Could Crayon Pop be the new future of K-pop?

Over the past couple of weeks there have been a few big news stories which have been raising concerns about the current state of the K-pop industry.

First up was the news of a sanction on SM Entertainment and the Korea Pop Culture and Arts Industry Coalition by Korea’s Fair Trade Commission ordering them to halt interference with, former SM artists, JYJ’s business and broadcast activities.

Following that, last week it was reported that the ‘Big 3’ entertainment companies plus Star Empire Entertainment lodged a complaint with Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office about digital chart manipulation. This was then followed by a statement of support by Cube and FNC entertainment.

To top it all off, at the end of last week Infinite’s label, Woollim Entertainment announced that it was to merge with SM Entertainment subsidiary company SM C&C (Culture & Contents). While SM described it as an attempt to grow their international competitiveness and Woollim stated that they would maintain full creative control over their artists, some have criticised SM for the use of anti-competitive practices.

All this comes during a time of increasing anxiety about the future of Korea’s music industry after government mandates saw the price of music streaming services double from 3,000 to 6,000 won. Although this was an attempt to protect the interests of musicians and composers, some insiders are concerned that increased costs of downloading music (still a fraction of the price of iTunes) will lead to an increase in piracy.

Amidst the scandal and uncertainty, a virtually unknown girl group have been literally hopping up the charts. ‘Bar Bar Bar’ the latest single from Crayon Pop, one of the dozens of rookie groups that debuted last year, has seen an unprecedented rise from barely charting in the top 100 in mid-July to its current place at number 3 in the Gaon and Instiz digital charts.

Their success is down to a genuine grassroots viral popularity of a type which is particularly rare in the K-pop industry. After an initial lukewarm reception, if you take lukewarm to mean absolutely no one beyond Crayon Pop’s small but extremely enthusiastic fanbase caring at all, the song slowly began to crawl up the charts after the ‘5 cylinder engine dance’ began to gain attention online and then grew more and more popular as several high profile parodies were shared all over the internet.

But success did not come without controversy. Early on in the promotions of ‘Bar Bar Bar’, the group received negative attention for appearing to be active on the controversial right-wing community Ilbe and fans of the group worried that it might hurt their chances. However they seem to have been able to overcome this for the most part despite many celebrities being cautious of supporting the group for fear of being connected to Ilbe.

In a world where rookie groups (and even established idols) struggle to make even a small dent in the charts, is Crayon Pop’s sudden success something to be emulated?

There are definitely aspects of the way that the group is managed and promoted that other companies should take notice of, particularly the smaller ones. Management teams of rookie groups seem to mainly stick to trying to work their way through the system using the traditional routes and hope that their group will get noticed. The problem with this is that there are also dozens of other groups trying to do the same thing, often with very similar styles and concepts. On top of that the system is also stacked in the favour of the bigger companies who have massive advantages with close ties with broadcasters, more financial backing and more established stars on their roster. In case that all wasn’t enough, promotional activities often do not provide enough financial reward to justify their costs with music shows only paying around $400 USD despite requiring a whole day’s work from the group and often a large number of staff.

ellinBut, as Crayon Pop has shown, there are alternative routes. I would argue that there are few rookie groups which have performance and variety skills which equal Crayon Pop. The huge amount of experience they have developed in winning an audience over with their impromptu live guerrilla street performances cannot be equalled by the large majority of other unknown rookie groups only used to performing for TV music show audiences. On top of that the large amount of time they spend in front of a camera through their webseries and live streams, means they have a better variety skill set and ability to improvise than many others in the same position. This becomes obvious when they actually do appear on TV shows. Take for example Ellin’s appearance on ‘All the K-pop’, you may like or dislike her but she is definitely one of the most memorable guests from that episode.

Arguably the most successful aspect of Crayon Pop’s promotion strategy to date has been their extremely loyal fanbase. Girl groups in particular often struggle to build up a solid fanbase and this can cause them a lot of difficulties when scandals, already more serious for female groups, arise. Take for example T-ara’s fall from grace last year. Even though their songs were very popular, they only had a small number of fans and it left them very vulnerable to negative public reactions. Through their constant live street performances, live streams and webseries, Crayon Pop have created for themselves a very dedicated fanbase which is slightly older and therefore more financially stable, as can be witnessed by listening to their fanchants. In such a fickle market, a strong fanbase is an invaluable asset.

choa gummiOne of the things which drew me most to Crayon Pop is their strong group spirit and down-to-earth attitude. These appear to be mainly the result of the company’s attempt to make the most out of their difficult situation and novel approach to promotion. These have required the group to work more closely as a team and take more responsibility for themselves. They often have to do their own makeup, are involved in the choreography process and seem to genuinely have a say in the work that they do. Although this may often be a result of a lack of cash to hire staff, it is something which should definitely be taken on board by other companies if they wish to have a group of young performers who are dependable, flexible and motivated. Contrast the way Gummi, the leader of Crayon Pop, seems to genuinely take care of and motivate her members compared to the case of Sera from 9Muses (which can be seen in the 9Muses documentary) who appears to be unable to take any kind of leadership due to the culture of their company.

They also eat. A lot. Girl groups should do more of that!

The only thing that may work against the group is their ‘quirky’ concept. Although this is exactly what has got them noticed in the first place, it may be difficult to sustain their success in future. There will be a constant pressure to outdo their last concept and it may be something that they are unable to live up to. Think PSY on a smaller scale. Having said that, it would be great to see companies working on a wider variety of concepts rather than the old and tired cute or sexy.

Crayon Pop are undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and promising acts that debuted in 2012, at least in my book. Although it has yet to be seen if their success is sustainable over the long term, their current success is definitely something which should be taken note of by the rest of the industry. Guerrilla concerts and live video streams might not be something that works for everyone but more flexibility in companies’ approaches to promotion could lead to an industry which is diverse, more interesting and more sustainable in the longterm. Whether you are a company, a group or just a fan – that is a win-win situation for everyone.

What do you think? Should other groups follow Crayon Pop’s lead? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Ponyo

    Im start love this group when they perform dancing queen on the street.. Im really happy they are success now

  • SD

    Great article. I’ve loved them since “Bing Bing”.

    I realize that “Bar Bar Bar” is enjoying viral success that may be very hard to replicate but I do think that Crayon Pop is more than just a “gimmick”, as some critics claim.

    I just saw that their earlier songs (which are even better) are now showing up in the digital charts – a year after they were originally released. That is a good sign. It shows that people actually do like their music.

    “Bar Bar Bar” is what got them noticed but they’re a solid enough group that they really don’t need to invent a funny dance every comeback. I’m sure they will try that as a follow-up next month but they really should just focus on making more catchy songs.

    Their small (but growing) fanbase is about as hard-core as any I’ve seen and like you mentioned, probably have more disposable income (just look at AKB48’s revenue to see the benefit to having a lot of “uncle fans”). They’ve also gained a following in Japan.

    All things considered, Crayon Pop’s future is starting to look pretty solid.

  • Yoroboro

    It’s their personalities that they display on their Crayon Pop TV that really makes me a fan. I’m hoping they don’t turn into Divas which is what usually happens when fame overwhelms.

    It’s also the rooting-for-the-underdog mentality that creates an urge to support them. They are going against the giants such as SM, JYP and YG after all.

    Regardless, it was never the case that you become a fan of an idol group just for their music ( well at least for me ). So I’ll be supporting them in their future endeavors. They are super cute and not in the annoying way, but just genuinely cute. Even though it may be a concept, it’s working well and I hope they continue with it.

  • Terri

    The fact they do their own make up reminded me a bit of AA, a group who do their own choreography, outfits and some lyrics
    But they sound interesting, I probably should listen to the song

  • Erisa Desu

    I like crayon pop since day one. They tried really hard to become known in the public. What I also like is the fact that the participate in every step of the song and they are not only dancing /singing dolls. I hope more idols will become involved in what they do