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.
The recently renamed Plan A has seen some changes of late, most notably the debut of its new boy group Victon. While Victon have been promoted adequately and even given some variety opportunities, their sales have become a bit stagnant — even decreasing with these past two comebacks. Obviously, that’s not the direction any rookie should be going. Things are still more than salvageable, but Plan A needs to try some new things. I would suggest (as I usually do) a more uniquely individual sound tailored for the group. Thankfully, the agency is also home to old reliable Apink. While I think Plan A should be pushing the girls to try new things in regards to their style, there’s no denying their continued success.
No single agency has utilized the success of Produce 101 as smartly as Pledis. Once on the verge of failure, the company’s fortunes were resurrected upon the debut of Seventeen in 2015. Since then, they’ve rarely taken a wrong step. Sending most of Nu’est to season two of Produce 101 was a huge gamble, but it paid off beyond anyone’s expectations. The agency is now home to two hugely successful boy groups, as well as up-and-coming Pristin who have also benefited from the 101 hype. Best of all, Pledis has developed a trademark sound of their own, highlighted by the prolific work of in-house artist/producer Bumzu. Their diversified roster makes a convincing case for the little-agency-that-could. If they play their cards right, it feels as if they may be taking on the Big Three soon.
Quite frankly, Star Empire has always been a well-documented mess. 2017 was no different, with boy group ZE:A in unexplained contract limbo, Nine Muses fractured into a shell of the group they used to be, and rookie Imfact unable to break out. The latter is especially infuriating, since it seems like they were never given a real shot in the first place. Imfact opened the year promising an ambitious monthly release schedule, but that fizzled after only three songs. Their appearance on The Unit may reignite some sparks, but I fear that it’s too late for both them and Star Empire to regain standing in the k-pop marketplace.
Starship Entertainment was dealt a major blow this year after the disbandment of popular girl group Sistar. Luckily, Monsta X’s steady rise has helped buoy the agency’s prospects. They also seem to have a burgeoning hit in Cosmic Girls, even if the group’s success so far doesn’t yet indicate Sistar-level dominance. Soloist Jeong Sewoon had a solid debut right out of Produce 101 and seems to be garnering a fair amount of variety show interest. The agency’s only real trouble spot is Boyfriend, who have long been neglected when it comes to promotions. Their 2017 comeback underwhelmed, but leader Donghyun seems to be an early favorite on The Unit. A Nu’est-level resurgence isn’t completely out of the question, and would be very much deserved.
The all-boy group agency has been slow and steady almost every year of their existence. Teen Top remains a solid seller, even if their k-pop standing has lessened a bit over the years. Still, they managed to survive after losing one of their founding members and show no signs of fading away anytime soon. The real story with Top Media is UP10TION. The boy group isn’t often mentioned among the heavy hitters, but their albums have had remarkable sales for an act that hasn’t ever really captured the spotlight. 2017 was an uneven year for them, with member Wooshin on an extended hiatus after a not-really-scandal at the tail end of 2016. Their status still seems solid, but some of the excitement of their first year has dampened. As for the agency’s third group, 100%, I can only hope that Rokhyun’s participation in The Unit gives them the attention they deserved. They’ve been horribly mismanaged for years.
TS Entertainment has been struggling for a few years now, and 2017 didn’t do much to change that. B.A.P’s grand return in late 2015 has resulted in a number of quality comebacks, but not the kind of incredible commercial success the agency was probably hoping for. Girl group Secret is essentially on indefinite hiatus, which in k-pop is nearly synonymous with “disbanded.” Rookies Sonamoo have recently turned the quality of their music around, but it has yet to result in the kind of notoriety they need to gain necessary traction in the crowded k-pop marketplace. TS’s newest act, boy group TRCING, released a very promising mini album. I just wish their debut was given a bit more fanfare. They simply cannot follow the ho-hum promotional schedule that marred Sonamoo’s first few years and expect better results.
I’ve always had a soft spot for WM Entertainment. When other agencies zig, they zag — and that sense of quirky individuality has served them well. The quality level has still been high in 2017, with their biggest act B1A4 solidifying their standing as consistent k-pop elders. Leader Jinyoung has enjoyed a surge of popularity both as an actor and composer. Rookie group ONF is beyond promising, and the idea to send them on YG’s survival show MIXNINE seems as if it is going to pay off. I just hope it doesn’t affect their promotional schedule too much. The boys need frequent comebacks, especially during this initial year. In fact, this is a problem that has plagued Oh My Girl. Just as it seemed as if they were gaining momentum, 2017 has seen only one comeback from the girls all the way back in April. That’s not enough for the fickle k-pop marketplace. They need to be everywhere.
Woollim Entertainment absolutely bungled the contract renewal of their flagship act this year. The fact that Infinite’s re-signing stretched out for the entire summer with limited information available to the public sent fans into a frenzy. And this is after a delayed album and zero solo or sub-unit promotions. Their promised comeback has now been pushed back for the umpteenth time, and it’s gotten to the point where Woollim has lost credibility when it comes to their scheduling. On the plus side, the debut of Golden Child has been given a proper amount of fanfare, emphasizing the group’s fun personalities through a bevy of variety/reality shows. Their potential seems immense. Ditto for Lovelyz, except that Woollim has yet to manage the difficult task of breaking them into the big leagues. Their comebacks have been solid this year, but never enough to elevate their standing in k-pop. As 2018 begins, all effort should go into an absolutely dynamite Infinite comeback. The goodwill it may generate could be enough to bolster the excitement for the agency’s younger acts.