K-Pop stars flying solo: Breaking boundaries or an escape?

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Korean music industry is evolving and blooming. While many things have changed within the industry since K-pop found its audience worldwide, this year saw a bunch of solo debuts of singers from big groups. Although this isn’t a new trend, BTS stars like Kim Taehyung, Suga, Jungkook and Jimin, to Jisoo of BLACKPINK, and many others explored their creative side with their solo releases and proved their merit beyond their group’s label.

BTS, BLACKPINK and EXO are the among the most popular K-pop groups to embrace solo careers.
BTS, BLACKPINK and EXO are the among the most popular K-pop groups to embrace solo careers.

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Artists flying solo

K-pop singers embarking on solo pursuits is nothing new; however, their debut typically comes via a group. Only a few can sustain themselves as solo artists in the long run while trying to create a niche for themselves in the industry. 2023 was the year of solo debuts, ranging from BTS members, Jimin, Suga, V and Jungkook to (G)I-dle’s Soojin and NCT’s Taeyong, among others. While BLACKPINK’s Jisoo made it to the most watched music videos on YouTube with her hit single Flower, Lisa as a soloist broke records for fastest fastest-selling female album in Korean music history.

Besides them, other notable solo artists of the year were EXO’s Kai, SHINee’s Onew, Big Bang’s Taeyang, GOT7’s BamBam and LOONA ex-member Chuu.

BTS’ success without BTS

The most exceptional case was that of BTS members who made a mark showcasing their creative sides, outside their group image. When BTS announced a break ahead of their individual military enlistments, it kickstarted speculations of disbandment. While many wondered how far the seven members could go without each other, they proved their capability as individual talents with a variety of rare collaborations. Their individual fandoms are also one of the reasons behind their guaranteed success.

While Jimin became the first Korean solo artist in history with his solo album, Face, to top the UK’s Official Albums Chart for seven consecutive weeks, Suga later entered the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart, tying with Jimin in the same category. Jungkook topped many charts including Spotify’s daily Global Top Songs chart globally with his hit single, Seven, featuring Latto. The song was also among the most viewed music videos of 2023 on YouTube for South Korea, as per a report on Soompi. His album GOLDEN made it to Spotify’s Top Album Global chart at the 4th spot, even after more than a month of the album release.

BTS' Jungkook alongside Taylor Swift, Michael Buble, Drake and others in Spotify's Top Album Global chart. (Spotify Twitter)
BTS’ Jungkook alongside Taylor Swift, Michael Buble, Drake and others in Spotify’s Top Album Global chart. (Spotify Twitter)

Their leader, RM became the first Korean male artist to maintain a strong grip on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart for four consecutive weeks. His album Indigo was an out-and-out hit. On the other hand, V aka Kim Taehyung, with his first solo album, Layover, made it to Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, after Jimin and Suga. He spent seven consecutive weeks on the Billboard list, making him the first-ever K-pop solo artist to achieve this feat.

‘Slave contract’

While the chatter about the dark side of the K-pop industry never get old, they revived once more in 2023 when reputed groups, BTS, FIFTY FIFTY, BLACKPINK and LOONA made headlines over their contracts. EXO’s Baekyun, Xiumin and Chen filed for termination of their ‘slave contracts’ earlier this year, citing shocking reasons.

For the unversed, a ‘slave contract’ refers to never-ending, long-term contracts between artists and their agencies, often tying them down with several restrictions. Pop idols, in the past, have opened up about not having control over their creativity, hectic work hours, lack of transparency in profit-sharing with labels, negligible say in their personal lives including their appearance, diet and more. But as many might think these agreements are new, such contracts have always existed in management companies.

Artists Vs their agencies

Similarly, earlier in 2023, EXO’s Baekyun, Xiumin and Chen filed for termination of their ‘slave contracts’ with their agency, SM Entertainment. They alleged that the management forced their singers to sign lengthy, exclusive contracts for 12-13 years with further demand of premature renewable to at least 17-18 years. They also sought ‘clear and transparent records’ of the earnings made by them under SM Entertainment, which was allegedly refused by the agency initially. While the incident sparked rumours of three members exiting the group or disbandment of the group, later the matter was solved after reaching an amicable agreement.

LOONA’s former member, Chuu made news after winning a lawsuit against her agency, BLOCKBERRY Creative, over her exclusive contract. She gained absolute freedom from her signed contract after filing a preliminary injunction plea before the court, citing issues such as income settlement and breach of trust by the company. In October, she made her long-awaited solo debut with Howl.

On the other hand, BLACKPINK sparked rumours of disbandment after their contract with YG Entertainment ended. Notably, the agency reportedly dropped almost 7% of its market value after reports of BLACKPINK’s exit from the company. It was further fueled by rumours about Jisoo and Jennie, setting up their individual agencies. Only recently, Jennie launched her new label, OA (Odd Atelier), ensuring bigger plans for her solo career in the coming years. For now, all members,Jisoo, Jennie, Lisa and Rose, will be perusing their solo careers outside the company while only continuing their group activities under YG. Not only BLACKPINK, but BIGBANG’s G-Dragon also parted ways with YG Entertainment after 17 years, following his triumph in a drugs case.

Cupid singers FIFTY FIFTY rose to fame after their track went viral on social media reels. However, all hopes for the promising girl group came crashing down when the original members– Keena, Saena, Aran and Sio, ended up in a dispute over their contract with their agency ATTRAKT. They applied for provisional disposition to suspend the validity of their exclusive contracts, which was later denied by the court.

Later, the girls appealed the decision, but only Keena withdrew her application. While ATTRAKT claimed a third-party influence behind the controversy, later they reorganised the group, retaining only Keena from the original lineup.

What’s in future?

The growing number of disputes between K-pop idols and their agencies indicate a bigger, more serious underlying issue. The new problems within the industry have made an impact, leaving management agencies more flexible with the solo career plans of artists. The changing dynamics of groups in the Korean industry will pave the way for newcomers who will most likely balance both individual and group activities with much freedom and originality. The solo trend is definitely here to stay and grow in the favour of artists.

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