Feature

Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: Part Two (MBK, P Nation, RBW, Starship, TOP, TS, WM, Woollim)

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.

Make sure to check out part one of this feature, which covers the following agencies: Brand New Music, Cube Entertainment, DSP Media, Fantagio Entertainment, FNC Entertainment, Jellyfish Entertainment, Kakao M and KQ Entertainment!


MBK Entertainment

MBK’s Pocketdol Studio subsidiary had more action in 2020 than MBK proper, which makes me wonder if the agency is moving toward some sort of rebranding. They worked to get new boy group BAE173 off the ground, first through unit promotions with H&D and later with a full debut. Sales haven’t been amazing yet, but I like the fact that they’re entrusting the group’s sound to a single team of producers. That bodes well for their musical future, even if I’m unsure how successful the guys will end up being.

Meanwhile, DIA continue to struggle. Their one 2020 release came and went without much fanfare. It was neither musically nor commercially notable, and it seems only a matter of time before they fade from the scene entirely. Without a monster rookie waiting in the wings, I remain concerned about MBK’s long-term future.

C-


P Nation

After a prolonged build-up, P Nation finally took its first few musical steps in late 2019. 2020 saw a number of releases from its roster of artists, and the agency is beginning to define itself as a “cool” alternative to K-pop’s more idol-focused companies. So far, Jessi has been the big breakout for P Nation, enjoying more success than ever before. This has been especially gratifying given her long career within the industry.

I don’t feel the same hype around Crush or Dawn, but the former had a steady stream of releases in 2020. Unfortunately, HyunA’s comeback was delayed due to a health-related hiatus. But, I’m glad P Nation is looking out for her well-being and letting her take the time she needs.

And come to think of it… weren’t we promised a PSY album in the summer of 2019? That has yet to materialize, which seems kind of strange. I even remember seeing clips from a music video. I hope the entire project hasn’t been shelved.

P Nation still feels like it’s gaining a foothold and establishing itself, but I see no reason why this agency couldn’t eventually become YG 2.0. All they need is that big, breakout idol group. And with PSY stepping in to judge a survival series with Park Jinyoung early next year, we might not have to wait too long for that to happen.

B+


RBW (Rainbow Bridge World)

RBW has really struck gold with Mamamoo, and they’ve done well to capture the popularity of individual members via variety appearances and solo music. Hwasa continues to be an in-demand K-pop presence, and I think we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what she’ll end up delivering as a soloist. I haven’t really enjoyed Mamamoo’s group work for a while, but they’ve truly become one of this generation’s leading girl groups. RBW has played a huge part in this growth, giving them frequent comebacks and seemingly endless promotion.

ONEUS is also a bright spot for the agency, growing their sales after a successful stint on Road to Kingdom. In their second year since debut, they really seem to be establishing themselves. ONEWE are a trickier proposition, as idol bands tend to be. But, I’ve got to give RBW credit for letting them release music pretty frequently and build their fanbase through covers projects online. Now we just need them to become a presence in variety. I’d argue that their personalities are one of their most engaging aspects, and that doesn’t always come through in their music.

RBW isn’t resting on their laurels, ready to debut new girl group Purple Kiss. Time will tell if they’ll be able to grow into another Mamamoo, but I think it’s wise that the agency seems to be pursuing a musical direction that doesn’t overlap. I don’t see any reason why RBW won’t have an equally successful 2021.

A-


Starship Entertainment

Starship remains a highly successful agency, but I feel like they’re stuck in a bit of a musical rut. Newly-debuted group CRAVITY sold boatloads of albums, but the agency didn’t bother to give them their own sound or purpose, instead relying on their pre-debut popularity. Right now, I feel like their albums are basically filled with Monsta X b-sides, which doesn’t seem sustainable in the long run. Still, CRAVITY have some time to work out these kinks, and I hope they do. They’ve got a lot of potential. They just need to find the right producer who can take them to another level.

Monsta X continued to feel the bruises of member Wonho leaving late last year, but that didn’t stop their incredible work ethic. The group released a steady stream of comebacks, including their first English-language album. Sales continued to grow, though they could use a big hit song that would cement their substantial popularity with listeners outside of their devoted fan base.

It was a quieter year for WJSN, with only one mini album release as a group and an odd little sub-unit song. Chocome didn’t seem to be all that successful, but the Neverland album was the group’s highest selling yet. More promo next year would be great.

Another artist who could do with more promo is Jeong Sewoon. He released the (very good) first part of his album, but a second half has yet to materialize. I’m not sure if this is still planned, but it feels like forever since we’ve gotten an update about his music.

B


TOP Media

TOP Media’s big 2020 endeavor was the unveiling of new group MCND. I think this was a successful debut, both in sound and sales. They’ve still got a lot of room to grow, but I feel like I know what kind of group MCND is trying to be. And, it’s not just a copy of previous TOP artists.

In celebration of their tenth anniversary, Teen Top were given some long-overdue accolades this year. Sadly, this comes just as members are starting to enlist, which means new Teen Top music is unlikely for a while. And with all of 100% currently in the military, that pulls them out of the picture as well.

This leaves UP10TION, who are an interesting case. I remain baffled by TOP’s approach with this group. They currently have two very popular members, riding high on post-Produce hype. Yet, they’ve pulled these two away to promote as solo artists while forcing the rest of the group to struggle as seven. I don’t think this is helping anyone in the long run, and just seems to be a breeding ground for resentment and frustration.

C


TS Entertainment

TS Entertainment has kind of been a punching bag throughout the years of this feature, and part of me wants to keep them in the conversation just to uphold that tradition. To be clear, the company is a trash fire, and they remained so in 2020. In fact, can we even call them a company anymore? To my knowledge, their artists didn’t release a single song in 2020. Instead, I assume the year was filled with more lawsuits. What a mess. I hope the remaining artists can escape… and fast!

F


WM Entertainment

WM Entertainment have a major hit on their hands with Oh My Girl. Sometimes the long game pays off, and their hard work over the past five years has really been rewarded. They are one of 2020’s biggest success stories, and I’m over the moon for them. Now comes the all-important follow-up comeback. I really think this should have happened a month or two ago, but I’ll be eager to see what WM comes up with for them. I’m hopeful that they’ll revert back to the sound that made the group special in the first place. On the plus side, the company began to explore solo efforts with YooA‘s debut,

If I have one complaint about Oh My Girl’s 2020 work, it’s that Dolphin should have gotten a proper music video and promotions. I mean, it’s already a huge hit on its own, but imagine how year-defining this could have been with full promotions. In my mind, this was a major missed opportunity.

Boy group ONF continue to be a bit of a struggle. After Road to Kingdom, they seemed poised for a major breakout. And while their album did well, it wasn’t the enormous hit I think many were hoping for. Personally, I found their 2020 music to be a bit of a downgrade from past years, though I appreciate that they continue to stick with the same producers.

Veterans B1A4 really feel hobbled without two of their founding members. I’m grateful that they came back this year after such a long hiatus, but I found the music to be quite underwhelming. However, Sandeul has carved out a very successful niche for himself in acoustic, OST-type material. I think he’s going to have a long career in that realm, even if I won’t be listening to too many of those songs.

A-


Woollim Entertainment

You all know how much I love Woollim Entertainment, which makes it hard to be truly objective when grading them. They continue to be my favorite K-pop agency, with an A&R team that really shares my taste in music. But of course, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect!

Golden Child had a great 2020, growing their fanbase by leaps and bounds despite an early elimination from Road to Kingdom. Across three comebacks, they continued to show their range. And unlike so many boy groups, they weren’t afraid to return to brighter material after going edgy and serious. Bomin has been successful in dramas, Jangjun is a variety star in waiting, and Joochan got to stretch his skills in a musical. Woollim has really taken advantage of their various talents, and I hope this continues next year.

Newly-debuted DRIPPIN are bursting with potential, and their sales numbers have been solid compared to other new acts. Woollim seems to be giving them a classic K-pop sound with just enough trendiness to remain competitive, and so far they’ve struck the balance just right.

I’m making peace with the fact that Rocket Punch may just be the first Woollim group I don’t absolutely love, and that’s down to their style of music rather than the members themselves. The company is doing a good job steadily growing their fanbase with the release of mini albums rather than the threadbare singles that many girl groups get saddled with.

Lovelyz is another story. The group is approaching their contract renewal date, and I’m a little worried about them. Queendom could have vaulted them up another level, but Woollim waited too long to take advantage of the hype. With only one mini album this year, they were not nearly as visible as they should have been. Thankfully, member Mijoo has turned into a real variety darling.

Infinite continue to remain in enlistment-related limbo, though I’m happy to see leader Sungkyu making his long-awaited comeback in just a few days. With the other members set for return next year, we could conceivably have some sort of group release in late 2021 (more likely 2022).

Finally, as a fan it’s been so nice to see more interplay between the different Woollim groups. Whether that’s in the form of agency cheering song Relay or the bickering dynamic between Jangjun and Mijoo, this kind of “family” feeling really goes a long way toward making the agency feel cohesive. And with an ever-growing roster of artists, Woollim would be wise to continue this approach.

A-


30 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2020: Part Two (MBK, P Nation, RBW, Starship, TOP, TS, WM, Woollim)

  1. Definitely shout outs to WM and Woollim this year. I really enjoyed the far majority of releases from this in 2020.

    Even though Sukhumvit Swimming didn’t do it for me, New World is one of my favorite tracks of the year. I hope ONF still keeps Hwang Hyung as the groups primary producer. I think they have a few more Complete’s in them.
    Lovelyz I got a sense that while Obliviate wasn’t a total smash, it seemed to reinvigorate some spirit or energy within the group. I also really enjoyed the Woollim agency uplifting track that came out, it was genuinely uplifting and feel good.

    In terms of Starship/WJSN – I don’t think Chocome was a complete failure and especially Dayoung has become a much more popular member with web series acting and radio dj work. I was surprised that they promoted Hmmph for as long as they did. Neverland is definitely my favorite release of 2020 and I’m glad they preformed a lot of the b-sides at their most reason stream show.

    Like

  2. Fun Fact: TS promised a Sonamoo comeback in February, and they have yet to make any news after that. I remember taking a class where the teacher would give an ‘I’ grade, meaning that the student did not do the assignment at all, or failed to meet any criteria. I think TS qualify for that…

    Oh, and FYI, Wonho actually is still with Starship via a subsidiary, I am surprised you did not talk about that.

    I personally would push WM to an A, but that is because I loved the Bon Voyage album and New World (oh and yes, where was the Dolphin MV?).

    Thanks for the grades Nick!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am definitely Impressed by WM and Woollim this year. New World and One are certainly one of the Best Songs I have heard all year and I expect something much better in the next year.

    I think the main problem I have with Golden Child is that they move from producer to producer almost everytime, I think they have to develop that signature sound a little and get two permanent Producers for their singles! And the producer which can take their potent vocals and Rollicking energy to a tea Is Sweetune!

    He needs to give Golden Child the VOCAL LAYERING THEY DESERVE!

    Like

  4. I discovered ONF this year through Road to Kingdom, and I’m so glad I did because it gave me a chance to properly discover their discography which IMO is absolutely excellent. I was peripherally aware of them during that unfortunate Mixnine stint but I’ve finally realised their full discography really appeals to my taste – New World deserves so much love, it’s absolutely incredible and that bridge may just be one of my all-time favorites. Combined with the Bon Voyage album and the fact that I really liked B1A4’s comeback personally (partly for the nostalgia and partly because I appreciated that they delivered something very vocal-centric and refreshing in the current landscape) – WM have got to be my favorites of the year.

    Really intrigued by how Woollim is managing all their groups, I used to be a casual Infinite fan years ago and it feels a bit unreal to see five groups under the Woollim roster now. I personally loved the entirety of Drippin’s debut album and liked that it established a good, different identity for them, and I have to give a shoutout to Golden Child for giving us bright funk joy even if it felt like they were going to continue with the Finding You trilogy sound (which I also liked, to be fair).

    Frustrates me that TOP Media gave so very little, musically, to Teen Top for their tenth anniversary year and that Up10tion are slowly fading. I’m not sure how a revival might be possible for Up10tion even now but I still hope for it.

    This post reminded me that we still haven’t got the second part of Sewoon’s album and now I’m very curious too. Starship, please release that soon!

    Like

    • To be honest, i dont see any revival for UP10TION , i think they will be forgotten, with two members going solo, one suddenly enlisting and two testing positive for COVID, TOP Media will let them fade

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      • Yeah, I agree. It’s very unfortunate that they’re having extended promotions for the first time in actual ages but then this happened. I hope the two members recover soon.

        It doesn’t feel like TOP are going to bring Wooseok and Jinhyuk back ever again and it’s so annoying, I just don’t get it. Victon managed it, even Nu’est managed to tide over Minhyun akgaes, Up10tion should have been doing great. It’s very sad that they’re probably not going to get that revival again

        Like

  5. It has occurred to me reading these mid-tier label reviews yesterday and today, and to some extent the Big 4 reviews as well, that I don’t really care what label the kpop groups whose music I buy are on. For the mid-tier and smaller groups, I may not even know what label they are on, much less care what label that is.

    If we take the 10,000 foot view at this mid-tier of kpop labels, they really are about the same. They don’t seem to have a gestalt that drives the artistic intent of the company. A kpop label does not mean characteristic sound, or approach, or defining characteristic. It is more like they have a boy group, they have a girl group, they just debuted another, they have this and that soloist, one of their groups is in the ascendent, one is in decline, one had this happen or that happen. They all use the same pick-a-mix of producers, songwriters and songcampers, hire similar choreographers, stylists, and follow the same trends for dark or tropical or whatever it is this season.

    So its no wonder for me and my style of buying kpop these days that I go song by song for most groups. Past performance is not a predictor of future returns. True, there are a few groups I stan that I do go to more readily, and I may lower my buy clicking bar much lower, but for most of kpop, it is song by song for me. If I have one thing I look out for, as regulars know, is if they have a good potential soloist or a notable deep bench of talent (singing > dance >>> visual, for me).

    But when I think of the same midtier of labels in the west, this tier is populated by a swath of mature indie genre labels, think Rounder records, Rhino, Blue Note, Jive, Roc Nation, Verve, Sugar Hill, Windham Hill, Deutsche Gramophone, Nonesuch, or back in the day Gamble & Huff or Motown Records. When I think of these mid-tier companies, I can fairly easily say, oh that label is this genre and artists like ___ are signed to them, and they sound like _____, so if I like ____ chances are I will also like _____.

    That doesn’t exist yet in kpop, for one its too young, and for two its too small still. (Small = a highlight clip of everything released in kpop over a week is only 10-15 minutes long. One can listen to every single new release, easily.)

    Like

    • Buying individual singles is to streaming, as 8tracks are to compact cassettes.
      (even though yes streaming is very very very evil and run by evil techbro bootlickers)

      WM and Woollim do have signature identities! Traditional, cheesey, oddball, quirky, virtuosic etc etc
      and yes, sometimes the flavour of the week too

      Like

      • Ah, yeah, well, I don’t stream. Can’t be bothered. I rather just hit my own shuffle button.

        Never had an 8 track. I do still have cassettes and a cassette player for nostalgia, and hubby has three (vinyl) record players, and a few CD players floating around, but my go to these days is my pair of ipod nano 7ths. I also have an ipod touch 6th, but the controls and interface are not as nice as the nano 7th and battery life is lousy, so practically it is only used for youtube.

        Like

        • If the ipod still works use it! Refreshing to hear someone isn’t addicted to their iphone like most of us.

          Most of my friends who make music put out cassette types. I think some people have a fascination w antiquated media (esp. for 20-somethings like me who lived through the 90s, but weren’t old enough to appreciate/hate what was coming out at the time). My roommate who plays in a punk band still hand paints their album covers with watercolors and they only release on vinyl and bandcamp.

          Streaming is great because of the shared playlists. It allows there to remain a social aspect to listening in these super isolating times. Otherwise I could leave it.

          I also buy phsyical Kpop releases at Kyoro books on west 32nd street. Those releases are expensive so I only buy releases from groups I have a sentimental attachment with…I don’t usually ever pop in the CD. But I love the collectibles and production value of the photobooks.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Double laugh here! LOLx2
            I am too cheap for an iphone.

            1) Cassette tapes. Mix tapes. Do they even sell blank cassette tapes anymore, or do they buy old ones from a thrift store for a quarter a piece and tape over it? Now that would be pretty punk. Like someone’s old 10,000 Maniacs or REM tape covered in sharpie. I think Michael Stipe may actually approve.

            2) I don’t have many physical kpop albums either, only from my faves, and I only buy 1, and yes I do play the CD’s inside it.

            If we ever get to travel again, and things open again, take the train from NYC out to Princeton from Penn Station for a day trip and go to the Princeton Record Exchange. Bring a backpack for all your loot!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m super curious about what WM and Woolim are going to do next year with their I*zone members. Both companies seem to be a good position to make good use for them, but at the same time managing current groups might be all they can handle at the moment. I think any chances of Eunbi and/or Chaewon joining Rocket Punch are very slim at best, and I have no idea on what WM may do with Chaeyeon.

    Like

    • WM hopefully debuts Chaeyeon in a girl group next year, since I’m not sure how marketable she’d be as a soloist and they have a very promising lineup of female trainees at the moment.

      My main concern is that, despite their age, Oh My Girl only just hit it really big this year and they deserve the promotional focus. It would be ideal if WM could roll out a new girl group while still taking full advantage of all the fresh hype OMG has, but it would require a balance I’m not totally confident they can strike. Here’s hoping, though!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad to hear that WM has promising female trainees. Chaeyeon has come so far since Sixteen (5 years ago!) and I would really love to see her in a permanent group.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Suggestion, any interest in rating agencies in Japan as well?

    Also I just watched Mamamoo’s older material and I’m saaaaaaad. They practically disbanded after egotistic and whatever we have now is like æ-mamamoo i guess

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so sad. Its like a completely different group now.

      It’s just not the same! =sob=

      One of the former Matilda’s was King of the Masked SInger for a week or so.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am usually very against the “Going global will kill kpop by removing its uniqueness” narrative, but for Mamamoo, their early material is really a lovely representation of a sense of humor among especially SK woman under this coping of stress coming out of living in the constant clash between a hyper fast pace urban life and a still very conservative society.

        This channel is what I’m talking about:
        https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTx3aCntDvkq-hGtOjKVSnQ

        Without it the music they release is just a giant pile of nothingness.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I used to use the older Mamamoo promotions as an example when I go on sporadic rants in other forums about the near naked spangly leotard uniform in pop, how it isn’t creative anymore, or empowering, its just cliche and vulgar. And tacky. (For recent example, Jlo at the Super Bowl) But more recently, well, some of the Mamamoo’s are wearing the spangly vinyl leatherette leotards too, alas.

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      • SK people are simply biased towards that kind of voice I think, just as Chinese people are biased towards what they call “heavy smoker voice” from female vocalists. They just don’t automatically support the people who sing it 😦

        Of all the national biases the Japanese one is really out there, I would call their female vocalist bias voice “naturalistic” if that makes sense

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes! WM solid A for me! I’ve enjoyed most of their music that they’ve released so far. Sukhumvit Swimming has surprisingly grown on me despite the initial disappointment that it was tamer compared to their previous releases. I am really excited about ONF’s future. For them, the sky’s the limit and I pray that they will continuously deepen their strong collaborative relationship with Hwang Hyun. Not enough words can describe how immensely proud I am of Oh My Girl. After watching for the past few years being pleased with their music but saddened at the lack of a breakthrough, this year has been incredibly satisfying for me.

    My only nitpick is more comebacks! I admit Queendom and RTK may have taken a lot out of them but one comeback just leaves desire for more. Two comebacks from each group and I’d honestly give WM an S grade.

    WM and JYP and have really come through for me this year and I am excited what 2022 will hold in store for them.

    Like

  9. With MBK, I’m giving them just a bit of slack for having 1THE9 release the amazing “Bad Guy,” though promotion was still the MBK we know and hate.

    Like

  10. This year I just want to give a kudos to Woollim and WM. ONF are my biases so of course I’m gonna be biased but this year WM has been doing well. The veteran group B1A4 had their comeback finally. ONF is finally having some more recognition, Sukhumvit Swimming is a jam and New World is amazing. Oh My Girl also has their breakout year with two freaking successful singles. I also wished there’s a full fledged comeback for Dolphin, but they have been working HARD this year, with members being sick here and there.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I kinda just wanna kill top media real quick. They need a change in management. Im quite weirdly positive so I always look to ways or opportunities that Wei/wooshin will come back one day. And i truly believe it. But top media is really stupid and short-term greedy. On the bright side, Light Up sold 52k so far. This beats the moment of illusion by 18k. I really couldn’t be happier 🙂 even if its not a super high number, 52k makes me hopeful that top media will continue to see the potential in treating u10t correctly. Unfortunately… The Jinhoo thing I’m still pissed about. I dont understand literally anything that happened and why he enlisted so early 😦 but i feel like people are being harsh saying they’re going to be forgotten. Theyve actually improved fanbase a lot this year… I think in 2021 they’ll make it their year.

    Liked by 1 person

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