Whether you’re an Inspirit, Pink Panda, Blackjack, S<3NE, B2UTY, or anything in between, you probably know the names of some of K-pop’s biggest record labels. From SM to YG to JYP to Cube to others, each label plays a huge role in the present and future of K-pop’s stars and the industry as a whole. And every year, some labels grow in power while others get closer and closer to obscurity.
Halfway through this year, some labels have tons to work on, while others are definitely killing it. Let’s take a look at some of K-pop’s biggest record labels and talk about their strengths and weaknesses from throughout the year. The evaluation will be based on the following five categories: Artist Management, Artist Popularity, Music Quality, Music Popularity, and Overall Success. For the first part, I’ll be discussing SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment, affectionately known as the Big Three labels. With the biggest overall success, popularity, market share in some areas, these companies are on a separate level than other labels, and therefore deserve an article of their own.
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The worldwide leader of K-pop entertainment is still thriving. With major artists like EXO, Taeyeon, Red Velvet, and more leading the first half of the year, SM has clearly spared no expense in maintaining its seat on the throne for K-pop kings and queens. It seems like every week or two brings a new album release out of SM, along with actual weekly song releases through SM’s ambitious STATION music project. Collectively, the frequency and efficiency with which SM releases are things other labels can only dream of emulating.
And with that, there’s an emphasis on solos and subunits. So far, we have seen solo releases from Taeyeon, Tiffany, Jonghyun, Taemin, Yesung, Ryeowook, Luna, Amber, to name a few, with rumored solos in the works for Seohyun, Yuri, and Onew. The amount of fanbase power that each artist, whether in solo, subunit or full-group releases, ensures SM’s continued relevance and money-making abilities. Each mini-album sells a few ten-thousand albums and brings the label more profit. Artists are also receiving more creative freedom, with SHINee members Taemin and Jonghyun having extensive control over their own solo releases. With Taemin, NCT’s Ten, and Hyoyeon all participating on Mnet’s “Hit the Stage” in addition to tons of schedules for non-enlisted Super Junior members, Girls’ Generation members, and f(x) members, it seems SM is also doing a good job of keeping its artists within the spotlight.
SM’s only major weakness this year, however, is completely self-inflicted (and also very noticeable). With minimal promotion for some solo releases and a seemingly compulsive desire to dive into alternative and electronic genres, SM is losing the Korean crowd on digital charts. EXO’s “Call Me Baby” made #2 on 2015’s First Half-Year Gaon Chart, proving that “Call Me Baby” was a strong and popular release throughout and beyond its promotion cycle. On 2016’s Half-Year Chart, the highest-charting SM song is “Everytime” by Chen and Punch at #11. This song wasn’t even part of SM’s promotions, as it was part of the “Descendants of the Sun” OST. Aside from a few STATION releases that went without promotion on music shows and 2015’s “I” by Taeyeon, the only SM song in the Top 100 that was actually promoted this year is EXO’s “Monster,” which sits at #100. Clearly, SM is taking horrible losses in the digital market.
It seems, however, that SM knows their songs aren’t demolishing the charts, and seems to value the quality and quantity over digital success and public popularity. While it might be frustrating seeing our faves so low on the charts, SM seems to have an agenda — even with new group NCT, which is aiming for world domination. We’ll just have to wait to see more of what SM is planning. The only other weakness is scandals, which have hurt artists like Krystal, Kai, Victoria, Lay, and Zhoumi. Since we have yet to see the full effect of these scandals in the context of a musical release (except for Zhoumi, but there aren’t many negative effects since he was never super popular in Korea to begin with), these scandals are still only minor losses for SM.
For the first half of 2016, they get a solid 8.5/10 from me.
Angry fans everywhere can tell you that YG is slacking. The once-great label was home to domestic and international chart-topping groups, with huge fanbase power in tow. Now, it’s another story, and YG is entirely to blame for its mistakes. As expected of a group with ten years under its belt, BIGBANG is slowing down with releases, especially considering the fact that none of the five members have enlisted in the military yet. As a result, we are left with the remains of 2NE1, which continues on a downward spiral of mismanagement, and newer artists like WINNER, iKON, Lee Hi, AKMU, and, originally “by the end of July” now August 8th, Black Pink. These artists are by no means bad, but YG fails to give them the proper management to make them succeed. They still don’t make many TV appearances, and have huge hiatuses between comebacks. Lee Hi lost a lot of traction and momentum once YG delayed her comeback for over three years — WINNER had a similar situation, waiting over a year for a comeback as well.
This isn’t to say that YG doesn’t have some successes this year — while many say that WINNER’s comeback was a failure, this isn’t entirely true, as their one mini-album yielded three top ten singles this year. Lee Hi shot the same number of songs to the top ten with her album “Seoulite,” and Akdong Musician achieved a number-one hit with the catchy “Re-Bye.” Even iKON got into the top three without any promotion with “#WYD.” Not everything is in shambles for YG, as their newer artists are clearly decently popular, but there’s definitely a lot to criticize.
Let’s look at the current situation — 2NE1’s three-member summer comeback is nowhere in sight, WINNER’s E.X.I.T. series, which was supposed to yield four albums throughout the year, has only seen one album release with the year’s seventh month having come to a close. iKON’s July comeback never happened (aside from a few random singles), BIGBANG’s MADE album from last year is still lost in the void, and only the next week will be able to show us whether YG actually puts out Black Pink on August 8th like the company is saying. It seems the only good things about YG this year are the quality of the music (even though it takes an eternity to be released) and sub-label recruitments from HIGHGRND and The Black Label. On the whole, YG gets a 4/10 from me. Burn.
Arguably the most successful label of the year, JYP has made quite a comeback of its own. I love a good underdog, and seeing JYP rise from the ashes of its pre-2015 decline has been quite exciting. With the explosive success that is TWICE, the label is definitely raking in the dough this year. Based on further analysis of the Gaon Chart, it’s evident that TWICE’s second mini album “Page Two” has already sold more than any previous Wonder Girls or Miss A album, and TWICE’s two mini albums have, in less than a year, collectively outsold the entirety of Miss A’s discography. With tons of CFs and variety appearances in tow, TWICE has clearly given JYP new life.
But TWICE isn’t JYP’s only success this year. With successful releases from Baek Ah Yeon, Baek Yerin, and Wonder Girls, the label is a huge success in terms of musical and artist popularity this year. Wonder Girls is an especially large win, considering that the group was in danger of becoming irrelevant after last year’s “I Feel You.” Through “Why So Lonely”’s breakthrough success (the song still tops charts almost a month after release), Wonder Girls have proved the resilience of both their group and their label. JYP teaches us all that a label is truly successful when both its older and newer groups can make waves in the K-pop world.
Along with profits piling in from TWICE, GOT7, and a successful Japanese release from 2PM, JYP is killing it in all aspects of success. It’s also definitely notable that its artists are being promoted well — many are given creative freedom, constant releases, and stable promotion. Each TWICE member has made upwards of seven or eight variety appearances since debut. While Tzuyu and Sana are currently the most popular members, JYP is taking the time to bring Jihyo and Momo some attention as well, given their recent appearances on shows like “King of Mask Singer” and “Hit the Stage,” respectively.
Keeping all of this success in mind, JYP has taken a few hits this year, specifically in GOT7’s scandal and Fei’s recent solo release. While GOT7’s controversial actions definitely hurt their reputation in Korea and possibly abroad, the group still has a lot of room for upward advancement, given their increasing sales and ability to tour worldwide. Fei was never incredibly popular, and her recent support of China in the South China Sea dispute has really hurt her Korean reputation as well. The result was catastrophic — the single fell off of most charts within a day of release. Recognizing these minor losses as nothing more than, well, minor losses, JYP gets a stellar 9.5/10 from me.
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And that wraps up the Mid-Year Review of the Big Three. For the first time in years, it seems like JYP has become the overall best label of the year so far. We can only hope that their success continues, while praying that SM can get themselves a hit or two before the year’s end and that YG lives up to at least a fourth of its promises.
The ranking is as such:
- JYP Entertainment — 9.5/10
- SM Entertainment — 8.5/10
- YG Entertainment — 4/10
What do you think of the Big Three so far this year? Share your thoughts in the comment section below and be sure to subscribe to the site and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr to keep up with all of our posts.