Disclaimer: As with my write-ups on K-Pop’s biggest agencies, this is written from an outsider’s perspective. I’m not privy to any business-related financial information beyond what any other fan would know. The purpose of these articles is to examine how well these agencies are serving their artists and the general K-pop fan-base.

Make sure to check out part one of this feature, which covers the following agencies: Brand New Music, Cube Entertainment, DSP Media, Fantagio Entertainment, FNC Entertainment, IST Entertainment and Jellyfish Entertainment!

KQ Entertainment

KQ

Though some Block B members are still signed under sub-label Seven Seasons, KQ’s 2021 really boiled down to one act: ATEEZ. It’s been impressive to watch how big the group has become after a rather modest 2018 debut. And, KQ has done a nice job adding wind to their piratey sails. This year, the group released two mini albums, a special collaboration album and a Japanese single — with another release on the way in December. And though I will never forgive the agency for relegating the excellent Take Me Home to b-side status, I think it was smart to release two music videos for their September album.

Members were also active hosting music shows, acting in dramas and making important global connections. I assume that KQ’s resources are a lot smaller than some of the a-list agencies, and I think they’ve done well with what they have. The group had a successful showing on Kingdom, and I’m happy to see the agency hold their artists’ mental health at a premium. The only thing missing is music as spectacular as their 2018-20 run.

A-

P Nation

P Nation remains the cool, boutique label with major firepower behind it. PSY has managed to scoop up so many of the buzziest artists out there, and I love how the agency wields an energy and creativity characteristic of its founder. This was put on full display during competition series LOUD, which promises the 2022 debut of an exciting new boy group.

For now, P Nation is home to a lot of trendy soloists. Jessi had quite the year. She’s an omnipresent figure in the industry. HyunA and Dawn finally got to release a duo album, which drew upon their natural chemistry. Other artists like Crush, Penomeco and Swings were a bit quieter (we can thank military enlistment in Crush’s case), while Heize scored a sizable digital hit.

P Nation is still growing, but they have already proven themselves a force to be reckoned with.

B+

RBW (Rainbow Bridge World)

RBW (Rainbow Bridge World) really made the most of their 2021. The agency had a stuffed release schedule, catering to all of their artists in some form or another.

ONEUS really broke through this year, releasing tons of music to ever-growing success. RBW is letting them explore a variety of sounds and concepts, and so far the group has proven adept at everything. Brother band ONEWE remain a trickier prospect, but the agency has made room for plenty of self-driven releases that feel authentic to the guys.

Mamamoo have yet to vacate their K-pop throne, holding a tight grip on the industry. They didn’t release much new group material this year, but thought out-of-the-box for a creative “greatest hits” package that incorporated remixes rather than familiar versions of their songs. The members continue to find great success as soloists in a variety of fields, and seem to have positioned themselves well for the future. With the departure of Wheein from RBW (but not Mamamoo), it’ll be interesting to see where the group goes from here. But even if they decide to take their business elsewhere, I think RBW would be okay without them.

Apart from some recent controversy, rookie group Purple Kiss have had a successful debut year. They’re already sizable album sellers, with plenty of momentum at their backs and enough sonic difference from Mamamoo to carve their own identity.

A-

Starship Entertainment

Starship Entertainment has been competitive for years now, despite most of their original artist roster having left the agency. Monsta X remain a sizable global force, and they’ve managed to maintain their grueling release schedule despite member departures and enlistments. In fact, I think their 2021 output has been a return to form in many ways.

WJSN were less active this year, releasing only one mini album and debuting sub-unit WJSN The Black (all within a few weeks during the spring!). A couple of members did some acting, but other than that the group’s momentum stalled a bit.

CRAVITY continue to perform very well, but I still think Starship has failed in giving them their own identity. Sometimes it feels like the agency wants to set them up as “Monsta X Jr.” Other times, their music takes a more youthful approach. Their albums sell, but the music was pretty generic this year.

Starship’s soloists like Jeong Sewoon were largely ignored in 2021. Instead, all eyes are on upcoming debut IVE. This girl group has a lot of buzz behind them. It’ll be interesting to see if they change the agency’s fortunes in 2022.

B-

TOP Media

TOP Media has largely jettisoned its older groups in favor of MCND — a very promising rookie act. But, the future of the company shouldn’t rest on their shoulders. Their sales are solid but unspectacular. However, their sound is identifiable and I think they have a lot of room to grow. TOP need to give them more opportunities outside of music to garner more public recognition.

UP10TION released their second full-length album in 2021, but minus a couple of their most popular members the group just doesn’t feel like they’re supported the way they used to be. This is a shame, because their music was strong this year. Instead, members Jinhyuk and Wooseok remain the agency’s biggest-selling artists. Imagine how reinvigorated UP10TION could be if those two re-joined the group for a hyped-up comeback.

With most of Teen Top’s members enlisted at the moment, the group is on hiatus. Poor 100% were disbanded completely, leaving TOP Media with a smaller roster than they’ve had in years.

D

WM Entertainment

Recently joining the RBW family, WM still operates as its own entity with their trio of groups.

Oh My Girl are industry darlings, and their sole 2021 title track endures on the charts even months after its release. So this begs the question: why not release more music? 2020 only saw one mini album as well, but we also got YooA’s solo album that year. 2021 was oddly quiet for the girls, right as they should be taking advantage of all the momentum fueling their career.

I can’t say the same about ONF. They had their busiest year yet, releasing no less than four title tracks (and a pre-release) by the time 2021 is over. It’s been a musically fruitful period for them, with increasing sales and recognition as well. They’re one of the few current boy groups who have their own niche, working with the same producers to brilliant effect. I’m saddened that they’ll go on hiatus after December’s comeback, but I think they’ve established a loyal fan base.

B1A4 are a different prospect since reconfiguring as a trio. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but I’m not sure WM really knows what to do with them. The members are active individually, and Sandeul scored a nice digital hit this year. But with his enlistment already in progress — and ONF’s on the horizon – it seems like WM will by The Oh My Girl Show for the foreseeable future. With one album release each year, will that be enough?

B

Woollim Entertainment

I’ve made no secret about Woollim being my favorite K-pop agency, and I remain hopelessly biased toward them. But apart from most of Golden Child’s output, I’ve found their 2021 a little worrying.

I feel like the agency has bitten off more than they can chew. They’ve never been great at quick, overlapping comebacks, and with three active idol groups and a multitude of soloists filling their schedule, some artists are getting the short end of the stick.

Golden Child had an excellent 2021. I think their title tracks got progressively weaker as the year went on, but they kicked off with a huge bang so that wasn’t too much of a concern. They’ve been incredibly active, both with their music and in variety and dramas. As the agency’s oldest active group (I still can’t believe that…), they’re Woollim’s flagship and have been treated as such. My only gripe is that their 2021 music feels all over the place, lacking the consistent identity that was once their strong suit. But, this is an agency-wide problem.

Younger groups Rocket Punch and DRIPPIN could both do with more promotion. It feels like their releases are shoe-horned in – announced quickly with little fanfare. DRIPPIN, in particular, should be receiving a much greater push during their debut year. I’m not sure Woollim knows what to do with them. And sadly, I can say the same for Rocket Punch. Both groups could do with a more consistent sound and team of collaborators.

Senior group Lovelyz’s disbandment was handled terribly, without even a farewell song or album for the fans. Woollim is awful at managing their older acts and tends to keep them locked away for long hiatuses. Lovelyz deserved better, but I get the feeling that Woollim saw them as a drag on business. That’s not a great way to go out.

Infinite are all over the place, though it seems they’ve left the door open for a reunion. I credit Woollim for letting this happen, even if most of the members are no longer under their wing. Sungkyu at least got a farewell album, while Woohyun and Sungjong seems content to stay with the agency. Meanwhile, Kwon Eunbi has set her sights on a solo career. I’m weary how well this will be promoted by Woollim. They already have too many other acts to juggle.

C

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Publisher: Nick