If you haven’t already read, Key from Shinee and Woohyun from Infinite will be forming a sub-unit together and will be releasing music sometime between February and April.
While the pairing seemed random to me at first — many idols are friends with each other but don’t get to work professionally together like that — it’s not random at all, given that SM Entertainment and Woollim Entertainment‘s business interests align now that Woollim is a subsidiary under SM. It would make sense to capitalize on two fairly popular members of two even more popular groups, both working to earn money for the same company, essentially.
But beyond the obvious reason why this duo is happening now post merger and not two years ago, the forming of the duo is a great idea for K-pop and more companies should emulate it stat.
For one, K-pop has always been incredibly insular. The industry is a companies-first one, and while this is the same for many industries across the world, it is exponentially more intense in K-pop. Companies function within themselves, and everything is built internally. Songs are produced by in-house producers, concepts are done in-house, a company has staff that live and take care of its artists; a K-pop agency is basically a microcosm in itself. And so many big names in the industries have their identities around the companies they service too. Yoo Young-jin and his music is iconic and exclusively for SM; Teddy is synonymous with the YG brand. In her heyday, Boa was Asia’s star, but she was first and foremost SM’s star. There are exceptions, of course, but no major label in the scene today is known for working exclusively with non-company workers.
When it comes to a company building a brand, and in terms of what the public ultimately sees, there’s only one way to do it: rely on your own artists. SNSD is a stronger brand if everything that SNSD does comes from the caves of SM, G-Dragon is G-Dragon because he is a total accumulation of all the things YG stands for as a creative company; that’s how K-pop sells itself. Again, there are exceptions with every case, but K-pop operates predominantly on self-creation and insularity from the very day trainees enter the company’s labyrinth to the day they’re at the height of their careers. Then you add on a strong culture of promoting your company as family and that just means the industry is made up of companies that mostly stick to themselves.
In many ways, insularity can be good and over time it helps the brand build cache. If you look at giants like SM, YG, and JYP, how much expectation can those companies build just by dropping a little nugget of information that a new group within their label will debut? What people expected from the likes of Exo, Winner, and GOT7 by and large came from what we’ve come to know and expect of their predecessors, whose images are very company-oriented.
Groups like Big Bang, SNSD, 2PM were built on the philosophies unique to each company, and philosophies that don’t necessarily transfer over from company to company. Artists that come from smaller companies may be able to work with outside artists because there is no strong brand identity to dilute, so you can see things like Baek Ji-young partnering up with 2PM’s Taecyeon for a one-off track or a pre-BAP Bang Yong-guk collaborating on a one-off track with Beast’s Yoseob.
But you will probably not see a Taecyeon solo with a heavy Baek Ji-young feature, or a Yoseob solo with a heavy Bang Yong-guk focus. Part of it is that some companies and artists have gotten so big that they cannot possibly share the spotlight with someone not on the same level in terms of popularity, but there are also many factors that have to be considered once an artist from a prominent company reaches a certain level of popularity: Will the other guest match the image? Will the other guest, if someone of the opposite sex, bring about scandals that the promoting artist can’t afford?
Hence why it becomes easier to just keep everything in-house. In-house is safe, and in-house is sterile, raising no questions or concerns, because what’s a sunbae helping a hoobae out, and vice versa, right? And one artist helping out another from the same company just means more promotion and elevation of the company as a whole; it won’t invite promotion of another company, and that’s important when the K-pop market is already so small and everybody is vying for the same sets of ears.
And yet the same reason why companies are fearful of giving their competitors a spotlight in a small market is the same reason why it absolutely needs to give its competitors a spotlight. Subunits started becoming all the rage in the last two or three years, and it gave companies more flexibility to extend a group’s shelf life. So what if Super Junior is always super busy and half is in the army with the other half embroiled in scandal? If there’s a subunit with only certain members, problem solved. And the Super Junior name can keep trucking on.
But the number of possible permutations of subunits is not infinite. You can really only make one Trouble Maker duo in Cube, and there can really only be one Eunhae unit in SM. But if companies started teaming up with other companies, all of a sudden, the possibilities becomes a little bit more infinite.
Let’s just take Trouble Maker. Many people love this unit, and clearly this duo is well-loved as evidenced by their latest comeback, but there are also many limitations to this pairing. Hyuna is Cube’s resident sexy girl and the company probably had to go through many lengths trying to pair her up with the right male Cube artist to make sure that their chemistry is just right — sexy enough to keep the audiences wanting, but not sexy enough that they cause a scandal. The other thing is that Hyuna is sexy, but can’t sing, so her partner has to be someone who can pick up the slack. Fortunately, Cube has a strong roster of male idols who can sing and dance very well, but what if they didn’t? And their roster of male idols is all they could work with?
If you take away the limitation of only working within your own company roster, all of a sudden things get way easier. If Hyuna could be paired up with any other capable idol, there could be so many better possibilities than Hyunseung. Or if Hyunseung were the starting point of this duo, there are so many female idols who can do everything Hyuna can, and sing, placing the burden less on Hyunseung.
Getting a bigger pool of artists to work with will probably also make the K-pop genre stronger. So much of K-pop is idol-centric, meaning that all those “intangibles” of idol-dom are more highly prized than actual performance talent. Companies know this. They know Yoona is no Younha, they know Minho is no Yesung. But Younha can’t earn the hearts like Yoona can, and Yesung can’t earn money like Minho can, so companies spend an egregious amount of effort and money distracting you from Yoona and Minho’s lack of performance strength.
With groups ever growing and the trainee pool so big, companies have to work around idols’ weaknesses, which makes K-pop filled with shitty, over-processed tracks with too many “rap” breaks and “concepts,” all used to distract the consumer from lack of solid performance chops. There are plenty of great producers in K-pop and also great singers and dancers with great variety prowess, but the number of untalented ones who have debuted make up by far the majority of the promoting artists, and the songs littering K-pop is reflective of that imbalance.
The most common complaint from K-pop fans are that the talented group members are overshadowed by the untalented ones, and if companies would start broaching the possibility of working with major talents in other companies, there would be more outlets in which talented idols can actually show off their talent, unrestrained by the limits imposed by the weaker members of their groups.
And that’s where SM’s Key/Woohyun duo can hopefully set a new trend. K-pop is abnormally trendy: Trends catch on incredibly fast and die out just as fast. Once someone starts doing something and it gets even the slightest positive feedback, other companies start imitating it, and this goes for anything from story plots in dramas (hello, time travel!) to fashion and style to music.
Again, we can’t pretend like SM isn’t doing this for the money since Woollim is only an SM addition because they can make SM more money, but hopefully the byproduct of this acquisition is that there will be more de facto cross-company projects that involve major idols from major companies.
In this field, I don’t know why companies have let company pride overrule business decisions. Just think about how many fangirls X can attract by doing a project, and then how many extra fangirls bringing Y on can add. There is no lose here for anybody, and the sooner companies realize this, the better K-pop can become, and the more fun we can have as consumers.
With that note, what are some of your dream collaboration projects? And what concepts would you give them?
(Images via Cube, Mnet)