The idea of music agency fandom might seem strange to Western audiences, as most notable labels around the world are vast corporations with rosters that share very little common. But of course, K-pop is different. Even as the industry has expanded, it has remained a relatively small microcosm of the global pop music landscape.
When it comes to artists, agency-mates aren’t just business associates. They’re brother and sister groups, part of a “family” of talent that often draws from the same pool of producers and collaborators. Most K-pop agencies have a definable sound, which allows for a level of continuity between their releases. If you like one artist from an agency, chances are you’ll enjoy the rest.
This leads me to a hopelessly biased list. I’m not going to pretend that this is an objective (or definitive) ranking of K-pop’s agencies. Instead, it’s a current look at my five favorites. To make it on my list, an agency needed more than one prominent act, which means an industry-leader like Big Hit was not eligible (sorry, BTS fans!).
5. YG Entertainment
Current Roster: Bigbang, iKON, BLACKPINK, Winner, Akdong Musician, Sechs Kies, Jinusean, Lee Hi, One, CL, Sandara Park
A few years ago, YG Entertainment seemed unstoppable. Their one-two punch of Bigbang and 2NE1 led K-pop’s charge, bringing a hip-hop edge to the industry. YG is still dominant in many ways, but its lackluster management has really held back its new generation of artists. In a way, their distinct brand of music feels like comfort food, which is why they squeaked on to my list. But, YG is also an agency that would benefit from an influx of new sounds. You can only retrace the same song so many times before it starts feeling like a retread.
4. Pledis Entertainment
Current Roster: Seventeen, Nu’est, Pristin, After School, Bumzu, Han Dong-geun
Everyone loves a comeback story. Despite a long history of solid output, Pledis found itself in dire straits prior to Seventeen’s debut in 2015. Now, they’re home to some of the industry’s biggest acts — including a reinvigorated Nu’est. This has led to an immense swell of goodwill toward the agency, and allowed them to develop a house sound headed by production mastermind Bumzu. They’re a cutting-edge agency that feels very fresh. Yet at the same time, they have a storied history with acts like After School and Son Dambi.
3. WM Entertainment
Current Roster: B1A4, Oh My Girl, ONF
I’ve always been drawn to the weirder side of K-pop, and WM definitely scratches that itch. They launched with one of the best boy groups of all time, B1A4, and have since expanded with Oh My Girl and ONF. Over the years, their material has only gotten more daring, pushing boundaries while retaining a catchy pop sound. They occasionally dip their feet into the trends of the day, but it never feels generic or patronizing. I’m a little concerned about the future of B1A4 now that two of its members have left the agency, but Oh My Girl and ONF have had no problem carrying the torch. Their consistently strong material points to a very strong future for WM.
2. SM Entertainment
Current Roster: TVXQ, Super Junior, EXO, Girl’s Generation, Red Velvet, SHINee, NCT, BoA, f(x), TraxX, S.E.S, Kangta, J-Min
A couple years ago, SM would have comfortably sat on top of my list. They remain K-pop’s most influential agency, with an unparalleled roster of artists. Looking back at their discography is like tracing the history of modern K-pop. Their SM Performance style of production remains one of my absolute favorite K-pop sounds, but it’s become almost non-existent as the agency relies more and more on material written by so-called “song camps,” where dozens of foreign composers gather together to collaborate on tracks that are then doled out to the agency’s artists. I think this approach has watered down SM’s sound a bit. It’s become trendier and less idiosyncratic over the years. They’re still a reliably strong agency with a fascinating approach to music, but I kind of want my weird old SM back.
1. Woollim Entertainment
Current Roster: Infinite, Lovelyz, Golden Child, Joo
Woollim has certainly had its issues with management and communication (or lack thereof), but when it comes down to music they are the agency I can always depend on. This is largely because of their timeless approach. Unlike almost every other agency out there, Woollim never seems to kowtow to trends. This may limit their artists’ mass-appeal in the moment, but results in classic pop music that doesn‘t have an expiration date. Their longstanding partnership with producers Sweetune certainly helps, though frequent collaborations with OnePiece, 1Take & TAK, Ferdy/JayJay and in-house composers Rphabet have expanded Woollim’s breadth of sounds. And then, of course, there are the agency’s artists. Woollim is home to my ultimate bias group (Infinite), my favorite rookies (Golden Child) and one of the industry’s most consistently solid girl groups (Lovelyz).