Disclaimer: As with my write-ups on the Big Three agencies, this is written from an outsider’s perspective. I’m not privy to any business-related financial information beyond what any other fan would know. The purpose of these articles is to examine how well these agencies are serving their artists and the general k-pop fan-base.
There’s no denying the strength of the BTS brand, even if I’ve found their music to be a little less exciting this year. Big Hit has done an excellent job expanding their presence into western markets, sowing the seeds for the kind of credible U.S. career the likes of which k-pop has never seen. They’re breaking records left and right, and appearing on talk shows and specials that no one could have imagined just a year or two ago. Big Hit has been great at hooking them up with a number of high-profile oversees collaborations, even if this has sometimes been to the detriment of their k-pop identity. Many other agencies would use the group’s immense success to fund the debut of a second or third idol group, but Big Hit has been smart to put all their eggs in the BTS basket. Still, I’m hoping for an edgy girl group debut somewhere down the line.
While Brave Brothers continues to excel as a producer/composer, the artists under his agency can’t seem to break out. 2017 has seen a slight up tick in Brave’s fortunes, mostly due to the post Produce 101 success of Kim Samuel. Brave Girls just don’t seem to connect with the Korean public, no matter how many solid songs they release. Boy group Bigstar is a bit of a question mark. They haven’t had activities in years, but member Feeldog seems like he’ll receive a boost from his appearance on The Unit.
Cube Entertainment has been through quite a lot in recent years, losing both Beast and 4minute in the space of a few months. This has left BTOB as their most successful act. Luckily, BTOB has seen a continued spike in popularity just when the agency needs it most. Their younger groups are more of a mixed bag. CLC doesn’t seem to be working no matter what style Cube foists upon them (and that scattershot approach has likely been their undoing). Boy group Pentagon is making slow inroads, though perhaps not as substantially as Cube would like. But I do appreciate their effort. These acts have each received multiple comebacks this year, which is exactly how a rookie group should be operating. It will be interesting to see what the agency does with Lai Guanlin when Wanna One is finished. They’d be smart to reunite him with fellow trainee Seonho and form a new group with a built-in fanbase.
DSP Media was once a k-pop powerhouse, home to acts like Kara, Rainbow and SS501 (not to mention Sechs Kies and Fin.K.L before that!). In recent years, it feels like they’re barely staying above water. Having lost all of their flagship acts means that the company has to reinvent themselves. And though they’re still struggling to do that, they need to thank whoever had the idea to green light co-ed group KARD. KARD hasn’t been setting the charts alight, but they’ve established a rare spark of worldwide hype that has kept DSP in the conversation. The agency’s future will likely depend on whether that hype can transform into sustained Korean success. Beyond that, DSP is home to boy group A-Jax (which they’re stupidly doing absolutely nothing with) and April, who can’t seem to break into the upper echelon of girl groups despite multiple comebacks.
Fantagio has never been a major player in k-pop, but they struck gold with boy group Astro last year. Though the guys haven’t yet had their big breakthrough moment, they’ve established a solid fan base and a bonafide star in Cha Eunwoo. Fantagio has been promoting them well with endless Korean activities and quite a few oversees schedules. They just need that big hit to cement their name. It’s still too early to tell with rookie girl group Weki Meki, but so far the girls have leveraged Produce 101 success to impressive sales numbers for their debut album. Things are looking up. Fantagio’s only dark spot is Hello Venus, who feel like a girl group past their prime. The agency doesn’t seem to have much interest in promoting them anymore, and that’s a shame.
FNC has a girl group problem. With AOA seemingly on life support after the departure of main vocal ChoA, much will depend on how successful their new girl group is when they (presumably) debut next year. Flagship acts CNBlue and FTIsland continue to be reliable pillars for the agency, especially in Japan. And FNC’s first male dance act, SF9, seem to be developing a solid fan base. I’m not sure the same could be said about the agency’s newest act, HONEYST, who don’t seem to be getting much promotion at all. Rather than continue to debut new acts, FNC would be wise to invest in an underrated group like N.Flying, who released a killer album this year with new member Yoo Hweseung.
Home to both VIXX and Gugudan, Jellyfish Entertainment has had a relatively slow year. VIXX has gotten to the point where they sell solidly, if not as spectacularly as they did during their 2015/2016 peak. All the agency has to do is maintain the group’s current level of success and ensure they have ample opportunity for promotions. Newer group Gugudan is a bigger problem. They’re home to a couple of Produce 101’s most popular contestants, which should allow them to stake their claim as one of the new generation’s top girl groups. Their sales are solid, but unspectacular. But beyond that, the group just isn’t promoting enough. The agency knows they have a star in Kim Sejeong, but they need to start building up the other girls in the group if they want Gugudan to have staying power.
MBK Entertainment has always had a rough go of it. Though they spawned ultra-successful girl group T-ara, they’ve left a long trail of failed acts in their wake. Currently, they’re at a point similar to Pledis Entertainment a few years ago. They need one big breakthrough debut to rise the fortunes of all of their acts. The future of T-ara remains a question mark, and new girl group DIA doesn’t seem poised to match that level of success. It’s not for a lack of trying, but it feels like DIA has been mismanaged from the start. They need stronger music and a more unique image. MBK missed the boat on soloist Shannon, who should have been able to ride her K-Pop Star success to a career resurgence. Instead, the agency has been plagued by sloppy execution all around.
Check back later this week for part 2, where I’ll take a look at Plan A, Pledis, Star Empire, Starship, Top, TS, WM and Woollim!