K-Pop is an agency-driven genre, meaning that what gets put into the market is often expertly crafted by a team of individuals and hoisted upon a group/artist who then takes it to the next level with their talent and charisma. This doesn’t necessarily take art out of the equation, but it does create an environment where trends and images are (mostly) in the control of a few powerful groups of producers and marketers. Given this, I thought it would be a good idea to check in with some of the genre’s biggest influencers and evaluate how they’re doing so far in 2016.
First up is YG Entertainment
YG is known as a family for good reason. Their seemingly tight-knit, comparatively small roster is intensely loyal to the agency’s overall sound and image. Barring a few standouts (AKMU being the biggest), fans can count on a particular YG style being peddled by almost every artist. 2016 had a brisk start for the agency, with strong releases from Winner, Lee Hi and AKMU. Rookie girl group BLACKPINK has been an undeniable success so far, even if I’m not (yet) floored by their actual music. Digitally, YG has been performing strong, and that’s without some of their biggest artists making a comeback. The agency remains one of the most internationally-friendly music producers in Korea, cultivating new fans worldwide with their Westernized hip-hop sound. They also have one of the most devoted fan bases in all of k-pop, guaranteeing that it’s almost unheard of for a YG artist to suffer a commercially unsuccessful comeback.
Honestly, before settling on making this the first in a series of features on k-pop agencies, I’d considered writing an op-ed about what YG Ent needs to change in order to return to their once unchallenged status at the top of Korea’s music scene. Over the past two years, their release schedule (or lack thereof) has been incredibly frustrating. The agency has often praised the idea of “quality over quantity,” but I don’t buy it. The problem is that, if artists aren’t allowed to release music regularly, expectations grow sky high — so high that they’re impossible to meet, and anything that does get released can only be seen as underwhelming after such a long wait. For many, this was the case with Bigbang’s string of singles last year, even though their MADE project was a big success.
Fans have grown accustomed to announcements from YG Entertainment that never become fulfilled. Take Winner’s multi-pronged EXIT project, which had been scheduled for a staggered release throughout 2016. It’s now nearly October, and all we’ve gotten is one brief mini-album back in February. On its own, this might not seem like a big deal, but we were also promised a full Bigbang album release in September 2015 and a 2NE1 comeback this past summer. Neither of these projects has come to pass. Even Bobby and Mino’s MOBB release this month had been pushed back from its original schedule in July. This creates vacuums, where entire months pass by without any new music from YG artists. In 2016 alone, we’ve had a grand total of 29 original tracks released in nine months. Their closest rival, SM, has that amount covered in a matter of weeks.
Yes, this means that the general quality of music coming from YG is pretty high — maybe even higher than other agencies. But an artist or group is more than a handful of great singles. This is why albums are so essential to the music world. As a listener, I want to be exposed to the highs and lows of an artist’s output. Few albums are 100% perfect, but they provide needed context for those singles and title tracks to live within. Not everything has to be perfect. I’d rather take quality and quantity — not loving everything but at least given the chance to swim around an artist’s discography and feel that they’re experimenting and trying new things. Sometimes album filler isn’t really filler at all. Sometimes it’s room to breathe and ease into an artist’s sound.
To improve in 2017, YG needs a more regimented and focused release schedule, balancing rookie and veteran idols. The agency needs to invest in full albums rather than unending digital singles. Not every song has to have a music video and full promotion. Not every album needs to be a greatest hits. I would love to see them bring in some new producers, as their artists’ output is beginning to feel more cut-and-paste than in the past. I would also like to see them extend an olive branch to the rest of the k-pop world and appear on more music and variety shows. They risk the appearance of being “too cool for school,” which can be off-putting to anyone outside their loyal fandom.
YG Entertainment is an amazing agency. Their artists and music were some of the strongest factors in me first becoming interested in the k-pop genre, but lately YG has been more synonymous with frustration than discovery. The agency needs a renaissance. It simply can’t be content to coast on goodwill forever.
2016 Grade: C
NEXT: Find out what I have to say about SM Entertainment!