Okay, not really. SM, YG , and JYP Entertainment, are probably going to be in the game for a long time running. Whilst they do not hold the financial power and influence in South Korea like some fans seem to think they do, it is undeniable that these three have been an integral part of molding and shaping the ‘ins and outs’ of K-Pop, and making the modern Korean Pop scene what it is today. However, times are changing, and whilst no agency has actually come close to threatening these three in terms of finance, power and influence, quite a few have risen up and above in terms of music and production.

SM, YG, and JYP are awarded the luxury of having whatever comes from their wombs assumed of being of high-quality. The groups they debut start off standing tall and proud, whilst other rookie groups are hatched, and flip flop their way from music show to music show, hoping that along the way they’ll find a fanbase and a hit. So when rookie groups do manage to find success, I can’t help but look over at their agency and think about everything they’ve done right.

Pledis Entertainment

Yes, yes, I know. No, I’m not being paid to say this. Yes, I really like Jungah too. I swear, Bekah was my bias as well! Listen — no, I don’t think Orange Caramel is a job well done… completely. What? You just lost respect for me? Just hear me out for a bit! Pledis is here for a reason.

Everyone and their mothers all have bones to pick with Pledis. So do I. But I’m not going to deny there are certain aspects of After School that they completely nailed. In short, when it comes to promoting After School on music shows, Pledis is pretty stellar. Because honestly, After School has the best comebacks ever.

Pledis put their all into making sure After School comeback with a bang (literally in the case of 2010). There’s always something about After School’s comebacks that put them above the rest, that makes you notice them even if you aren’t a particularly big fan. Whether it’s learning drums, or tap dancing, or being able to dance in suits, After School does it well, and give it their all. Whether the song itself is the best there can be is something else entirely, but you can always be assured the comebacks are stellar. Pledis and After School have an aim they want to achieve with every comeback, and they can achieve it. Yes, ‘Shampoo’ may not have been the hard-hitter we wanted it to be. But Pledis obviously wanted to go with a mellow and softer sound for After School, and they hit the nail on the head in that case.

Of course, there’s lots of problems with Pledis/After School once we look closer, which Megan already outlined. But from the outside you wouldn’t know anything was amiss. With such effort put into their comebacks and promotions, and such success as well, it leaves me excited for what their next group ‘Pledis Boys’ are going to officially debut with.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6_9IhH_Mq0&w=560&h=315]

And in the case of Orange Caramel… It wasn’t a completely horrendous idea. The purpose of the group was to emanate a cutesy/super gimmicky image and see how it turned out. It was made into a subgroup so that Pledis didn’t have to inject the awesomesauce that’s After School with the gimmick. And somehow, the gimmick was super successful. And I’m not going to pretend that I have no idea why it’s so popular. I do know why they’re doing well. Basically, Raina can sing well enough, Lizzy is endearing and cute, and Nana is super hot. And all three sing ridiculously catchy songs wearing uniform outfits. Everyone thinks it’s a really stupid idea — which it sort of is — but also sort of isn’t.

Sometimes you need to accept success for what it is, despite the reasons behind it being questionable.

NH Media

NH is another one those really questionable companies. Their earlier efforts with U-KISS, were bluntly put, an abomination. Not to mention their promotions with Paran were even worse. How much worse? Well… Paran who? If I had attempted to make this list back in 2009 I probably wouldn’t even consider NH Media. If in the unlikely case I did, I’d probably blacklist them or something.

But no, it’s 2012, and here I am… praising them.

After almost three years with no success, nothing remarkable, and having a band being close to failures, I think NH decided to see what they were doing wrong and well… fix it. And that’s where I start giving this company mad props. Because there was so much going on behind the scenes when preparing U-KISS’ 2011 material. They really stripped the band down to its core, and tweaked everything from the base upwards.

Admittedly, forcing Kibum and Alexander out of the group was ruthless, and there are definitely moral holes in the decision. And even if it’s true that those two didn’t add much to the band at all, one would think maybe NH Media would have considered that before placing them in the band. But what’s done is done, and NH Media didn’t just kick these guys out to play around. And the didn’t just add in extra members that brought nothing to the group (see: Hwayoung of T-ARA). The two new members are actually useful and bring admirable qualities with them. Hoon has a very warm timbre and he compliments Soohyun‘s vocals nicely, and as a rapper AJ definitely has a charisma about him that Xander was missing.

Patricia outlined the dramatic change U-KISS has gone through in an earlier article. Replacing members is just the beginning, it was just the only step we could see. Behind the scenes so much more happened, it was like a light bulb finally came on and the whole world made sense:

CEO: How in the WORLD do we get this irrelevant boyband to at least somewhat succeed??
We already put Kevin in drag, don’t bother.
How about then…  we give them good music?
Why… that JUST might be crazy enough to work!

And their efforts are both visible and audible. NH Media didn’t try and force relevancy onto U-KISS by saturating them on as many reality shows as possible, or forcing more and more gimmicks on them. No, NH Media is trying to get U-KISS to the top by actual giving them quality music that is deserving of success. They dumped the Brave Brothers‘ ass, hired some talented (and admittedly douchebaggy — Ryan Juhn I am looking at you) producers, and generally just slicked themselves up. I can hardly believe U-KISS is the same band anymore! On paper U-KISS has it good now, they have talent to some extent — enough to pull off their songs, they have great material, slick choreography, they have amazing personalities, and an ambitious company behind them. Four for you, NH Media. Four for you.

Woolim Entertainment

Woolim managed to do with Infinite what so many agencies are struggling to do with their senior groups. Infinite has a sound. They have a signature kind of style to their music, basically, if you hear an Infinite song, you’ll know it’s an Infinite song. And they manage to do it without their music being repetitive. Listen to ‘Come Back Again,’ ‘She’s Back,’ ‘Nothing’s Over,’ and ‘White Confession’. They’re all different, but they have something tying it all together, something which just screams ‘Infinite’. Listen to ‘Before the Dawn,’ ‘Be Mine,’ and ‘Paradise’. Ditto. Not to mention their quality has been consistently great from the beginning. If I had to do a graph of Infinite singles it would look like this:

Which is pretty fantastic, especially if we’re comparing them to certain other more successful groups which I shall not name. Let’s face it, Infinite are talented sure, but they aren’t the best live performers. Yeah, they’re really in sync and they have a good dynamic. But if we’re talking about the actual singing, there are some holes. Which means that getting great material on their side is a huge plus. And Woolim knows how to distribute lines, and give them songs that can patch up those holes for the most part.

On top of great music, they also have a pretty solid group dynamic and image. It’s gimmicky enough (most of which simply comes from the existence of Sungjong), but it’s not so gimmicky that it completely takes away the ability to take them seriously. It’s enough so that they’re entertaining to watch on shows, but not so much that  it appears as though they’re born to live off variety shows. Woolim has been managing this group so well from the beginning, I’m actually almost stunned. Of course, the boys themselves are big players in their success, but just being a good group doesn’t instantly mean a good discography, good promotional tactics, and a good fanbase (am looking at you DGNA).

Let’s just say, you know you’ve made it when you have posts complaining about your fanbase/group on kpopsecrets. Inspirits, Woolim, you are doing a good job.

Cube Entertainment

Cube, what do I say about Cube? I could pretty much write a whole article about them. Basically, they are the closest agency there is to remotely rivaling the Big 3 in relevance. They’ve gone from the agency which collects the rejects, to an agency with some kind of mainstream influence.

In retrospect, Cube’s activity of collecting the used and discarded off the streets was probably a big game player in them coming as far as they did. I mean, how else would 4Minute even get a spark of attention without their star player ex-Wonder Girl, Hyuna. How else would BEAST gain such a following and hype before they debuted, had they not contained the almost Big Bang member, Hyunseung. The ex-JYP trainee Yoseob. And the failed soloist AJ. Even with G.NA, whilst not exactly a reject (though technically she also is, being an ex-Five Girls member), Cube knew how to set up loads of anticipation for her debut. And whilst, personally speaking, BEAST is the only one of the three who I believe really made a mark, the other two acts for what they are, are doing better than they would be doing had they been from another company.

Cube bothers me because of a lot of things. Frankly, I think the only groups they do good with is BEAST and most recently, A Pink. 4Minute is incredibly low on talent, and they don’t get material to showcase otherwise. G.NA has plenty of talent, but her material does show otherwise. But Cube knows what sells, they put Hyuna at the front for 4Minute, and love her or hate her, she got the job done and put her band on the map. G.NA musically is still in a blackhole, but at least she somewhat sells.

BEAST on the other hand, is the band I believe to really put them up there with the big 3. BEAST by themselves are what’s making Cube into a rising star. Cube has done a great job with these six boys. They save the best of their material for their favourite boyband, and the boys themselves are such hard workers that they really brought themselves up there. In fact, ‘Fiction’ was named one of the best albums of 2011 by us, and title track was named best song of 2011. They’re close to being the perfect boyband; vocal talent, dance talent, popularity, good music, a good company backing them, and adorkable members.

And now the most recent rookies to join Cube’s ranks, A Pink, are also helping bringing the cash in. Whilst some may find A-Pink’s tactics and concept cavity-and vomit-inducing, these seven girls have found a good following and definitely spark nostalgia in veteran K-Pop fans. In particular, fans of the SES generation are likely to smile at the familiarity of A Pink’s sweet tunes. They also have one of my favourite singers in the K-Pop-sphere, Eunji, as their main vocalist. For the most part, Cube knows what will get the audience stirring, and A Pink is definitely stirring them.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxabwNWJ2rY&w=560&h=315]

Another thing I really need to give Cube props for is how innovative they are. Whilst they definitely pushed the boundaries of what’s ‘socially acceptable’ with Hyuna, they went outside of the box and experimented. And although Hyuna suffered a great deal of backlash, Cube got the attention they wanted.

There is also Cube’s idea of sub-units within their own agency — I’m pretty sure Trouble Maker was the first unit of its kind to get so much attention. And it almost astounds me that none of the Big 3 agencies tried out something like JS & Hyuna before. It was scandalous, sexy, kind of awkward, but once again it got all the attention it wanted to get. And the package as a whole was definitely enjoyable. If more of the Big 3 tried experimenting with their roster the way Cube is, I’m sure there’d be a lot less unsatisfied groans on our side, and there would be a lot less complaining about how uncreative the agencies are.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-zRAQmKUkI&w=560&h=315]

To be honest, it feels almost wrong to include Cube with the other agencies here, because although they haven’t reached ‘Big 3’ level yet, I can’t bring myself to call them a small agency either. Cube stands at a comfortable middle ground. They aren’t too small so that they’re almost irrelevant — but they aren’t so big, and hence they get cut a lot of slack compared to the bigger agencies. And honestly, that’s a pretty good place to be.