Pre-releases have long been a tool in K-pop’s promotional toolbox. Generally, they have served as loyal wingmen to official comebacks, their primary purpose being to build anticipation for upcoming releases. However, pre-releases have recently been increasing in frequency and prominence, evolving beyond their customary “snack before the meal” status. By examining some of 2020’s pre-releases, it is possible to see exactly how they are changing, and what they might become next.

Traditionally, pre-releases follow a fairly predictable formula. A pre-release will come out shortly before an official comeback, often accompanied by an MV, but rarely any additional promotions or materials. As noted, its main goal is to generate interest in an upcoming release. Sometimes a pre-release not only hypes forthcoming music, it foreshadows it, indicating the musical direction or general mood of the official comeback. Contrastingly, a pre-release can also be an opportunity for a group or soloist to experiment, trying out an unexpected style without committing an entire comeback to it. Regardless of its artistic leanings, a pre-release is usually welcomed by fans as appreciated extra content from their idols, carrying with it the promise of much more to come.

A recent standard pre-release is H&D’s “Unfamiliar”. Released a little less than a month before the duo’s album Soulmate, “Unfamiliar” came with an MV but no significant promotions. A piano-accompanied ballad, the song served to generate interest in H&D’s debut. It also provides a refreshing contrast to the duo’s largely electronic-heavy sound, making it a textbook example of an experimental pre-release.

While “Unfamiliar” may have stayed on the well-trod path, many other 2020 pre-releases are straying far from expectations. BTS’ “Black Swan” and Winner’s “Hold” demonstrate one of the roles this new generation of pre-releases is taking on: second title track in all but name.

Both of these songs diverge from the pre-release model because they were promoted relatively equally to the official title track. “Black Swan”, a pre-release from Map of the Soul: 7, has two MVs and premiered on American television, just like the official title track “On”. “Black Swan” may even have a slight advantage over “On” promotionally. It premiered directly after the group’s history-making Grammy performance and due to its earlier release, simply had a longer period of visibility. It was also promoted prior to the global onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, which placed limitations on the rollout of “On”.

Neither Winner’s “Hold” or title track “Remember” were significantly promoted, largely due to the enlistment of member Jinwoo. However, the promotions they did receive were equivalent, with one MV and a handful of online performance clips for each song.   

Due to the equal visibility of these pre-releases and title tracks, the very pre-release-type artistic qualities of “Black Swan” and “Hold” are able to shine. Like so many others, “Black Swan” takes advantage of the experimental opportunities of a pre-release, showcasing an unexpected modern-dance style choreography, and taking on an unapologetically dark tone. “Hold” leans into pre-releases’ identity as a fan treat, with its humor and fun starring turn by Winner’s labelmate, AKMU’s Suhyun, in the MV. When placed on an even playing field, pre-releases’ creativity can make them more memorable than conventional title tracks.

This introduces the risk of the pre-release outshining the title track. However, it can also open the door to an album fielding two hit singles, as was the case with “Black Swan” and “On”. Additionally, a well-promoted pre-release can serve as a back-up in case the title track does not chart well, something “Hold” ended up doing for “Remember”.

High-profile pre-releases allow groups to multitask, both commercially and artistically. Thanks to their pre-release-based strategy, BTS was able to promote one experimental and one more mainstream song off Map of the Soul: 7. Likewise, Winner gifted fans with one light-hearted romp and one sentimental ballad. Best of all for companies, the strategy of using a pre-release as a secondary title track doesn’t tie them to full dual promotions, like an official double title track would. They are free to pick and choose the amount and type of promotions for the pre-release. For instance, neither “Black Swan” or “Hold” were rolled out with the full phalanx of teasers and concept images that an official comeback would demand. This gives companies creative and financial leeway, while still enabling them to benefit off two highly publicized tracks.

Another new role the pre-release is claiming is that of pseudo-comeback. Chungha’s “Stay Tonight”and Bvndit’s “Children” are two 2020 pre-releases of this type. Both songs were promoted more than what is typical for a pre-release, though not as much as, for instance, “Black Swan”. “Stay Tonight” had a large teaser rollout, and while Chungha did not perform the song on music shows, she put out several elaborate online performance clips. These clips showcase the dynamic choreography and dramatic flair of “Stay Tonight” in ways that may not have been possible in music show stages. Meanwhile, “Children” was performed on music shows, both before and after the release of its album Carnival.

Notably, “Stay Tonight” and “Children” were publicized in ways which made promoting the artist’s upcoming material, generally the main purpose of a pre-release, a bonus, rather than the focus. “Stay Tonight” is especially unusual in that details for Chungha’s upcoming album are virtually non-existent, including a release date. This lack of proximity makes “Stay Tonight” seem like an unconnected comeback, rather than a pre-release. “Children” was released within a more typical window of time to Carnival, but its solo promotion on music shows also makes it feel separate from the upcoming album, as does its lack of musical cohesion with Carnival’s powerful sound.

Still, the benefits to labelling these songs as pre-releases are clear. “Stay Tonight”, as well as an upcoming July pre-release, are undoubtedly building anticipation for Chungha’s album, whenever it comes. While Carnival and its title track “Jungle” were not a smash success, they could not have been hurt by the publicity generated by “Children”. Calling these well-promoted songs pre-releases allows a company to generate comeback-like publicity without comeback-like expenses, and simultaneously hype future releases.

Interestingly, both Chungha and Bvndit are under MNH Entertainment, showing that company to have a penchant for pre-releases. However, no company can beat YG Entertainment when it comes to the frequent use of pre-releases and pre-release-type strategies. Past examples that come to mind are Big Bang’s infamous MADE rollout and iKon’s unique debut strategy. Winner is also under YG, and far from the only YG group to have a high-profile pre-release in 2020.

Black Pink’s “How You Like That” is arguably the most hyped pre-release of this year so far. It was preceded by a barrage of teasers, debuted on American TV, and will be accompanied by a new reality show. Artistically, it largely keeps to the group’s brash and bold trademark sound but could foreshadow a slightly less pop, more EDM-influenced era for Black Pink. An argument could be made that “How You Like That” counts as a pseudo-comeback or secondary title track type of pre-release. However, it actually fits best into a third category, of pre-releases as part of protracted promotions.

“How You Like That” is the first part of a planned three-step comeback, culminating in Black Pink’s first full album. While the second of the three steps is still vague, it also sounds like a type of pre-release. Through this protracted rollout, Black Pink should be able to spend several months firmly in the public spotlight, without necessitating separate comebacks back-to-back.

YG Entertainment seems to intend to use a similar strategy for the debut of its new boy-group, Treasure. The company has indicated that beginning in July, Treasure will be releasing music in small batches through the rest of 2020. As the start of this process, Treasure member and longtime YG trainee Bang Yedam released a single called “Wayo” in June. In contrast to some of the performance videos Treasure has released, which have a synth-pop or hip-hop sound, “Wayo” showcases Bang Yedam’s distinctive vocals against sparing, largely acoustic instrumentation.

 “Wayo” doubles as a solo debut for Bang Yedam and a pre-release for Treasure. The song’s significant digital promotions included covers and testimonials from other artists, as well as interviews with Bang Yedam and other Treasure members. This content both highlights Bang Yedam’s individual talent, and involves the participation and publicization of Treasure as a group. While it remains to be seen if Treasure’s debut rollout will be successful, using pre-releases and pre-release-type strategies to stretch out promotions makes some sense. In the over-saturated world of K-pop, the longer a group can be visible, especially a rookie group, the better.

Based on 2020 so far, pre-releases are only gaining in frequency and prominence. As they become a more crucial and versatile part of promotional strategies, pre-releases are evolving in surprisingly consistent ways across different companies and artists. Intriguingly, K-pop pre-releases are beginning to resemble Western artists’ pre or post album singles. Like those Western tracks, pre-releases are being used to expand artists’ periods of visibility, and to generate profits and publicity that can feel unconnected to the albums the singles are coming from. It is understandable that the K-pop industry is picking up pointers from a music market it so wishes to penetrate. Whether those strategies will prove successful when applied to K-pop and its consumers in the long-term, well that is another matter.

Overall, pre-releases are evolving in a direction that allows companies to put out content and promote their artists with great fanfare, but potentially less expense and more freedom than a full comeback. This opens doors for high-profile artistic experimentation and content variety. However, it can also enable opportunistic cash grabs, with companies profiting from releases that are being executed without the creative effort, continuity, and full promotions of an official comeback. Ultimately, only time will tell what the true identity and impact of these new, and still evolving, types of pre-releases will be.

(Naver, Twitter[1][2], YouTube[1][2][3][4][5]. Images via Big Hit Entertainment, YG Entertainment)