So you’ve probably been in a situation where someone has told you, “Hey! I wish my nugu fav was not as nugu as they are!” In fact, you may be the one who has dished out this sappy statement to one or more of your friends.
See, each year, we get upwards of 80-100 debuts, and each year, very few of these fresh, new faces actually make it big. For example, only three rookies from the 2016 batch made any dent in the K-Pop scene. Even then, their impact was limited. NCT did not exceed expectations (sales-wise). I.O.I did well, but they were only a project group. And BlackPink made a huge debut, but they were locked in the dungeon for too long. Even in 2015, when we had more monster rookies, such as TWICE, Gfriend, iKON, and Seventeen, there were still many other less successful groups (or, as you may have heard from others, ‘flops’) that debuted at the same time.
The generation shift that started with EXO’s phenomenal hit, “Growl”, has made the existence of unpopular groups even more noticeable. This is because the birth of the new generation was also accompanied by a jarring over-saturation of the K-Pop market. Though the existence of these ‘flops’ (and I do not use this word maliciously, trust me!) did not start from there. We have always seen very many groups – Nine Muses, Dal Shabet, Stellar, Rainbow, Rania, etc. – whom many of us think deserve popularity. But why aren’t they hitting it big?
Most people will say that gaining massive popularity is due to luck and that is true… only to some extent. Luck is important, but there are other factors such as charms, the right discography, talent (yes talent matters!), and the right promotion. Reducing a gain of popularity solely to luck is a lazy and unfair excuse for such a multi-faceted issue. Especially when one takes into account the fact that luck, in and of itself, is a random occurrence which does not always go hand-in-hand with the meticulous planning and execution that many companies undertake.
After much rumination, I have come to the conclusion that while the K-Pop industry is unfair (as is any music industry for that matter), there are some valid reasons as to why our nugu favorites are still languishing in nuguville. And no, being unlucky is not one of them…..
Before I begin, I have to define what a nugu is. To put it simply, a nugu in K-pop is a nobody. The word translates to “who” as in, “who is this group/person?” The term does not necessarily have to be malicious as it can be used in a neutral, or even endearing, situation. Generally, a nugu group (or artist) is one whose activities are relatively unknown by the greater K-Pop fandom and/or the general public. Being nugu also does not mean that one is underappreciated. It is possible for a group to be popular yet underappreciated in one regard – be it vocals, dance, visuals, etc.
A nugu group is also one that normally does not sell well enough or in some cases they don’t sell at all. For a boy group, one that sells maybe 30k albums or fewer is considered a nugu since boy groups are normally known to have high album sales. For a girl group, any that sell fewer than 20-15k should be considered nugu. However, girl groups usually have lower album sales, and so very few manage to even surpass 30k albums sold, let alone 40-50k. And this is all on Gaon, of course.
Digitally nugu groups (whether male or female) sell very poorly on online music portals. These days, an above average song sells about 500k-999k while a hit is anything that sells over a million digital copies. Those that sell 100k and below are considered ‘flops,’ and this is where nugu groups usually are. In fact, it is very rare for a majority of them to even break close to 100k sales, and many stay within the 50-30k range.
The first thing I want to look at, concerning a girl group making it big, is the presence of an It-Girl. To define this a bit, an It-Girl is anyone who is (or has the potential to become) the most well-known member of the group. It-Girls are not only popular within their group’s fandom, but are popular with the general Korean public as well. They usually bring in the most money through solo activities, such as variety appearances, acting projects, digital releases, and CFs. Popular It-Girls over the years include SNSD’s YoonA, Miss A’s Suzy, T-ara’s Jiyeon, Girl’s Day’s Hyeri, AOA’s Seolhyun, and many more.
The ideal situation is for an It-Girl’s rising popularity to transfer to her group’s sales. The more a girl group member is known to the general public, the more the public will be willing to check out the group as a whole. We have had many instances of an It-Girl’s activities translating well to the group. AOA benefited from Seolhyun’s rising popularity, and coupled with hit songs, managed to snag themselves a decent sized fandom capable of contributing to over 40k albums sold on Gaon.
But perhaps the best example of this is the case of Hani from EXID. Hani found herself rocketed to It-Girl status after a fancam of her performing the song “Up and Down” went viral on facebook. And I mean viral! On YouTube, the fancam has over 20 million views. This did wonders for EXID as a whole. The song became a massive hit, reappearing on the charts months later and even denting the Melon Top 10, which, in itself, is a huge achievement. Their fandom size skyrocketed — EXID struggled to sell a mere 15k albums and break 10 million on YouTube before the fancam. And yet, they suddenly found themselves selling over 40k albums and breaking 50 million views on YouTube. Hani, herself, found immense popularity and went on to do various solo projects. Now Hani’s case is one of pure luck, I will not deny. We have countless of other fancams on YouTube of groups like Bambino, and none of those girls have achieved what Hani did. So here, we can see that luck plays a part in a girl gaining massive popularity.
We have seen nugu girl groups try to push one member as the It-Girl. DIA’s Chaeyeon is heavily pushed by the company. And while she is popular (mostly due to her stint on Produce 101/I.O.I), DIA is still unpopular. In fact, Chaeyeon’s case is a shining example of what NOT to do. Their company, MBK (also responsible for T-ara, RIP), has been pushing Chaeyeon so much and forgotten about the other girls. Should Chaeyeon get into some scandal that will cause her to lose popularity (God forbid), the group is screwed since they are not bringing in any profit outside of her solo activities. This is a bit similar to Miss A and Suzy, except Suzy’s relevance dwarfs Chaeyeon’s, and Miss A
was is widely considered as a digital monster.
Other nugu girl groups also tried to push that one member. Nine Muses has Kyungri, Rainbow had Jaekyung, Fiestar has Cao Lu, and so forth. The girls I mentioned are relatively popular (although still unpopular, compared to girls like Chaeyeon) yet their popularity has not helped the group at all. Nine Muses, Rainbow, and Fiestar still have non-existent sales on all fronts. So why is it that even with popular members, some groups still cannot hit it big? This is a rather complicated question, and it is one that cannot be answered without its own separate essay. However, I will say that the problem may not necessarily lie with the girls, but with the group.
So does having an It-Girl guarantee a girl group popularity? Not really. No matter how awesome she is, there are other factors that have to do with the group that will help prop them up. For example, EXID rode on Hani’s breakout fame and “Ah Yeah” managed to be a hit, but they were unable to maintain the momentum with “Hot Pink” and their follow up single, “L.I.E”, did even worse. And this is without any major scandals to cause a dent in the group’s popularity (and no, I am not counting the Junsu dating scandal). So if there isn’t a problem with the girl, then it has to be……
Whether an It-Girl is present or not, having the right discography is an important factor in any girl group’s success. Even when an It-Girl is present, a terrible discography will not help at all. Let me get one thing straight: having the right discography here = public-friendly songs. Some groups have absolutely wonderful songs (*cough* Nine Muses *cough*), yet they are still unpopular.
I apologize to all AIDs out there, but I must use DIA as an example here. Chaeyeon is very popular, immensely popular. But DIA’s discography, as a whole, is still lacking and THAT is something that holds the group back. Their songs and cute concepts are public-friendly, but generic. They are not produced in a way that will invite new interest. Some groups, like GFriend and Apink, use cute concepts, but they do it in different ways that allow them to gain popularity.
Now, it is also possible for a nugu girl group to not have an It-Girl, but still hit it big with the right discography. GFriend in the best example of this. Now, before I continue I must admit that Gfriend was like EXID, in that a viral fancam took their popularity to the next level. And I mean this fancam. Nevertheless, even before the fancam, they had decent charting history. While their songs were not breaking records digitally, they were still doing well, especially for a newly debuted group from a small company. Still, they were not hitting big numbers, and were in danger (as all other nugus are) of disbandment. And then the fancam happened, and we saw one of the greatest rises to fame of the new generation.
See, even with the luck, GFriend solidified their status as a top girl group of the new generation by having an interesting discography. Now theirs is solely based on the innocent-cute concept, just like DIA’s. But what set GFriend apart is that they took a fresh and interesting approach to a rather basic and overdone concept.
Take a look at GFriend’s break out hit, “Me Gustas Tu” and their follow up songs, “Rough” and “Navillera”. You will notice that while these songs are not groundbreaking they have something in common that is specific to GFriend, and no other cute-concept girl group in K-pop. It is the electric guitar riff that is so special to the group.
People accuse GFriend of having songs that all sound the same, and maybe they do. But they set GFriend apart, because when you hear any of their songs, you know that this is GFriend’s and no one else’s. They have set apart their discography such that despite their songs following the basic formula of a cute concept, no other run-of-the-mill girl group can do what they do. Follow that up with their cut-throat choreography, and you have a hit! Even after changing their sound, it is still specific to GFriend. For the past two years, GFriend has gone from an unknown group to being among the best-selling of the new generation.
Now compare GFriend to April, a girl group that debuted the same time as they did.
All three songs are enjoyable, but they sound like your typical girl group release. And so if you listen to any of them with your eyes closed, you would think it is a release by cute-concept girl group #75829. This is not to say that April’s discography is terrible, but that it offers nothing new to an overdone concept. And April is not the only cute girl group in the corner. Groups like Lovelyz, Oh My Girl, WJSN, DIA use the same concept. Even popular girl groups like TWICE and Red Velvet follow the same concept to some extent. The difference between say April, and a group like Red Velvet, is that the latter takes an overdone concept and twists it into something unique: the separation between the Red and the Velvet sides. And yes, Red Velvet is from a Big 3 company so they get more resources. But being from a Big 3 didn’t stop “One of These Nights” from flopping faster than you can say “omo!”.
Taking overdone concepts and not giving a fresh new spin on them is not constricted to cute-concept girl groups. In fact, I would argue that it plagues the sexy-concept girl groups just as much if not more. When a company wants to avoid the ‘basicness’ of a cute concept, they turn to the next best thing: the sexy one. What do AOA, Sistar, Nine Muses, Dal Shabet, Hello Venus, Girl’s Day, EXID, Rainbow, Fiestar, Stellar, Rania, Brave Girls, and so many others, have in common? The sexy concept. The only difference is that AOA, Sistar, EXID and Girl’s Day have managed to achieve popularity. For the rest of these girl groups, they all start to sound the same, save for a few like Dal Shabet and Nine Muses, who have crafted their own musical identity: especially Dal Shabet with their ’80s disco sound.
Take any song from the above mentioned groups. If you were to listen to them in succession, they would start to seem alike. There is very little that sets them apart from the rest. They all seem to follow the same formula. This is not to say that the songs are bad. I actually think that Nine Muses, Stellar and Fiestar, in particular, have some of the best discographies among girl groups. But this still does little to distinguish them from the sea of sexy-concept groups that release material each year. You cannot blame the general public for ignoring these groups because they are all, at the end of the day, giving us the same thing but with different choreography and costumes.
What is weird, however, is the fact that many nugu girl groups like Hello Venus, Brave Girls, Rainbow, Dal Shabet, etc., use Brave Sound’s compositions. The same Brave Sound that churned out huge hits for groups like 4Minute, Sistar, and AOA. Why weren’t the other groups’ songs huge hits? That is something we cannot easily answer as there are many different factors. One could be that the public only likes it when Brave Sound produces for a specific group; however, another factor could be that there is something else the group lacks that is separate from having the right discography.
With the absence of an It-Girl, and even in the presence of one, the general public and the greater K-pop fandom needs something to remain interested in a group. No one wants to truly support a group for their visuals or remain an akgae (although some confused denizens of society like to do so, I wonder why). If a group has no musical identity to set them apart and grow their fandom, then luck or an It-Girl does absolutely nothing for them. And this is something that a lot of nugus struggle with.
If a girl group does not have an It-Girl or the right discography, the next best thing is the presence of any sliver of talent. I must admit, though, talent isn’t everything! There are a number of popular groups that are severely lacking no matter how much their fans would like to deny it. I apologize in advance to all Camillas out there, but Kara is the perfect example of a girl group with little talent to speak of, that hit it big. The difference, however, is that Kara had a great discography! They churned out hit after hit, and a good number of the most iconic K-Pop releases belong to them.
But talent still matters if a girl group is planning to go from nugu to mid-tier or even top-tier. Mamamoo is the best example of this. They, like GFriend, came from a small company (Rainbow Bridge World). However, where GFriend had luck, and then the right discography, Mamamoo gained popularity through their talent. To be more specific, their innumerable stints on the popular singing show, Immortal Song.
Check out these performances:
I should probably stop there before I get carried away, and post every single one of their performances. However, I’ve made my point. Mamamoo is a very talented girl group. Their vocal line is one of the absolute best in all of K-Pop. And they are not the only girl group to gain popularity because of talent. Brown Eyed Girls was popular once, and they were also known for their good vocal line. One could argue that Mamamoo is the new generation’s Brown Eyed Girls, actually. At any rate, Mamamoo got a lot of attention after their live performances. This allowed them to get their first hit song “Um Oh Ah Yeh” just a year or so after debut. They followed this up with the smash hit “You’re The Best”, which also saw them experience a surge in fandom size. Their latest release, “Decalcomanie”, initially underperformed. But after they performed it live, it shot back up the charts. It crossed 1 million downloads, and over 70 million streams on Gaon not too long ago.
But Mamamoo isn’t the only vocally talented girl group. SPICA, Kiss&Cry, and Purfles are three groups that tried to market themselves through talent, but failed to make a dent in the industry. SPICA especially had a lot of attention due to their main vocalist BoHyung, but ended up disbanding this year. Kiss&Cry didn’t even get to make a comeback, and disbanded after debut. Purfles… well, where are they?
Why did Mamamoo make it, and not the other groups? They are all very talented vocally. In some groups, some singers have better vocal technique compared to Mamamoo members (see Kiss&Cry’s Dia). What Mamamoo capitalized on, that the others did not, was charisma, which often goes hand in hand with talent. If an idol is very talented, but has no stage presence, people get bored of them. Compare Mamamoo’s comeback performance to SPICA. Both groups give outstanding vocal performances, but Mamamoo outclasses the other group with sheer stage presence and personality. The group is quirky and fun, and a lot more enjoyable to watch on stage. SPICA had vocals, dance, a great song and visuals, but that just was not enough.
Another thing Mamamoo had going for them was having the right discography. Mamamoo largely releases retro-jazz songs and while this type of music is not all that popular, the girls have managed to score successive hits. Each of their last three comeback title tracks has sold over 1 million downloads, and “You’re The Best” even scored a Perfect All Kill. See talent alone is not enough. The group coupled it up with interesting and fresh concepts that you would not find with just any other girl group.
It has come to a point where Mamamoo and talent are almost synonymous. Many people consider them to be the most talented group of the new generation, and for good reason. Another group that has gained attention due to talent is GFriend, and most of it is due to their impressive choreography and main vocalist Yuju’s stunning technique. Red Velvet is also known for their great balance of talents, similar to how GFriend is known for dance and vocals. So there you have it. If a group can’t deliver a solid discography or a viable It-Girl, having talent that people will pay close attention to is the best thing. But what happens when you have all three factors and still fail to hit big?
Promotion is everything. This includes variety appearances, live stages, media play, and so forth. But I would like to focus on the last factor: media play.
Every company does media play for its group/artist. Even the big three. But the right kind of media play is very important, and when companies claim something, they better back it up.
Say I make a tweet that says “My X and Y fave is the best thing since peanut butter. They just re-wrote the Bible and have literally made the earth quake”. I look over my cute little tweet and I hit the Tweet button. Now, my followers are going to check out this ‘X and Y fave’ to see if what I just tweeted holds true. If it does, they will be thoroughly impressed, will retweet my original post, and will then proceed to learn more about said favorite. But let’s imagine that my tweet isn’t true. People will be upset and I will receive backlash on all fronts.
Companies like to exaggerate their artists’ abilities, just like I have done above, but the K-Pop community is unforgiving. Many times, if what the company says is not backed up with cold hard facts, people will just ignore the artist all together. So when a company says that their artist is “the best singer evarrrrr!!!111” it better be true, or damn near close to the truth. People want facts, or next time, they will just ignore the group all together. The right kind of promotion goes a long way in ensuring a group gains popularity.
For Mamamoo, RBW sent them to Immortal Song over and over again until they got the attention of the public. This is good promotion as the company goes out of its way to do something, and that something has cold hard facts to back it up. The group is also full of charming members and so they were sent to do other variety appearances (like Solar on We Got Married). This kind of promotion worked and the company’s investment paid off, big time! Other girl group members do get to do individual activities but these activities do not help the group at all. BESTie’s Uji has gained respect for her vocal technique due to several appearances on popular singing shows. However, the group still lack popularity. The same thing happens with SPICA’s BoHyung, except SPICA has suffered a worse fate.
It is possible for promotion to work, however. WJSN’s Cheng Xiao gained a lot of popularity last year and that helped the fandom grow. By 2017, WJSN can break almost 30k albums sold on Hanteo. However, this also ties in to my first point of having a potential It-Girl. Either way, promotion is everything and it plays a huge part in whether a group becomes popular.
The nugu girl group conundrum is something that cannot be easily answered. Even though I have tried to outline things that can help (or hinder) a nugu group’s popularity, there are still many different factors that have been left unstated.
So what do you think? Why is your nugu fave not as popular as you want them to be?