In the money-making world of Kpop, it’s no surprise that entertainment companies seek to increase their profits by setting up sub-units and solo activities for idol groups. In July 2020 alone, there are at least nine sub-unit and group member soloists releasing new music, and we just heard the news about EXO’s Kai preparing for his solo debut.
However, now that I’ve been in the Kpop fandom for seven years and I’m familiar with the concept of members doing their own thing, I sometimes wonder why it isn’t commonplace in the Western music industry. The majority of the pop groups in mainstream music that disband like Fifth Harmony and the Spice Girls end up doing solo projects anyway. But, surely One Direction would be making a lot more dough if they were not only promoting as a group but also as solo artists?
These projects are so common in the Kpop world that they’ve become integral parts of marketing and the group dynamic. Blockberry Creative designed an intricate pre-debut strategy for LOONA by giving them each member their own solo song and making the girls promote as smaller sub-units which meant that for almost two years before their debut people knew who LOONA were and the anticipation for their debut was mounting.
Both NCT and Seventeen are essentially made up of sub-units. This format allows NCT to continue adding members and to saturate the market by releasing music from many different genres – ‘Chewing Gum‘ and ‘Punch‘ aren’t exactly one and the same. Seventeen’s structure is perfect for the self-made band as it organises the group into sections that are able to control different aspects of the group and it helps showcase all of their talents.
Sub-units and solos work exceptionally well in Kpop because of the passion that the fans have for their favourite groups and members. There is less risk involved for entertainment companies in South Korea as there’s a high chance that the fans will support every member whether they’re promoting as a group or as a soloist.
The new music that comes from these set-ups also has the potential to broaden the artists audience as the soloists and sub-units often release songs that have a different vibe to their group’s sound, like After School’s sub-unit Orange Caramel who mastered their iconic cute (and kind of weird) concept or Taeyeon who releases chilled out tunes that are a complete contrast to Girls’ Generation’s bubblegum pop sound.
Idols are multi-talented which can sometimes mean that all of their skills aren’t highlighted in a group setting so some companies use the sub-unit and solo concept to showcase these them, like YG Entertainment did for WINNER’s Mino and iKON’s Bobby by putting them together to create the rap duo MOBB.
As every male in South Korea must do compulsory military service between the ages of 18 and 28, sub-units and solo projects are the perfect solution for companies who are unable to release full group music during this time. Since EXO’s oldest member Xiumin entered the military in May 2019, SM Entertainment has released one sub-unit comeback from EXO-SC (and there’s another one coming up), two solo comebacks from Baekhyun, a solo album from Chen and a solo debut from Suho.
The sub-unit and solo structure seems to work excellently for the Kpop industry where fans are so dedicated and military service is a thing, but I still think the Western industry is missing out on a trick here. Though, it’s safe to say that sub-units and solo releases will continue to be released in the Kpop world for a long time.