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Special Features, Original Features

The More, the Merrier? How K-Pop Moved Away from Solo Artists

By Patrick_Magee   Tuesday, March 7, 2017   67,254   1,021   0



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BoA. Se7en. Rain. Lee Hyori. All of these names come to mind when thinking of all-time great soloists in Korean pop, but they share one thing in common: they're from a previous generation of K-Pop, dipping into their thirties in a notoriously youth-driven market. 

As the years have passed since the debut eras of these stars, the industry has changed, with the tastes of the public shifting more towards units and super-groups than solo acts. As it turns out, these trends aren't exactly random, and they create an interesting situation for artists looking to establish longevity in the Korean industry.

The Soloist Era

If there was ever a true "soloist era," it was the early-to-mid 2000s. As groups like H.O.T. and Sechskies made their exits from the industry, fans were happy to embrace performers who showcased power and strength on the stage as an individual. Charismatic male idols like Rain and Se7en competed hit-for-hit, and BoA had established herself as a bonafide international superstar after taking over the Japanese charts and performing alongside acts like Britney Spears. Clips like that one and Rain's later appearance on the 'The Colbert Report' even brought international eyes upon the acts (and K-pop at large), and essentially planted the seeds for their efforts out West.

Rain on 'The Colbert Report'

Of course, you can't talk about this period in K-pop history without mentioning Lee Hyori as well. Her 2003 solo debut with "10 Minutes" immediately transformed her into a megastar, and subsequent singles from "Toc Toc Toc" to "U-Go-Girl" all commanded the attention of the Korean public upon their release. Her special stages became a staple at music shows, with fans clamoring for her brand of girl power.

Solo acts losing steam

By the late 2000s, each star had slightly diverged in their path - Hyori maintained her image as a dominant soloist in Korea while BoA juggled Japanese and American promotions. Se7en trained for a U.S. debut for years as well, with his efforts culminating in the release of "Girls" (featuring infamous American rapper Lil Kim). Even Rain got in on the Western action, acting in both 'Ninja Assassin' and 'Speed Racer,' and even releasing English language versions of his songs.

Although soloists like Hyori and Lee Jung Hyun remained active, the absence of several of Korea's biggest stars was felt, and in some cases, it lasted for several years. Groups like Big Bang and Super Junior gained footing, and a rush of girl groups including Girls' Generation and 2NE1 populated the market and began scoring hits. Spaces in the market that used to be occupied by soloists were being ceded to groups, and fans loved watching the success of people working together. Things were certainly changing.

By the dawn of the 2010s, BoA's American promotions had been over for some time, and her Japanese ones scaled down with each successive release. While her core fans remained, it seemed as if her presence on Superstar K was eventually a better way for her to reach the public than her music.

Se7en, of course, became embroiled in a scandal while in the military. This effectively ended his relationship with long-time label YG Entertainment, and tainted his image; his 2016 comeback fared so poorly that he was forced to acknowledge it in interviews.

Rain's power also seemed to wane with each release, perhaps as a result of the changing tastes of Korean fans. While fans loved his unmistakable sexy stage presence, the public began to question him after the single "Busan Woman" was accused of plagiarism. Subsequent efforts, double title tracks "30Sexy" and "La Song" and PSY-produced "the Best Present," performed poorly in terms of sales.

Lee Hyori, as you might know, had several plagiarism scandals of her own. In 2006, her single "Dark Angel" was accused of ripping off Britney Spears. Though 2008 saw her score a massive hit with "U-Go-Girl," the troubles continued in 2010 after composer Bahnus threw her under the bus and plagiarized the songs he contributed to the 'H-Logic' album. After it was verified in court that he lifted seven songs wholesale from Western acts and falsified employment information, he was sentenced to a year and six months, but the damage to Hyori was already done. It would be three years before she released more music, and her absence exacerbated the larger problem of soloists' slipping power.

In recent years, other once-massive solo acts have also struggled in K-Pop. Lee Jung Hyun, Baek Ji Young, Son Dam Bi and even legendary Seo Taiji have all seen dramatic drops in sales during recent promotional periods. Many other soloists have taken to releasing collaboration singles, and it seemed that both industry and fan tastes were focused on power in numbers.

What happened?

Ultimately, the shift away from soloists in K-Pop is due to a combination of the above "Big Four" experiences and the whims of an ever-changing market. A variety of factors could have lead to labels promoting solo artists less often, or through collaboration singles. Some might have been trying to utilize the brand power of more than one artist at once, in the case of collaborations. Others might have seen the controversies that acts like Hyori and Se7en went through and questioned investing too much in a single performer. Plus, failed US debuts hurt the images of BoA and Se7en, and it became harder to market either as dominant superstars with those memories in the rear-view.

As for a dearth of new solo debuts, it's easy to understand why labels might focus on assembling groups right now: acts like EXO and Twice sell like hotcakes, and when fans have more members of a group to fall in love with, it creates more opportunities for the group to succeed. Whether that means multiple editions of an album that a single fan might buy for collection's sake, or not needing to hire quite as many backup dancers, groups are a win-win for K-Pop labels when established properly. Such a point is only driven home by the existence of shows like 'Produce 101' and 'BOYS24,' both of which are known for dazzling with dozens of performers at once.

The truth is, though, it's not all bad for solo artists in Korea. In fact, some are still quite massive - names like G-Dragon come to mind. Fans of soloists can find security in the knowledge that trends change, because it more or less means their turn is coming again soon. Plus, you can always count on a few acts going against the grain no matter what, gaining attention for what they accomplish when they stand alone - after all, that's what being a soloist is all about.

SEE ALSO: Previous guests on 'Hyori's Bed & Breakfast' thank Lee Hyori

  1. Lee Hyori
  2. G-Dragon
  3. BoA
  4. Son Dam Bi
  5. Se7en
  6. Rain
  7. Lee Jung Hyun

YoUrAvErAgEVIP Friday, March 10, 2017

WHat did Se7en Do?

YoUrAvErAgEVIP Friday, March 10, 2017

I got to see G-Dragon wasnt expecting to see him. :D

Julian5 Wednesday, March 8, 2017

JYJ men are slaying no matter what!! Despite the damn ban from shitty sm & despite the long hiatus JAEJOONG sold out his concerts within 1 minute & fills Japanese concerts in one gulp despite his military service.. & he s the best solo seller in Korea.. dont tell me gd cuz JAE started his solo career till 2013 & is banned from Tv broadcasts & got hellish obstacles..

CCA Julian5 Wednesday, March 8, 2017

I agree! Nothing can stop JYJ! The fans love them so much and the ban doesn't matter because they are successful despite it.

teenjandkpopfan Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Even, if im not the biggest fan i will always respect Rain, Lee hyori and especially BoA for all that they have done. To be successful for so long, despite constant push backs with a changing industry, proves they are amazing.

hiroonakamura Wednesday, March 8, 2017

i think k pop was at its best when it had both soloists and and groups. Nowadays, it's just too many groups and most groups are just too similar. That's why i love it when artists like IU release material, or when Taeyeon goes solo. It feels different and fresh.

hiroonakamura Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Another problem is also that when older soloists release material, it doesnt matter if the song is good or not. La Song from RAIN was superb but became a flop. Had it been released by EXO or Big Bang, instead it would be a huge hit. People now care too much abt who releases music than the music itself.

eirayza Wednesday, March 8, 2017

BoA is still pretty much popular and can sell out tickets at any given time. Rain is still as hot as ever (check out his latest MV). Gummy, Lyn and Younha are still rocking Osts (though I wish Byul to be more active). Before finally settling with Yoon Mi Rae.. I loved her as Tasha. Ailee is one good soloist in the later era.

iBrogax Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Really? Kpop used an uncensored  pic (with visible nipple) of lee hyori o.ó.......

hermesdragon Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Don't forget Kim Jong Kook's winning Artist of the year on all three Gayo daejun's in 2005.

tgantt94 Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Omg that 이정현 song was the bop! I had just gotten into k pop when it came out! I liked that song and the video is so great! But when it comes down to consumers, I think it's important to acknowledge that everything that's popular isn't always good. Just because groups are popping right now, it doesn't mean there aren't quality solo acts promoting that you can support. You'll just have to work a bit harder to find them and to find what fits your style. I promise the work is worth it. Good music promotes self awareness and individuality! Not saying that pop music isn't good - It just has a very general purpose. Anywho - there are good soloist out, it's just a bit more popular to be in a group at the moment.

Johncane Wednesday, March 8, 2017

TBH 70% of it is to do with money. With an actual solo artist and i mean an artist who is not in a group, they can only be in one place at a time. When you have a group of 7 members, each member has the capability of probably doing acting, solo, modelling (CFs), producing music and appearing on variety shows. Groups are just used as stepping stones, when you watch these interviews of idols they always talk about how they wanted to be an actor o just a producer but got put in a group and told to rap. That way when and if they get big they can transition.

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