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.
Before you read, make sure you’ve checked out Part One of this feature.
And, if you’re curious to read my thoughts on these same agencies from last year (plus Brave and Star Empire), click here for part one and here for part two!
Plan A has been through several shifts of ownership since its inception, but it’s never had a reputation for being messy or dramatic. From the outside, things seem to be stable, but I can’t help but think the agency could be doing more for their artists. Apink had a nice resurgence this summer, but it could have been even bigger with a more robust promotional campaign. Boy group Victon have definitely stalled, and the fact that they were only given one comeback this year didn’t help things. It doesn’t feel like Plan A have any real strategy for them, and that usually doesn’t end well.
Pledis Entertainment was one of my top rated agencies of last year. Since 2015, they’ve steadily brought themselves back from obscurity and are now home to two of the biggest boy groups of our time: Seventeen and Nu’est. Pledis’s handling of these acts in 2018 has been pretty solid. Seventeen had two successful comebacks and a wonderful Japanese debut, though they could have taken advantage of the fall season with a sub-unit or solo release. Nu’est W’s unit promotions have been perfectly handled, setting the guys up for a momentous full-group reunion next year.
On the other hand, Pledis’s indifference toward its female acts has been pretty baffling. Pristin debuted last year, yet had no comeback (beyond a sub-unit) in 2018. Unfortunately, this hiatus puts them in dangerous territory. You simply can’t wait this long when it comes to a newly-debuted group. And I won’t even get into the insincere handling of Kyla’s situation.
I’ve got two words of warning for Pledis when it comes to Pristin’s future: After. School.
When considering the industry’s biggest agencies, I rarely think of Starship Entertainment. In some ways, they kind of fly under the radar. But even after losing Sistar, they’ve built a strong roster of successful artists. Minus Boyfriend (who continue to be shafted), their comeback slate has been pretty full this year. Both Monsta X and Cosmic Girls have been given multiple promotions with solid material. Monsta X have continued their push into international markets, and the Chinese contingent of Cosmic Girls has all-but conquered their homeland. We’ll see how this affects the group as a whole next year. I’d be surprised if they remain a 13-member act by the end of 2019, but I think their music is identifiable enough to withstand these potential changes.
Though Sistar may be no more, Soyou continues to promote successfully as a soloist. Jeong Sewoon’s trajectory has seemed to cool a bit this year, and I’m curious what Starship will do with him in the future. It feels like it’s about time to debut a new boy group (and give Boyfriend a long-deserved comeback).
Top Media strikes me as an agency that isn’t interested in making waves. Their all-male roster chugs along, but rarely draws the kind of attention needed to break into the big-leagues. 2018 was a pretty forgettable year for all three of their artists. Teen Top released a nice single in May, but it was quickly forgotten. 100% rebounded from tragedy with a very generic track that didn’t take advantage of their unique vocals. UP10TION released two albums, but both title tracks were among the most generic material in their discography. There doesn’t seem to be much of a vision for any of these artists, resulting in forgettable material and an unfortunate lack of momentum. It’s too bad. All three groups deserve better.
Oh, what a mess.
Very little happened with TS Entertainment this year, and that has to come down to poor management and equally poor working conditions. The agency’s major breadwinner, B.A.P, has all but been left to their own devices. After Yongguk’s exit from the agency, it was announced that the group will continue as five. I really don’t see that happening under TS Entertainment, but I guess we’ll see.
The treatment of TS’s rookie groups has been even worse. Sonamoo shouldn’t really be considered rookies anymore, but their lack of activity sadly positions them as such. The group should have taken advantage of what little buzz they garnered through The Unit, but 2018 was completely silent for them. They risk being forgotten completely, and eventually pushed aside like TS’s previous girl group, Secret.
TRCNG has been almost as quiet in 2018. The young boy group shows so much potential, and opened the year in strong fashion with Wolf Baby. But, nearly eleven months have gone by without word of a Korean comeback. In this highly competitive market, rookie groups can’t afford to take these kind of breaks.
2018 has been a transition year for WM Entertainment, but it could have been stronger. The agency has given us quality over quantity this year, with all of their releases being top-notch in terms of music. This is obviously a great thing, but it only makes me wish for more. Oh My Girl was the agency’s most active group this year, and have really started finding their sound. ONF continue to be one of K-pop’s most promising rookies, but they’re barely allowed to promote. After the mess that was MIXNINE, they came back strong in June. 2018 should have seen at least one more comeback from them, as well as more online content and more consistent promotional cycles.
The potential dissolving of B1A4 was WM’s most problematic hurdle of the year. The agency continues to hem and haw about whether the guys will ever promote as five in the future, but for now it seems like B1A4 will become a trio — without its leader/main composer and rapper. I have no idea how this will turn out for the group, but WM has a huge challenge on their hands, especially if they don’t ramp up their focus on ONF.
I won’t pretend not to be biased here. Woollim Entertainment is my favorite K-pop agency, and I tend to love anything they produce. After a messy 2017, their 2018 was much stronger. Infinite kicked off the year in awesome fashion, with a strong album (that deserved a repackage). Though inevitable, Sungkyu’s military enlistment seemed to come out of nowhere and really threw a wrench into what I hoped would be a banner year for the group. But, at least he delivered a solo album before going on hiatus. We also got a sophomore album from Woohyun, but I wish we would have seen more group (or sub-unit) activity during the second half of the year.
Lovelyz continued their steady trajectory, releasing solid music that reaffirmed their style again and again. In some ways, it feels like they’ve hit their limit in terms of popularity, but they’ve developed a comfortably sized fan base that should see them through for the long haul.
Woollim’s robust support of boy group Golden Child has been one of 2018’s brightest spots. The group has been omnipresent in the best way, making four comebacks with strong material that has helped craft a concept that feels unique to them. They’ve yet to break into the big leagues, but Woollim is laying a strong foundation that should pay off. Now, we need a full album in 2019!
And on a more personal note, this year has been notable for Woollim’s re-connection with producers Sweetune. This partnership has always been a match made in heaven, and I hope it only expands in 2019.
ONF are definitely my favorite rookie group in KPop scene, but it seems they’ve been conceived only as a summer act. This isn’t necessarily a problem in western showbiz (how many dance projects had a golden seasonal life in the glorious 80s or 90s?), but in Korea it often means “abandon”rather than “marketing plan”.
I hope they can find much more awareness in 2019 – at least they would need an iconic title track as it was Shine for Pentagon – and spread their freshness to more than 2MLN viewers on YouTube.
There’s been great buzz surrounding Lee Kaeun (of After School/PD48 fame) making her debut (with a group, if fellow AS member’s interview is to be believed) pretty soon. Fellow PD48 alum Huh Yunjin will probably be a part of it as well. I’m excited for a new sound from Bumbu & Co., but also worried that this is a sign of Pristin getting shafted the way CLC was after G-Idle’s debut. Regardless, 2019 looks slated to be another landmark year for Pledis–for better or for worse, I can’t yet say.
Woollim/Sweetune has been one of the best things about kpop this year. It’s sad Snuper abandoned them but if they pick up the mantle for groups like gncd then I don’t mind!
Thank you for the review of Plan A. I agree that they should do more with Victon, although Huh Gak gets solo opportunities every so often. As for Apink, I am not sure what more Plan A could have done. Apink had a big hit the second half of this year with “I’m So Sick.” The song had harsher lyrics, and the video was a complete departure from previous videos, as it was dark and flashy, and had more provocative choreography. The video received more than 57 million views on 1theK, and more than 1.7 million views on the Plan A site, which was more views than the videos of some rookie groups that won awards. That song won awards in the TV music shows. Apink had a successful Asia tour in the fall, just before the voting in awards shows began. Apink members appear in variety shows and radio shows. Jeong Eunji recently released her 3rd solo album and gave solo concerts in Korea and Japan. The other members have parts in TV and Internet dramas. Son Naeun continued to have parts in commercial films, Huh Gak’s recent music video, and a new movie. Yoon Bomi has a widely watched YouTube channel. Apink’s fans, the Pink Pandas, seem as devoted as ever. What more Plan A could have done to promote Apink is unclear, except maybe bribe the award show judges. Apink is clearly very popular. but undervalued by the media.
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