Feature

Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: HYBE LABELS

It’s not quite December yet, but I’m going to kick off this annual feature a little early this year! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at many of K-pop’s biggest agencies and offering my thoughts about how their 2021 went. Next up is HYBE Labels.

As usual, the thoughts are my own and aren’t privy to any insider information. I’m not taking into account things like profits and stock value. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well K-pop agencies are serving their artists and fans.

HYBE Labels


The Good

It’s not often you get to watch an agency become a dominant player in real time. Though I may have personal issues with HYBE’s rapid consumption of smaller agencies, there’s no denying their power within the market. In a relatively short time, their tentacles have spread to almost every part of the industry, making then a multimedia giant. This has allowed HYBE to leverage their strong fan base to buoy the fortunes of other groups – both established and new.

HYBE’s expansion into international markets continues to go extremely well, with BTS scoring another bonafide smash and groups like TXT and ENHYPEN establishing huge global fan bases. The agency knows how to cater to the widest audience possible, and that has worked miracles for their bottom line. This extends to collaborations, like BTS’s recent song with Coldplay. And while BTS continues to focus heavily on global fandom, the agency has used some of its younger acts more strategically in Korea (ie: TXT’s Soobin and ENHYPEN’s Sunghoon hosting Music Bank).

For me, the biggest highlight of HYBE’s 2021 was TXT. Their work this year has been very focused, adopting a pop-rock style that fits like a glove. But no matter the genre, it feels like they have a distinct identity. This can be a rarity for HYBE artists, so it’s satisfying to see the intentionality of their promotion.

Though fans have noticed a few changes in Seventeen’s sound since Pledis became a HYBE subsidiary, the group continues to enjoy creative control and had a strong year of releases. Their popularity would have likely remained stable under Pledis, but being part of the HYBE umbrella certainly hasn’t hurt.

And though I find their music quite hit and miss, ENHYPEN are doing shockingly well for a rookie group formed from a show that didn’t seem to garner all that much buzz. Their release schedule has been consistent and the guys sell albums like crazy.


The Bad

I’m afraid this section will largely be a repeat of last year. In 2020, I mentioned the “Disneyfication” of HYBE, and that’s still a concern. Disney feels like a monopoly in everything but name, and HYBE seems to be heading down the same path. By absorbing so many other agencies and markets, the industry risks becoming even more homogeneous than ever. Disney has found critical success by employing visionaries to tackle specific projects, ensuring a diversity of tone and style. With HYBE often turning to a song camp approach for music creation, I fear a future where too many of their tracks feel corporate rather than creative.

This extends to the bizarre sound of HYBE-produced vocals. Yes, I’m going to keep writing about their weird mushy vocal mixing until things change! Their insistence on stripping the character from so many of their performers has ruined many songs, and I still can’t understand the motivation behind this approach. Does someone at HYBE HQ actually enjoy this muffled sound? The majority of fans seem to flag it as a weakness, so you’d think the producers would try something new.

Global outreach is fine – and necessary for a smaller country like Korea – but sometimes it goes too far. BTS’s Permission To Dance felt like an inflection point, replacing so many fan-favorite elements with generic pandering to Western audiences. Although the song was a hit (everything BTS releases will be a hit right now), it feels like the ploy backfired a bit. I’m hopeful that HYBE will learn from this and return more creative control to the group themselves. I’m surprised BTS didn’t release an album in 2021, but maybe this means that they’re taking their time to craft something definitive and authentic.

Though this is set to change eventually, I’m baffled how HYBE still doesn’t have any girl groups under its umbrella. If they want to be male only, that’s fine. There’s something to be said about finding your niche and perfecting it (Johnny’s Entertainment and TOP Media could certainly attest to this), but it’s weird how their only girl group (GFriend) disbanded this year, leaving behind a bunch of male acts that sometimes feel interchangeable. I look forward to a future where their roster is more diverse.

(edit: I totally forgot that fromis_9 is now part of Pledis, so therefore part of HYBE as well. I guess we’re already diversifying the roster! I’ll be interested to see how (or if) their sound changes in 2022)

2021 Grade: B

Previous years: 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017

43 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: HYBE LABELS

  1. HYBE is getting a D from me until they re-debut Sakura and Chaewon 💯💯💯.

    But seriously, I haven’t been TOO satisfied with the HYBE this year musically. Both SVT releases were rather underwhelming to me, the b-sides were cool but the direction they took with their pop-rock sound was a little too sanitized for my liking. TXT also transitioned to this pop-rock with better results but I still wasn’t super into it especially when Loser=Lover rolled around. Album was hit or miss for me as well but provided some super strong highlights like Frost, No Rules, and Anti-Romantic. BTS was…yeah. Enhypen was alright. Drunk-Dazed grow off me and Tamed-Dashed never stuck in the first place BUT the rest of their debut album was pretty good. Nu’est follows the trend of titles I didnt care for but good albums. But yeah…not the greatest year for kpop’s #1 company.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Plus whatever that shit with GFRIEND was. Sigh.

      Btw with rumors (well pretty much confirmed now) that HYBE will debut 3 GGs next year. I beg them…PLEASE focus on vocals. Given TXT (they put up a good effort though.) and Enhypen are pretty weak vocally with heavier focus on performance, I hope they find a middle-ground with their upcoming GGs. Min Heejin spent years with SM’s finest so I pray her group is impressive in that regard. And with rumors Heo Yunjin and Chaewon will be in the SouMu group, they’ll be fine. But I’m worried the I-Land group will follow down the same path as Enhypen and I really don’t want that.

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      • TXT have good vocals, its just that they are meant to not overshadow members. I forgot how to phrase it but Bang PD wanted a group where everyone is an all-rounder or good at all categories. Also, its just literally the heavy autotune in their songs, but tbh they do have good stable vocals, they just don’t stand out that much vocally and I’m not mad. Enhypen on the other hand is indeed poor in vocals but they can work on that. They’re a hit or miss for me in terms of discography, nothing beats TXT’s discography

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    • Romanticize is still one of my favourite releases of the year. It’s very strong, and while I don’t think Inside Out was some kind of revolutionary track (which I didn’t need it to be, because I quite enjoy this settled version of Nu’est’s sound – though I wish they’d come back more often so they’d have more chances to experiment. On that note, I’m glad their one (1) release after Pledis became a HYBE subsidiary still retained their musical identity, with Bumzu/Prismfilter and Baekho working on the tracks – I was not a big fan of Seventeen’s Ready to Love and didn’t love Rock with You as much as I love their earlier work, unfortunately, though I wouldn’t say it’s because of who’s credited there but more so because of the number of people credited on that one title track alone, which made it sound fairly different from all the other songs they’ve released this year.)

      The whole of the Romanticize album is cohesive and the mix of group and solo songs really stands out to me. They seem to be doing a lot of individual activities, so it’s good to see all the members getting acting/musical/variety offers currently though I definitely would want to see another group comeback. It’s a shame this is their ninth year and they’ve only ever had two full albums!

      Liked by 3 people

    • Ngl this did surprise me. Especially since he marked it as one of his mid-year favs, but there was a lot touched on in this little grading so it’s understandable.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I like that album a lot but didn’t have anything to say about it in the context of HYBE as a whole. It didn’t really move the needle either direction. Doesn’t mean it’s a forgettable album, though!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Can’t really argue with any of that. TXT really stood out to me this year as well. I think I’ve come to some sort of peace with BTS’ single-minded drive for US recognition – I mentioned this in a previous discussion about the k-pop industry but I think (relying only on anecdotal evidence and my own observation) that they’re operating as a gateway drug for many Western fans – they’ve reached a point of ubiquitousness that means they’re usually the first group people encounter but a significant number of people seem to move onto other groups. ENHYPEN probably benefit the most from this right now, as the newest group under the same label and thus the easiest one to get caught up on. But as someone else also noted recently, a number of non-HYBE groups have made big progress internationally (and domestically) this year as well. A couple of years I think there was some debate over whether k-pop could survive internationally without BTS and I think the answer at this point is yes.

    I don’t have nearly the perspective Nick and other older fans have on broader trends, but I haven’t seen HYBE’s groups driving trends nearly as much as I thought would be the case. NCT seem like bigger trend-drivers on the BG side, although I think a good number of debut groups are more influenced by Stray Kids with their heavier rap/rock sound and focus on performance over dance or vocals. A number of girl groups continue to follow BLACKPINK’s model, although aespa seem to have fused that with NCT’s musical style. Maybe I’m imagining it, but the last couple of months in particular seem to see more GGs going in a more DREAMCATCHER rock-influenced direction, which I am 100% good with.

    Anyhow, I remember reading your end of the year columns last year and wondering how things would turn out, and while I’d agree that all your concerns are still on the table, it seems like we could be in a much worse place right now than we could have been.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The Dreamcatcher influence recently has been interesting to see. I guess smaller GGs saw that worked for one of them and thought “why tf not”. Like you, I can’t complain. Dreamnote’s Ghost is one of my fav releases this year as is Pink Fantasy’s Poison. If anything their surpassing the original.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I wonder if ongoing changes to the market due to the pandemic have made some of the small agencies more inclined to go with a sound that (I think?) is much more popular internationally than domestically. When your fansigns are all virtual, you can make the same $ off a foreign fan as one based in Seoul.

        I played the MVs for “BEcause” and “Poison” for my spouse back to back a while ago and we both preferred “Poison” on pretty much every level. I still like DREAMCATCHER a lot, especially their crazy grab bag of b-sides, but “Poison” is a front runner for my top ten titles of the year list. If “Ghost” had come out six months ago it might have made more of an impact on me, but while I really like it, it’s been overshadowed performance-wise by bugAboo and now musically by Billlie.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That fansign is actually something I’ve never actually realized. That’s really interesting now that you mention it.

          But Bugaboo and Ghost were neck and neck for me when they first came out. Ghost prevailed, but those Bugaboo girls are some really good performers. It was nice to see Choyeon has improved so much since P48. That 1theK cover thing they did near when they debuted was really cool as well.

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          • The only group I know for sure are doing virtual fansigns is ATEEZ (with Woo next to San, of course, so they can pop in some fanservice when one of them isn’t on a call, and it’s possible my shameful love of Woosan compilations is how I know virtual fansigns are a thing), but I can’t believe they’re the only ones to have figured out that fans will shell out to get an exclusive 60 seconds of unstable Facetime with their ults.

            The dance cover mix? Yes, and I was very impressed, as soon as I got over rolling my eyes about how swear words don’t count if they’re in English.

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    • The only song I can really think of that gives me BTS influence is GreatGuys – Touch By Touch (pretty nice little song tho). I think the reason is because the BTS sound is moving further from a standard kpop sound, especially with the likes of Ed Sheeran writing for them, so a lot of groups won’t really emulate what they are doing unless it’s going for that US money (like A.C.E did on Down). TXT and EN- are still finding their feet so they won’t have many copycats yet. What I hear is a lot of NCT Dream in groups these days. Which makes sense since they did just sell 2 million off one record.

      While idk about debuts, I feel like a lot of already debuted groups have become interchangeable and don’t feel like themselves any more. For example, when I first heard The Boyz – Maverick, it instantly reminded me of EPEX – Lockdown. Everyone seems to be stuck in the aggressive posturing mode (I miss Bloom Bloom, bring her back pls TBZ).

      Liked by 1 person

      • With BTS, I meant that I was worried that more groups would start putting the majority of their resources into chasing the US market and that would pull the k-pop mainstream even further towards the top 40 sound than it already is, but it seems like, other than BTS (and maybe MONSTA X), the English-language market has stayed a side project (like “Down” or the NCT sub-sub-unit songs) rather than their main emphasis the way it has been with BTS all year. TWICE’s album seems like a balance I can live with – one English-language pre-release with a full MV and promotions on US television, followed by a Korean-English title track with an MV and promotions on Korean programs.

        I’ve only been following k-pop closely for about a year now so my perspective is limited, but I do wonder how much the “everyone sounds the same now” effect is exaggerated by the memory and playlist filtering Myma mentioned in the SM thread. Maybe trend-chasing is more pronounced right now, or maybe all the trend-chasing dreck of the past has been correctly forgotten. Even groups like VIXX and BlockB have stinkers when you listen to every single track they released.

        Plus I get the impression that there are just so many more groups actively trying to scrape a part of the expanded market now that the trend-chasing is more obvious. When I got into VICTON I was baffled by how much I disliked their early sound, but people who’d been fans in the mid-teens said that’s what all the BGs were doing those days. Luckily I didn’t become a k-pop fan then, because I much prefer the aggressive posturing sound.

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  3. I like that TXT seem to have found something that works for them and makes them stand out a bit, even if I don’t particularly care for their songs (and I still can’t get over them having like 13? producers for Loser Lover). Still don’t like BTS output. Unsure what I think of Enhypen, I like Drunk-Dazed but dislike Tamed-Dashed.

    HYBE biggest fuck up has to be letting GFriend go. I hope it was a case of the members just wanted to do other things, rather than them being forced out the door. I just don’t trust the agency with girl groups at this point.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. unrelated but im disgusted at what armies are saying about golden child and jangjun because of what he did on weekly idol. all he did was imitate taehyung’s facial expressions dancing to boy with luv and now armies are claiming jangjun’s “MoCkInG” him

    grow up armies pls

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s put me in a foul mood during a week when I’ve already been pissed off at K-pop fandom for other reasons.

      I’m seriously done with Army. I know that painting an entire fandom with the same brush is inappropriate and that the majority of fans are sane and positive-minded, but this kind of shit keeps happening over and over and over again. The loud-mouthed ignorance of the minority seems intent on taking the joy out of everything. The weird hive mind, parasocial relationship schtick has long since worn out its welcome and at this point I think the agency and artists bear responsibility for reigning in a fandom with a consistent history of toxicity and harassment.

      In fact, I think that goes across the board with all agencies and artists. I would absolutely respect an idol group who released a statement along these lines: “we appreciate your support, but we want to remind you that the purpose of our fandom is not to tear down others. There’s no room in this fandom for that kind of negativity.”

      Of course, this industry makes most of its profit off idol worship, so that’ll never happen.

      Liked by 5 people

      • That sucks, sorry your guys are getting crap over stupid things like that. I was watching a video of MAMAMOO at some live event a few years ago and the top comment was a fight between Armys over a (very friendly) joke about how one of the BTS members had reacted, and the thread had been active for over a year.

        I remember hearing at least one statement from Bangchan during KINGDOM telling Stays to knock off the negative stuff, but a statement from the group or agency might have had more impact. Or maybe not. I stay off of Twitter and the gossip sites because I can’t handle that kind of negativity in my life.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I think much of this toxicity comes from a lot of the younger fans mainly teenagers. I was like that too when I was at that age and so were a lot of my friends. We were all immature.

        I’m in my 20s now, my interest in Kpop has significantly dwindled because the groups that I supported during my teen years are now no longer active and my taste in music has long since parted ways with today’s trends. I still have current groups that I support now but it’s not like the old days where I would go to fan meetings and concerts, buy albums and merchandise. Now I just watch the music video, watch some variety shows, and listen to some songs. Money is tight (life of a university student lol).

        My point is those kids will eventually grow out of it and that’s a positive. What’s negative is that every year there will always be a fresh batch of excited teenagers. I hope that with every interaction online, you remind yourself that you’re dealing with people who are significantly younger than you and therefore do not have the same mental capacity as you do. Realistically speaking, it is unfair for us to expect the same level of maturity as we have from them. This doesn’t mean being young as an excuse to do shitty things, but this is how it is in reality.

        BUT, I don’t know if it’s just the boomer in me, but I do feel that Kpop fan culture has changed somewhat. There used to be a sense of novelty with Kpop like a discreet cul-de-sac that only I knew. Is it crazier now? I don’t know… If you’re feeling tired maybe take a break. I hope you rest easy knowing that at least within the online space of your blog, there are good people (aside from the occasional troll).

        In the case that someone says there are fully grown adults doing these kinds of shit, my one word of advi-

        Liked by 1 person

        • The purple people are getting bent out of shape that the NCT 2021 project is called Universe. I couldn’t believe it. I thought gatekeeping fireworks and denim suits after Super M’s We Do video was nuts enough.

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        • The issue with Corden was his racist comment that he was surprised they let bts be the voice of korea at the UN. All of you all are ignorant bullies. You love to point your fingers at armys and how terrible they are but you fail to look around you and actually pay attention to what yall do to them. You dont care about yall fandoms accusing bts of plagiarism, you dont care about the members feelings when they said themselves they dont like mocking jokes, you dont care about all the people that are horrible to armys. All you care about it yourself.

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  5. I don’t really have much to say about HYBE’s business practices that wasn’t already covered in your assessment, so I’ll just move to the artists. The HYBE artists I’m the most interested in at this point are TXT and fromis_9. TXT seems to have really found a signature sound in 2021, and fortunately I love it! Both of fromis’ title tracks this year may well end up in my year-end favourites, and I’m looking forward to see how being under Pledis/HYBE will change their sound and release schedule in 2022. I enjoyed both of Seventeen’s title tracks this year, and the albums were pretty good too, and now that all 13 members have re-signed, it looks like we’ll be getting a steady career from them for a while! Enhypen has not really interested me, and as for BTS, I hope that, as you said, they are preparing for a great, authentic Korean (please) album soon. Perhaps if they get that Grammy they want so bad this awards season, they’ll stop (or who knows? Maybe that will cause them to refocus even more attention on the Western market…😩).

    Also, am I the only person very confused at all these girl groups reportedly debuting soon under HYBE? It seems like every month we’re finding out about a new girl group coming soon, but yet nothing has happened. From what I remember there’s four (?) incoming…? A Source Music one, a Big Hit one, an I-Land season 2 one, and a recently-announced American one? Are they all going to storm the industry together or are they just announcing some of these pretty early? At least it seems they do have plans to fill in the girl-group gap in their agency…I’ve been rewatching and relistening to a lot of GFriend’s stuff lately and I’m sad all over again at their disbandment. Looking forward to Viviz and I hope for their success! With rumours of IZ*ONE’s Sakura and Chaewon redebuting under the agency, as well as a roster of their own talented trainees, it seems their upcoming girl groups have a bright future ahead of them (though of course being under HYBE, they were bound to be successful anyways).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Watching the younger groups flourishing, especially in the West for groups like TXT, makes me both happy and nervous. As someone who hasn’t found BTS’s releases compelling since, debatably, Wings, these fresh debut sounding groups are a blessing, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen to their sound once they start getting the inevitable US push (and with military service looming and TXT being miles ahead in Western popularity compared to any other HYBE groups, they seem like the most likely candidates at the moment).

    I know people like to argue that BTS has just matured which has resulted in the change in their sound, but that’s a reach I just can’t make. I’d love for them to do release an album with some sonic references to their earlier material. Girl groups will be an interesting dilemma for HYBE. I don’t think being under them will be a boon for girl groups in the way it has been for boy groups, so I wouldn’t be surprised if ALL girl groups debut under SouMu. Finally, for the size of HYBE, it’s really time that they start acting like a company of their size. Get a better PR department, enough with faulty merchandise, etc, HYBE can easily expand beyond just the entertainment industry, but he feels like they continually hamstring themselves with each try.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Ok so you mentioned Disneyfication so let me put a very brief statement for thought:

    If you watch a lot of kpop and is kind of left leaning you probably will come across this not very good video on kpop:

    The reason it is not very good is that KPOP is at this stage still mostly mercantilism (the entire industry is geared towards export friendliness), and also the management structure is not really late capitalism because obviously most of these companies are still under their founder’s direct control.

    HOWEVER, after this huge wave of financing guess what, HYBE is rapidly moving towards a typical late capitalism company in terms of how the company is owned and managed.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I dug Enhyphen’s Children of the Corn Cheese concept a lot this year, and both albums were solid. For some reason the processed voices don’t bother me because they’re supposed to be like wee ghosties or something. Really liked TXT’s Frost and I don’t usually vibe with early 00s emo rap-rock, but I think a strong tune and a lot of aural drama helped sell it to me.Seventeen and Nu’est were strong as hell. BTS was a total wash for me this year. I liked Butter OK, but it (weirdly and appropriately) didn’t hold up through the summer.

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  9. This is how much I care about Hybe be da loca: It is now later on Monday morning, and I am finally commenting.

    To speak broadly, they are popular because they are popular.

    Hybe-style kpop feels like one is going in for a boutique experience, something foreign and perhaps a bit unusual. Cool and unique. But when you break it down its all basic contemporary pop style albeit with most of the lyrics in a different language. Its like Whole Foods, where one thinks their favorite organic non-GMO brand with boho packaging is special, but actually most of the brands in Whole Foods are owned by the same big conglomerates that supply the local supermarket down the block. Its the same, glossed up in a fancy package with different fonts.

    Its not about the music anymore, its about the multiple channels to market. The shelf space on each aisle. BTS is dominating kpop like Chobani is dominating yogurt.

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  10. Seperate discussion, but why do u grade Hybe as a whole and not just the labels under it? Ig you can see some similarities but their music and the way groups like bts & txt vs svt, nuest,& fromis 9 are marketed/promoted are very different. Just trips me up cause ppl only seems to do this w labels under hybe and not other k ent labels under the huge companies.

    Liked by 1 person

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