is impressive. But it has become rare to see similar record-breaking achievements from the same bands recently.

Does this mark the end of the latest generation of K-pop girl groups? K-pop girl groups are known to be more unstable and have shorter lifespans than boy bands. They are more prone to dating scandals, rumors of unsavory pasts and even internal conflicts. Within the K-pop industry, girl groups lasting only five years or so has become known as a “jinx.”

Popular first-generation girl groups like S.E.S and their rival, Fin.K.L, disbanded after six years while Fin.K.L lasted just five. And this trend seems to be continuing.

In 2010, three years after their domestic debut, Wonder Girls were making moves to enter the global music scene following a change in their lineup. Original member Sunmi left the group to pursue an academic career and was replaced by Hyelim, who is fluent in English, Cantonese, Mandarin and Korean. But to everyone’s surprise, Sunye, the leader of Wonder Girls, announced in 2012 that she would be getting married. Wonder Girls has been on hiatus since Sunye’s wedding, and although the group’s agency insists Wonder Girls are not disbanding, Sohee’s departure from JYP Entertainment late last year makes it seem like the group has, in effect, broken up.

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Kara

Although Kara continues to perform, the girl group has gone through even more ups and downs than the Wonder Girls. After forming in 2007, Kara was a four-member group. But a year later, Kim Seong-hee left, and the girl group seemed to go into a tailspin. Upon Goo Ha-ra and Kang Ji-young’s entrance as new members, however, the band managed to turn misfortune into advantage and went on to break records, especially in Japan. Yet Jung and Kang recently decided not to renew their contracts with their agency DSP Media, pushing the group into another downturn. Through the TV reality show “Kara Project,” the group selected Heo Young-ji as a new member. But some critics say that their popularity will likely wane, just like Wonder Girls dwindled after welcoming a new member.

Girls’ Generation seemed like the only hope left for female K-pop bands. But the group, which had been on a successful streak for seven years, seems like it won’t be breaking the so-called jinx.

This year, a couple of the members confirmed rumors that they are dating - a taboo for girls in K-pop groups. And to make matters worse, Girls’ Generation went down to eight members from nine just recently, upon Jessica’s departure due to disagreements over her launching a fashion label. Although the agency, SM Entertainment, said that Jessica “quit voluntarily,” the 25-year-old member ascertained she was “told by the agency” that she was no longer part of Girls’ Generation. On Weibo, the China-based Twitter-like service, Jessica wrote on Sept. 30 that she’d been “informed” of her exit and that she was “devastated” as she had been pushed out “for no justifiable reason.” Korea’s girl group titan is now left with a blurry future.

“Girls’ Generation will look like they are stable right now as they have such a large fandom, but they’ve already lost faith from some of their diehard fans,” said a K-pop industry insider who requested not to be named.

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Wonder Girls

K-pop girl groups’ dating scandals, according to the industry insider, are especially fatal as “although they went global, Japan is still their biggest market.” Referring to popular Japanese girl groups such as AKB48, which kicked out and replaced many of its members for not abiding by the cardinal no-dating rule, the industry insider said that the “girls officially acknowledging their dating ‘scandals’ may seem fine in Korea, but in Japan it will definitely damage their popularity.”

Minami Minegushi, a member of AKB48, begged fans to let her stay in the group last year when a tabloid newspaper published photographs of her leaving her boyfriend’s home. She shaved her head, which is a traditional form of showing contrition in Japan, and uploaded a filmed apology to the Internet.

According to research by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Japan still ranks No. 1 in importing Korea’s cultural content, a large portion of which is K-pop. Last year, cultural exports to Japan stood at around 1.35 billion dollars, followed by 1.23 billion dollars for China.

“In such a culture like Japan, it looks there are no more inroads for the girl group,” said the industry insider.

According to the Culture Ministry’s report, China has been rapidly following Japan in importing Korean culture. Korea’s exports to China have increased by 9.9 percent compared to the previous year, the report states, explaining that there has been an average annual increase of 27.6 percent from the nation since 2010.

Growth on such a magnitude is difficult to ignore, so Korea’s major entertainment agencies dove in by recruiting more Chinese members for K-pop groups. But after several Chinese members of boy groups filed lawsuits to nullify contract conditions that bound them to Korean entertainment agencies, the country’s music industry entrepreneurs need to come up with measures to prevent an exodus of Chinese members. (Related article on Page 11.)

“Korea’s entertainment agencies will have to modify their contract and get rid of unjust conditions for foreign members. If not, this situation will never end,” said lawyer Jun Yung-suk in reference to a lawsuit Hangeng, a Chinese Super Junior member, won in 2009.

“I look at such phenomena as growing pains,” said pop culture critic Choi Gyu-seong. “As the industry has seen rapid growth, it is still very unstable. It was a matter of course as the current K-pop is created by several mega talent agencies and later went through backward systemization.”

Meanwhile, K-pop concert and festival organizers who plunged into the industry when it was thriving don’t seem to be helping its current instability. Recently, some European former fans said they have turned their back on K-pop as they feel deceived. A K-culture Festival scheduled for Sept. 12 to 13 in Dusseldorf, Germany, was pulled just two weeks before its launch by Korean events company Dif One. According to reports, the organizer canceled as it overestimated demand and realized it would be unable to carry the cost of the concert. Reports said only 4,000 tickets, well below the break-even point of 6,000, were sold. The venue, ISS Dome, seats 10,000, and entrance prices for the festival ranged between 90 euros and 130 euros. Only some tickets have been refunded.

“K-pop in emerging markets is only fervent among ardent fans rather than popular among masses,” said Park Seong-hyun, a researcher at the Korea Foundation of International Culture Exchange, an organization affiliated with the Culture Ministry. “The profit structure is not stable yet, so right now, only mega talent agencies or entertainment agencies go global with K-pop stars. In order to successfully spread K-pop to new emerging markets, private and government sectors must work together.”

K-pop concerts organized by government institutions focus too heavily on profitability, according to Park.

“Government institutions and large broadcasting stations should work together to continue introducing new competitive K-pop stars in unexplored K-pop markets abroad while entertainment agencies follow along to develop more diverse genres of K-pop so that it becomes more strategic,” he said.

Despite systemic problems and instability, to music industry insiders from abroad, K-pop still has potential.

Janice Min, 45, who heads the Hollywood Reporter and Billboard - two American entertainment media outlets that extensively cover K-pop - said she doesn’t think that K-pop is in crisis but added that it will need to be “more authentic” to attract a wider audience abroad.

“K-pop is the perfect 360-degree expression of entertainment right now,” said Min, who recently visited Seoul to participate in the annual international music fair MU:CON Seoul 2014. “It has dance, singing, fashion, beauty. It’s all packaged so well that it makes it incredibly appealing to anyone in the YouTube generation.”

However, Min said K-pop groups may end up having the same problem as boy bands and girl groups in America for being too “manufactured,” as fans feel that they are continuing to see a “product of the music industry.”

“For authenticity, you need to feel like these artists are passionate about music, that they write their own songs and that it’s true artistic expression,” she said.

And local music industry insiders agreed on the need for diversified genre of K-pop. CJ E&M Music Performance Division head Ahn Suk-joon also said during MU:CON, that “other competitive genres like rock, hip-hop and jazz should be developed to solidify the foundation for K-pop overseas.”


BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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