Kpop and Oversaturation

Kpop and Oversaturation

When I was introduced to Kpop many, many years ago I could barely keep up with all the releases, debuts, and goodbye stages, let alone the multitude of singles and mini-albums being sold every day. It was exhausting. If, like me, you consider yourself a long-time fan, you may have noticed the shift in the sheer number of groups that grace music programs and message boards. Every day at least a dozen new groups are set to compete for fame, popularity, and the big break. The Kpop market is now more oversaturated than it has ever been. As a result, we have to ask if quality is suffering for quantity? In some cases, absolutely. The real question, however, is why some groups are more able to succeed than others if there is more supply than demand for Kpop idol groups.

G-Dragon - "Heartbreaker"

In 2009, G-Dragon's Heartbreaker album was the talk of the entire fanbase. MBLAQ, 2EN1, 4Minute and Beast had all just debuted with their chart-destroying songs. I was overwhelmed and felt like I was too behind to catch up to the sheer number of songs and groups to listen to. I had already missed the debuts of SS501, Super Junior, SHINee and Girl's Generation. If you are new to Kpop, many of these group names may sound like relics to you. In fact, a lot of these groups are only 5 years old and unfortunately, many fans consider their heydays to be over. The lifespan of an idol group is limited to how long they are still fresh and producing innovative material. It becomes difficult for older groups to maintain their popularity when there are dozens of new groups all vying for the same attention. In the early days of Kpop, there had been an average of 12 groups debuting every year. But within the last 5 years, there has been on average 49 new debuts each year. Imagine my frustration trying to keep track of all the names and songs of each and every new boy group and girl group in Kpop. In one way, this saturation can be a positive because songs that are utterly forgettable fade away. Producers and companies are forced to bring something new to the already crowded table in order to be noticed and successful. Companies have begun to exploit controversy in order generate discussion, leading to curiosity, page clicks and profits.


Let’s use a practical example to illustrate this point. f(x) debuted in 2009 with “La chA TA.” Despite being released years ago, “La chA TA” still boasts some impressive music production. It isn’t particularly mind-blowing by today’s standards but at that time Kpop tended to focus on showcasing member’s abilities and personalities. As a debut song, this is essential for helping fans immediately latch onto the group and stay invested in their songs. “La chA TA” introduces us to f(x), showing us the cute girl, the tomboy, the visual, the singer, and the unit as a whole. It succeeds in giving the group a personality that fans are willing to get to know and be friends with. It’s appealing and fans have responded in kind. On the other hand is Wa$up, a group that has generated heated discussion based on its “twerk” concept. Their debut, “Wa$up” gives the impression that this group is not serious about becoming idols. The MV feels dated and cheap as the members show us they can hang out with boys, and not much else. There is not much to distinguish Wa$up from other girl groups that dress the same, act the same, and have the same choreography. There is no personality for fans to identify with, and basing an entire group off “twerking” alienates those that flock to Kpop to escape Western popular music. In an attempt to try something new to carve a name for themselves, Wa$up merely comes off as disingenuous and destroys their credibility. Interestingly, viewer comments point out that much of the song feels plagiarized and they have no unique concept behind their creation or music. Regardless, people are still talking about Wa$up, even if it’s for the wrong reasons. If their company intended to gain music success through controversy, their plan backfired: Wa$up has peaked extremely low in Korean music charts.


How does this relate to oversaturation? SM Entertainment introduced f(x) as their quirky girl group back in 2009 when the only other popular girl groups were Girl's Generation and Brown Eyed Girls. Both have classy or cute sexy concepts. This is why f(x) remains to this day progressive with great songs. The concept they adopted was brand new at the time, and the group was able to carve a niche for themselves that is still unique to them. There are dozens of other groups vying to fit into this category: Tiny-G, Orange Caramel, Jewelry, Rainbow and yes, even labelmates Red Velvet share many similarities with f(x). There is a reason why all these groups struggle with being referred to as “the next f(x)”. This same trend is happening in male groups as well. There are dozens of groups now that attempt to emulate the “hip hop” image but can barely grasp the massive popularity of Big Bang and others. 

Tiny G

To put this all in perspective, here are some numbers: In 2010, right as the Hallyu wave began to crest, 23 groups debuted. Among these are INFINITE and SISTAR, groups that are arguably still highly active. The following year, a total of 58 new groups were debuted, 54 in 2012 and last year, 53 new Kpop artists were introduced. Can you name the first single by History or LU:KUS? How about Global Icon? What about their respective companies? There can be an argument made that for every group that debuts, several more disband to even out the industry. This is a fair claim, but not necessarily true. In early years, the market was more balanced with far less new debuts, and a fair number of groups disbanding. Since 2010, the numbers have become highly skewed. Instead of acts falling apart, members are being replaced or added to pre-existing entities. For example, the duo of JJ Project from 2012, who had one single, found themselves rebranded and relaunched as members of GOT7 two years later. After examining the numbers and the circumstances, it is clear to see that the way that the Kpop industry works in terms of creating and releasing debuts has changed dramatically.

GOT7

When a new artist is “manufactured” by any entertainment company, marketing teams are employed to create a lasting impression on audiences. It is this lingering image that gets fans to buy products and ultimately join the fan base, where money is made. A group that has been in the idol circuit for many many years already has access to money-making venues outside of mere music: they have already made ties with advertisers and lifestyle brands. A group like Big Bang can simply appear on the cover of a magazine and sell thousands of copies without effort. When they release a mediocre song, or reuse a concept that is cliched, boring and bland, they are still expected to sweep music show awards by virtue of the weight behind their name alone. Newer groups do not have this same presence and usually struggle to fill in the cracks left by popular groups by partnering with smaller brands, if possible.


There is a concept within business that applies here as well. Free markets are theoretically, self-regulating systems where audiences use their purchasing power to dictate quality. When there is a market, in this case, music in terms of album sales and advertising dollars, the theory states that groups with the largest number of fans must therefore be the best quality. The groups that remain relatively unknown, must have the lowest quality of music, production and presence. This is not necessarily true, however. I would even argue there are some new groups that have incredible potential but because there are entirely too many names and faces to keep track of, they are pushed to the back and eventually cease to exist.

LU:KUS

In a perfect free-market world, it would make sense to eliminate as much of the competition as possible. But Kpop does the exact opposite. Enter the phenomenon of the subunit. Groups like Super Junior, T-ARA and SISTAR still exist to produce songs on a regular basis. While the quality of these songs can be debated, their popularity cannot. In an industry that is already packed to the gills with new debuts, subunits are an ingenious way for companies to cement their hold on music charts and reestablish waning fanbases. Now instead of having a single group on music charts, companies can have multiple avenues to expose their products. Coupled on top of this concept is a trend with groups debuting with larger number of members. Ranging from 7 to 12, new idol groups are comprised of more than just the singer, rapper and dancer. With more members in the group comes more opportunity for fans to latch onto the unique attitudes and styles of members when made popular through their variety appearances. There is a flavour for every fan, and more fans to appeal to. But when is this just too much? Super Junior has a total of 12 members, separated into several distinct groups. SUJU-M is composed of the Chinese members with their own distinct Chinese songs, while regular Super Junior exists in South Korea. They are extremely popular in both countries, and both Super Junior and Super Junior-M have songs on the same music chart. Twice the group means twice the advertising avenue. Companies are purposely embracing the idea of creating large groups so that they can chop them up into smaller units, aggressively promoting multiple songs at the same time. Oversaturation is not merely limited to new debuts, but also to existing performers already.

Super Junior

There is no doubt that there are an exponentially larger number of Kpop acts now than in previous years. While the trend of Kpop popularity seems to be diminishing, it appears that entertainment companies are pushing harder than ever to distinguish themselves as having a larger roster of acts to chose from depending on the mood of the music being promoted. As more and more new acts come into existence, it becomes more difficult for already-established groups to remain relevant. Instead of witnessing new styles, we are exposed to the same consistent formulas and packaging. Kpop fans are now spoiled for choice but this is not necessarily a benefit to them. Just by virtue of their respective companies and connections, some groups are poised to succeed while the undeserving may fail. The entertainment industry as it relates to idol groups in South Korea is still far from a monopoly. Each year new companies are created, each with their own pros and cons. But companies continue to be bought and sold, such as Woolim, which now belongs to SM Entertainment. Whether or not the sheer number of idol groups continues and the quality begins to burn out is something we have yet to see.


'L' lives in Ontario, Canada. She is a pop culture and media junkie and has helped organize kpop parties and events across Ontario. Her biases are BTS, Block B, M.I.B and Infinite. 


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