Feature

Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: Part One (Brand New, Cube, DSP, Fantagio, FNC, Jellyfish, Kakao M, KQ)

Disclaimer: As with my write-ups on K-Pop’s biggest 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.

If you’re curious to read my thoughts on these agencies from last year, click here for part one and here for part two!


Brand New Music


Brand New Music had a frustrating year. AB6IX suffered the loss of their leader, as Youngmin left the group after a DUI scandal. Though their sales have remained relatively strong, it feels as if the guys have been kind of aimless ever since. Their 2019 deep house sound had tons of potential, but in 2020 it feels like they just threw anything at the wall to see what might stick.

Musically, trio BDC was more satisfying, but I still don’t understand what Brand New Music is hoping to do with them. I know they’re classified as a “unit group,” but is the plan to eventually add more members and make a proper debut? If so, I fear the Produce X 101 hype has already faded. I think I’d prefer that they just stay as three and promote more often.

C


Cube Entertainment

Cube Entertainment continues to chug along, with (G)I-DLE leading the pack when it comes to hype and success. I might not care for most of their music, but the agency clearly knows what it’s doing by leaving most of the creative input to leader Soyeon.

Pentagon’s sales grew this year, though I think Cube could have sprung for more dynamic stages on this spring’s Road to Kingdom. In contrast to (G)I-DLE, the agency might have done well to take some of the pressure off leader Hui. Of course, with him now enlisted in the military, I guess that point is moot. It will be interesting to see where the agency goes with Pentagon from here out. Will primary songwriting duties fall to Kino, or will they outsource?

After a busy 2019, Cube seems to have forgotten that CLC exists. And though BTOB still has a dedicated fanbase, military enlistments have blunted some of their momentum for now. It feels like it’s time to bring another boy group into the fold.

B-


DSP Media

DSP’s list of “former artists” is much, much longer than their current roster, and I can’t say I blame those artists for jumping ship. Once an industry powerhouse, the agency has faltered in recent years. KARD continues to struggle domestically, although they have a dedicated foreign fanbase. But with member J.Seph out of the fold for now, I’ll be interested to see if they continue to promote as three. Their 2020 releases didn’t seem to garner much hype.

Girl group April is an even more frustrating case. They seem ready for an Oh My Girl style leap in notoriety, but they don’t get enough comebacks to make that happen. Their latest mini album was well-received, but the girls just kind of fell out of the spotlight during the rest of the year. This is despite member Naeun’s success as an actress and host. I’m also surprised that DSP didn’t leverage Dongpyo’s X1 hype to create a much-needed boy group. This is an agency in dire need of a big breakthrough.

D+


Fantagio Entertainment

Fantagio really did a nice job fostering Astro’s growth in the industry, and it feels like they’re taking advantage of that success now. I think it was a mistake to only release one mini album in 2020, but I’m happy to see that they’re exploring sub-units, finding work for the members not named Cha Eunwoo, and of course expanding Eunwoo’s popularity in dramas and variety. He is one busy idol, and I hope he’s not being completely overworked.

Weki Meki remains more of a challenge. It still doesn’t feel like Fantagio really knows what to do with them. Their concepts seem to vary wildly, and this is reflected in sales that just aren’t that great given the notoriety of some of the group’s members. I’m not sure what needs to be done here, but right now it just feels like they’re spinning their wheels.

B-


FNC Entertainment

FNC’s 2020 was a real mixed bag. On the plus side, boy group SF9 broke out after years of solid but unspectacular sales. I must admit that I never saw this coming, but I guess acting and variety helped buoy a momentum that was already there. N.Flying have also diversified their portfolio with a fun and diverse variety presence. It always surprises me just how well they do. FNC would be wise to give them more comebacks next year.

Unfortunately, the agency wasn’t so lucky with girl groups. They clearly have no idea what to do with rookies Cherry Bullet, who squandered a successful debut with infrequent promotions and a lack of individual identity. Meanwhile, just as AOA seemed poised for a Queendom-fueled resurgence, scandal broke and the group was all but forgotten.

On the bright side, FNC’s newly-debuted P1Harmony seems to have loads of potential, though I’m worried about how under-the-radar their promotion has been so far. On the opposite side of the age spectrum, veterans CNBlue recently returned from a long hiatus, yet their comeback was barely promoted at all.

C-


Jellyfish Entertainment

Quite frankly, I’m worried for Jellyfish. A VIXX reunion seems unlikely at this point, as does any further promotions for Gugudan. Aside from soloists, this leaves the agency with only one idol group: VERIVERY. And despite slowly increasing their sales, the guys seem to be in the middle of an identity crisis. The style of their music has shifted majorly and suddenly, leaving fans like me in a lurch. And without successful veteran acts to bring in the capital needed for subsequent comebacks, I just don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Kim Minkyu was popular in Produce X 101, right? But, it seems like he’d rather act than be in a group. Ditto for Kim Sejeong, who seems worlds away from Gugudan at this point.

D


Kakao M (Cre.Ker & Play M)

Kakao M includes both Cre.Ker and Play M as part of its house labels, so I’m combining them for the purpose of this write-up. And, this is where it pays to have the backing of an established powerhouse like Kakao.

Cre.Ker is killing it with The Boyz. And, I hope the constant workload isn’t killing the boys in the process! But strictly from a fan’s point of view, it’s hard to argue with the success of their 2020. The group has grown into a real juggernaut. Being able to showcase their inventive routines on Road to Kingdom was a brilliant opportunity. Members are active in variety and dramas, which is exactly as it should be with a group this large. For me, their music remains hit-or-miss, but their skill as performers is just growing and growing. Their future looks very bright.

Play M has also had a great 2020. Apink continue to be one of K-pop’s longest-standing girl groups. They don’t release a ton of music anymore, but they still grab attention when they do. New girl group Weeekly seem poised to pick up their mantle, debuting with a lot of positive attention. And Victon have managed to build upon their Produce momentum. Against all odds, they’ve become reliable album sellers after years of languishing toward the bottom of the K-pop heap.

A


KQ Entertainment

Though Seven Seasons (Block B’s label) falls under their umbrella, ATEEZ were the only super relevant group KQ managed in 2020. And when an agency scores a hit like them, they really should be funneling all their attention in that direction. In some ways, KQ’s 2020 reminds me of where Big Hit was back in 2013-14. We’ll see what becomes of them in the coming years, but for now the agency continues to grow ATEEZ’s core sound and has really positioned them for massive global success.

It’s hard to say what role KQ does or doesn’t play in work safety, but it sure seems like this group gets injured more than most K-pop acts. They’re one of the acts I really worry about when it comes to exhaustion and physical care. If anything, KQ needs to find out how to balance the scales between “capturing the hype of the moment” and maintaining their artist’s personal well-being. But, this could probably be said for most agencies.

B+


Check back later for part 2, where I’ll take a look at MBK, P-Nation, RBW, Starship, Top, TS, WM and Woollim!

23 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: Part One (Brand New, Cube, DSP, Fantagio, FNC, Jellyfish, Kakao M, KQ)

  1. April’s case upsets me the most, I think. LALALILALA is great and Oh My Mistake remains one of my favorite k-pop songs ever.

    Like

    • Super agree here. I liked Now or Never but it seemed kinda like just a Summer one off and would have been more effective if it came before or after a genuine comeback.

      April has such an amazing discography and I’d love to see it continue to grow. Lalalilala was a great comeback but they missed the oppurtunity to keep that momentum going forward.

      Like

  2. Brand New Music seems to be preparing a new boy group, they’ve been revealing a LOT of trainees so i guess they will join BDC+ Lee Eunsang

    DSP put together a 9 members boy group early this year but for some reason some of the memebers leave DSP, so the line up keept changing the whole year

    And yes already forgot CLC had a comeback this year , altought cube said CLC will focus on individual schedules this year, only remember Yeeun being on Good Girl

    The Boyz, it was their year

    Already forgot about P1Harmony

    Like

  3. .

    Nick, I have crafted a madibs to make your agency reviews simpler:

    ______ agency has been killing it with _____ group, but where is ______. They only seem to promote ______ for solo activities this year. I wonder if _____ will be promoting much at all over the next ____ years, with ________ away.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A majority of my thoughts are similar to yours, so I’ll give a rundown of what I think.

    DSP: YIKES. As a huge April fan, this year was such a letdown. They were on the verge of breaking out this year, but just needed more material. Here’s to hoping April gets more and that the DSP N trainees will have some hype when they debut next year (???)

    Fantagio: I can’t help but feel sorry for Weki Meki, who is only losing sales with each release. Not sure what they can do to turn it around at this point. Kudos to Fantagio for not Gugudaning them.

    FNC: This year, I learned that FNC is a trainwreck of an agency. The support for their artists is abysmal (evidenced by AOA as well as 3 members departing from Cherry Bullet in their 1st year.) Really only rooting for SF9 and N.Flying.

    Jellyfish: I dislike them almost as much as FNC. Gugudan and VIXX are disbanded in everything but name, and I’m just going to pretend I didn’t see Verivery’s last 2 comebacks.

    PlayM: They are doing everything right. I would argue they’re the most successful agency on this list, with 3 major acts all doing well for their age.

    Like

  5. FNC and Jellyfish really need to rot in hell for their mismanagement of Cherry Bullet and Gugudan. Girl groups with amazing potential that are just belly up at this point. I hate FNC especially for never even telling us what was up with the 3 members who left after (maybe less than) a year. Lack of transparency always makes me feel like something fishy is going on.

    Like

  6. I feel like Fantagio needs to debut a new group soon. Astro continues to be their main money maker but eventually enlistment starts and yeah.. I hope Weki Meki can break out next year I didn’t really like their 2 songs this year but I love their 3rd comeback Cool and they did gain more attention for that CB despite low album sales. Also I heard Doyeon and Yoojung won tickets for the whole group for Knowing Bros (Popular show in Korea) so hopefully they can break through next year. I am happy that Fantagio didn’t abandon them however unlike FNC’s Cherry Bullet and Jellyfish’s Gugudan

    Like

  7. As someone who only discovered kpop two years ago I shall forever be bitter that I missed out on VIXX’s golden years. I love them dearly but I may very well never see a comeback from them.
    I would condemn Jellyfish entirely if I didnt genuinely wish for Verivery’s sucess.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You’ve probably underrated DSP by a moderate amount in your writeup, seeing how Lalalila was one of the biggest idol group hits of the year (charted for 30 weeks, only OMG, BP, IZONE, Itzy, Twice, Apink Seventeen, and BTS had bigger singles than April this year.)

    That said Now or Never was set up and timed to do well, but just didn’t, there’s no helping that. But it wasn’t a misstep on DSP’s part, to be honest

    Liked by 1 person

  9. In last year’s TS Entertainment review, you said that if you could give them an F-, you would – “Seriously, can we invent a grade lower than F?”

    Well, I think you’re going to need an F- once you get to TS this year…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Oh, but P1Harmony’s promotion wasn’t low-key at all. They have a whole damn sci-fi movie that you can’t watch legally anywhere (unless you’re in Korea, perhaps) and are now part of the newest and spiffiest Superstar game. If only NCT had a movie back in 2016/18.

    Also, IIRC, Cube does intend to debut a group next year. And I guess it has to be a BG. Bye Pentagon; we got bored of you before you could do anything interesting again.
    (Ok, ok, I shut up. Daisy was pretty good. Unlike Shine, though, it aged like… not milk actually; rather like something that gets stale very soon. Bread, perhaps?)

    And as for the Verivery boys, now that they’ve done their obligatory three releases in the Face series (did K-pop releases always come in threes or is this another symptom of Big Hit in the industry?), I’m really hoping they go back to sunnier concepts, like both ONF and Oneus did after their stint on RtK. The TTs haven’t been cutting the mustard since Lay Back, and that one only barely. Thankfully we’ve been getting at least one or two great b-sides in every release though; Skydive has been a fixture in my playlists since July and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. That must some kind of record.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will point out that this statement sort of makes my point when it comes to P1Harmony:

      “that you can’t watch legally anywhere”

      I mean, a movie’s all well and good, but if hardly anyone can watch it that’s not great promo imo. After becoming interested in their music, I wanted to find out more about the members and I was shocked at how little online content was available. Maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough or in the right places?

      Liked by 1 person

  11. PlayM have been truly impressive for me this year. Weeekly has been one of the only groups that I have been really interested in since debut, and much of that is probably due to how well promoted they’ve been. Along with the sheer amount of content they release, Apink and Weeekly’s concepts have really found a unique niche. Props to them for giving Weeekly a school concept and letting / having them not wear skirts!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I know; I was being sarcastic.

    The whole movie project was quite accidental, it seems. After Lotte Cinema offered to screen it, the premiere seems to have been as far as they got with promotions for it, and given that they were aiming for a webdrama the project ended up being rather pointless, since it wasn’t uploaded to either YouTube or Naver TV. So nobody that wasn’t in on P1H in the first place knows about it.

    A whole debut movie for an idol group is revolutionary (I think), but I don’t see anybody talking about it.

    And indeed there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of info. I find precious little that isn’t performance videos, which is a shame since I’ve developed a certain fondness for some of the members after their intros and movie. At least they’re beginning their variety appearances; just yesterday I found an episode of a show called K-Bob Star on YT.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. well, you have an interesting array of thoughts and comments here….the only one i want to pushback on is Cube Entertainment….with the way they treat CLC, alone, my grade for them would be in the D to F range!….CLC had their best year last year and they accomplished it with mostly single releases….so, what do Cube do to reward them in 2020?….another single release that comes at the end of the year (“Helicopter” is a bop!)….CLC is super-talented and while i can understand and agree with Cube to keep feeding into GIDLE’s momentum, you still need to make time for your other groups….i don’t want to hear about CLC’s supposedly weak album sales….they have a very loyal fan base (of the which, i am chief Cheshire!), and they had an outstanding 2019!….why not build on that momentum?….I also understand Covid-19 has thrown a monkey wrench in a lot of music industry comebacks, but that did not seem to slow down GIDLE that much and it looks like BTOB has had several comebacks recently….CLC deserves more!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: Part Two (MBK, P Nation, RBW, Starship, TOP, TS, WM, Woollim) | The Bias List // K-Pop Reviews & Discussion

  15. FNC used to be one of my favorite agencies. I dubbed them as the agency of idol bands and I appreciated that it made them stand out amongst the other agencies. But over the years I feel sad to see the identity slowly fade away and FNC becoming just a typical idol group agency. And to this day I still have no idea what FNC is doing not debuting a girl idol band. With how much international appeal Kpop has had recently, domestic attention has arguably become less important and I don’t think that this is something to worry about when debuting something that is outside of the comfort zone.

    As a side note I just wanna say how stoked I am of Apink. As a longtime fan I was grateful to see them all renew their contracts. Despite only coming back once a year they still manage to win awards, they still manage to chart within the top 10, they always have remained in the public eye through various activities. Their image switchup was the smoothest I’ve ever seen and I applaud the A&R team for being so critical towards keeping Apink’s relevancy in the industry.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.