20151601_seoulbeats_gfriend1Welcome to another edition of the SB Mid-year reviews! This time our focus is on that anxious phase every idol has endured — the debut.

The rookie year is the time to introduce new faces, their personalities and their style to potential fans. Debuts don’t necessarily dictate whether a group will become popular, but there’s something to be said for those who impress fans right from the start. It’s a huge gamble for idols as years of training are finally tested in front of an audience who knows little to nothing about them.

For this panel, we invited Amy L., Cjontai, Elaine and Lindsay to share their opinions on which newcomers show the greatest promise in 2015. Their choices are as follows:

Amy L. Cjontai Elaine Lindsay
1 G.Soul G.Soul GFriend Seventeen
2 The Ark N.Flying Oh My Girl Oh My Girl
3 N.Flying CLC The Ark CLC
4 CLC Seventeen N.Flying GFriend
5 Seventeen The Ark Seventeen Monsta X


Lindsay: It’s interesting how many people are putting N.Flying because I didn’t consider them a debut. They’ve been active for a couple of years already and are technically an experienced group, it’s just that they have only promoted in Japan before now. That being said, I did consider putting them because their first Korean song was totally awesome.

Amy L.: For N.Flying, I hadn’t heard of them at all during their time in Japan, but to me it seemed like the group went through all the motions for a new debut for Korea. They wrapped up an introductory reality show and properly appointed a leader before returning to Korea, and from what I understand, FNC produced their Korean debut as opposed to their independent Japanese releases. They aren’t rookies, but “Awesome” felt very much like a debut nonetheless. You could definitely argue it both ways, though.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4yiOSuk930]

Cjontai: I didn’t know too much about their Japanese promotions, but they’re still new to the Korean market for the most part. Think of N.Flying as rookies who trained overseas. G.Soul spent most of his 15 years of training in the US, but that shouldn’t make him less of a rookie either. If anything, I think having these artists make our lists confirms how important training is. A lot of rookies this year feel a bit unpolished and generic. From what I can see in our picks, hardly any of these groups were put together hastily. Seventeen had a show about their training, and CLC busked around Korea to drum up attention pre-debut. Clearly, these tactics worked to their advantage.

Elaine: I agree that pre-debut activities, whether it be training or promotions, are important. Adding on to the artists Cjontai mentioned, Monsta X, who debuted through the survival program No Mercy, is another relatively successful example. Furthermore, while these things help get the group’s name out there, a good song to follow up on the buzz is crucial to solidifying a good debut in my opinion. I personally don’t mind if a debut song is generic as long as it’s catchy enough to grab my attention, and while both Gfriend and Oh My Girl went with the tried-and-true cutesy formula, their songs were earworms and hits with the public.

That being said, there are some rookie groups this year who deserve to be acknowledged for their original concepts. The Ark impressed with their hip hop debut, and N.Flying continued FNC’s tradition of boy bands, but with a fusion rock style different from their labelmates.

20150708_seoulbeats_seventeenLindsay: For personal taste, I tend to judge new groups on their debut song. That’s why Seventeen is at the top of my list; their debut song got stuck in my head and I haven’t gotten it out since. Because they came out swinging with a catchy song, I bothered to research them further, and that’s when I discovered their reality show. That cemented their place at the top of the debut list for me.

Monsta X is on my list for the exact same reason I put GOT7 on my list last year — they gained a fan base quickly. Their debut holds no appeal for me personally, but I recognize the waves they created when they debuted. The fact that they are coming to KCON LA cemented them as a successful debut in my mind, whether I like it or not.

Finally, all three of the girl groups on my list actually left a lasting impression on me, which girl groups almost never do. Oh My Girl was especially high on my list because I thought their debut MV was just so fun and their song actually had a unique sound. This is the first time I’ve felt like there was a legitimate crop of girl groups that could go on to be the next big wave of popularity in line with the likes of SNSD, T-ARA, APink, and others.

20150425_seoulbeats_ohmygirl5Cjontai: I have mixed feelings for Oh My Girl, and I think that has to do with their live performances. I realize you can’t fully recognize potential in a group based on their debut MV alone, which is why I checked out some of their stages. Oh My Girl fell a bit short in the performance area, but that is likely due to their inexperience. I’m sure they’ll improve over time, but compared to some of the other rookies I chose, I didn’t feel they were as strong in that respect.

Seventeen did manage to surprise me with their energy. MVs only show the best takes of a group’s performance, but for the live shows, there is little room for error, especially at rookie level. They’re not given the same amount of leeway as senior groups or groups from larger companies, so they have to nail every stage to prove themselves. I expect stumbles because they are new, but if they keep those mistakes to a minimum, that’s a bonus. It tells me this group was prepared for the spotlight and not simply thrust into a debut because their company needed to make their money back fast.

Amy L.: I’m also interested to see how these new girl groups develop, but the recent influx of groups with cutesy concepts detracted from any individual group’s debut for me. Enough girl groups by mid-year were marketed with a young, innocent schoolgirl image that they all started to blend together at first. That being said, I actually enjoyed Oh My Girl’s “Cupid” a lot and considered putting them on my list. CLC stood out to me for the sassy and unexpectedly strong attitude of their debut song, and I liked the retro, jazzy sound.

Elaine mentioned The Ark, and I agree that they were one of the more intriguing girl group debuts so far. For a girl group billed as hip hop, The Ark’s debut MV wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Even on their debut stages, the group’s intro performance and promoted song came across as slightly disparate concepts. However, they pulled off harder hitting rap/dance and softer stages equally well. I’m definitely intrigued now for what the group will release next, which is a successful debut to me.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRXUkx3lh74?rel=0]

Cjontai: I should confess that The Ark barely beat out Oh My Girl for me. I’m not blown away by The Ark’s music show performances, however, I do see potential. Sadly, their company is playing it too safe and placating to the standard market. I’m looking at former rookie groups like Mamamoo who cemented a path for themselves in 2014 and are finally gaining a bit more popularity and recognition in 2015. If any of these girl groups expect to grow, their companies need to place faith in their talents and stop hiding them under gimmicks.

Since we’re on the topic of concepts, I want to address the hip hop trend that seems to be permeating through a majority of male rookie groups. Monsta X is part of this trend, but they’re not doing anything special with it. Seventeen has a hip hop sub-unit in their group also, but they started off with a pop track, which I think worked in their favor. Do you think it’s better to follow the trends when they’re hot, or should rookie groups carve their own path until they are recognized as special?

20150708_seoulbeats_monstaxElaine: I think following the trends is a double-edged sword for rookie groups. On one hand, it can ensure a public-friendly debut, which really benefits a group popularity-wise, and I think that immediate recognition is a very important first step for new acts in “making it” in the overly-saturated K-pop market.

In more extreme examples, we have groups that almost copy a successful group’s concept. While I put Gfriend on the list because I thoroughly enjoyed “Glass Bead” and because their variety show appearances showed promise, I won’t deny the claims that their debut was very similar to SNSD’s “Into the New World.” Similarly, rookie group Romeo came under controversy for the similarities between their concept and Infinite‘s “Last Romeo.” Being known as the second (insert popular group’s name here) isn’t ideal, but it gains attention in itself. The two groups mentioned above are some of the more recognizable rookies of 2015 so far.

On the other hand, adhering to what’s hot at the time really doesn’t help the group longevity-wise, since trends are always changing. 2014 saw a tide of sexy girl group debuts (and comebacks), but how many of the groups that joined in are still remembered now that the trend has died down somewhat? Furthermore, it’s hard to be the most well-known group when it comes to more mainstream concepts, like Sistar is with sexy and SNSD/A Pink are with innocent, which is why I’d say in terms of long term goals it’s definitely better for rookies to carve their own path. The only problem with that is that it takes longer for the group to hit it big. Mamamoo only arguably became popular this year, and Crayon Pop also had their big break only a year after their debut. It’s therefore a riskier bet for small companies in particular, because they likely rely on the group to fund its own activities.

Amy L.: I’m of the opinion that it’s better for rookies to blaze their own trail, in regards to debut concepts. When rookie groups follow a little too closely in the shadow of their seniors, they risk earning nicknames such as “plagarism-dols,” as with Romeo. Not to mention the possible prejudice from fans of the “copied” group.

20150708_seoulbeats_gsoulWithin the music industry, rookie groups would profit most from filling an unoccupied niche in the market. It’s a risky move since the demand for such and such new concept is untested, but the group will also have much more leeway because there are no pre-existing standards that they will be compared to.

I don’t think a rookie group should hop on an trend or try to imitate a group unless they can execute the concept better than the existing competition, or put a unique twist to the concept. When I think of great debuts, groups like AKMU, B.A.P, and NU’EST come to mind, and their common denominator was how different they were compared to the current groups in promotion. This time around, it feels like the majority of new groups decided to play it safe, and it led to a pretty lukewarm rookie roundup, at least for me. But it’s a good point that a lot of groups this time around are from small companies, and finances may have played a part in determining the debut.

Lindsay: The balance between choosing a unique concept and going with a tried-and-true concept is a difficult one. If you try to be too “unique” you run the risk of ending up with a concept that is too far out in left field to have mass appeal, like Piggy Dolls or that middle-aged mom idol group, but if you stick too close to a set concept you can end up like Romeo. This is exactly why I wasn’t drawn to Monsta X; they feel unoriginal to me, but the amount of fans and traction they gained apparently means that there are still plenty of people interested in the “edgy hip-hop” concept.

I’m hoping Oh My Girl continues to have a quirky-cute image, and I’d like to see them follow pretty closely in B1A4‘s footsteps concept-wise. I know that defeats the “originality” idea a little, but I feel like there isn’t a girl group that is filling that niche. As for the other girl groups, all I really want is catchy, danceable singles in a consistent manner.

And speaking of reasons we like debuts, did anyone else find a new bias group this year? Obviously I’m obsessed with Seventeen; bring on those noona feels!

20150607_seoulbeats_clcCjontai: I don’t know about a bias group, but my top favorites are N.Flying, CLC and G.Soul. A lot of people worried if JYP Entertainment would usher G.Soul back to the dungeon post-debut, but he recently dropped his follow-up album Love Me Again. I only wish there was more promotion done for it.

CLC didn’t give me the debut I was hoping to see, however, “Pepe” surprisingly caught me in my unni feelings because they hit that one sweet spot I have for aegyo. What I need Cube to do right now is hand this group some guitars and give us something folksy and bring a different sound to the current scene. It worked for Busker Busker, and that group became ridiculously popular in Korea with “Cherry Blossom Ending.” This can work for CLC as well.

As for N.Flying, they’re on the right path so far. Now that I think about it, they could be that group that sneaks into my heart slowly over time, the same way BTS did two years ago. N.Flying peaked my interest with their debut, so all they have to do is keep it. Shouldn’t be too hard — just don’t disappear for long stretches of time, don’t ride the copycat coattails of a more popular group, and don’t hop on any bandwagon trends like some other rookies.

Amy L.: I’m reluctant to let myself love another Pledis artist after the heartbreak of stanning NU’EST, so I’m holding out on Seventeen for the time being. I think I’m waiting for Pledis to prove that they have a marketing strategy to promote the boys in a way that does not end up with them being exiled to China or Japan for an indefinite eternity. Seventeen certainly aren’t lacking in talent or visuals (looking at you, Jeonghan), and they seem like they’d be a fun group to stan should their company manage them better than their labelmates.

20150708_seoulbeats_nflyingNo rookie group really captured my heart so far, and to be honest, my expectations for the second half of this year are much higher than the first. I do think I’ll start following N.Flying casually, and G.Soul’s latest single is really nice. Otherwise, we did a roundtable about rumored agency releases of 2015, and if they’re true, then the second half of the year is going to saturated with many more promising debuts. Assuming these agencies deliver punctually, of course.

Elaine: It usually takes at least two good releases for me to become a fan of a group, so for now I can’t say I stan any of the rookies on my list. However, as was said, promotion also plays a large part in building a fandom. With artists like G.Soul, while his first album was good enough for me to me to start following his music, I wasn’t even aware he released a second until I accidentally stumbled upon the songs themselves. Meanwhile, I have my eye on Gfriend, Oh My Girl and Seventeen, if only because they have promotional activities (i.e. TV show appearances), through which I am able to gain an appreciation for the charms of the groups and their members. Maybe it’s just a matter of time until one of them creeps onto my bias list.

While I’m fairly impressed by the debuts so far, I also have high hopes for the rumoured debuts lined up for the second half of the year. With the sheer number of acts debuting in the industry nowadays every month, groups will have to work harder to differentiate themselves and stand out amongst the competition.

Readers, who were your favorite debuts of 2015?

(YouTube [1][2], Images via Source Music, Cube, Pledis, Starship, FNC, JYP Entertainment)