In August of this year D-Business Entertainment debuted its first girl group (and stuck with D theme), D-Unit. Clocking in at only three members and hailing from an agency with relatively authentic hip-hop credentials, anticipation was running as high as it can without a Big 3 endorsement. Pre-debut fan signs in Japan stirred the interest of netizens already excited by the news that YG’s inhouse producer Kush had a hand in the title track. The group opened for an international music festival, received televised endorsements from industry seniors and had generally positive reviews of their album.

All to little avail. Granted, theirs is a problem shared by countless rookies; 2012 is on track to exceed 2011’s jaw-dropping slew of debuts and D-Unit’s struggle to impress perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of this oversaturated industry. But this is only one in a series of unfortunate events that have undermined D-Unit’s success.

A common means of establishing a presence within the industry is the advertising of relationships. Be it familial, friendly or romantic, a relationship between an established group’s member and your own is a sure fire way to generate interest in your group. Ideally, this passing interest in the personal life of a well-known idol predisposes the casual listener to take an interest in the work of the lesser known idol. Which, presumably, was D-Business’ plan for D-Unit leader Wooram and her elder sister Boram of T-ara. To say this point was not allowed to be lost upon the various media outlets covering D-Unit’s debut is to dramatically understate the case. Come the scandal however, the association became more poisonous than not and only recently has Ram appear on television to wish her sis a tearful ‘fighting!’ Doubtless D-Business had hoped to make better use of this relationship given that – prior to Hwayoung’s departure – T-ara were the darlings of the international K-pop market.

Perhaps the most decisive – and most easily anticipated – reason for D-Unit’s difficulties however, lay in their image. It’s not that D-Unit’s concept is uninteresting or ill-executed. It’s that many people see it as having been done before (and better) by 2NE1. While blatant appropriation of other, more successful groups’, concepts has become something of a norm in K-pop (after all, there are only so many exciting and original concepts) few girl-groups have been so aggressive in their individuality as 2NE1. While “I’m Missin’ You” doesn’t quite qualify for weakest track on the (overall very decent) album, it’s by no means the obvious choice for leading single. In fact its main qualifications lie in that it was written and produced by YG’s Kush. Which would be ok were it not such a distinctively 2NE1ish track; ironic given that it was initially intended for Big Bang. In all honesty, any edgy girl group short on members is going to draw comparisons with K-pop’s baddest female(s) and unfavourable comparisons at that. It certainly doesn’t help that rapper Zin is the spitting image of CL and Ujin a former trainee at YG.

Expectations that the group would follow closely in 2NE1’s shoes were so high that it came as quite a surprise when the girls debuted with their electro-pop sound. Which would have been all well and good had 2NE1 not released “I Love You” almost a month earlier. Ironically, “I’m Missin’ You” feels like the missing link between the powerhouse of Nolza and the laid back synths of “I Love You.” When you consider how unexpected a move “I Love You” was on 2NE1’s part, D-Business must have been a little galled to find themselves accused of copying it .

Upon closer inspection, D-Unit have done a remarkably subtle job of distinguishing themselves from their competition – although I’m not sure it’s done them many favours: they make no attempt to emulate 2NE1’s outlandish fashion statements opting instead for androgynous silhouettes covered in street art inspired prints and accessories; and their music has a more youthful, introspective feel which is offset nicely by their braided hair and sneakers.

Unfortunately K-pop nowadays is a more unforgiving industry and if it takes a concerted effort to differentiate two concepts you can bet most people won’t make it. Which is perfectly understandable given that familiarising oneself with each and every debut of the past two years would amount to a fulltime job. Add to this the news that the group is following in the footsteps of After School by promoting with non-permanent members and you have a recipe for disappointment. Member changes can have a severe impact upon the fanbase of a group because after all, why come to know and love a group if you’re not even sure they’re planing to stick around? This reluctance is exacerbated when a group is relatively small and something that fledgling UNIQUEs (a mixture of D-UNIt and QUEen, T-ara’s official fandom name) have been struggling with of late.

It would be a real pity if these setbacks were to have a lasting effect on D-Unit’s career as they do what they do pretty well. Their voices, while not phenomenal, are pleasant enough to listen to and fit the style of music well. Not to mention the girls themselves suit their pint-sized romantic-cum-rebel image to a t. They even have some song-writing talent, with Ram penning four of the album’s tracks herself. Most importantly they are in possession of one of the most consistent and coherent concepts of any debut this year. In retrospect, it may be premature to label D-Unit chronically unlucky; after all, they’ve successfully avoided accident, scandal and censorship which is no mean feat. But anonymity is the greatest threat to 2012’s debuts and D-Unit have yet to impress the right people and very little time in which to do so.  Here’s hoping that “Luv Me”  shows them off to their best advantage and gives them the recognition they deserve.

(Core Contents Media, D-Business Entertainment, F.OUND Magazine, Newsen, SOUNDANDSCENE)