THE ‘BIG 3’ OF KOREAN ENTERTAINMENT: Do they define the Artists’ Success?

Article by Foyinsolami Asiyanbi.

The globalisation of Korean Pop has in recent times “taken off” again. Previously, international fans discovered K-pop after watching K-dramas whereby they liked the Original Sound Tracks and seamlessly found themselves listening to K-pop as well- well, that’s how I got into K-pop. But now fans discover K-pop through news, musical platforms and social media.

Korean Popular music is a variation of Korean music heavily influenced by Western entertainment. K-pop has evolved over the years and is now commonly characterised by girl groups and boy groups (idols), that is, a group made up of about 2 – 11 members. K-pop as we now know it is largely attributed to the Big 3; SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment. 

A quick look into how the Big 3 were able to take K-pop into another phase will be through the lenses of SM Entertainment.  SM Entertainment, which has been regarded as the largest Korean entertainment agency has over the years adopted various strategies to globalize their music. A strategy used by Soo Man Lee, founder of SM Entertainment in order to promote K-pop overseas, was to divide the company into two departments. The creativity management team led by Soo Man Lee focused solely on creating the music, choreography and production, while the “export management” which was headed by SM’s Co- CEO Kim Young-min, was focused on “exporting” K-pop into the international scene on a bigger scale.  Kim Young-min was able to do this by utilising YouTube. 

YG Entertainment on the other hand gained a big following by capitalising the introduction of hip-hop into the Korean music scene. They also introduced “images” of the bad boy/bad girl concept with the success of Big Bang and now disbanded 2NE1. This led to the girl crush image which means a girl crushing on a stronger looking female.

The introduction of foreign members in the line-up of the newly created K-pop groups also served as a way of further promoting K-pop to the countries of the foreign members. For example, JYP has artists under their label from Japan to Thailand. This makes it easier to break into those countries. A perfect example of this is the love GOT7 gets from Thailand due to BamBam (not to say that’s the sole reason for their popularity there-their music is also good) It just makes it easier to root for someone from your country. Another way is releasing albums in a different language or having sub-units who sing in a different language. For instance, JYP Entertainment’s TWICE has three Japanese members and also original Japanese albums, while SM Entertainment’s boy group EXO were from the start split into two units in order to promote in Korea and China simultaneously. SM has followed this route again with the creation of NCT divided into multiple sub-units based in various cities worldwide.

Let’s take a quick look into how these idol groups are formed. The Korean Entertainment industry has overtime been criticized and labelled as a factory churning out idol groups day by day with the sole focus of making money, thereby ignoring their human rights. 

There are two ways of getting recruited by a Korean Entertainment company. Typically, the companies announce auditions and select the lucky winners or winner. For instance, in the case of Lisa of BlackPink, she auditioned for YG in Thailand, her home country and was the only one selected out of 4,000 applicants. The second way is by “casting”. This usually happens when a scout of an entertainment agency sees a person who has the potential to become an idol (usually through their looks) and invites them to join the agency. EXO’s Sehun was scouted at the age of 12 while out to have lunch with his friends. After selection, the person has to go through training, which includes but is not limited to singing, dancing and learning foreign languages such as Korean (for a foreigner), Japanese or English. It should be noted that passing the audition does not mean you get to debut- evaluation usually takes place during the training period to check if the trainees have improved in areas where they are lacking. Training usually goes on for a number of years (G.Soul was a trainee for 15 years), and these trainees are usually allowed to continue with their usual life outside of this- which is going to school as they are usually very young- Taemin of Shinee was 11 years of age when he joined SM Entertainment.

After debuting as either a Soloist, Boy group/Girl group member or actor, is success entirely dependent on being under one of the Big 3 label, or is this just an illusion? 

No, it is not entirely dependent on being under the Big 3 but it plays a very big part especially at the time of debut. These entertainment companies are referred to as THE Big 3 because they are everywhere in the industry. They have influences on radio, television and news. They have the resources to do extensive and aggressive marketing especially at the time of debuting a new group. Even as trainees, they are already being introduced to the entertainment industry by acting as cameos in music videos of their senior label mates, or getting advertising gigs. Another reason why success is 90% guaranteed for artists under the Big 3 is the “company stan” mentality, that is, fans are loyal to all artists under a record label. An illustration will be most Big Bang, 2NE1, WINNER and IKON fans- groups under YG Entertainment rooting for BlackPink at the time of their debut before even listening to their music. After this, the artists can gain “original fans” based on their art or for whatever reason they choose to “stan” them. 

The notion of Big 3 Success follows the idea that going to a high-ranking college gives you a higher chance of getting a job right out of college or having rich parents gives you “good network”. This does not mean that others that debut under smaller entertainment companies cannot be successful just like a person who went to a low-ranking college can get a very good job. The way to be successful under a small entertainment agency and even the illustration is by proving that you are capable, that you are different. Examples of such groups are (G)I-dle from Cube Entertainment and BTS from Big Hit Entertainment. (G)I-dle took the Korean music scene by storm overnight with their debut song “Latata” beating the record of fastest win by a girl group on a music show at the time. There were various reasons that this occurred and most notable of all was the fact that the song was written and co-produced by one of the members. It is a very very rare occurence in the Korean music entertainment for a female idol to write and produce their song. This along with their unusual tune gained them both male and female fans.

It will be hard to discuss K-pop as it is now without mentioning BTS and Big Hit Entertainment. The beginning of this article described how the Big 3 came to be as a result of their globalisation and popularity which has also given their artists a chance to have a smoother entrance into the entertainment scene, but the rise of Big Hit Entertainment largely through BTS is defying these positions. BTS (BangtanBoys) debuted under Big Hit Entertainment in 2013. They slowly captured the hearts of fans worldwide through socially conscious songs and storytelling, they kept fans glued to their devices searching for clues in novels and discussing various theories. This was something that had not been done by the Big 3. The success of BTS under a small label company is a different story as Big Hit didn’t have the resources for aggressive and extensive marketing. Fans of the group right from the start did all the aggressive marketing for them. Especially because the members reached out to fans via social media- in a way it was like gassing up your friends small business till they become very big.

I have read a couple of writings and tweets online about how Big Hit cannot become part of the Big 3 as “they are not about the sale of albums” and… I beg to defer. The reason why they have been tagged the Big 3 is not only because they tried to do something different, it is because they did something different which led to their high sales of albums and selling out concerts. Big Hit has done this in an astronomic level; their albums sales are unprecedented, they are making history here and there with sold out concerts, so it’s only right to say that they can definitely be tagged as one of the Big 3. 

In all honesty though, why would Big Hit Entertainment want to be one of the Big 3 when they’ve clearly surpassed them. Remember that before the Big 3, the famous label was “Seo Taiji and the Boys”, so why not leave Big Hit alone in their own world. They don’t have to live by the label given by others, they know who they are.

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