"We didn't have any issues when preparing for debut," says TOO vocalist Donggeon. "But it's sad to be on stage without fans. It's really upsetting that we can't be with our fans on the television music shows and during other activities we're doing."
The 20-year-old is referring to Korea's tradition of live-performance music program shows that air nearly daily and see promoting artists perform until a "No. 1" of the week is announced at the conclusion. These performances are important to introduce new music to local viewers and potential international clicks via YouTube, with wins on these shows helping secure public recognition and brand deals. Since February, the programs have gone without live audiences (viewers can get the sense of acts on a hot promotional streak from those with loudest chants) with on-hand staff limited (The Show broadcasted on Korea's SBS MTV channel saw an MC's staff member test positive for COVID-19 requiring a two-week break for all hosts).
Financially, person-to-person contact has long been a crucial aspect in the K-pop industry as many companies depend on physical album sales that grant buyers lottery tickets to potentially access private, in-person fan meetings. It's also important for the relationship between artist and fans as it marks a rare time for supporters to get nearly unrestricted access to take photos of their stars and score face time. The more popular an act, the more albums that tend to be bought for these potential meetings. But with a group like TOO so early in their career, getting that contact time is important to make lasting first impressions.
"If not for the virus, we would have fan meetings, we could go outside and just wander around," adds TOO leader Jaeyun. "But right now, we just move by car from one place to another, company to company."
When the boy band held the televised music concert showcase TOO Day to mark their debut, there wasn't an audience to cheer the guys on but followers did see themselves incorporated in a performance. The band asked their growing followers on Twitter for keywords to describe the different members for what they teased as a special remix. What fans found is that those descriptions made their way into the lyrics of "Too You," the band's reinterpretation of The Supremes' No. 1 Hot 100 hit "You Can't Hurry Love."
For those who would have scored access to the events, the group instead autographed their albums personally and held video conference calls with fans with each member taking one minute to personally talk to them. In place of the candid photos that fans would have taken and uploaded online, TOO's staff posted their own snaps of the members in the cute headbands and animal ears that are usually brought as gifts for the idols.
Also pushing TOO into the scene is their upcoming participation on the singing competition show Road to Kingdom. Alongside six other rising boy bands, they are the youngest competitor by far but if the show performs anywhere near its first, female-focused season Queendom (which produced competitors (G)I-DLE, MAMAMOO, AOA and Park Bom with Billboard chart hits), the show's reach and potential to secure a larger fanbase is worth it.
"It's a really big chance for us," says TOO rapper J.You of the new show. "At first, we're very nervous to be competing with seniors who we've been fans of since we were trainees and other groups that we have admired, however we'll do our best with passion and learn from them too. We would like the public to get to know us through Road to Kingdom."
TOO is a joint project between Stone Music Entertainment and K-pop agency n.CH Entertainment, who say they recognize the difficult timing but are prioritizing health. "We are paying most attention to the safety of the artist and fans," the companies share in a statement to Billboard. "We are looking for and implementing flexible measures tailored to the current situation...focusing more on online platforms than offline events to promote our contents and are expanding opportunities to communicate with fans live such as online showcases and fan signing events. As soon as the COVID-19 situation stabilizes, it is hoped that we will be able to host face-to-face events and resolve the disappointment of artists and fans."
Or as Jaeyun sees it, "We are working hard so we can give our positive energy to our fans and everyone during the difficult times of the virus." Read on for more about TOO from the members about their artistic concept, writing on their debut album, plans once they can travel again and more.
Congratulations on your debut even in these difficult times, TOO! In your own words, can you describe TOO and what sets you apart from other K-pop acts?
Jaeyun: We are a group that aims to represent Eastern values. So, to introduce our group, first TOO's music aims to be centered in Asia and focus on the values that lie in the inner cultivation of the mind. That's music that captures and moves peoples' hearts which we call "heart music." Along with heart music, we want to be artists with killer dance moves that go beyond K-pop standards.
Donggeon: We have a special worldview. There are combinations between members based on five elements [earth, fire, water, wood and metal] and each member is in charge of one value each. For example, the first mini album tells the story of "benevolence," the value represented by J.You.
J.You: This first mini-album is my story, with me as the center, and future albums will be focused around other members' stories.
Why was "Magnolia" the right song to choose as your debut single?
Woonggi: I think that "Magnolia" is a great fit for us because it contains our team's worldview very well and has a strong image to it. In particular, the hook is very addictive so we thought the track would be a good choice to introduce us to the public.
Jaeyun: We also wanted to capture TOO's unique worldview in lyrics of "Magnolia" so, for example, the lyrics about "shattered ideals" is a hint toward our worldview regarding the ideas of utopia versus dystopia -- or as we call it, u-too-pia and dys-too-pia. It's part of our story. In the [music video] storyline, the current is dystoopia: we go in the past to change the future, which is the present right now, so it can be a utoopia.
Jerome: There are a lot of hidden meanings in the music video. To give you a hint, if you focus and take a closer look at our accessories, you'll have more fun watching it.
It's impressive some of you have been involved with the music already too. Chan, J.You and Chihoon wrote on "Take It Slow." Was that a special case or will we see more participation in the future?
Jaeyun: Half of our members choose "Take It Slow" as the song most special to us on the album. Some of us were involved in writing, but also the lyrics are lovely and just makes us happy.
Chan: The song name is "Take It Slow," right?" I used fire as a metaphor to love in the lyrics, but you don't want a fire to overwhelm: you want a steady, warm vibe.
J.You: I also tried to match the overall concept of "Take It Slow," but how I interpreted the theme was like, "Let's love each other for a long time, and work to understand each other even if it's clumsy in the beginning."
Chihoon: I was drinking a Coke at the time and suddenly wanted to use Coke as a metaphor for the feeling of love. When you shake a can of Coke, it explodes right? When you shaken up inside the love, it doesn't show the outside but inside it's already blown up. That was my focus on the lyrics. But I do have a number of unreleased songs already that I've already written. I'm going to continue to write songs and produce them for the fans so I want to tell them to look forward to it.
There were 10 other guys in World Klass that you trained and competed with, do you guys stay in touch?
Woonggi: Of course we stay in touch and have a Kakaotalk group chat. They cheer for us when we release new videos.
J.You: But I also want to tell them that we miss all of them and can't wait to see them soon. Some of them are foreigners and we can't see each other, we all miss them.
Jaeyun: We hope they all will be happy no matter which way they go.
It's tough to predict the future, but anything we should look out for in 2020 or messages to fans?
Jaeyun: You will be able to see us making steady efforts and making progress as a team, step by step.
J.You: We also want to win Rookie of the Year as this year's goal. R-O-T-Y!
Donggeon: To our international fans, times are difficult right now, but I hope our small steps into the K-pop world brings you small happiness in your daily lives.
Woonggi: We will show you sides of us as a team and individuals so please keep an out for us. When things get better, I want to travel abroad and see our fans overseas; to see you and other fans. We hope to come back to New York first. We love you!