K-pop is in its "follow the money" era

K-pop is in its "follow the money" era
"Money is a Terrible Master but An Excellent Servant" (credit Lisa "Money" MV)

More than any year, or even month, than I can remember, K-pop fans are following the money around the industry closely in Spring 2024.

While there have definitely been other periods of interest for fans to pay attention to financial issues (like a company's hostile takeover) and/or scandals related to finances (ie Burning Sun), over the past few days I've seen continuous fan discourse over a few big financial talking points:

I was already going to talk about those two things in today's newsletter, but then I woke up to half a dozen texts with the most-immediate news of all: HYBE has launched an audit into allegations that ADOR has been planning to breakaway from HYBE.

HYBE is blaming NewJeans creative mastermind Min Hee Jin for teaming up with others at ADOR to takeover more than Min's 20% share of ADOR, and trying to get her to resign. Hybe has also allegedly reported that ADOR has spread negative reports about other Hybe artists, and leaked company secrets and dealings in an attempt to reduce share value so ADOR supporters can buy out the subsidary.

ADOR is alleging that this dispute is not about ownership of ADOR, but claiming that HYBE, especially founder Bang Si-hyuk, copied NewJeans' creative concept for Hybe subsidiary Belift's girl group ILLIT. According to ADOR, Min's concerns were disregarded that Hybe was chasing success by copying rather than innovating.

Hybe's stock price closed at 20,000 KRW (around $15 USD) lower than opening today, as investors reacted to the news that NewJeans' future is potentially at risk.

Hybe's stock dipped to as low as 206,000 KRW today.

I feel like I say this a lot for this newsletter, but we're going to have to wait and see what happens now with ADOR and Hybe, and between Min Hee Jin and Bang Si-Hyuk two creative geniuses each with their own agendas. Things get further complicated because Min is considered a particularly powerful creative in the K-pop world but is a controversial one.

Fans, of course, have a lot to say about this latest development on social media. A quick peep at my least favorite place, Xtwitter, shows that people are choosing sides rapidly, declaring Hybe or ADOR, mostly going off of personal preferences and vibes, but also debating what this means for the companies and artists involved. (Here's a r/kpop megathread for those who want to follow the news developments easily, with plenty of takes in the comments.)

I'm not going to say I predicted Adorgate because that would have been impossible without insider information, which I certainly did not have. But this morning I can't help but be reminded of about how even before their debut, I was already mentioning to friends about how I was surprised ILLIT and NewJeans' concepts were going to overlap, to the point that they were clearly mistaken for each other. It didn't seem like smart business acumen to have two such overlapping girl groups under the same corporation, even when it's become a common tactic in K-pop in recent years to have similar, but different enough, acts.

As ILLIT's "Magnetic" became the soundtrack of spring, I kept joking to friends that I feel like a conspiracy theorist. There's no way anyone would let anything impact NewJeans' runaway success, I thought, and ILLIT's musicality is different than NewJeans, so all parties on Hybe must be on board. How wrong I was: This sort of conflation seems to, in fact, be a major upset for ADOR and Min, and a primary reason for the dispute. So, a reminder to all of us that when our business spidey sense tingle, listen to them: when it comes to money, if something feels like it's going on, it's probably because something is going on.

And K-pop's biggest story of 2024 is undoubtedly that the money is talking more than the music is: the hits are happening, but the deals and stocks are making bigger news to the degree that even casual fans are watching what's going on. Artists fighting with labels, labels arguing internally, everything is happening because the business of K-pop has caught up to its success in a way that is, if not detrimental it is expectational.

K-pop has hit so much financial success that the only future anyone with monetary investments can allow is a positive, strong one: growth is not growth if it's steady, seems to be the standard feeling, and it's making investors, creatives, and artists itchy, which is why I think so much of this sort of dramatic business news is going on right now. Money talks and money makes the world turn, even if it sometimes tilts things onto a confusing axis where the future seems uncertain.

Update: Here's a link to a translation of ADOR's full statement and denial of any attempt by Min to takeover management.

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What I'm working on

I was on Arirang the other day talking about Coachella and stocks. It was at 1am and I haven't had the courage to rewatch it, but hopefully it was a good segment.

What I'm reading

I'm always a fan of the Active Faults newsletter, which covers Chinese pop culture fandom and offers insight into topics I never even thought about. So I was pretty thrilled to see a mention in a latest piece on e-sports fandom, referencing my newsletter about how sports and music fandoms are perceived differently. "Fans in non-entertainment spaces consider themselves natives of their lands," writes Em of Active Faults. "By a stroke of chance, their land becomes desirable to others and in come those whom they consider looters and heathens radically and disrespectfully changing the landscapes and customs."

What I'm listening to

RIIZE's "Impossible" is very good for many reasons, but mostly because it actually goes beyond the 3 minute mark, a rarity in 2024.

Fishingirls' "Tutorial" is making my morning more vibrant.