K-pop stars are setting their own terms regarding the second stage of their careers

Thanks for reading this edition of Notes on K-pop. Your free subscription helps inspire my work and fuels me to pursue original essays and interviews like these. If you’re already subscribed and able to, I hope you’ll consider upgrading to a paid subscription so I can keep this newsletter going, plus you’ll get access to unique for-pay-only content. Thank you for reading, and all your support!

On Monday, Korean media reported that BLACKPINK’s Jennie and Jisoo will be setting up their own companies to focus on solo activities, while remaining with the act’s longterm company for group activities.

There have been reports for ages about BLACKPINK’s rumored non-renewals with YG Entertainment, and YG’s share prices have reflected that rollercoaster ride, as rumors swirled that Lisa alone wasn’t renewing, and then that only Rosé had renewed. Now, there are rumors that maybe the members will still remain together at YG, but focusing on solo efforts on their own terms.

However it turns out, we’re not there yet, and I can’t help but pity the poor PR rep at YG who has to handle all of this before any official statements are out.

Beyond sorting out the continued existence of BLACKPINK (which I’m watching eagerly and anxiously), the news was of particular interest to me because it’s a growing trend that I think shows how we’re truly in a new era. No, not a new “K-pop Generation,” but perhaps drawing back to one of the very first newsletters from this very substack. Way back in January, I explored how several wronged K-pop acts are fighting for their own rights, and what this could mean for the industry. I still think this is a definitive year for K-pop re artists’ rights (hello, EXO-CBX!), but I also think that this year is showing us something else: to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, it’s not with a bang but small wins that change is made.

Those small wins? Top tier K-pop stars are getting enough power to exert control over their own careers as they move into the latter part of their careers.

A promotional image showing Lisa’s silhouette ahead of her debut at Paris’s Crazy Horse cabaret.
Honestly love the fact that Lisa, yes, that Lalisa, is set to perform at a Parisian cabaret soon.

Why is this a big deal? Because if you look historically at not even the so distant past, K-pop stars often ended up in trouble when they wanted to assert their rights to lucrative terms. Famous cases included three JYJ members of TVXQ!, who sued SM Entertainment for fair profits, and Girls’ Generation’s Jessica, who wanted to start a fashion business, all amid the peaks of their career; their careers came to a halt for a time, and never returned to the same heights of their lucrative boy band and girl group careers. They’re not the only K-pop stars who have brought terms of equity to the table and lost, but perhaps are the most prominent.

A less prominent example is B.A.P. One of the top tier groups of the moment, they debuted in 2012 and in November 2014 filed a lawsuit for unfair work conditions and disproportionately uneven profit sharing. Things were on hold for nearly a year, before a settlement was reached in August 2015, the details of which were never revealed to the public but their company, TS Entertainment, ultimately closed in 2021 after a series of lawsuits by current and former talent alleging intense environments, and B.A.P never returned to the heights they were once at.

BLACKPINK’s members aren’t the first who, if confirmed, have set up their own companies, though usually it’s been a bit different: Lay, of EXO, and Jackson Wang, of GOT7, have their own companies in China, which they set up amid group activities in order to focus on their solo ventures. But both of those were extenuating rather than a potential norm, and I think BLACKPINK’s situation may also be a bit so for now. But I can’t help but assume, hope even, that other K-pop stars who, when it comes to contract renewals, will point to BLACKPINK’s moves and turn to their company to say, “If you want me to stay in the group, I get to do my own things too because I am what is making you money.”

Top tier K-pop stars are getting enough power to exert control over their own careers as they move into the latter part of their careers.

This year, we’ve seen multiple cases now where artists have the clear bargaining power to walk away from their companies, lawsuits or otherwise, and BLACKPINK’s members are perhaps the highest profile ones. While some groups, like BTS, are opting to renew as a group, the Blackpink members’ solo presences has them, from all appearances, negotiating piecemeal, and the power is held in each woman’s hands.

YG has not had a good past few years, and Blackpink is pretty much the only surefire success in the company’s pocket, so this isn’t unexpected at all. But it is nice that there appears to be some power in the talent that has made so much money for others.

It’s still to be determined what BLACKPINK’s future looks like, but I think this bodes well for the industry: a path forward for talent on their own terms is the sign of a healthy, competitive industry environment.

And Blackpink’s members aren’t the only stars in K-pop setting things forward on their own terms, though they are the highest profile and most dramatic. Other recent instances include Super Junior which, until recently, were managed by their own label (that changed due to recent changes within SM Entertainment), and now two members, Donghae and Eunhyuk, have decided to go forward on their own for their D&E and individual activities, while still remaining with the group.

Rowoon, formerly of SF9, parted ways to focus on his acting career as it takes off, and the response has been, at least from what I’ve seen, sad but happy for him. There’s little drama, no drawn out battle for a star who decides one path forward is better for him than another. This is a more typical route for K-pop stars who decide their path forward isn’t renewing, but usually it harms both parties, the group and the departing party, but at the moment it feels like a pretty straightforward change in direction for Rowoon, and a new era for SF9.

K-pop acts have set up their own companies typically when they’re done with their prior management, and usually to avoid any further major management deals: GOT7 and INFINITE now manage their own careers, as do legacy acts such as SHINHWA, while members leaving companies and reuniting increasingly is happening, such as with Girls’ Generation. (Relatedly… I could write a whole thesis on Jaejoong and Sooyoung hanging out in 2023 and discussing who was first to join SM Entertainment even though now neither are there after going two very different routes to part ways, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

Of course, a lot of my thesis here rests on the idea that K-pop stars have both popularity and the power to argue for themselves. And this year, I do believe we’re seeing many of them realize, perhaps inspired by all the other incidents this year, that there’s a way forward for them as the music industry deals with changes and tumultuousness.

Then again, maybe it’ll come out that all this BLACKPINK buzz is nothing and the group is continuing as four, business as usual with no changes just a new signature on contract renewals. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see.

Thank you for reading Notes on K-pop. This post is public so feel free to share it.

What I’m working on

A bunch of interviews, that I will share next week and the week after! I’ve been taking a bit of time for myself, so been slower to publish instead of my usual hectic pace, so sorry about that. Will try to get back to my regular publishing schedule soon.

I’m also going to be working to make a more reliable schedule for 2024 for this newsletter because I enjoy it, so if there’s anything you’d like to see, please drop me a line.

What I’m reading

Mostly responses to my newsletter from last week, to be honest! Thanks to Devin Overman who shared some insight on Linkedin re how touring numbers differentiate between K-pop and non-K-pop acts. (Though non-K-pop acts are also not having the best of time.)

Linkedin screenshot: Devin OvermanView Devin Overman’s profile  (She/Her) • 2nd Language Coach-turned-edtech founder | Always trying to make learning more fun for busy adults and goal-driven companies | Building in public (when I remember) 4d I just decided to look this up for funsies.  Artists and their number of tours in the last 2 years: Taylor Swift - 1 (2023) Lady Gaga - 1 (2022) Ed Sheeran - 1 (2022-2023) Beyonce - 1 (2023)  TXT - 2 (2022, 2023) Dreamcatcher - 3 (2022, and 2 in 2023) Stray Kids - 2 (2019-2020, 2022-2023) Twice - 2 (2021-2022, 2023)  With basically all of the western artists, most hadn't toured since 2018 or earlier, so while COVID certainly had something to do with the break, it's not like all of them were doing annual tours before that.

Yas at Asian Junkie wrote an engaging overview of KCON, and all the smelliness.

wrote a letter to Taylor Swift asking her to save music and the music industry since she’s a rare individual to take on the power entities. Gioia spells how bleak everything is, and it’s… yea. Bleak. “For the first time in 500 years, an increasing number of people listen to music, and don’t even know the name of the artist or the song. This is not by chance, but is an intentional move driven by powerful interests—with the goal of shifting control from artists who create to technocrats who merely aggregate.”

What I’m listening to

My friends at It’s a K-pop Thing teamed up with the always fun Not Your Average Fangirls and… spoke about the same thing that I wrote about last week. It’s probably because we’re all in group chats and talking about similar things, so we all were just in the same headspace, but clearly it was a topic of interest so wanted to share all their perspectives.

Apparently everyone I know is on the same page, because my prior newsletter re fifth generation was a topic of interest during a recent episode of the Kpopcast. Thank you guys, as always, for a shoutout. I’m so glad to hear this little newsletter is resonating with some people and spurring conversation! Also, really enjoy Peter’s point that K-pop fans are almost their own international target audience based on shared language, culture, etc. (Also, yes, I am daebak re Yeontan. Stan K-pups!!!)

Fun fact: I use Apple Music not Spotify, but Theresa said Spotify is better for most listeners…

On the music side of things, Jihyo’s Talkin’ About It with 24kGoldn is kind of making me sad she went with Killin’ Me Good as the single. That song’s good, but is an obvious push to a) get a song of summer out of Jihyo b) differentiate her solo from Nayeon’s more bubbly POP! from 2022. But on Talkin’ About It, I feel like we hear Jihyo more in the way people love her for, which is her rich, lush vocals, and it’s a pretty straightforward, groovy track that I think maybe would resonate well with people. I almost wish they had held this song back as a comeback, rather than tacking it onto the English version of Killin’ Me Good. I’m not in A&R, so I’m sure there is something not ideal about this song for whatever reason, but this is my vote out of her releases. Also, 24kGoldn is Jewish, so this is likely the closest representation I’ll ever see on a K-pop song unless Drake collabs with a BTS member someday.