Sometimes it’s hard working under a company, especially one that has enough backing to influence significantly the actions of a group. Just ask Jung Yong-hwa of CNBLUE, who reportedly wanted to try riskier music, music that CNBLUE is better known for in Japan, but couldn’t do so, instead pushing out Ear Fun earlier this year. Luckily, CNBLUE and FNC Entertainment were able to work things out for the better, but sometimes, for some groups, it’s just better to not have such authority hanging overhead.
Establishing and maintaining a company isn’t easy. For one, it definitely requires a significant amount of capital to keep it running. If those who establish the company don’t have it, then there are investors from other companies or businesses that generally can help provide for the company’s well-being. But of course, in return, the company has to be successful and occasionally might have to agree to the whims of those investors.
For a music production company or entertainment label, a lot has to go into supporting the artists that sign with the label. There’s the time, money, and energy put into training the artists so that they can debut and successfully put out quality music. There needs to be skillful communication with media outlets and clients that want those artists to perform at their events. The artists needs to be marketed properly and vigilantly to remain in the public’s eye but with techniques or concepts that aren’t too reminiscent of other groups. And there are expenses of maintaining the actual group, from their residence to their food to transportation to wherever they need to go. For their music, if the group isn’t incredibly active in the creation of their own sound, the company needs to pay a lyricist and composer for the songs. And there are most likely other aspects that I haven’t even touched on. Having artists in a company and successfully maintaining both the artsy side of music and the business side of the company is no walk in the park, which is why few groups or artists have actually created their own companies to wide success or for reasons other than personal management.
In the past year, there has been news of three groups opening their own companies: Shinhwa Company, Leessang Company, and Ulala Company. All three of these companies are being established by music artists, who can be identified from the company names.
Shinhwa Company is clearly established by Shinhwa, the longest running idol group of Korea. Members Eric, Andy, and Minwoo have had experience with producing groups and establishing a company: Eric produced girl group Stellar and established Top Class Entertainment, Andy produced boy group Teen Top and established his own label, New Dream (ND) Entertainment, and Minwoo established his own label, M Rising Entertainment. Thus, it makes sense that Eric and Minwoo are co-CEOs of the company. But these members aren’t alone in managing the company; the infamous Open World Entertainment owns the rights to the name “Shinhwa” and has allowed the group to use that name for the company, provided the group stays together. The company also owns the rights to Shinhwa’s concerts overseas and will have a part in the licensing of the albums overseas. Additionally, the CEOs of Top Class Entertainment, under which Eric is managed, and Liveworks Company, under which members Dong-wan and Hye-sung are managed, are directors in the company, with Top Class in charge of promotions and management of the group while Liveworks deals with album works and concerts. And with all this going on, Shinhwa Company houses just the group, not the individual members. They are still managed by their individual companies.
It seems as if Shinhwa Company will be successful. Not only do some members have experience in the business side of a company, but the company isn’t alone: it’s essentially being propped up by Top Class Entertainment and Liveworks Company, and to an extent Open World Entertainment (though this is most likely decreased since their scandal). Shinhwa Company has other companies invested in their success, and as such, more money to achieve what needs to be done. And these companies have reasons to be invested in Shinhwa Company: Top Class Entertainment was established by Eric and half of Liveworks Company’s roster–four artists–is made up of Shinhwa members. The company is a group endeavor, with each member having a strong role as a shareholder invested in the outcome of the company.
And each member has felt that responsibility. If you watch the documentary episodes of Shinhwa Broadcast or their episode on Golden Fishery’s Radio Star, some of the members discussed how they had to be careful of how much they spent on the food they ate as a group. Whereas beforehand, they’d just eat however much they wanted because their company was footing the bill, now that they are their own company, they realize that they have to be more cautious in order to maintain their company.
But the benefit of having this company is that Shinhwa can make the music that makes Shinhwa unique, without having others tell them how they should operate. Any label would be happy to have Shinhwa under their label as they have a solid Shinhwa Changjo (their fans) behind them, and they’re variety gold. But this way, by having more input into what is Shinhwa and what they should do to keep going, each member is fully involved and if they play it right, the benefits could go right back to the members. Clearly, the company is still young. How it continues to operate is unknown. While it’s possible that Shinhwa Company grows to be one with less involvement from the other companies, that may not be necessary, especially as the other companies have Shinhwa members under their labels or have members as their founders. It’ll be interesting to see if Shinhwa chooses to produce their a group or keep Shinhwa Company as a way to preserve their own group.
Leessang Company and Ulala Company are fairly new additions to the roster of companies of Korea. On the topic of Ulala Company, little is known at this point, especially as the group, Ulala Session, just made the announcement about their decision earlier this month. With the support from entertainment giant CJ E&M, the group intends to promote under their own company to keep their musical style unhindered from the influences of others.
What’s important about Leessang Company is that it’s primarily performance and event based, not focused on music production. The goal of the company is more to plan high quality performances, especially as there aren’t many opportunities for artists to have well-done performances. Weekly music shows only allow so much because of the time crunch and rigorous schedules. As Leessang is rather enthusiastic about their concerts and live performances, they want to carry that over to other groups, in particular Jungle Entertainment, as they’ll be business partners with that company. As such, Leessang itself will continue to be managed under Jungle Entertainment, Tiger JK‘s primarily hip-hop label. The company most likely will be successful, especially as the two members are particularly business-minded. The two recently bought a building with three businesses within it, one of which was a restaurant already owned by Leessang, indicating their venture into the business side, which they can do because of the success of their music allowing for their own contribution of capital into the mix.
Speaking of Jungle Entertainment, here we have a successful company founded by an artist, Tiger JK, a member of Drunker Tiger. Though still not known to a wide population, the company boasts a sizable amount of hip-hop and R&B artists. Established in 2006, the company’s goal is to promote hip-hop music and eventually get to a global scale with their style. Group Leessang has seen their rise to success within Korea as have Tiger JK and his wife, Yoon Mi-rae, to an extent overseas, such as with Jungle Concert in LA in December of 2011 and Tiger JK and Yoon Mi-rae’s feature in Far East Movement’s remix of “Live My Life.” Here, the merits of owning this company are that the artists have their individual styles and are active in the production of their own music, as shown by the involvement of members of boy group M.I.B, produced by Jungle, in their music.
But Jungle shows one of the drawbacks of establishing such an entertainment company: less exposure to audiences. Though the artists have been growing in the public eye, you can’t deny that they don’t have the same market power as larger companies. But this is in part due to the different target audiences of each group. It’s possible that Jungle Entertainment may accomplish what larger companies have failed to do: truly break into the US market of music. I’m not talking about small populations here and there raving over the Wonder Girls, Big Bang, or 2NE1. I’m talking really be able to sell music in the United States and have it generate recognition from a fanbase large enough to make US promotions of a song just for the US a real possibility.
Most of these examples of artists establishing their own companies have been fairly positive. The new Shinhwa Company seems to be off to a good start, Leessang Company hasn’t had any events yet, so it’s difficult to judge them, and Jungle Entertainment has been around for six years, and will probably be here for many. But companies don’t always have the ability to stick around. Here are two examples: Soul Company and Map the Soul, Inc.
Soul Company was established in 2004 by members of Eluphant and Loquence, Kebee and Jerry. K, respectively. Over the years, the company was able to build up quite the roster of underground hip-hop acts that delivered a variety of hip-hop styles to the listener. However, the company was unable to keep up with the necessities for all the artists they had. They had reached maximum capacity. And it didn’t help that Kebee, one of the founders, had to leave for mandatory military service soon and The Quiett, one of the more popular artists, left Soul Company in 2010, eventually forming Illionaire Records with Dok2. The company eventually held a concert in November 2011 before their official disbandment. It’s difficult to maintain a company that caters to lesser-known artists that in turn generate less money for the company. While the styles are unique and should be appreciated, the audience is smaller, and they can only buy so much of such music. And when the roster of a label continues to grow, artists need to continue to be profitable in order to sustain all of them. When some leave, it becomes more difficult to stay afloat.
Map the Soul, Inc. was formed by Epik High, a hip-hop group consisting of members Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz. The group broke away from Woollim Entertainment in 2009, choosing to establish their own label. The label had been successful as Epik High released music and had recruited other artists, such as Dok2, MYK, and Planet Shiver under its wing. However, in early 2010, the label merged with Woollim Entertainment, despite the initial split before. The group mentioned wanting to focus more on music rather than the business side of maintaining a company, which is a valid reason. It’s not easy to keep a company organized and well run while also producing quality music. And when the founders of the company are more music-minded than business-minded, it’s better to instead find a company that allows the freedom you need while taking care of the numbers so the artist doesn’t have to. Map the Soul, Inc. is still a label, but it often shows up in conjunction with Woollim Entertainment because of the merger.
Thus, artist-owned companies largely depend on the artists owning them and the type of business they intend to have. When the artist or group maintaining the company understands business and takes it slowly in the beginning, it’s possible to properly maintain a company. It’s also feasible when artists are few or the intention is not necessarily to be a producer of music. But when more artists join and necessities for the company increase or producing music as opposed to perpetuating a company is a greater objective, the existence of the company has reason to be questioned and if necessary, dissolved. These entertainment companies are large responsibilities, so it’s no surprise several artists choose to not go down this path. However, what might be more popular in the future is more groups owning companies as a whole. Three groups took that step and potentially could succeed. Perhaps if this is enough precedent, other groups will go down that path.
What’s your opinion on artist-owned companies? Others that come to mind are Rain‘s J. Tune Entertainment or even the founders of any of the Big Three companies who all started off in the music industry. Can you think of other entertainment companies run by artists, and how they’ve fared? Leave us a comment letting us know what you think!
(10Asia, jTBC’s Shinhwa Broadcast, TV Report, Nate  , Star News, Hankyung, Asian Music, Vogue Korea)