In the K-pop world of big fish, little ones are biting back
The K-pop industry tends to center around the so-called "top four" powerhouses, referring to SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment and HYBE. K-pop idol groups produced by these large entertainment firms are at the center of public attention from their debut, and their very first song often becomes an instant hit.
On the other hand, idol groups from small and medium-sized entertainment companies rarely start out with the same silver spoon. However, many rookie groups from smaller agencies have recently been seeing exponential growth in their careers thanks to their consistency and quality content.
"Appearing on popular Korean television shows is a key way for K-pop idols to promote themselves and gain popularity," said Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea. "Large firms have the influence to give their artists more opportunities to appear on TV, but smaller firms receive fewer offers, leading to less promotion for their artists.
"Big agencies also have large fan bases established by their existing artists, so their rookies have the halo from the agency's senior groups and can build a fandom even before it debuts. In comparison, idols from small and medium-sized firms are in a very disadvantageous position."
When a debut album flops due to a lack of promotion opportunities, the idol group is easily forgotten. The group may even be branded a "mangdol," a portmanteau of the Korean word for failed, mang, and idol. That stigma hampers members' future endeavors — a vicious cycle for K-pop acts from small firms. "It feels like it's from a small agency" is used as a derogatory remark when a new group or release is underwhelming.
Despite being at a disadvantage, idol groups from small and medium-sized entertainment firms are showing impressive results this year; especially rookies who debuted in 2020. Since so many idol groups debuted that year, many of them initially saw lukewarm results amid the stampede, but are now seeing a dramatic rise in popularity.
The major indicator showing this rise is album sales, as it reflects the number of fans invested enough to spend their cash. First-week sales are an especially important index as they signify loyal fans who are ready to purchase immediately upon release.
Perhaps the most dramatic increase is from boy band E'Last, who debuted in June 2020 under E Entertainment. Its debut EP "Day Dream" (2020) and second EP "Awake" (2020) sold approximately 1,700 copies each in the first week. After a 10-month hiatus, its third EP "Dark Dream" which dropped in September sold 17,000 copies in the first week, an increase of tenfold compared to the previous release. The EP's title track also gave E'Last its first music video which garnered over 10 million views.
Some attribute such spikes in CD sales to the release of multiple versions of a single or album, which induces fans to buy numerous copies of the same CD — a common sales tactic. Both "Awake" and "Dark Dream" were released in two versions, but only the latter’s sales increased tenfold. Seventeen thousand may still be a relatively humble number in the vast K-pop industry, but the exponential increase without relying on sales tactics is noteworthy. So what happened during those 10 months?
"Even during the hiatus, members were individually active, starring in a children's TV show or singing an original soundtrack for a web series," an agency official for E'Last told the Korea JoongAng Daily. "Members also uploaded dance cover videos of other idol groups' tracks on YouTube and we think this consistency in activities is what attracted many fans during the hiatus."
Its schedules may not have been the glamorous major TV appearances and big performances that people typically envision when they think about K-pop superstars, but the boy band's consistency left an impression on viewers.
"E'Last members visit the official fan website every day and write a lot of posts to interact with fans, which created a strong bond," said a female fan of E'Last in her 20s. "Their steady effort to communicate is what drew me in."
E'Last also featured in the reality show "E'Last Superhero" on one of cable channel Mnet's YouTube channels last month, which also helped gather fans. Being a rookie from a small company, E'Last did not have a fan base large enough to have a standalone show on television, but YouTube was its opportunity as it has a lower entry barrier. In general, more options thanks to YouTube and other social media platforms are granting idols from smaller firms more opportunities to promote themselves, especially to global audiences.
"The Covid-19 pandemic virtually halted all K-pop concerts and in-person events, so all idols had to resort to online activities," Professor Lee said. "In a way, this leveled the playing field for smaller agencies. They're less disadvantaged in terms of online activities because it's open for everyone to access. Domestic TV show appearances are less important in attracting foreign fans because it's easier for them to watch K-pop idols online.
"Foreign fans are also often less aware about which K-pop agencies are major, and therefore have less prejudice. They usually grow to like a group purely based on music and performance. So idols from smaller firms nowadays don't have to solely rely on domestic popularity, but can seek alternative opportunities by appealing to the global market."
Boy band Enhypen, which debuted in November 2020 under Belift Lab, also saw its CD sales more than double within six months. Its debut EP "Border: Day One" (2020) sold 280,000 copies in the first week with two versions, and its second EP "Border: Carnival" saw first-week sales of 380,000 in April with three versions.
Then this month, its first full-length album "Dimension: Dilemma" sold almost 820,000 copies in the first week with four versions, only one more than the previous release. First-day sales for "Dimension: Dilemma" were 500,000 copies, which more than surpassed the total first-week sales of "Border: Carnival."
Enhypen had a relatively advantageous starting point as it was formed through the Mnet audition show "I-Land" (2020), but the show's ratings were not high enough to give the band significant popularity from the beginning.
Nonetheless, Enhypen continued to build its career with members appearing on the EBS cooking show "The Best Cooking Secrets" and releasing a theme song for the children's animation series "Tayo the Little Bus." These were not necessarily superstar gigs, but Enhypen was also consistent with its efforts to promote itself. It also focused on catchy tunes and perfectly in-sync group choreography, which received praise from domestic and foreign fans alike.
Last but not least is girl group STAYC, whose growth is especially remarkable considering that female K-pop acts tend to sell fewer CDs than boy bands. STAYC debuted in November 2020 under Highup Entertainment. Its debut EP "Star to a Young Culture" sold a little over 10,000 copies in the first week, then its second EP "Staydom" saw first-week sales of around 35,500 copies this April.
Although the initial reaction to "Staydom" was moderate, its lead track "ASAP" climbed up the charts after its signature dance move dubbed the "cat kneading dance" went viral and created a wave of cover videos on YouTube and TikTok. The popularity led its third EP "Stereotype," released in September, to become another hit, selling over 114,000 copies in the first week, more than triple compared to "Staydom."
As a result, STAYC has earned the nickname "a small agency's miracle" and quickly rose among the ranks of girl groups despite being a rookie from a small company. Prior to the success of "Stereotype," STAYC also rarely appeared on television. Instead, it frequently communicated with fans directly on social media.
"STAYC uploads original content about various topics every week on its YouTube channel," said an official from the girl group's agency. "We try to provide entertaining content that fans can enjoy every week."
The common factor among rookie idols who have recently seen exponential growth is that they built a likeable public image through consistent hard work and fan interactions, as well as staying true to their identity as idol singers by focusing on both musical and visual quality.
"At the end of the day, the small agencies cannot grow to SM or JYP's size overnight," said Professor Lee. "So the winning move of their idol groups should boil down to 'back to the basics' — to appeal with high-quality music and performances, as well as consistent direct interactions with fans through social media. Even BTS's agency was a small firm when it debuted, but it gained word-of-mouth popularity among foreign fans thanks to its outstanding songs and performances.
"Especially now that the foreign market for K-pop is larger than the domestic one, there are more alternative breakthrough opportunities for smaller agencies than ever. When Covid-19 subsides in the near future and in-person activities abroad become possible again, idols from small firms will get to fulfill their potential even more."
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]