K–pop as an industry is like a continually revolving door. In goes fresh blood, challenging the status quo with new ideas and sounds, and out goes the old, filled with nostalgia and memories of the distant past. As the industry favors debuting younger artists like NewJeans and Kep1er, aging groups are threatened with disbandment in an ever–competitive environment.
This phenomenon occurs so frequently that it’s dubbed the “seven-year curse.” After seven years—the length of a normal K–pop contract—a group would part ways, usually due to dwindling sales, members quitting, or lack of managerial support.
Yet, the past few years saw a directional shift from the industry. As the fourth generation of K–pop goes into full swing, newer groups like NMIXX, Kep1er, CLASS:y, and more are struggling to make a mark in this ultra–competitive industry. K–pop’s slower acceptance of newer groups is unusual for a business model that prioritizes younger idols and can be attributed to three factors: which entertainment company they come from, what sound or music the group releases, and their overall brand image.
The easiest explanation is also the most straightforward: Entertainment companies, which manage groups, have a big influence on the success of a debuting group. In the past decade, the industry has coalesced into four main entertainment companies—YG, JYP, SM, and HYBE, aka the “Big 4”—alongside a plethora of smaller companies. As these four companies are home to many popular groups—such as BTS, BLACKPINK, Red Velvet, and TWICE—one might expect that any newer groups these companies choose to debut would receive more attention.
The simplest confirmation of big label bias from this past year is LE SSERAFIM versus LAPILLUS. LE SSERAFIM, created by HYBE Labels, received over 380,000 preorders on their debut mini–album by April 29—days before its May 2 release date. The group contains K–pop veterans Sakura and Chaewon from IZ*ONE, but to reach nearly 400k pre–orders based on a few promotional pictures of the group members is a feat only possible due to backing from a big label.
On the flip side, LAPILLUS came from the smaller MLD Entertainment, famous for producing the group MOMOLAND. LAPILLUS, too, had a notable member: Shana, who was a finalist of the survival show Girls Planet 999 (that produced the group Kep1er). Yet, despite similar pieces in place, LAPILLUS’ debut was quiet, compared to the astronomical reaches of LE SSERAFIM. Sadly, most of the groups that debuted in recent years haven’t been able to make a splash, simply because they originate from a smaller company.
LAPILLUS’ weak sonic product serves as another core issue that repels listeners. In the past two years, disco–sounding ‘80s style throwbacks have saturated the music industry. In an attempt to distinguish themselves from their competitors, LAPILLUS opted for a more EDM–sounding dance track, “HIT YA!” However, for a debut effort, the track offers few vocal lines and relies heavily on the instrumentation, quickly losing the interest of any potential new fan.
NMIXX, formed under JYP Entertainment in February 2022, is another group that suffers from sonic shortcomings. The group sold over 227,399 copies within its first week, including 61,667 in a “Blind Package” pre–order in July 2021. Reaching 60,000+ pre–orders from a “Blind Package,” where consumers knew nothing about the group beforehand, is monumental.
In theory, the group would benefit from the big company bias, and these early numbers indeed reflect that. However, despite high sales, none of the tracks performed well on the charts, with the title track “O.O” described perfectly as an “inconsistent, choppy debut.” The genre–bending track has no single sound, throwing off listeners with the abrupt transitions and mismatched direction. With such strong backlash toward their debut, one can hope that their upcoming release, “ENTWURF,” will fare better than its predecessor.
The most complicated factor for a group to consider is brand image, something every company may have trouble establishing. For BLACKPINK, their brand is BLACK (dark, bold, and assuring), PINK (cute, sweet, lovable), and a combination of the two. For TWICE, they retained their quintessential cute image even as they matured in sound, from bubblegum pop to dark synth–pop. While the two groups exist under big companies, their brand image is what makes them recognizable and sticks in the public’s consciousness.
Meanwhile, a group like Kep1er suffers from an inconsistent image and ineffective branding, making them vulnerable to being outshined by competitors. Formed through the aforementioned survival show Girls Planet 999, the group had a strong following due to the popularity of the show. Their debut, First Impact, effectively continued the space–themed concept of the survival show.
The group’s appearance on the competition show Queendom 2 and their second release, Doublast, led their fans, Keplians, to question the group’s main form of branding. In Queendom 2, the group pivoted toward the girl crush concept, involving darker, more mature looks than in their debut. In Doublast, the group pivoted completely toward a cutesy image, paired with the summer album theme. In a group where the members range from 16 to 26 years of age, it’s hard to establish an image that can represent the members. While the girls saw some success over their releases and appearances, Doublast is usually forgotten among other more memorable K–pop releases.
However, not all hope is lost. Here are ways for these newer groups to adapt and maintain their fanbase. The leaders of the fourth generation of K–pop, æspa and IVE, are taking steps to establish their foothold in the industry. æspa, for example, is mashing technology and hyperpop sounds to appeal to an international audience. With appearances in Good Morning America’s Summer Concert series, Coachella, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, æspa markets toward the West, casting a wider net for more future MYs, their ever–growing fandom. æspa is from the renowned SM Entertainment, but their consistent branding and their lore that rivals the Marvel Cinematic Universe help them keep their brand image.
IVE, formed by the smaller scaled Starship Entertainment, also uses effective marketing and branding strategies to draw attention to the group. By sticking to a theme of elegance and style, while also producing music that’s both fresh and marketable on TikTok, the group is finding new ground to break with each subsequent release. “Love Dive” is arguably the song of the summer, despite its March release. Their newer release “After Like” samples Gloria Gaynor's 1979 hit "I Will Survive" in a classy and instantly recognizable way, and is already smashing the charts moments after release.
Every K–pop group in the industry has talent and a story to tell. However, the ways they present their product, plus a little bit of chance, can affect how listeners perceive their music. K–pop isn’t clinging to older favorites because they’re better, but because they’re better at knowing the rules of the game.