SM, YG, JYP.
These are the top three players in Korea’s idol scene, the names that hold the most strings in the K-pop arena. These three companies have pretty much dominated popular music in Korea after Seotaiji and the Boys bowed out in 1996, churning out young entertainers and constructing a whole star-training infrastructure. Legacies of pop groups and legendary solo singers can be traced down the timelines of these companies’ success stories.
But I think a significant shift may be in the making. It’s only fifteen years later, yet the popular music game moves so fast that I think we may be entering into an age of new, diversified companies.
I read two recent articles from Soompi News, the first one on Bae Yong Joon (established actor who hit hallyu stardom with his lead role in the K-drama Winter Sonata) getting read to create a new idol group under a company he’s heavily tied with as a stockholder, Key East Entertainment. Celebrities already included in his company’s catalogue include Kim Hyun Joong, Hwanhee (former idol under SM R&B duo, Fly to the Sky) and actress Lee Ji Ah (actress recently embroiled in divorce suits with Seo Taiji; acted in K-dramas Beethoven Virus and Athena).
The other article was on Kim Dong Wan, member of boy band Shinhwa, speaking on his bandmates’ upcoming endeavor to create Shinhwa Company. Shinhwa was another legendary group (by the way, 신화/shinhwa, literally means “myth” or “legend” in Korean) under SM entertainment, consisting of six boys who sang, rapped and danced. All of the group members left SM after their contract ended in 2003, also fighting to keep their group name in a court battle, which they won. Shinhwa is known for the tight relationship among the members and (therefore) them being the longest-running boy band in K-pop history. An article with further details on the new endeavor can be found at Allkpop.com.
While it’s the stars under SM, YG and JYP who still hold top dollar and are able to make it across the nation’s borders to become hallyu stars, plenty of smaller companies back home in Seoul are not sitting idle (harhar, no pun intended, really). New singers like IU (solo female) and groups like B2ST (aka BEAST) are also hugely popular and up toward the top in Korea. And almost every star who has gained recognition from audiences outside of Korea started by getting the audience back home to love them. A new wave of idols from other companies means a growing surge of competition that combined may soon catch up to the heights of the Big 3.
On the other side, the movement of past Big 3 idols to other companies after their contracts end also is a huge potential factor. Entertainers often leave their first company to sign under a company that offers them more freedom and perks; if able, they even start their own. Hwanhee, Shinhwa and Kim Hyun Joong (though he was under DSP, which is kind of like an under-the-shadow follower of SM) are all examples already previously mentioned. YG Entertainment seems to be an exception, though artists who aren’t signed under their main label and care such as Wheesung and Big Mama have ended up leaving. Nonetheless, when an entertainer moves, all the power and profit of the fans that adore them follows as well.
It’s a shift that is in step with the widening scope of K-pop, as mentioned in a recent article done by BBC News. As K-pop continues to venture outside the domestic sphere, these companies which have been very successful but also hold such a tight grip will find themselves facing entertainers who will begin to demand more. The knowledge of what other arrangements are possible and the feeling that you’re being cheated can be very powerful impetuses.
There will also be pressure from having to deal with countries whose way of thinking don’t so readily accept the Korean “old boys network” way of doing things, and a necessity to understand that other culture if they hope to gain real access and respect internationally. With smaller companies creating popular stars and established celebrities moving away from their main companies, I anticipate that the Big 3 will have to be innovative and flexible in both their entertainment concepts as well as their business practices if they hope to continue their successful legacy.