Many of you have noticed a pattern with my music taste – I like a lot of nugu stuff. My three favourite songs from last year were all debuts by brand new groups that not many people besides me really gave much of a shit about, plus there’s the Nugu Alert series that I write of course. As a result, I’ve been getting a lot of questions like this:
So what’s the reason for it? Am I the k-pop version of a hipster, liking things before they are cool? Am I trying to troll fans of established groups for laughs? Or is there another reason? Come on a journey with Kpopalypse and find out!
You’re the CEO of a startup k-pop label. You’re stankin’ rich so you’ve sunk all your funds into the best training, equipment and production teams that money can buy. You audition several hundred girls for your new k-pop girl group SPERMGULP (Stingily Paid Employees Ruining My Greedy Ultra Lame Productions) until you’ve narrowed it down to a group of nine girls that you feel have the potential to break hearts and take the k-pop world by storm. Once you’ve got your team of girls, you take them through the customary three year training period, honing their dancing, PR skills, singing, language and fitness. Well, actually mainly just dancing and fitness, not so much the other three – there’s only so much time so you’ve got to prioritise what’s important, after all.
While the girls are being trained up, you’ve been shopping their concept around to composers and producers, trying to find them that perfect debut song. Three years is a long time to find an absolute kick-ass song, so you take your time with it, selecting material carefully – only the best will do! Sure enough eventually you come across a really great upbeat dance song called “Alabama Hot Pocket” which is definitely feature track material, so you buy the rights to it and get your producers cracking on turning it into a hit for your girls. You also find some other reasonable songs and buy the rights to those too, they can be produced a little later once your big hit is written and if the group’s big single floats well enough to justify a physical release, they can go on the mini-album when it comes out, just to pad it out a little.
Release time comes up and the pressure mounts: how will “Alabama Hot Pocket” fare on the charts?
It does about as well as you expected for your new group. It isn’t a smash hit, after all your group of unknowns has to compete with several established groups also releasing material at the same time, but it does gain some degree of attention and SPERMGULP starts attracting a small fanbase. Some controversy about the song being supposedly insulting to people from Alabama pops up (this never even occurred to you!) and there’s also rumours about one of the girls being an iljin or whatever – it’s enough to keep the media buzz happening for an extra week or two after the media-play articles that you paid the news websites for run their course. Eventually the buzz dies down… having made a slight name for themselves, you’re happy with SPERMGULP’s performance, but financially they’re still in the red, and there’s work to do – what’s the next move?
You take a look though the other songs that you purchased. Only one song out of them is really feature track material, a smooth mid-tempo ballad called “Blumpkin Pie”. You release it quickly as a follow-up single (because it’s not an upbeat song the girls don’t need time to learn a new dance routine so it can be released quickly) and it does about as well as “Alabama Hot Pocket”, not winning the group any new fans but keeping the new fanbase who liked the first song happy plus kicking off another round of media articles and some music show appearances. It’s enough to keep the group active and buy you some time to consider the next move.
It occurs to you that SPERMGULP will never be truly successful unless they have a whole string of songs as good as their debut hit. You approach the songwriter of “Alabama Hot Pocket”, maybe he can work his magic again?
“I need you to write another song as good as the debut one you wrote SPERMGULP, for their smash follow up single.”
“What, so you want an ‘Alabama Hot Pocket part 2’?”
“Well, not exactly. Similar enough to have the same feel so fans of the first song will also like it and so the group has an identifiable ‘sound’, but it can’t sound exactly the same or people won’t buy it, so mix it up a little somehow.”
“Okay, that shouldn’t be too difficult – when do you want it?”
“I want SPERMGULP to comeback later this year and keep their momentum going in the k-pop scene. We need a few months to record it and think up a concept for it, devise costuming, artwork, choreography and really get those dance routines nailed… so I’ll need the song by the end of the month.”
“Okay”, the songwriter sighs, obviously not liking having to work under pressure. But hey, you’re paying him, he’s a pro, so he should be able to do his job.
The end of the month comes around and you approach the songwriter again. The song he’s written is “Boston Pancake” and it’s certainly what you’re looking for, but will it capture the hearts and minds of Korea’s youth? You roll the hype machine into action and the girls do their comeback. It doesn’t do too badly – a few more fans trickle in, but not enough to sustain the group in a meaningful way or make that all-important transition into true idols that get picked up for endorsements and advertising work – the general consensus from the existing fandom is that the new song isn’t as good as their debut. The group trickles on for a few more months, you release another quick follow-up single called “Hot Karl” that completely bombs, and eventually you decide to shut it down and disband SPERMGULP. Maybe you can start over with another bunch of girls, and the existing girls who want to stay can fund it by working for your company behind the scenes with any new trainees as a pleasure group.
So what happened, why didn’t the group succeed? In the western music business, there’s a phenomenon that’s known as “The Difficult Third Album” and the true test of if an artist can have longevity in the business is if they can make it past this third album with a respectable fanbase still intact. It’s not easy to do – album number three seems to be jinxed for a lot of artists, and here’s why:
- A group debuts with an album that they (or somebody) spent years writing and refining the songs for ever since garage days. Much time has been spent on each individual song, and as a result the album kicks ass. The group does well commercially, starts generating hype and gets a ton of fans.
- The group now with newfound fame is now under pressure to produce a hotly-anticipated sequel in a far shorter timeframe. No more taking years to refine the songs, the group is now under contract for one album per year. They rush out a second album – because they are trying to make something of equal quality as the first album but have far less time to achieve the same result, the resulting songs are comparatively crap. However all the fans of the group buy the second album anyway (because they’re fans who trust the group’s name) and also a few (but not many) new fans come on board, as a result the second album actually does a little bit better than the first album.
- The group is now under pressure to make a third album. Seeing that the second album was such a hit, the group figure “well, that worked – let’s just do exactly what we did last time” and they rush out a third album in a similar timeframe (having little choice anyway). However what the group doesn’t realise is that they’ve actually lost a ton of trust with their fans – all those people who bought the second album without listening to it first just because they trusted the group to do a good job after the strength of their debut album are now a lot more wary. The third album comes out – most of the fans of the debut album are cautious and listen to the third album before buying, most of them go “no thanks” and leave it on the shelf. The only people keen on it were the far smaller amount of fans who came on board for album number two. Sales performance of the third album is therefore weak and the record label dumps the artist off their roster, figuring that they’ve gone past their use-by date.
An audience of fans who will buy your shit without even listening to it first to check if it’s any good or not is something that the industry calls your “core audience”. Established k-pop groups with large global followings like SNSD, 2NE1, T-ara, BigBang, EXO, Super Junior… these groups have large core audiences, and the agencies do their best to maintain the core following in a variety of ways. In these days where album sales don’t really mean anything, the core audience is still important, because it translates to brand power – if a group has a ton of rabid followers who will uncritically accept their output, then they’ll also (the label hopes) uncritically accept anything that those idols are associated with, like endorsed products in a commercial film or advert. This makes the idols much more valuable as ambassadors, promoters of products, and so forth – and that’s where the real money starts to come in for agencies, not album sales, digital sales, award wins, or any of that other crap that k-pop fans are fooled into thinking matters.
If you’re looking at the picture of Qri and wondering where you can get an apple like that, or glasses like that, or a jumper like that, or flowers in your hair like that, or the right makeup products to get that lipstick and blush just right, then you have just experienced Qri Brand Power.
A large core audience also means that a group can get away with more – once a group has a certain amount of hardcore long-term rabid followers who are willing to waive their critical faculties, the good songs that the group had at debut are no longer needed, all that is needed is for product of some kind to periodically appear to sustain interest. That’s how your faves get away with releasing shit songs every now and then, and the more insane the fans are, the easier it is for the companies to palm off shit to everybody that wouldn’t be accepted otherwise. This is also why labels like SM and YG try to build “label brand fans”, they can transfer that uncritical core audience acceptance of product from just one artist to everything that the agency puts out. The “YG fangirl” is exactly what YG wants, that’s more valuable to them than the “BigBang fangirl” who only likes BigBang but might not care about 2NE1 or Epik High, because the YG fangirl will pay attention to everything on YG. The more established labels will do all they can to strengthen the brand image and unify the collection (SM Town/YG Family/JYP Nation, throwing their logo on everything, using the same songwriters so you grow to trust the “sound of the label”, etc).
Nugus on the other hand don’t have this luxury. With no core audience at first, a nugu group has to impress right out of the gate with very memorable songs or a memorable package in some other way (note all the “sexy nugus” lately). Startup companies don’t have a core audience either, but they try to build it by slapping their logo on everything and creating associations between different acts (see all those Christmas songs where every artist on the label gets together and does a song in the same room together as just one example) in the same way that the bigger labels do. Of course that’s not to say all nugus are going to be better by default and some nugu groups sure as hell do bomb with absolute stinker songs (my worst-of lists have plenty of nugus on them), but what it does mean is that there’s still greater chance of a nugu artist impressing with good music than an established artist, just mathematically speaking, because there are simply less other options open to nugus.
So that’s why nugus tend to have better songs, on average. But just to make it clear that there’s always exceptions, here’s a video of Rok Kiss performing live. Kpopalypse out!