On April 30, the popular new K-pop act JBJ disbanded after their six-month career together. For some fans, it was devastating, while for others it was expected; the group is part of a growing trend in Korea, where short-term groups are increasingly being assembled and then breaking up.
Every year brings changes to the K-pop industry, but 2018 has seen a paradigm shift like no other, with more and more entertainment labels investing in temporary acts to the degree where they’ve now become a norm within the industry. While once unthinkable based on K-pop’s reliance on dedicated fanbases built up throughout years of interactions between stars, dubbed idols and fans, social media has made it possible for acts to reach global popularity more rapidly than ever before. This alternate to the traditional promotional path in turn has resulted in a changed environment where breakups are becoming less of a career-shaking event from which some celebrities can never recover their group-associated fame, and instead giving stars the chance to move easily between career opportunities. The trend began in 2016, when the first season of the idol competition franchise Produce 101 debuted and resulted in I.O.I, and it has increasingly become common over the past two years.
JBJ, which released their first song in October, is one of the most successful temporary — or “project,” as they’re typically called in Korea — groups of the year. Other currently active, impermanent groups include Wanna One, UNB and Rainz. All three were formed out of either Produce 101 or a similar competition show The Unit, where K-pop hopefuls who had previously pursued careers and failed competed to be part of a team.
Not a single one plans to remain active into 2019, despite their successes. JBJ broke up after getting two albums on the World Albums chart, and Wanna One will disband at the end of this year despite holding a world tour and having one of the best-selling Korean albums of 2017; only heavyweights BTS and EXO outsold the 11-member rookie act last year.
While South Korea regularly saw project groups featuring popular stars coming together in the past, like with 2016’s immensely popular Unnies, I.O.I was the start of a new generation of temporary acts who came together not for a single song or two, but instead looked like every other new K-pop group out there, except for their lifespan. They saw immense success before their breakup last year, and the members are still active in the industry, both as soloists and partaking in other girl groups. Despite their success, the currently active transient groups are almost entirely male, though UNB’s female counterpart Uni.T is expected to release their first song on May 17. A new, female-oriented season of the Produce series Produce 48, inspired by Japan’s AKB48 structure, will premiere later this year and result in at least one team formed through the show; it will likely produce spin-offs, such as how JBJ was formed based on fan demand to see popular Produce 101 season 2 competitors who didn’t make it into the final 11 winners, all of whom debuted as Wanna One.
The reasoning behind these groups finding success is not dissimilar to K-pop’s more typically structured acts, the majority of which feature members who are signed to a single entertainment label for a period of anywhere between five to seven years. This structure, ideally, ensures that groups would have time to develop and rise to popularity, and then members can either opt to stay together or pursue solo careers. But while longevity is important to K-pop acts, and not something that’s going to disappear overnight, it’s also been a scourge of the industry: Contracts are hard to break for stars who are part of a failed or mismanaged group, while popular acts have faced major setbacks after a popular member, or members, opt to leave the team during the group’s peak.
Temporary acts serve as a way to avoid these issues. Formed primarily through television shows, these teams already have built-in audiences who, like Stateside fans supporting American Idol or The Voice winners, have had a role in the creation of the team, and the majority of them have proven to be more popular than many other rookie K-pop counterparts. And with a finite lifespan that rarely surpasses a year or two, the members aren’t bound to one another for the entirety of the formative years of their career, and public favor is less likely to wane entirely; if they fail to gain as much attention, the individuals can try to do something else after their breakup. They are also able to take their success and experience into other acts; several members of I.O.I are currently active in girl groups like Weki Meki, Pristin and Gugudan, and several members of both Wanna One and JBJ are expected to return to their primary labels and either resume activities or debut in other boy bands.
But with K-pop fandoms primed for longevity, this new, short-lived group format is proving difficult in many ways: JBJ fans protested the group’s breakup to the degree that they hold protests over the act’s end, and I.O.I’s members remain more popular as a whole than individually in other groups, though soloist Chungha has seen much success. The girl group’s former member Chaeyeon, now of DIA, even shared a video on May 4 to commemorate their second anniversary and fans have been celebrating their return; they will reportedly appear on this year’s Produce 48, despite not being together since January of last year. There have been attempts to keep these short-lasting groups together, but they have failed as companies don’t want to give up their talent to outside management for lengthier periods of time than already necessitated by the initial contracts decided upon ahead of their televised formations; a recent attempt at getting a longer temporary contract for the winners of the television show Mix Nine resulted in plans for the group falling apart altogether.
Groups with limited lifespans formed through television shows are proving to be K-pop’s solution to the era of social media’s continual demand for instant, beloved stars. Whether the trend becomes a permanent fixture in South Korea’s music scene remains to be scene, but at the moment it has become a powerful tool at finding new talent and will likely continue to play a role for the time being.