Sunday, January 26, 2014

When Is it Time to Pull the Plug?

For the record, I'm talking about the disbandment of idol groups, not... well, the other kind of plug being pulled. But neither one is particularly cheerful.

This month K-pop idol Nicole Jung left Kara after her contract with DSP expired. Shortly after, Kang Jiyoung announced that she too would be leaving Kara once her contract expired in April. Despite the loss of two members of a very stable idol group, DSP announced that Kara would continue on as a three-member unit. Now as much as three is my favorite number of idols to have in a group, I'm not so sure if this is the best move for Kara. They're not exactly as famous as they used to be in South Korea, and even in Japan their relevance has been slowly fading away. Honestly, keeping Kara around as a trio feels like a very desperate move from DSP to keep juicing some kind of profit from the group. I don't know how successful DSP is as an agency, but I can't think they're quite as well-known as the big K-pop agencies like SM and JYP and YG. Those are the agencies that generate the most profit, right? Anyways, those are the three agencies I always hear about the most, and DSP is not among them.

So is Kara one of their biggest moneymakers? I've got to think they are, especially in their earlier days of releasing Lupin and Step and Pandora. Now, I know they released Damaged Lady, but I also heard that single pretty much flopped, along with the album it came from. And now with the departure of Nicole and soon-to-be departure of Jiyoung, I honestly don't see why DSP just doesn't disband Kara and allow the girls to pursue solo activities. That way they still have a (somewhat) profitable career outlet. Besides, wasn't Kara one of the K-pop groups known for its stability? So much for that. I can't think that they'll have that much success as a trio. It's sad, really, but it just makes me think that DSP really needs to disband Kara while they're still somewhat relevant and before they're barely scraping by trying to maintain momentum only to have it slowly keep slipping away. But nope, from the looks of it, that is exactly what is going to happen.

So why do I bring all this up? Well, it's not because I'm a die-hard fan of Kara, though I do find some of their Japanese songs enjoyable (and even a few of their K-pop songs). But the lineup changes to Kara did get me thinking: when is the best time to disband an idol group anyways? Should it be at their peak, when they have the most fans and most successful numbers? Or when their fame has dwindled, and not many people are left supporting them? Or somewhere in-between those two? I know no one wants to talk about the disbandment of a group, and I especially don't. Disbandment is the only thing worse than a graduation to happen to an idol group. At least with a member graduating, the group can still release music and remain on the market. But a disbandment is the end. Finito. No more music, no more group, just a bunch of memories and archives to browse through.

However, I still think that the disbandment of a group is a necessary evil. Because you know what the alternative is? A group sticking around forever and none of the members getting to move on and pursue something else. I'd think that after awhile, that would get very monotonous. Of course, there are always exceptions like Smap and Arashi. Between you and me, I think those two groups are never going to disband. Actually, I've noticed male idol groups tend to have better longevity than female idol groups. Is it because the demographic for male idol groups tends to be wider? I don't know; that's another subject for another article. Back to what I was saying, I think there is an appropriate time for an idol group to disband. The question is figuring out what that time is. Is there a certain point where an idol group reaches their peak and there's nothing left for them? And can that point be applied to every idol group? I don't think a general time can be figured out because of all the differing variables, but I still think there are certain factors that indicate when an idol group is slipping past their prime.

One of those I already mentioned, and that is lineup changes! Now this doesn't apply to all idol groups, mainly the groups known for frequently changing lineups like AKB48, Morning Musume, and even BiS. Although I'm not sure if the member changes for BiS are intentional. I'm referring to idol groups that maintain a stable lineup for a very long time, particularly the time in which they are successful. Like with Perfume, they're about as stable as group gets despite the loss of Kawayuka a very, very long time ago. Like they weren't even signed onto a label with Kawayuka. A lot of the stable groups I'm thinking of are the ones with small numbers like Tokyo Girls' Style and Scandal. This can also refer to groups that lost a member before achieving a larger amount of recognition like Momoiro Clover Z, C-ute, and 9nine. As of April, Kara, a group known for its lack of a frequently changing lineup, will become a trio.

Now this isn't the first time Kara has a lost a member, but their last change in lineup was in 2008, when Kim Sung Hee departed. And even then, she left before the group really started to pick up attention. For six years Kara has maintained its five-member lineup, and those five members are the faces the public recognizes. And I think once a group has established itself, there's a certain image their casual fanbase associates with them. Sort of a... chemical compound composed of elements that perfectly balance each other out into an equation. And one member graduating is kind of like removing one element from that equation; all the other chemicals are still there, but with the equation out of balance, the chemical compound is gone. Like if Perfume were to lose a member now, they would basically be screwed. Everyone knows them as A-chan, Nocchi, and Kashiyuka. With such a small number too, they can't afford to lose anyone. Look at S/mileage. After losing two popular members then adding four more, it took them two years to finally stabilize again and start getting better sales. Zone also starting dropping in sales after original member Takayo's departure.

But lineup changes aren't the end-all be-all for a group's disbandment. There are too many exceptions to that rule, and plenty of idol groups are still able to maintain a fanbase despite the loss of a member. A more deciding factor is financial gain, especially for major label idol groups. Look, everything about the idol industry exists to make money. That may not be the sole reason for its existence, but that is the main reason. Hell, that can honestly apply to most forms of mainstream entertainment. Now there are also indie idol groups, but that's veering into a different topic. Major label idol groups exist to make money. And usually, there's a time when every idol group has their "peak" in success. Take Morning Musume. As of now they've reached another peak of sorts (but nowhere near as high as their first peak). AKB48 is still riding on their peak that started way back in 2009. And Momoiro Clover Z is also right in their peak right now.

So what happens when a group starts to fall off that peak? Well, there are two options and agency can take: roll with it and just cater to a smaller audience or disband the group while they're still riding high on the waves of money and success. I feel like most idol agencies go with the latter option for their groups, especially smaller idol groups that aren't juggernauts like AKB48. Speaking of said juggernaut, I think when AKB48 stops making money, Aki-P will disband the group. They're just that kind of group, and I honestly don't think Aki-P cares about anything other than keeping that million streak going for as long as he can and milking as much out of the girls of AKB48 as possible. Look, I could write all the livelong day about the multiple bones I have to pick with AKS and Aki-P so I'll stop right there. Even though money is a big factor in how an idol group is produced, I still don't think that is the ultimate decider to disband a group. After all, there are many idol groups that don't make much money but still deliver consistent songs and music videos. In fact, there are many idol groups that I actually like better than the more popular ones!

So what then? If lineups and finances aren't sole determining factors to disband an idol group, what is?

In my opinion, I think the one of the best times to disband an idol group is when the quality starts declining. The reason I bring this reason up last is because sometimes a group's decline in quality correlates with member losses or a decline in sales and overall relevance. For example, S/mileage's songs were crap after Yuuka and Saki left, along with their overall image. Luckily, they're finally starting to sound decent again, but the chemistry of original S/mileage is long gone. Whether that's for better or worse is up to you. But I honestly don't care how much an idol group makes as long as the music remains good. And really all an idol group has to do for that is not bore me. This is again, why I wouldn't give a shit if AKB48 disbanded right now. Their music has been sucking for the past two years and doesn't show any signs of stopping as long as AKS makes the moneys. If Perfume starts to decline in sales, I'll be bummed, but as long as their music is still good, I'll keep wanting to see them around.

However, there is one more time I think is a good time for disbandment: longevity. When an idol group is around for a long time, I think they've earned the right to disband if they want to. The girls of Perfume have talked about disbanding in the next five years or so, and that makes perfect sense. Sure, I will probably cry when that happens, but if that's what the girls want, then who am I to interfere with their wishes solely on the basis that I like their music? Honestly, I'm amazed that Perfume's manage to remain relevant for so long in the industry, and they keep coming up with new ideas and new goals to aim toward. I'd like to think that when Perfume disbands, they'll leave with an impact. So overall, I wouldn't want an idol group to disband like SweetS did, with such little time together as a group and nowhere near their prime. But I also wouldn't want them to disband the way Kara's heading, with a chunk of the members gone and well past their prime either. Like many things in idol music, there needs to be a balance that correlates to the best time for disbandment.

And that brings me back to Kara. I think Kara should disband for a number of reasons: lineup changes, loss of relevance, decline in musical quality, and longevity. The group has had a seven year run, which is a lot in idol years. I think the members of Kara have earned the right to move on to greater things, if they want to. I'm 95% certain that won't happen though; DSP will probably milk three-member Kara dry until they've squeezed absolutely every penny out of them. I feel like that's what happens with a lot of idol groups, and I'm not even talking about J-pop. I think no one wants to let go of their idol groups, and for perfectly good reasons. But every group has to disband someday, and I don't think a group should disband in the state I feel Kara's going to. It just isn't... honorable. I know honorable's not a word you'd use to describe the idol industry, but I think a group's disbandment should be handled with honor and dignity for the girls who worked so hard in it. As for now, let us gaze upon Kara as a five-member group one last time. Personally, I probably won't blog much of Kara anymore after Jiyoung's left. Already their current Japanese releases aren't grabbing me, and I have a few other idols that are. I wish all the best of luck to Kara as a trio though. Lord knows they're going to need it.


  1. It's always sad to see if a popular groups member is leaving, that group loses their popularity

    Morning Musume would lost if Sayu leaves group. AKB is strong yes, but 2013 was a bad year for AKB. Momoclo and Perfume overshadowed them actually. (If we are talking about publics popular group not sales and wota fanbase)

    I am not a big fan of Kara but they are cute and I wonder if they will lose too much popularity or move on and make a great comeback

    1. It really is sad...

      I don't know if Momusu would be ruined without Sayu; they seem to be doing pretty well right now. I think AKB48 will start weakening this year, especially with Yuko graduating soon. But their decline will still be a slow one.

      I think the best chance Kara has is reinventing themselves and making a huge, heavily-promoted comeback. Otherwise, it's pretty much kaput for them after Jiyoung leaves.

  2. Disbandment is such a hard term for it...

    But, maybe there is a hope at the end. Just like sometimes past members of AKS will appear in a concert, or Hello!Project makes a whole unit of old members of Momusu when they make more 5 or 10 years.

    Also, the entertainment media in Japan don't forget their idols. That's why once in 5 years Pink Lady (a disco duo from the 70's!) makes an anniversary concert and SPEED came back to release more songs after 8 years since their first disbandment.

    About Kara, I don't really know if this will happen. The K-POP market don't gives revivals for old groups at all,that's why most groups are making 10 or 15 years of existence, because the spotlight won't shine over them a second time.
    But I'm cheering for the best, and I hope that at least they make a huge live before they go.

    1. If only their were a nicer term for it like... Twizzling!

      I'd always like to think there is hope! And seeing old members appear in past concerts is cool. But I always feel like that's more for the older fans, the ones still nostalgic to see their idols in action. Still, I'm certain it has an appeal for younger generations too!

      While I do think idol groups leave a legacy, that doesn't necessarily correlate with relevance. Pink Lady and Speed are both revered groups, yes, but on the modern day idol market, neither one dominates the same way AKB48 or Momoiro Clover Z does.

      Yeah, I have no idea what's going on with Kara. The K-pop industry seems to have forgotten them in the past year. But who knows? Maybe they can make a decent comeback, or even develop a niche!

  3. Just a side note: in the early days of idol kpop the main rivalries was between SM and DSP. And these days looking JYP's recent performance they're looking to lose it's "big 3 position"

    1. Was it really? That's very interesting! Thank you for sharing that information! It's cool spuds like you that are always so helpful in informing me about K-pop and other things!

  4. Ahh what a tough theme... i do not see as necessary to disband because the market usually does not favor in Japan for soloist from ex members... (usually what i see is a deep plunge in sales when they fly solo).

    What they need is to get back the quality of the songs sort like a dry spell that will pass (i'm looking at you ARASHI). What breaks the group is the leaving part and they can't bring back the magic from before.

    As for giant groups what is making them start to decline is the line up changing problem. I think AKB48 is huge and makes it harder for you to care or invest in the people of the group. For me the three pillars of the group is: Acchan, Yuko and Takamina. One already left, the other is leaving and we're just waiting when the last one announces it...
    I think AkiP notice this mistake and it is correcting it for the Nogi group (i think they only have two gen)...

    i really wished that the ex AKB members realized that they could form a group a la ARASHI and make it work better than being solos, not as an idols but more like a band....

    1. It really is; it was tough writing about too. I've noticed the decline of ex-member soloists too, but I think there's still a point where a group's sales decline so much that the members going solo doesn't make much of a difference. I don't know, it just seems like a pick-your-poison type of scenario.

      I definitely agree with you on the dry spell phase. Morning Musume went through it, and they bounced back with newer, fresher faces and a different sound. Maybe not necessarily a universally loved sound, but still different from what they'd been doing.

      Yeah, I think AKB48 is going to start declining very soon. Maybe not this year, but next year. They're going through so many lineup changes, and they haven't properly promoted the replacement girls for all the popular members leaving the group. Sure, there are still tons of girls in AKB48; but who knows every single face? I don't! And I'm sure a lot of casual Japanese fans don't either.

      I would totally follow a band made up of ex-AKB48 members. Sayaka and Yuka could be the main singers! That would be awesome...