JYP Overtaking YG in the Big 3 Shows a K-pop Industry in Flux

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Twice perform onstage at KCON 2017 Day 2 at Prudential Center on June 24, 2017 in Newark, N.J. 

This is the latest turn of events that marks the K-pop industry as very much in flux as industry norms become further destabilized.

The bottom two rungs of the K-pop industry’s notorious Big 3 hierarchy underwent a switcheroo on Jan. 17. JYP Entertainment edged YG Entertainment out of its long-held No. 2 spot thanks to a reversal of fortunes on the stock market.

According to Bloomberg, JYP Entertainment Corp. rose 22 percent on the stock market this week, which raised the company’s market capitalization to 552 billion won ($516 million). YG Entertainment Inc.’s value of 538 billion won ($506 million) ranked the company in third place. Meanwhile, SM Entertainment Co. remains in the top spot with a value of 829 billion won ($779 million). This is the latest turn of events that marks the K-pop industry as very much in flux as industry norms become further destabilized.

JYP’s surge in market value can largely be attributed to the success of TWICE, who last year released four anthemic singles that topped Korea’s Gaon chart along with a Japanese single that topped the Oricon singles chart. In November, the ninesome became the first K-pop girl group to top both the World Albums and World Digital Song Sales charts at the same time. The girls are slated to continue promotions for their repackaged Heart Shaker album in January.

Overall, 2017 was a very boy group-centric year, emphasized by the disbandments of a lot of franchise girl groups, including JYP’s own miss A and Wonder Girls. So, it’s significant that TWICE is the lead breadwinner for JYP in this climate.

But their active labelmates are also attracting attention to the company. GOT7 continues to appeal to an international fanbase as both of the septet’s EPs released in 2017 reached No. 1 on the World Albums chart. Former miss A member Suzy is slated to make her solo comeback on Jan. 29. Day6 attracted a larger fan base in 2017 following their monthly single releases with their Every Day6 project. Stray Kids’ pre-debut promotions prove the survival show-created boy group has promise -- their self-produced Mixtape EP just reached No. 2 on the World Albums chart for the week of Jan. 20.

SM Entertainment has always been at the top of the pack since its inception in 1995, after it rebranded from SM Studio, which was founded in 1989. But the fall of DSP Media in the late aughts -- accelerated by the departures of top first-generation acts SECHSKIES (now at YG) and Fin K.L. -- coincided with the rise of JYP and YG. The Big 3 model more or less took hold of the K-pop industry around 2007, when JYP formed mega-hit Wonder Girls, SM formed Girls’ Generation and YG’s BIGBANG made their name with breakout hit “Lies.” YG’s seizure of second place and JYP’s occupation of third place remained the norm for about a decade.

But the K-pop industry underwent massive changes in 2017 with the colossal rise of former underdogs BTS and the growth of reality TV-formed groups like Wanna One. According to Dr. Suk-Young Kim, a professor at UCLA with expertise in the K-pop industry, the market is deviating from the Big 3’s traditional practice of “top-down” fan development, wherein the labels’ prestige guarantees their newly debuted groups’ success. Now, the rise of the grassroots development of fandom over social media -- or at least, fan-empowered voting systems -- are eclipsing the old ways with a “bottom-up” approach.

“JYP's rise to the second spot, at least in terms of stock market value, is also proving there is no perpetual winner or loser here,” says Kim. “We are in this age of this very fractured model of success. And actually being the underdog is an advantage because people are tired of seeing the same formulaic models of production from each company.”

But this isn’t the only factor that is preventing YG Entertainment from catching up. The irregularity of each artists’ promotion cycles has prevented the company’s less-established acts -- like Blackpink, iKON and WINNER -- from filling in the profitability gaps from the disbandment of 2NE1 and impending hiatus of BIGBANG. Meanwhile, the ratings for YG’s idol rebooting show, MIXNINE, have been in steady decline as the series has progressed, with Soompi reporting that the Nov. 26 episode dropped to 0.958 percent in the ratings.

One of YG’s biggest disadvantages is the hiatus of BIGBANG. “YG's success is synonymous with BIGBANG's success,” says Kim. “BIGBANG made YG, not vice versa, really.”

The quintet has largely sustained themselves with arena tours in recent years, breaking from the norm of perpetual media gigs. “Even with BTS making it on a bigger scale with all of these media appearances in the U.S., I don't think any other group has reached the status of BIGBANG,” says Kim. “To sustain a decade-long success at their level is really significant, and to have this income generated from live tours, as BIGBANG has done, is really significant for the K-pop industry.”

The group’s global presence can be felt in their tour attendance numbers: BIGBANG's Last Dance Tour was attended by 766,000 people, and G-Dragon's Act III: M.O.T.T.E. World Tour was attended by 654,000 people. In contrast, BTS's 2017 BTS Live Trilogy Episode III (Final Chapter): The Wings Tour was attended by 550,000 people.

Lead rapper T.O.P has already entered his mandatory military enlistment period, which became mired in a marijuana scandal. Members G-Dragon and Taeyang are now at the age where they must enlist in the military this year. It’s unclear when Daesung and Seungri will choose to enlist.