Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: Part One (Brand New, Cube, DSP, Fantagio, FNC, IST, Jellyfish)

Grading the K-pop AgenciesDisclaimer: 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

Now in its third generation of artists, Brand New Music seems to have settled into its place as a mid-level agency. When it comes to sales, none of its artists are top tier. But, AB6IX have found a nice groove after a tumultuous 2020. The agency is giving the members plenty to do, with multiple comebacks alongside drama roles and variety to diversify their resume.

As much as I enjoyed BDC’s music this year, I’m not sure exactly what Brand New are hoping to accomplish with them. Are they a fixed group, or a prelude to a new debut? If they’re hoping to be permanent, they need much stronger promotion. Ditto for Lee Eunsang, who is dipping his feet into the market rather than making a splash.


Cube Entertainment

At its height, Cube knocked on the door of the “big three.” It never quite got there, but remains a strong force in the market. Despite member turmoil, (G)-IDLE released a very successful mini and diverse solo projects. Pentagon dealt with enlistment challenges the best they could, bolstering their music career with other ventures. Agency seniors BTOB came across very well during Kingdom, and their future looks bright as some key members return from the military.

Apart from (G)I-DLE, Cube seems quite ham-fisted when it comes to girl groups. CLC is all-but defunct, with Sorn leaving and Yujin joining upcoming group Kep1er. Meanwhile, rookies LIGHTSUM haven’t yet settled on a defining sound or concept. Their music shows promise, but they feel severely under-promoted for a new debut.


DSP Media

From an outsider’s perspective, DSP Media seem to be at a perilous point in their history. With both April and KARD inactive at the moment, their 2021 rested almost entirely on a new debut. That’s a lot of pressure to put on boy group Mirae. From sales to impact, the group is a moderate success so far. They’ve released some excellent music, but I fear DSP may not have a long-term vision for them – which will be critical to the agency’s ongoing momentum. On the plus side, DSP hasn’t been stingy on the youtube variety uploads, taking advantage of Dongpyo’s popularity while quickly establishing the entire group as all-around entertainers.


Fantagio Entertainment

Fantagio remains very lucky to have Cha Eunwoo among their ranks. Astro had another standout year commercially. Both of their albums sold like hotcakes, and Eunwoo continued his dominance in acting and variety. It’s rare for a member from a small-to-midsize agency to have such a stranglehold on the industry’s brand reputation rankings, and his popularity has undoubtedly buoyed Astro. But, Fantagio has been pretty good about giving the other members opportunities as well. In addition to MJ’s fun solo project, the guys were constant fixtures on variety.

So, Fantagio… why not give Weki Meki the same push? Their long 2021 hiatus didn’t help them, and it feels like the agency isn’t putting in a lot of effort to their music (or physical packaging) either. The agency remains on solid footing, but their neglect of this group drags their grade down a few notches.


FNC Entertainment

Every year, FNC Entertainment feels solid if unspectacular. They just go about their business, releasing strong albums to sturdy sales. But, they rarely make waves. Boy group SF9 have become an agency standout, selling very well in a year where they’re finding their musical niche. I’m not sure Kingdom was the best fit for them, but it seems to have nudged along their popularity. More important is member Rowoon’s drama roles. He feels very much on the rise, and that bodes well for the group’s future.

On the band side of the agency, N.Flying continue to occupy their niche, finding their fan base and delivering a steady stream of music. CNBLUE act as FNC’s veterans. They’ve passed their commercial prime, but they’re still releasing solid music.

AOA seem all-but kaput, which is a shame given the scandalous nature of their final K-pop bow. Newer group Cherry Bullet don’t feel like a priority to FNC, which is weird given the agency’s comparative lack of girl groups. Maybe some of the members’ participation on Girls Planet 999 will cause a resurgence in promotion.

And while FNC’s youngest act P1Harmony show much potential, I can’t help but feel the agency is failing them. They should be releasing way more music than they are. It’s been over seven months since their last album – a lifetime when it comes to newly-debuted rookies.


IST Entertainment


IST is newly-formed, merging Plan A, Fave and Cre.ker under one umbrella. It’s hard to give an accurate grade since these agencies operated separately for the bulk of the year. But with artists like The Boyz, Weeekly, Victon and Apink, IST’s future seems bright.

The Boyz have established themselves as an A-list success, selling a ridiculous amount of albums, securing spots on dramas and variety and becoming synonymous with the bombast of Kingdom. The only thing that’s missing – in my opinion – is music strong enough to justify this success. It’s hard to be excited about their dominance when their 2021 output felt weaker than any other year of their career. Still, they are undoubtedly a bankable prospect for the industry.

Weeekly’s music also dipped a bit compared to their debut year, but they are definitely rookies on the rise and have already carved out an identifiable sound for themselves.

Victon face military enlistment struggles, but they’ve established a solid fan base that should support them well in the coming year. Solo projects have also offered a welcome glimpse at future potential. Apink were relatively inactive in 2021, which tends to happen with more-established groups. They remain industry darlings, and a valuable asset to any agency.


Jellyfish Entertainment

Over the past few years, it feels like Jellyfish has threatened to collapse under its own weight. Gugudan is no more, and it seems unlikely that VIXX will ever release new music with the agency again. But, stranger things have happened!

This puts an enormous weight on boy group VERIVERY, who have yet to claw their way to the upper reaches of the industry. If Jellyfish had the benefit of reliable income from senior artists, VERIVERY could be allowed more grace as they slowly mature their sound and image. Their promotion has been consistent (including an upcoming U.S. tour), but they shouldn’t have to be the face of their agency at this stage in their career. Luckily, their sales are slowly growing.


Check out part 2, where I take a look at KQ, P-Nation, RBW, Starship, Top Media, WM and Woollim!


26 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: Part One (Brand New, Cube, DSP, Fantagio, FNC, IST, Jellyfish)

  1. Love so Sweet by Cherry Bullet is in my top 5 tracks iof the year, unquestionably. Bora, Jiwon and May killed it on 999.
    FNC, comeback before it’s too late! they will squander the opportunity, I feel.
    Also P1Harmony is doing a ton of US variety content right now, but could’ve been more effective to pair it with new music.

    DSP…the April situation is a bummer. What an awesome group. I was surprised to see they still have a relatively high brand ranking. Mirae debut was good, comeback less so.

    With Cube.. I thought the Cerebus release was awesome. They really messed up with G-idle and CLC. Lost opportunity. The Lightsum girls seem promising, but I really agree they’re not getting the needed promotions for a new group.

    If Brave Entertainment was listed, I’d give them a solid B. The lawsuit situation is not great…but I loved all the Brave Girls comebacks this year and I also enjoyed that DBK song.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To be fair, I think those monthly “brand reputation” rankings don’t factor in whether the attention groups are getting are positive or negative, just if people are talking about them…

      I agree with all your other points though – if they were included, Brave Girls’ rise should definitely be enough to give Brave Entertainment a solid grade. I do have to wonder when (G)I-dle will eventually return…Cube, and Soojin herself, really messed up with the handling of that situation, but I wonder how the rest of the group will fare in 2022. They still have a big fandom, so I can’t imagine them truly fading out or anything. And as for Cherry Bullet, I definitely agree that FNC needs to take advantage of the GP999 hype before its too late! These smaller agencies are definitely not handling their girl groups too well this year…out of this list in Part 1, I can really only also pick out Weeekly having an OK year, with two comebacks and their popularity growing considerably this year (After School really was a breakout hit).

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Reading all of these I couldn’t help but think that if I was to grade each of these agencies purely on their girl group output for the year almost all of them would have earned a big fat F.
    For whatever reason this whole year has felt particularly one sided when it came to the boy group/girl group imbalance. Correct me if I am wrong but I don’t think we got a single full album from a girl group until September with ITZY, followed by Twice. Both of which are from JYP, who for better or worse has arguably become the largest purveyor of girl groups.
    Across the board agencies seemed to struggle even more than usual with building (cherry bullet, Lightsum), maintaining (Weki Meki), and retaining (CLC, April, AOA, Gugudan) their girl groups.
    On average it does seem that boy groups are both more popular and perhaps even more prevalent but still there has always been plenty of love for girl groups as well. However, I do think there has always been a gap between the boy group/ girl group following and their promotions but this year it felt like a chasm sized difference. Maybe it comes down to lingering effects from the pandemic, or the loss of some longstanding industry staples (Gfriend, Lovelyz). Maybe its just my perception of things as I was personally less enthused by the girl group musical output this year compared to last year.
    I am sure a lot of this also comes down to a number of social, cultural, and even economic factors, (all things someone far more knowledgeable than me could probably write an essay on). Regardless of the cause agencies largely failed to support their girl groups this year. So, one of my biggest wishes for 2022 is for girl groups to really shine, and I know asking agencies to do better by their groups is like asking for snow in the Sahara, but its way past time that so many girl groups were given their due.
    Personally, my boy group to girl group musical consumption falls at about 80%/20% but I still strongly believe that kpop as a whole is at its best when both male and female acts are given ample room to shine. Yet it genuinely feels as though, for whatever reason apart from maybe JYP, girl groups were not given the opportunists they should have been given this year.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I only pay half attention to things like sales and brand ratings and so on, but I definitely agree that it feels like girl groups generally got the shaft this year. JYP definitely excepted, as they seem to have done better with their female groups than their male groups this year, but we’ll see what next year looks like. I’m curious how Nick is going to rate RBW – as a fan of all four of their active groups, I don’t think I’ve heard any complaints with how they’ve handled Purple Kiss’ first year, and although we don’t know what happened behind the scenes, it seems like MAMAMOO are much better positioned coming out of contract renegotiations than most groups, male or female.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with everything you said, personally I feel like girl groups are in a bit of a transitional phase. A lot of 3rd gen groups are either fizzling out or beginning to focus more on solo work/other endeavors while the 4th gen groups either are still figuring things out or frankly haven’t even debuted yet. Due to this, it makes the current landscape look kinda grim (and it kind of is…rip Gfriend & Lovelyz). But I do think things are gonna turn around. Given the slate of major upcoming debuts, return of GIDLE, re-debut of VIVIZ, along with a lot of groups just getting more time & experience under their belt, i see 2022 being the opposite of this year hopefully.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It feels to me like we’re already seeing a bit of turnaround over the last couple of months, although that could just be my perspective of having loved several recent girl group releases and being totally bowled over by bugAboo and billlie’s debuts. I don’t actually know how any of those releases did commercially, so I could be way off. It will be interesting to see what next year holds.


        • Things have been turning around. Most my fav recent releases have came from girl groups. Especially the new Twice album.

          Bugaboo and Billlie actually sold pretty well. I like both groups a lot and Billlie just added one of my favorites from Girls Planet so I’ll be tuned in to them going forward.

          We’ll also likely see both Kep1er and IVE debut next month so there’s that. And the new Hybe GG is confirmed otw and the new JYPn group just finalized their lineup.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Agree with pretty much everything here. I’m still quite sad about Soojin and GIDLE. Cube and her really dropped the ball on that one. That being said, whenever they do comeback I think they’ll do really well and better than most people expect.

    I will add Brand New Music did announce they have a new BG otw and said Eunsang would be included (no word on BDC) so there’s that.

    Also FNC has a new survival show on rn for a JP girl group. Hopefully CheBul doesn’t get shafted once they debut. Speaking of CheBul, they really need to come back soon to try and capitalize on that GP999 hype. If they continue that Love So Sweet/Q&A sound and aesthetic they’d be a great group imo.


    • Forgot to add this but wtf is Jellyfish doing. I didn’t even realize their only group was Verivery. Wonder if they have plans to do anything else cause…


      • I love verivery, but they are not enough to carry that company at the moment. It would be wise to do something else- however, I not have high hopes


  4. Cube is really in some hot water right now. They have taken a lot of hits and need some wins before they lose more face.

    I was more happy with FNC until the music from P1Harmony slowed down. They released two SOLID title tracks and had a very strong identity formed for themselves. I am excited to see if they continue with their current style (I hope so). But the big space between last comeback and their future comeback is…worrying.

    DSP media. I was SO happy to see Mirae debut with such a strong song. Their album was phenomenal. However…the comeback left a lot to be desired for me. Sighs.


  5. in my opinion, I think these smaller, struggling companies should strongly consider cutting ties with acts that are not doing well, or more importantly to the fact….groups that they cannot properly manage, and concentrate on one or two groups at a time. Big Hit solely focused on BTS for years before they started any other group and look at their company now (WOW!)….

    many of the companies (even before COVID-19) just did not count up all the cost of starting a kpop group and successfully maintaining the group. Because of this, we often get the disbandment of groups that we love and should have done better than they did (9Muses, Spica, After School, Gugudan, CLC – the writing is on the wall even if they have not officially disbanded – and so many others), or we get ‘teased’ with a promising group, then within a year, or sooner, they seem to have vanished in thin air….

    to say the kpop industry is oversaturated is truly an overstatement….with so many new groups (and individual artists) debuting each year, it’s often hard to keep up with….add that to the overwhelmingly amount of new kpop management agencies that are simply unprepared (financially, staff-wise, promotions, support, or overall knowledge of how to manage and properly treat their artists) to manage anyone or anything….

    then you have some of the slightly more established agencies that still can’t seem to learn from their mistakes and get it right, like Cube Entertainment, Star Empire Entertainment, FNC Entertainment, Jellyfish, CJ E&M, and i could go on and on….

    it even seems like some of the big names in the kpop industry seem to be either going through some ‘kpop blues,’ or are maybe just slipping….SM Entertainment, what the hell is going on with Girls’ Generation?….they are k-legends and a huge part of your company’s success….if they are not going to be a group anymore, then just frickin tell us so we can move on….and, why do i feel like Red Velvet is the next in line to face your legendary ‘not really promoting, but we’ll keep them in the dungeon so that no one can say a group has disbanded, aka Girls’ Generation….i am just not that into Shinee like i used to be, i am just not that much of a fan of NCT, and it is really irritating to see one of my top male kpop groups in EXO side step with missing members to make music without each member present….i know some are in mandatory enlistment and some have just completed theirs, but this is my gripe about successful kpop boy groups that have the mandatory enlistment facing them; either send them all in together or wait until they all are done….if it were not for aespa, i’d probably be pissing on SM / JYP seems to be more in the headlines himself than his artists….you let Wonder Girls, Got7, and Miss A slip away, although i will give you credit for your Japanese handling of NizIu….that group is solid!….also, any company that has ITZY and Twice, i’ll put up with their $#!+ a little while longer / YG….i really like iKon and Winner, but even aside from whoever in each group is dealing with mandatory enlistment, it seems that YG has not been doing much with either group….Treasure, to me, is an ‘okay’ group, and aside from “Come Back Home,” i was not really into 2NE1 when they were active (sorry)….the big question to me (and i’m sure many others) is what the hell is going on with Big Bang????….this group (tied with EXO as my top male kpop group) is truly ‘The Kings of Kpop!’….they were making hit music, selling out concerts, crossing over internationally, causing girls to buckle at the knees, and taking the Korean music industry by storm way before a lot of these other groups were, including BTS….if we are no longer going to see them together as a group (the current 4 of them), then why don’t you just frickin say it, YG….no need to torture us with silence….no one likes torture / Cube Entertainment….please don’t get me started….3 letters, CLC….need i say more???? / FNC, you had one of the best female kpop groups in AOA….you had Choa and Yuna as one of the best one-two punches when it comes to vocals, Seolhyun as not only a good vocalist, but a powerhouse beauty of immense talent and popularity, and a supporting cast of 4 more talented kpop artists, and what do you do?….you let it all crumble beneath you….i know Choa left due to mental health and other issues, but how much support did she receive from you when she was going through this while in the group….no one in management knew about Jimin and Mina’s issues?….then, you let Yuna leave….we know that there are still 3 members left, and the ‘disbandment’ card has not been pulled, but come on….who can’t see the writing on the wall / it seems like HYBE (formally Big Hit Entertainment) is the only agency that knows what the hell they are doing….a lot of these agencies you write about, Nick, especially the fledgling upstart ones, can learn a lot from HYBE….


  6. Love the ratings and point. Sad that girl group this year from this entertainment company has gotten weaker, on hiatus, disband, lack of promotions and no plans at all. They deserve better, and i hope in coming months they will thrive which i think harder because of the debut of some anticipated gg (IVE, VIVIZ, Kepler, JYP and YG new GG) as well as the newly debuted groups who i think has good start (Billlie, bugaboo, Lightsum).
    But i also love what Boy groups released this year. Hope this companies are have transparent promotions to any of their group.
    BTW REQUESTING TO ALSO GRADE HAPPYFACE ENT, the company of DREAM CATCHER (they have a pretty solid releases this year❤, and also in the top 10 album sales in gg❤ and always ranking inside the top 30 of Brand Reputaion, i think during Odd Eye era they peaked at 10 which is great for a gg from a small company)

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. I think FNC did great this year in music. Their groups released good music with strong identity.

    P1Harmony could perform the first time in America in front of a public. It’s important for a group. They couldn’t in Korea because of the COVID. They filmed their future MV, I think. Scared was good and their different covers were great too.

    Cherry Bullet’s Love So Sweet was one of my favourite girl group song this year. I hoped they will profit of 999 Planet to release a new song.

    SF9 did so many things during this year, they had to broaden their activities because of the COVID but they etablished their sound after Kingdom.

    AOA, they are coming back step by step. Now, musically, it will be difficult but Seolhyun is still there.

    N.Flying and CNBlue shine in concert but COVID didn’t help them. They always have tours in Japan. But their music was pretty good too.

    Liked by 1 person

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