Prior to 2012, a typical K-pop debut worked typically one of two ways: a group was kept relatively secret until an entertainment company released a variety of teaser videos and images, or the members were introduced to the public prior to their formal debut, whether through appearing in music videos of labelmates, acting, modeling or, less often, through small-scale performances. A third, less common approach witnessed entertainment company’s next generation of performers appear on reality-style television shows, where they would compete to be included in a group’s line up. (Acts like Bigbang, 2PM, and, more recently, groups like TWICE, Winner, iKon, and I.O.I were formed this way.)
In 2012, K-pop boy band EXO happened. It didn’t begin in one moment, but instead with over 20 short teaser videos introducing the 12 men that made up what was then two six-member bands: EXO-K performed in Korean in South Korea, EXO-M performed in Mandarin. (The acts joined together in 2013. After a few member departures, EXO currently has nine members.) If the short clips weren’t enough of a divergence from the typical introduction to a new K-pop act, the two pre-debut singles were. In January, EXO first released “What Is Love” and then in March they released “History.” Both were full singles, with full-length music videos accompanying them. The only difference between them and the typical K-pop debut was that EXO did not immediately appear on Korea’s weekly music shows. That only occurred after the release of “MAMA” on April 8, which is considered EXO’s anniversary by both fans and their company, SM Entertainment, alike.
Though it worked to raise attention for EXO, the multi-month approach to introducing the band members to K-pop’s local and international audience didn’t become the norm, and it wasn’t until last year that the industry began to witness a shift. The forerunners of it were none other than co-ed group K.A.R.D.
The first K-pop group in several years to featured a co-gender lineup with two males and two female, K.A.R.D saw their first two releases, “Oh NaNa” and “Don’t Recall,” receive a lot of love leading to both peaking at No. 5 on the World Digital Song Sales chart. The group released “Rumor,” their reggaeton and dancehall-inspired dance track, on Monday (April 24). They'll then head to North America and Latin America for a variety of fan-meets in May and June.
But they have yet to formally debut according to their agency, DSP Media, which claimed that K.A.R.D's pre-debut singles were a way to raise expectations for the group ahead of their true beginning.
K.A.R.D isn’t the only group looking to promote itself ahead of a formal start by essentially denying the fact that they’ve debuted.
Beginning last October, girl group Loona (stylized LOO??) has released a single each month, highlighting a new member. The soon-to-be twelve-member group has already revealed five of the women and will unveil one more later this month, but six additional members will be shown throughout the rest of the monthly release projects. The group’s singles have been relatively well received in South Korea, and Loona has also already promoted formally in Korea with a sub-unit called Loona 1/3, which featured four of the group's members, appearing on Korean music shows.
By the time Loona debuts formally in 2018 with all 12 members, the plan is that they’ll have released over a dozen singles.
As a way to make a mark on industry in flux, this experimental approach to a K-pop group’s early days appears to have worked far better for Loona and K.A.R.D than the typical promotions of other recent K-pop rookie groups in the oversaturated Korean music market, where many acts flounder. Both have been able, without truly limiting themselves by the typical industry timeline, to garner international fame and attention while still in their infancy, ensuring promising results when they “debut.” Without declaring that they’ve truly even started, Loona and K.A.R.D have been able to announce that they’ve arrived on the K-pop scene and they aren’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon.