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.
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.
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)