Why A-PRINCE are coming to the UK: The idol industry now. [UPDATED]
Reading the western media’s many, many articles about the advancement of K-pop this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that idol groups, the aspect of the Korean entertainment industry most associated with K-pop, are doing spectacularly well. Since the huge success of Gangnam Style, nearly every news outlet have been writing about all the groups that are coming to steal the hearts and minds of teenagers around the world. While this may have some truth to it, BIGBANG and 2NE1, for example, have been performing in sold out concerts across the globe, it does not reflect accurately the state of the industry in Korea. At home at least, idol groups have had terrible year. A quick glance at the current Gaon chart confirms this, SECRET being the only idol group currently in the top 20.
The story for new groups is even worse. Despite a record number of debuts this year, this list puts it at just over 80, double 2011, not a single rookie group managed to make it into the Gaon hottest 100 chart for the first half of the year. The market has become saturated with groups following the established model of uniformed 4-9 member boy and girl groups dancing and singing in perfect synchronisation. The Korean public has not reacted well to the influx, choosing instead to give their ears and eyes to finalists from talent shows (Lee Hi, Busker Busker), solo projects from members of established groups (Ga In, Yang Yoseob) and established ballad singers (K.Will, Lee Seung Gi). As a result, more and more companies are competing with each other for a smaller and smaller piece of the domestic pie. This has led to an overall reduction in diversity and quality of music and a reliance on gimmicks as companies fight to become and stay relevant. Ironically, this has probably contributed to the public’s decreased interest in the groups they are trying to promote.
K-pop has also been doing badly in Japan this year whose much larger and more profitable music industry has been a huge source of income for many entertainment companies in the last few years. Korea’s two most successful girl groups in Japan, Girls’ Generation and KARA, both had much worse sales this year than last with Girls’ Generation latest album, Girls and Peace, gaining half the number of sales of last year’s album in the first week. Tensions have been running high between the two countries for most of the year which has led to a climate less accepting of Korean pop culture products in general.
A huge number of companies are fighting for a place in a very small market in order to make their new groups, into which they have invested huge amounts of time and money, profitable. The stakes are even higher for the many companies who are reliant on the success of a single group for income. As the domestic and established international markets become no longer viable, companies are looking for new ways to promote. This is where A-PRINCE comes in.
A-PRINCE are a fairly unremarkable 5-member boy band in the super-cutesy vein, established by groups like SHINee and B1A4, who debuted under New Planet Entertainment last month. Three of the member debuted in another band, Taken, last year but switched companies before any real promotion after half the members left and have since re-emerged with a new image. Although they have yet to make any kind of dent in the Korean market whatsoever, they have decided, or rather their company has decided, to embark on a European tour. In April and May 2013 the band will be playing a series of dates in small to mid-sized concert venues in different countries all over Europe.
Unlike Korea, where the industry is flooded with far more idol groups that the public can consume, the less developed international markets, particularly Europe, North and South America and parts of South East Asia, offer devoted niche audiences for whom any form of K-pop performance is still a novelty. Many of the fans in these countries see being a ‘K-pop fan’ as an important part of their identity and will travel far and spend a lot to experience anything remotely K-pop related.
Let’s be clear here, A-PRINCE are not planning to perform in Europe because they are a well-established group with a large international fanbase. Far from it. They are performing here because their entertainment company is aware that there is a substantial market in European countries full of extremely devoted fans, often to the point of obsession, who will pay money to see any K-pop band, regardless of their feeling towards them, simply because they are a K-pop band.
On one hand, this could be seen as a clever marketing strategy, an attempt to capitalise on the growing interest in K-pop around the world and bypass the difficulties of the current Korean market. It is possible that if the band is seen have had success abroad, particularly outside Asia, this might also increase their popularity at home. Although, I think Korean audiences are becoming increasingly sceptical about what constitutes foreign success after the high-profile American flops of the Wonder Girls and Girls’ Generation.
On the other hand, this could be seen as a cynical attempt to capitalise on the obsessions of a mostly teenage audience. The kind of devotion displayed by many K-pop fans is unparalleled and has the potential to be easily manipulated by ruthless entertainment companies. It also seems unlikely that a band can forge any kind of long-term success for themselves by piggy-backing entirely on the success of other groups from their home country.
These companies have invested years and fortunes into training up and creating new idol groups and they will not give up on trying to make them successful simply because tastes in Korea are changing. If idol groups continue to fall out of vogue at home, it’s likely that many more groups will start targeting foreign fans in an attempt to sell themselves as part of K-pop lifestyle. However, this only works when K-pop events are scarce enough that any can create hype. If this kind of strategy becomes more popular, it will no longer be effective as the audience becomes less interested in anything K-pop and focusses only on what they actually like.
The truth is that there are simply far more groups trying to break into the market than it could ever support and so companies are taking desperate measures to try and make their groups successful. Inevitably there will be many casualties and companies are required to think outside the box to have even the smallest chance of finding success. I would not be surprised if tours like this become standard for small groups attempting to gain a foothold in the market. However, I am certain that this would not be a good strategy for K-pop further advancing in the west. Consistently palming off international fans with groups who have been unable to find success in Korea can only decrease Korea’s reputation for producing quality entertainment abroad. This could do serious damage to the ‘Hallyu wave’ that the Korean government is so keen to invest in.
So, good luck to A-PRINCE. But I seriously hope they do not start a trend among rookie groups.
It now seems that A-PRINCE have cancelled their European tour. Interestingly, this announcement comes two days after TEEN TOP, a more established and popular group with an actual fanbase, announced a European tour in the two months prior to A-PRINCE scheduled tour. This proves that they were indeed trying to capitalise on the K-pop phenomenon in Europe and have now backed down due to the threat of a more poplar group taking all their ticket sales by being not just a K-pop group but a K-pop group that K-pop concert-goers genuinely want to see.
This article is part of a series about the workings of the K-pop industry. Let us know your thoughts in the comments about how the industry operates!