Is the next battle for Korea’s music industry creative?

Is the next battle for Korea’s music industry creative?

The last few days for K-pop have been historic ones, with Min Hee Jin and HYBE one-upping one another with press conferences and press statements. We’re in the era of she said-they said, with legal teams attempting their best to come out on top.

It’s unclear based on everything that’s flying what exactly is going on legally without actually being able to see the contracts in question, but the battle for public opinion is a wild one. At the moment, Min’s two-hour press conference appears to have won over many Koreans, who see her as a representative to the downtrodden average worker in Korea whose work hell has been domineered by predominantly male, middle aged managers and executives who benefit while everyone else suffers. 

There are many allegations flying around, such as Min breaching Hybe’s trust by attempting a hostile takeover of ADOR, and Min claiming Hybe has made it impossible for her to ever leave ADOR due to restrictions on stock sales. But the thing that most people are talking about is the thing that seemingly at the center of all of this: Min’s claim that HYBE’s latest girl group, ILLIT, is a copy of NewJeans because Hybe, impugning on her creative vision.


But this isn’t the only Korean music company that's going through some changes nowadays. It’s less high-profile among K-pop stans, but AOMG, the hip-hop label founded by Jay Park in 2012, is shedding artists like the way cicadas shed their skin: subtly but leaving behind a big mess. 

Since mid-March when former CEO DJ Pumkin resigned, over half a dozen recording artists and producers have left AOMG, all of them due to due to the non-renewal of contracts. It's less dramatic, but still noteworthy that an artistic exodus is occurring.

AOMG famously was a label for artists, by artists. After Jay Park left it, it seemed that it still was going in that direction, and things were great, with many prominent recording artists joining and releasing high-profile hip-hop and R&B releases. But things got mess in February, when the singer Meenoi alleged that AOMG had forged her signature and signed contracts for her. AOMG later shared that her allegations were erroneous, that she had been in the know for all business decisions, and Meenoi later recanted, although the drama's handling resulted in DJ Pumkin resigning. A timeline was kindly shared by a reddit user, and can be read here.

Although Meenoi and AOMG seemingly are back on the same page, it appears that the company has bigger problems now with so many artists so prominently leaving.

A screenshot of AOMG's Wikipedia page, showing the recent departures.

AOMG's roster is still very much alive, especially with younger talent. But when stalwarts leave en masse, it's something to keep an eye on, raising eyebrows about what's going on with management that these artists and producers aren't willing to remain with the label they helped build.

Some people presume this means that they'll move to another label founded by one of them or another, or move to Park's More Vision, which he founded in 2022. It could mean that, for some reason or another, some of these artists want to retire, or simply go independent. There may ultimately not be any artistic reason behind simultaneous contract renewal failures at AOMG at all. But when something feels a certain way, it's not to be dismissed.

And it's not just at ADOR and Hybe, or me assuming some similar creative dissatisfaction is causing an AOMG exodus: many artists who left SM, YG, and JYP in recent years have done so for creative freedom. Over at JYP, it was the members of GOT7 seeking creative freedom for the group and solo careers, while EXO and Super Junior members jumped from SM's shaky ship to manage themselves and promptly release albums they never had the opportunity to do so. YG similarly has lost the Blackpink members' solo careers at least in part because several of the women wanted more creative freedom (such as being a featured aritst on songs by non YG-artists), and even G-Dragon, YG's poster child, has peaced(minusone) out from the company.

For the creatives of Korea's corporate hierarchies, the time of that era is looking like it may be done: if creative freedom is the rallying cry for this generation's top power players and leads to staid corporations crumbling, the next generation of K-pop and Korea's music industry may look really different.

What I'm working on

Notes on K-pop has launched a mentoring fellowship. Please apply, or send to people you think would be a good fit! A generous reader has offered to supplement the stipend I've set aside, so depending on applications I may be able to expand this to oup to four fellows instead of my original planned two.

I was on Arirang talking about the Hybe Ador mess. I agreed to it before Min Hee Jin's press conference and we filmed shortly after, so it was kind of stressful but hopefully it was a helpful session to those confused by what's going on.

What I'm reading

I love the Kosi Coso newsletter, and the NewJeans Omniverse is a great, and very timely, analysis of what NewJeans stands for.

Why Superfans may not be able to save the music industry

What I'm listening to

K-pop's first hearing-impaired group Big Ocean debuted with "Glow," a remake of "Hope" by H.O.T. It's not only amazing to watch, but fascinating to learn about what they're doing to make this all possible to make this art possible. Accessibility for hard-of-hearing K-pop fans is pretty limited; there are a few K-pop artists who have previously incorporated sign language into performances and songs before, and sometimes you'll catch interpreters at concerts, but this is truly something new and I really hope everyone takes a few minutes today to learn a bit about them.

NewJeans' new song "Bubble Gum" marks a nice return for the group, with their typical nostalgia feels. On the first few listens it's not my absolute favorite song from NewJeans, but something I'm happily listening to as the breezy days of spring arrive. The song's actually a tie-in to a Japanese CF ad for a haircare brand, so the sprightly disco and city-pop-like inflection of it all feels very appropriate.

Min Hee Jin is perhaps the first creative director turned rap sensation, with "Min Hee Jin hip-hop" now trending on YouTube.