The latest K-pop act to forgo the norms of the Korean music industry, Stray Kids landed their first album at No. 2 on the World Albums chart for the Jan. 20 chart. While Korean albums on the international-themed chart are nothing new, the group’s feat is impressive for one reason: they haven’t formally debuted yet.
Signed to JYP Entertainment, the home to popular K-pop acts such as GOT7 and TWICE, the nine-member boy band known as Stray Kids debuted on the Billboard chart with their Mixtape, a seven-track album produced by the members through a eponymous television show where they had to prove their worth to JYP in order to pursue their career in K-pop. The release was preceded by the dynamic, hip-hop-laden dance track “Hellevator” — which has more than 15 million views on YouTube — and fronted by music videos for the rock-infused “Beware” and “Spread My Wings,” a more melodic take on the group’s aggressive electro-pop sound.
Dubbed a “pre-debut” EP, Mixtape’s charting came out of the band’s burgeoning popularity and the strength of the group’s capabilities; along with performing the songs, several members took a prominent role in co-writing songs as the songwriting team 3racha. But more so than anything, it exhibits two growing trends affecting the Korean music industry. The first being the changing debut dynamics of K-pop acts, and the second being the growing effect of television programs on the popularity of entertainers.
Until last year, the K-pop group debut was pretty straightforward: band members would be unveiled through teaser images or videos and after a period of time they would release their first single or album. Sometimes the pre-debut period would be televised through competition shows that resulted in music, but very rarely would that mean immediate recognition. But since 2016, the Korean music world has seen a shift. Groups like KARD and Loona stand out in particular for releasing fully-fleshed songs and albums in what was dubbed their “pre-debut” period; Loona has been in this period for over a year, and have released multiple singles and albums as soloists and sub-groups of the larger act. Stray Kids is the first to succeed quite so immensely, with their pre-debut-release garnering a lot of attention international K-pop watchers; ahead of its charting, the album appeared in the top 15 of the US iTunes album chart within a day of its release.
And while their pre-debut release was part of one ongoing trend from newer K-pop acts, Stray Kids’ televised beginnings are part of something much larger, that is making major waves in the Korean music world.
It’s impossible to deny that the nonet’s album, as intriguing as the music is to listen to, was propelled by the group’s televised struggles on Stray Kids. Gaining a loyal fanbase through the 10-episode series that began in October and ended in December, the JYP band mimicked the success Wanna One saw following their formation on the second season Produce 101: Like Mixtape, Wanna One’s debut album 1×1=1 (To Be One), debuted high on the World Albums chart, peaking at No. 3.
Even though the programs air on Korean television and are aimed at Korean audiences, international fans are growing aware of, and attached to, these new acts highlighted by shows. The broadcasts are ensuring a built-in fanbase in a way different from what older K-pop acts encountered, even though many of them were similarly featured on pre-debut shows. Whether it’s because fans are now primed for new acts as a generational shift occurs or if it’s because these formative reality series’ are more accessible now than ever before, the trend is greatly affecting the popularity of new acts, and causing turmoil in music industry reluctant to see norms shift.
Stray Kids will officially debut later this year, according to JYP Entertainment, and its expected that the group will continue to see support from international K-pop listeners. Whether they’ll capture the attention of South Korea’s industry remains to be seen, but based on what they’ve already shown us, they’re definitely one of the year’s most intriguing K-pop debuts.