Feature

Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2022: HYBE LABELS

This feature has gradually shifted from a December to a November tradition, leaving more space for next month’s sprawling end-of-year countdowns. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at many of K-pop’s biggest agencies and offering my thoughts about how their 2022 went. Following SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment‘s and JYP Entertainment‘s evaluations, it’s time for the last of the “big four.” Yep, it’s HYBE Labels.

As usual, the thoughts are my own and aren’t privy to any insider information. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well K-pop agencies are serving their artists and fans. Because of the timing of this post, I’ll be including the last few weeks of 2021 as part of my analysis.

HYBE Labels


The Good

HYBE has become such a sprawling empire that it almost exists on its own playing field. With no less than six major subsidiaries, HYBE is now home to over a dozen major acts. The corporation grew even larger in 2022 with the debut of two new girl groups. I’d like to start by focusing on them.

LE SSERAFIM and NewJeans have both become instant successes. They followed different paths to get there, but their music and image are quickly defining this new generation in K-pop. And given the creative control and focus of their individual subsidiaries (Source Music and ADOR, respectively), the groups arrived with a distinct identity and purpose. International appeal has always been a huge part of the HYBE brand, and these girl groups seem especially adept at capturing fans of various nationalities and cultural backgrounds. The future is looking bright for them.

Similarly, fromis_9 have benefited greatly from being swept up in HYBE’s umbrella. Their sales skyrocketed this year. Now, they just need that one big hit to cement them in the public’s mind.

Though I’m critical of HYBE’s overall influence on the K-pop market, there’s no denying it was a smart move to gobble up other successful agencies over the past few years. With their biggest act (BTS, in case you’ve been living under a rock) due to begin military enlistments, HYBE has a wide – and widely successful – bench of artists to fall back on. Boy groups TXT, ENHYPEN and Seventeen continue to be very popular. None of them had a particularly great 2022 when it comes to music, but they’re an imposing trio when you look at sales. A future without BTS group activities doesn’t feel nearly as uncertain as it did just two years ago.

Speaking of BTS, 2022 finally gave us more solo work from the guys. This has been a long time coming and opens the door for new sounds and ideas within BTS’s extended discography. So far, efforts by J-Hope and Jin have been met with success and it will be interesting to see what the other guys do – especially those who haven’t released solo mixtapes in the past.

Many K-pop headlines were built around a “will they or won’t they?” approach to BTS’s enlistment this year. I’m not sure the agency or members had an actual choice in this from a legal standpoint, but I think the forced hiatus might be good for them in the long run. There’s a real risk of oversaturation, even as the rate of new BTS music has slowed. This pause should give them a chance to jump off the hamster wheel and assess where they want their careers to go in the future.

HYBE artists continue to be popular across the globe, but the company seems to be making a concerted push into the Japanese market. In addition to Japanese albums from its existing roster, the new Japanese group &Team is set to debut soon. And with LE SSERAFIM scheduled to perform on the prestigious Kōhaku Uta Gassen (member Sakura is already a bonafide star in Japan), HYBE seems well-positioned to extend its tentacles into Japan’s music industry. Now, they just need to make sure the music is decent.


The Bad

HYBE is a financial juggernaut, and that continued in 2022. But, this was always going to be a difficult year for them. BTS’s hiatus has already taken its toll on their market share and is even estimated to hurt the Korean economy as a whole. I don’t think HYBE are in any real trouble, but their investment in other acts will be critical over the next few years.

Musically, HYBE’s output was a mixed bag. Apart from the buzzy debuts of LE SSERAFIM and NewJeans, most acts felt like they were stuck in a holding pattern. BTS punted with a compilation album led by a single that acted more like a fan song, while TXT and Seventeen mostly repeated sounds and ideas they’d covered with greater artistic success in the past. There was no big standout song from any of these groups – no 0x1=LOVESONG that everyone seemed to rave about.

In TXT’s case, this comes down to a lack of actual music. One mini album seems unfair for a group of their rising status. Post-pandemic, every K-pop act seemed to tour in 2022 and I understand this makes it difficult to schedule multiple comebacks. But, TXT have always suffered from a dearth of comebacks when compared to peers from other agencies. I wonder if they’d be better served under their own subsidiary in the way that Belift Lab manages ENHYPEN. Maybe BTS’s group hiatus will allow TXT to get more promotional attention.

HYBE subsidiaries were not without their share of criticism this year. From Kim Garam’s bullying scandal to the styling and concepts given to its underaged performers, the all-powerful empire seemed to play defense just as often as they played offense. Managing girl groups comes with different set of intricacies than boy groups, and HYBE don’t have a great track record in this regard. We’ll see what the future holds, but 2022 was definitely a year of growing pains.

2022 Grade: B


What I’d like to see in 2023:

  • An elevation of some of HYBE’s younger acts (TXT, ENHYPEN, fromis_9)
  • A diverse set of BTS solo projects
  • The solidification of LE SSERAFIM and NewJeans as the new girl group vanguard

Previous years: 2021 // 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017

28 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2022: HYBE LABELS

  1. HYBE has managed to cement itself as a monster agency, and proved it can finally debut successful girl groups too! Not saying I’m sidelining the array of boy groups they had this year, their girl groups are making headlines this year. It’s such a success story that

    One thing about HYBE that I feel iffy about is the awkwardness of their label model, being somewhere in between SM Entertainment and Kakao M’s. Debuting more and more idols is needed for HYBE to survive, but to distribute them into 5 different labels while calling them a single HYBE family seems redundant. It also feels like some of their labels are just placeholder labels (Be:LIFT) or become placeholder labels (SouMu).

    And also, two more things:
    1. the songs with 1000+ credits on them, we can have less of that, please.
    2. INVEST (more) IN ACTING. If you want to go the JYP route and focus on making group endeavors, it’s fine. However, there are a lot of their idols who seem to be interested in playing dramas, or with visuals/skills that might suit acting. It’s possibly one of the reasons for Lee Gyuri’s departure recently.

    Liked by 3 people

      • I don’t know; I tend to want singers to sing, and actors to act. When I hear that someone’s going to act in a drama, I think, “Oh well, no new album from this band for a year then.”

        Liked by 2 people

        • It may not work for every singer-who-wants-to-act, but for more than a few kpoppers acting or general variety is a way to diversify to sustain their career. Think Super Junior, still going strong after 17 years. Its not the music, which they do release an album a year for anyway. Its all the variety and drama and music shows and award shows they get booked on that makes the money. Most of these kids would kill to have the length of career of the Super Juniors.

          Like

          • It’s worked wonders for many Japanese idols as well. Nearly every J-drama I’m watching right now (and there are a lot of them!) has a J-idol in a starring or co-starring role. I like this 360 degree approach to idoldom. It makes them more well-rounded and can unearth some serious talent.

            Example: Snow Man’s Meguro Ren is INCREDIBLE in the currently-airing “Silent.” You may have never guessed this if you only followed the group’s music career, but what a treat to discover these different levels of talent!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Also, half of ZE:A is still working in the industry too.
              ZE:A, my first kpop loves.
              I don’t think the kids these days have even heard of ZE:A, alas.

              Like

  2. They have been…decent so far. Other than BTS, their music quality is good and it’s nice to have an agency to puts some effort into their music, unlike a CERTAIN entertainment.

    Also, happy birthday Garam! uwu!

    Final grade: B-

    Like

  3. I s’pose a B is fair. I might’ve graded lower, only because I had big expectations about BTS and TXT this year: A new BTS album was supposed to be in the works, but it turned out to be just a rather disappointing comp, with 3 new songs that were rather forgettable. And TXT had such a great 2021, I guess they could never live up to expectations. (In retrospect, their single was better than I initially thought.) As for Enhypen, my favorite song was one they didn’t even release as a single, Polaroid Love. That has like 3x the streams as the single; but it’s like they *refused* to promote it (despite multiple MVs for acts like NewJeans). Speaking of NewJeans, that’s my favorite thing from the label. Great EP, one that got better with repeated listening. I’m still not sold on Le Sserafim. Some good songs, but not at the NewJeans level. As for Seventeen, I don’t get the hype. It’s like they’re this year’s BTS, but I don’t quite hear why, as far as the songs go. The only one that really grabbed me was Woozi’s Ruby.

    Like

  4. ok regardless of how true garams bullying allegations are (which imo have a ton of legitimate proof behind them) what in the actual fuck was hybe thinking debuting a member who they KNEW had a shady reputation………that just doesnt bode well for ur group or company at all

    Liked by 3 people

    • im not trying to start an argument here, but what do you mean they have a lot of legitimate proof behind them? The case was debunked ages ago.

      Like

    • what legitimate proof? the only thing confirmed is that garam cursed at eunseo (the “victim’s” name) for two hours. and considering the fact that eunseo and her friends constantly harassed garam on social media (which is proven) and took a non-consensual intimate picture of garam’s friend and posted it online (which eunseo and her law firm never denied) she has every right to curse at her.

      it’s funny to me how people are so convinced that garam is guilty when eunseo’s team were the ones who said that they would proof of garam being a bully but all they did was post a cropped picture of the school report. garam was the only who posted the full school report. she wouldn’t do that if she was guilty. and i didn’t even care about her but amount of hate and harassment kpop fans sent to a 16 year old over false rumours was insane and makes me want to support her.

      Like

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  7. Going in order of the Hybe groups that made a big impact to a lesser impact on me personally this year:

    Seventeen’s World is one of my favorite songs of this year! Hot was kinda fun and I liked the Japanese and english output as well! And this being the year I finally really got into Seventeen – by learning the members name and everything! Another reason why I have quite some extra love and bias for them this year is because I finally realised that though Rock With You was my number two on paper last year… it’s actually number one in my heart! 😂 I believe I have listened to and sung this out way more than my original number one – so my biggest takeaway was Seventeen songs have quite more longevity than many others! 😀

    Le Sserafim was quite a unique case for me. Fearless was a grower but I didn’t really care much about the group. I knew who were famous ex-Iz*one and nothing more. I didn’t really watch their performances either. But grower Anti-Fragile really blew me away!! I felt each member standout and in such a short amount of time have become really interested in the group! All their bsides this time caught my attention too and they’re definitely turning out to be a group I’m looking forward to now!

    Enhypen has this odd graph as othing ever surpassed Given Taken for me. That was almost legit one of the best songs of 2020 and one of the best bg debuts I’ve seen in a while. Their graph had gradually curved downwards but quite gently into an average- I still enjoy their songs and their stuff this year though not amazing were growers. Pass the Mic especially was quite fun! And the Tamed Dashed Japanese version actually made me love that song even more!

    BTS is not my favorite Hybe group but I really liked Yet to Come. I don’t have any particular nostalgic sentiment or anything but I really loved that song.

    TXT was one of my fave groups last year with Lovesong and Lover Loser. I also got to know them as a group and loved their performances. This year, GBGB wasn’t as strong for me. While it was catchy, it kinda faded off for me. Opening Sequence on the other hand is absolutely stunning and a great bside of this year!!!

    Fromis9 doesn’t really have my kinda music. DM grew on me a bit but that’s all. NewJeans – I get the hype around them but except for Attention nothing else has stood out for me. And as a group I don’t really feel interested in them so far. But they have just started out and they may have a Le Sserafim effect on me in the future lol!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. For a company that seems to be doing everything right, it sure feels like they’re doing everything wrong.

    Seventeen’s recent release don’t compare to their old stuff. TxT and Enhypen have had such a lackluster year. BTS are on their 2nd year with no quality releases.

    Le Sserafim and New Jeans are their strong point and put out decent music…but I find it difficult to applaud Hybe after their handling of both the Garam and MHJ scandals.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So another thing, which I can’t wrap my head around.
      HYBE went public largely off of the success of BTS and the promise to build a bigger better company. Which they have done, built a bigger better company off the public offering proceeds, well done.

      When they went public, the company did not issue BTS any stock to reward the group for making the company what it is. “Hitman” Bang SiHyuk gave BTS stock _from his own shares_ to reward the group.

      Usually a start-up company has a pot of shares and / or stock options to issue to employees for bonuses and compensation until the company goes public. BTS are technically employees. BTS did not get any shares from that pot. It was the CEO himself who gave them a gift from his own personal pot.
      (One ref ‘https://www.businessinsider.com/kpop-boyband-bts-cash-out-8-million-of-hybe-shares-2021-12 though there are other sources for this as well)

      Why would Hybe as a company do that to their biggest group, not even peel off a few bills. I just don’t get it.

      So it doesn’t surprise me that established groups like GFriend and NuEst left, because they probably got less than zero in the acquisition transaction. I don’t know what is going on with Seventeen, maybe they got a better deal or stupid promises of a good deal yet to come.

      Liked by 1 person

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  10. New Jeans still has me kind of iffy on the management side. They have strong music, definitely. But I’m not a fan of how young the members are. Plus cookie. It’s a song that never should have existed, and I don’t like how they handled it. My biggest criticism of them.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. No mention of Nu’est’s disbandment this year 😦 I wasn’t the biggest fan, but it came as a bit of a shock, following the heels of Gfriend disbanding last year and some of the Nu’est members seemingly mentioning that the way the disbandment went down during their tenth anniversary wasn’t exactly how it was supposed to go. I’m glad that they’re all finding their own niche to continue in the industry though, with Baekho and Jonghyeon’s solo debuts, Ren in musicals and with solos, Minhyun with acting and a proposed forthcoming solo, and Aron’s podcast and variety stuff.

    What I’m most curious about when it comes to 2023 is Pledis’ new boy group. It really is strange that this has been promised for years but has never materialised, no trainees are known, and Nu’est and Seventeen are different enough while still being tied together largely due to Bumzu and other creative directors working with both – so I’m curious to see what this new group will be like. (Admittedly I’m cautious about the amount of HYBE involvement that there will be with this new group, rather than being from Pledis the way Nu’est and Seventeen etc. have been – but I’m trying to keep an open mind. Just make sure the vocal processing doesn’t get too extreme, that’s all I ask!)

    I’m also looking forward to seeing Seventeen’s 2023. Not all of their musical output from this year has been to my taste (though some, like Shadow, are bangers) but they’ve had a prolific year in terms of quantity and an absolutely incredible commercial year – it blows my mind to see them still experimenting and continuing to steadily grow like this more than seven years into the game. I’m anticipating even more solo mixtapes and subunit releases, and group releases which I’m curious to see where they decide to go next, and hopefully a long-overdue Japanese full album where they can get into more j-pop esque sounds.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I don’t really consider most of HYBE to be kpop. Sure, it is pop music performed largely in Korean using mostly Korean or Korean-heritage performers. However, it is deliberately crafted to appeal to a bland global pop demand. I think Hybe’s success in the US in part reflects how crappy contemporary American pop music is, coupled with the easy access that streaming provides and the current easy listening stream on repeat gestalt. Hybe have that marketing slice absolutely nailed.

    To me, Hybe feels like the 70’s – early 80’s easy pop music that no one remembers anymore. Gordon Lightfoot anyone? Captain and Tenille? Christopher Cross? Who? That last one had multiple top 10 hits, won 5 Grammys and an Oscar too! The elusive Grammy that defines =success=!

    Sure they are selling boatloads, sure they are popular. But is it really the kind of music that lasts and inspires. I don’t think there are many here that say “Wow, Hybe, really pushing musical boundaries”.

    Also, Hybe got lucky buying up Ariana Grande and Beiber. Meanwhile, their own established kpop groups took a look at what they are offering and say “yeah, nah” (Gfriend, Nuest).

    Liked by 1 person

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  14. LE SSERAFIM’s comeback with Antifragile is one of the best this year. The song just works on first listen, and the live performances have brought a level of energy to Kpop stages that we sorely needed this year. I am hoping that they continue to thrive in 2023.

    Likewise, I was impressed with Seventeen. I know many don’t consider Hot to be among their best tracks, but I really enjoyed their comeback and think they had one of the best years of any boy group in 2022.

    I honestly forgot TXT only had one proper comeback this year because I feel like they’ve been presence in the Kpop space all year. They got great reviews for their Lollapalooza performance (which was highlighted by Beomgyu ending up on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times) and are going to be at the AMA red carpet in a few days.

    Moving forward, I am interested in the solo endeavors by BTS. Jhope and Jin achieved great success with their solo releases, Suga had a huge hit with PSY, and RM is going to close the year with a new album. I am curious if we will see albums from Jimin, V, or Jungkook in 2023. Likewise, will we get solo tours from the members and what will those tour concepts look like?

    Also, what do the trajectories look like for Baekho and Minhyun post-NU’EST? The NU’EST disbandment caught many off-guard, and I wonder how Pledis and HYBE are going to manage them in light of Seventeen being very active and rumors of a new boy group debuting from the label in the near future.

    Finally, where does Scooter Braun fit into this picture? HYBE brought his company and added him to their leadership team, so I would love to know what that really means in practice for the music that gets released from HYBE. Does Carly Rae Jepsen write some songs for a future NewJeans comeback? Does Jungkook work with any of the teams that put together recent Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber albums to produce his own project? Or do the Korean and American sides of HYBE remain separate in terms of music creation?

    Liked by 1 person

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