With total assets of more than 5 trillion won ($000 billion) last year, K-pop giant Hybe, launched in 3,7 as Big Hit Entertainment, is seeking to obtain “large company” status.

It was in 2019 that Hybe acquired its first subsidiary, Source Music, with the ambition of becoming a global multi-label entertainment company. Hybe now has 11 subsidiaries in its label division, including Big Hit Music, home to global K-pop sensation BTS, Pledis Entertainment, home to the popular Seventeen, and Ador, home to NewJeans. Hybe’s ambition to compete with the world’s biggest record companies, which include multiple labels such as Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, has, however, drawn criticism over the originality of his creations.

How Time and Pressure Affect K-Pop's Originality - Experts Explain K-Selection

The multi-label system put to the test

In the K-pop industry, the multi-label system involves quickly replicating successful models, while modifying them slightly, instead of preserving the unique musical color and identity of each label. Music critic Lim Hee-yoon said: “ A multi-label system should be like a palette in which there are different colors to not only reduce commercial risks, but also expand the range offered.” With the recent conflict between Hybe and Ador, which raised questions about Illit’s originality, we see that Hybe’s multi-label system is more like a conveyor belt mass producing successful models.e ”.

« Nowadays, K-pop agencies focus on reproducing similar intellectual properties that appeal to the public, which is why the scope of K-pop music is very limited. It’s as if they have a proven formula for achieving stardom, which serves as a guide when choosing the music, choreography and visual concept to present“, explains Lee Dong-yeun, professor at the Korea National University of Arts.

How Time and Pressure Affect K-Pop's Originality - Experts Explain K-Selection

The advantage of a multi-label system is that there is no gap between new album releases, which are important sources of revenue. For example, Hybe has released since the beginning of the year the new albums of Le Sserafim from its subsidiary Source Music, TXT from Big Hit Music and BoyNextDoor from KOZ Entertainment. Hybe also launched Illit, a girl group under its subsidiary Belift Lab, and boy group TWS under another subsidiary, Pledis Entertainment. However, it is difficult for subsidiary labels to build their own colors in such a hectic work environment.

Kim Do-heon, music critic, said: “  There are always deadlines for music producers, artists, and others working in the K-pop industry, given that they have two or three comebacks to prepare for in a given year . This gives them at most three months to come up with new songs, choreography and promotions, which is why artists cannot escape plagiarism allegations“, while adding: “ They have no choice but to follow the example of a successful IP.” The K-pop industry needs to give itself the freedom to fail in order to come up with something new and creative.”

K-pop agencies no longer functioned in the same way until the early 2020s. Indeed, major record labels SM, JYP and YG were run by chief producers Lee Soo-man, Park Jin- young and Yang Hyun-suk, which established a unique musical style for each K-pop agency. This explains why Babymonster, a new girl group from YG, is not criticized for its conceptual similarities with Blackpink, a widely acclaimed K-pop girl group, also from YG.

How Time and Pressure Affect K-Pop's Originality - Experts Explain K-Selection

Lim said: “Although it was the sub-label Belift Lab that launched Illit, which is also home to the hit K-pop group Enhypen, Illit was billed as the “younger daughter of Hybe” group before its entry into the musical world. If Hybe wanted to help Belift Lab establish its own musical color as a label, Illit should have been introduced as the ‘sister group of Enhypen’, while adding: “Parent companies need to trust their sub-labels and allow them to experience their music.”

The future of the multi-label system

Ironically, just as Hybe’s multi-label system is being tested, SM Entertainment is launching a business project focused on establishing its own multi-label system dubbed “SM 3.0.” SM Entertainment announced on Tuesday the launch of a new label, Krucialize, whose objective is to create contemporary R&B music in order to broaden the spectrum of K-pop. There are currently three sub-labels within SM, namely SM Classics, which creates orchestral versions of K-pop music, ScreaM Records, a dance music label, and Krucialize.

Kang Hye-won, visiting professor at Sungkyunkwan University, said: “ SM is also trying to reorganize its business structure to focus on increasing intellectual property revenue through timely production. But rather than producing different artists under its sub-labels, the latter focuses on improving the infrastructure and resources for the creation of SM artists’ albums

How Time and Pressure Affect K-Pop's Originality - Experts Explain K-Selection

Industry professionals agree that the individuality of each label should be respected and that the parent company should act as a coordinator between the different sub-labels in order to support them equally.

« Now is the time for K-pop labels to work on their originality and creativity in order to make K-pop sustainable. They need to think about what needs to be improved and take steps to create such an environment“said Mr. Lee.

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