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The fluidity of K-pop's "Big 4"
And how does it change?
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For someone taking a break from Xitter, I sure do talk about it a lot in this newsletter, and for that I must apologize. But I’m going to do it again… This time talking about a clip that’s been viewed over 5.2 million times.
Interviewer Zach Sang a few weeks back shared an interview with ATEEZ where he asked about them coming from a small company. I thought it was an engaging question, and the group’s answer was also engaging.
I also think the fanwar that it fuelled was silly, because the idea of what success is in K-pop has changed over the decades, and so have the “Big 4” or 3, or even 2!
In an industry dominated by corporations, it’s a matter of argument as to what the biggest names currently operating are, but it’s constantly something people are debating in the world of K-pop.
If you ask average K-pop fans in 2023 what the “K-pop Big #” are, you’ll probably hear about Hybe Corp., JYP Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and SM Entertainment, but Starship Entertainment may also be mentioned thanks to IVE’s success. If you asked ten years ago, it’d be SM-JYP-YG as the “Big 3.” If you asked in the mid 2000s, DSP would also be mentioned as a major powerplayer, but later YG replaced it.
This is all a very vague overview, because I have to do some edits on an article I’ve been avoiding earlier today to go meet a friend for coffee(sorry, Daniel!!!) and please don’t quote this as some Official Tamar™️ analysis (maybe a part 2 of this newsletter) because that’s not the point of this edition of Notes on K-pop. No, here I am to say:
It’s good to be able to understand who leaders of industry are, but if your favorite artists aren’t part of the “Big whatever” it’s fine. They’re still your faves, whether they’re underdogs or the big dogs.
ATEEZ is similar to a lot of succesful groups from smaller companies, like INFINITE propping up Woollim so that now they have a really nice building and no rookie trainees have to practice in dumpy basements or go through the chaos INFINITE did during their pre-debut era (RIP Woollim artists having sex talks with Epik High members, which I’m gonna mention every single time I can.) Mamamoo’s another great example: based on their success, RBW is now such a major player they have many popular acts under their roster and have acquired several companies including former early Big Brand DSP Media, and helped fuel the recent Kara renaissance. (Thanks tofor pointing that out so I could update this piece a little bit post-publishing.)
INFINITE, Mamamoo, and ATEEZ, aren’t outliers: all the “Big” companies, all companies, were founded on the hard work and wins of one or two acts, which helped fuel the rest of their acts until they established themselves as leaders in the field.
Many smaller companies have also seen this success, and failed to take the momentum to keep investing in their talent and keep the cycle going. But in the case of ATEEZ, we already have the follow-up group xikers out, and they’re doing just fine as rookies to keep an eye on.
The K-pop industry is very cyclical, in that you need successes to fund other successes and creative ventures. It’s why companies with tried and true successes have the reputations they do (though those can go up in flames pretty quickly), and why there are certain creatives who get so much hype: Min Heejin was well-known for her vision at SM that when she launched NewJeans at the Hybe subsidiary ADOR, people were very eager. This sort of generational reputation matters in this industry.
Why does it matter whether there are a big 3, big 4, or big whatever, aside from giving something for fans to argue about on social media?
Mostly, like other elements of common K-pop fan convos, it’s an industry term to identify current power players. That’s why it’s fluid. That’s why typically when writing I describe JYP-SM-YG as the “historic Big 3” in writing versus Hybe, which is a modern giant and has a very different sort of business history and development to those three. But to be honest, K-pop’s “Big "#” is mostly just PR. It’s a quickhand to express who is currently dominating, and that’s why different eras of the industry have different giants. I’ll use it casually, have debates with friends about who is, or if there is, a Big 3 or Big 4 at the moment, but don’t take it too seriously because unless I decide to get into investing it’s pretty clear when a company is being succesful and when it’s not.
I’d argue that this “Big” title is not actually something to be determined - and often bragged about - by average fans, but rather the state of the environment and the business operations of companies.
So what does it take to be part of K-pop’s “Big #”?
For one thing, it’s an entertainment forward company, which is why the likes of CJ ENM and Kakao Ent aren’t typically included since they’re spin offs of bigger companies. The Big K-pop companies are always very music forward, even when dabbling in other industries.
For another, they typically have many succesful acts simultaneously. They’re reliable at putting out consistent hits, both artists and chart topping songs.
They’re highly lucrative: the “Big 3” of SM, JYP, and YG were initially that because they were all the only publicly traded companies in the K-pop scene for a long time, though that’s now changed and Hybe especially is known for having one of South Korea’s biggest IPOs ever.
They’re also ever-changing: K-pop, like the rest of pop culture, expands and evolves. It’s why the “Big” are mutable, and each generation has a different set of “Big” K-pop companies. Right now, we mostly say “Big 4” to mean Hybe, JYP, SM, and YG, because each company does truly have a lot of success, but things are changing a lot this year, so maybe next year we may consider something different.
I could go on and on, but there are thousands, if not millions, of posts on X Twitter so I feel like people’s thoughts are already settled about how much being part of the Big companies matter, or doesn’t. But unless you’re investing in the immediate future, I feel like it’s worth taking a step back and seeing the whole picture. Or just go off and have debates with your friends and frenemies for the hell of it, as long as it makes you happy!
What I’m reading
Even though I largely operate in a space where lyrics are not necessarily the No. 1 motivator of songs, though there is plenty of wonderful lyricism in K-pop, I appreciated reading Miranda Reinert’s take on how many discussions about lyrics, especially those written by women, may be wrapped in misogyny. “The act of trying to decipher a woman's personal experiences through knowing what her songs are ‘about’ is a shallow way to engage with art.”
An interesting thing about me taking a break from Twitter and ignoring it most days means I miss things until I get to a newsletter that highlights them. It’s been a lesson in the delay of the Internet in a time without my Twitter timeline. I typically get 10 newsletters a day and don’t have the time to go through them all, so it takes some time to get to important pieces like Bora’s for Grammy’s.com on K-pop’s roots and relationship with hip-hop.of Bunni Pop had an engaging response to my piece on ticketing for K-pop concerts in the US with the sensical question, “what about Canada?”
What I’m listening to
Thank you paid subscriber Monique (and happy birthday, you queen!) She requested I share Seventeen’s 2016 hit Pretty U with you all, and I’m very happy to share the Seventeeeeeeeen~ upbeat, sweet early days of the group. From the opening declaration of the band’s name to the very final notes of the groovy beat dying out, this truly is a song that feels like the embodiment of rookie era Seventeen. It’s really like a burst of vibrant euphoria.
Beyond this wonderful rec, this morning I woke up and blasted NewJeans’ new Riot Games anthem GODS. It’s a very typical League of Legends Worlds anthem in its explosive energy, and it’s cool to see this very different take from NewJeans, whose songs are typically far more about the chill, cool vibes than the Let’s Kill Something ones.
Aside from these two songs, I spent the time writing this newsletter listening to Yesung’s new Unfading Sense EP, which sounds like a melodramatic K-drama soundtrack for a show that takes place with a lot of scenes in autumnal hiking trails and coffee shops.
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