Solo Projects, Genre Experiments and More Pave Way for Coming K-Pop Evolution

K-pop has seen massive popularity due to boy bands’ and girl groups’ debuts and comebacks with new concepts every year. 2021 was no different, witnessing a continued surge of Korean stars embarking on solo projects, making bolder moves in the U.S. and delving deeper into technology.

The genre’s success and phenomenal fandom since 2008 has mostly been derived from idol groups. The high-energy, vibrant performances often overshadowed talented singer/songwriters to become the genre’s trademark. BTS and Blackpink have set a high bar, but there is room for up-and-coming groups and singer-songwriter soloists too.

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“There are other artists also coming to the surface. Monsta X, Stray Kids, and AB6IX to name a few, but instead of the traditional boy bands or girl groups, perhaps singer/songwriters performing a diverse range of genres would be something to look out for,” Shin Cho, head of K-pop for Warner Music Asia, tells Variety. “Groups are popular, but solo artists aren’t getting the same exposure right now. However this could change as we look to the next phase of K-pop.”

Korean American singer Eric Nam is a perfect testament to the evolution of the genre since beginning his career as a solo artist in 2012. When asked about his journey, Nam shares, “It’s hard. Solo artists have to carry everything on their own,” Nam says. “Idol groups, on the other hand, get to share the load. Other than the music and performances, fans really love the chemistry within idol groups. It’s a huge appeal seeing the human side of their favorite idols interacting with others.”

On advice he’d give his peers embarking on solo projects and breaking new ground beyond Korean shores, Nam says, “I’d encourage them to do it. But be aware that it’ll take a lot of time and patience.” He adds, “There’s opportunity costs, so be willing to invest in the markets you’re interested in and make sure your team understands this.” Nam has done much of what he wanted in Korea and is now looking to “reverse engineer” his K-pop success and push the envelope stateside. Despite the pandemic, he is preparing for his There and Back Again World Tour 2022 across 51 cities on both sides of the Atlantic, along with releasing his new album “There and Back Again” on January 7.

Collaborations, while not a new concept, have seen K-pop artists and massive international acts (i.e. BTS x Coldplay) partner in 2021 and that should continue through 2022. Cho notes “all around the world, A&R and marketing people have consistently been experimenting with cross-territory collaborations. Partnerships [major labels with Korean ones] have definitely helped, but K-pop’s rise in popularity has coincided with people’s understanding and acceptance of different cultures.”

HYBE and SM Entertainment announced their commitments and efforts to further penetrate and develop talent in the U.S. market. HYBE is set to unveil a Los Angeles-based girl group developed with a U.S. local training system with Geffen Records under Universal Music Group. SM Entertainment also partnered with MGM Television for a talent audition program in search of the next U.S.-based NCT boy band sub-unit. No stranger to talent audition shows, Korean media conglomerate CJ ENM is in development stages of a talent competition with HBO Max in Latin America, following its success in rookie boy band Enhypen’s debut through Belift Labs, a joint venture between CJ ENM and HYBE.

On these partnerships, Nam says, “I think it’s great these labels have partnerships. The landscape is changing and there’s so much more to do. I would love to see more labels invest in more artists to create a diverse array of talent across the entire music scene.”

Apart from taking on a global stage, artists’ growth will involve experimenting with new genres. “We [Warner Music] look forward to a big year ahead for our roster: from R&B, soul and pop/K-pop crossover artists such as BLOO, GSoul, Jamie, oceanfromtheblue, to Dance DJ and singer-songwriters like Shaun,” Cho says.

Would extensive globalization and crossovers interfere with K- pop’s artistry as more songs are sung in English? This was a question posed at the recent Count- down to 2021 Mnet Asian Music Awards. CJ ENM America CEO Angela Killoren explained, “A hybrid version [of K-pop songs] will probably keep going and hopefully that will be artist-led. Teddy Park writes for Blackpink. He’s Korean American. The language in their heart is English, which explains why it’s mixed in. K-pop is a big tent and hopefully everybody can speak in a language they want to.”

2022 will likely further spotlight the role of technology in K-pop. Aespa, SM’s first virtual K-pop female quartet, recently received CJ ENM’s 2021 Visionary Award for its metaverse concept. They were the only K-pop group nominated as one of Hollywood’s rising stars in People magazine’s “Ones to Watch 2021” and the first K-pop group to perform at Fox’s “The Nick Cannon Show.”

Cho shares, “What Aespa is doing is clever as they’re catching on to the latest trends and technology, which is giving them an edge.” Aespa’s futuristic theme appeals to a younger, digitally savvy crowd, invigorating possibilities to the music business. “Korea and K-pop are always fast in embracing new technologies to find innovative ways to create. So much of K-pop is centered around building a deep connection with fans,” adds Nam.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are also likely to be an area of focus in K-pop’s development. But Cho believes the music element is still very important, though new technologies serve as vehicles for music discovery and artists to expand their business.

For Nam, aware of the controversy behind NFTs, he plans to exercise in their creation with caution. “I don’t want it to feel transactional, but rather, done with the right purpose and intent. It has to feel personal.”

Heading toward 2022, the evolution of K-pop would mean increased inclusiveness, more unique storytelling and greater integration into lifestyles and brands. One could say Motown in the 1960s might be the equivalent of K-pop today.

As Killoren puts it, K-pop “represents the renaissance of a whole new music genre that people got behind and was never there before.”

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