Article. Kim Rieun
Photo Credit. SOURCE MUSIC
IVE, Kep1er, NMIXX, LE SSERAFIM: Each of these girl groups set a record for first-week physical sales on the Hanteo Chart when they released their debut albums. The record for most sales for a girl group debut changed hands four times in the space of five months, passing from IVE in December last year (152,000 copies) to Kep1er in January (206,000), NMIXX in February (227,000) and finally LE SSERAFIM in May (307,000). This sales phenomenon attributed to these so-called fourth-generation groups shows how dynamic and how much potential for growth the K-pop girl group market has at present. It’s experiencing an explosion of growth like never before.

“I saw the market trends of the past few years and thought the girl group market could grow around fandoms, too,” So Sung Jin, president of SOURCE MUSIC, the label under HYBE that debuted LE SSERAFIM, said. His words are symbolic: Recently, in the K-pop industry, girl groups have shown a tendency to record massive album sales, which is a reliable indicator of the size of a group’s fanbase. In 2020, IZ*ONE and BLACKPINK sold 1,292,919 and 1,052,028 copies of their albums over the course of the year respectively, according to the Hanteo Chart. K-pop girl groups continue to enjoy an elevated status in the global music market as well. BLACKPINK and TWICE both charted on the Billboard Hot 100, an indicator of an artist’s popularity within the US music industry, and TWICE also held back-to-back concerts at Tokyo Dome in Japan as well as different stadiums across North America. 2NE1 and aespa, too, performed on stage at Coachella, the largest music festival in the United States. This helps to explain why SOURCE president So foresees potential growth for the girl group market in a positive light as it continues to expand despite the fierce competition. The recent growth in interest toward fourth-gen girl groups, LE SSERAFIM among them, is taking place within a larger context—an era in which the global music market has its eyes on K-pop as well as the overall expansion of girl group fandom.

Sales of LE SSERAFIM’s debut album are equally a measure of where the girl group market is currently at. Their first-week sales are the top among newly debuted girl groups and eleventh among initial sales for any girl group. LE SSERAFIM stands alone for holding their record on the merit of their debut album. It’s a record for the group to be proud of, but it’s also a testament to how the entire girl group market has expanded that being in the top 10 was just out of reach after their very first album. LE SSERAFIM’s debut single, “FEARLESS,” reached 171 on global streaming platform Spotify’s chart of the top 200 global songs within two days of release, the quickest any K-pop girl group ever managed the feat with a debut song at the time. At the same time, in Japan, their debut album topped the weekly Oricon Albums Chart on May 16 (for the week spanning May 2–8). LE SSERAFIM had secured a large fandom immediately upon their debut and received attention from all over the world all at once.

When SOURCE MUSIC used the phrase “a different class of a debut” to describe LE SSERAFIM as they revealed the lineup, they were also describing the new measure of commercial success for girl groups in the K-pop market. Now, the groups can secure sizeable fandoms and expect a global response immediately upon debut. More precisely speaking, it’s a must. It’s the only way to inch closer to success as it exists after changing the way it has in the current market. LE SSERAFIM’s virality came partly from their position as the first group to debut under HYBE LABELS, and from members SAKURA and KIM CHAEWON, who were already popular as members of IZ*ONE. The first LE SSERAFIM-related video posted to the HYBE LABELS YouTube channel, “OFFICIAL LOGO MOTION,” has approximately 1.08 million views as of July 18. The fact that a video that only reveals a logo and no further information has been viewed so many times can be attributed to the notability of the label and the members of the group themselves. And the songs of FEARLESS, their hotly anticipated debut album, including the title track, were produced in response to trends in the global music market. “We wanted to make trendy music that would be greatly enjoyed in the global market,” So explained about the musical direction behind the album, “even if it meant it could take time to feel familiar to listeners in Korea.”
So’s idea worked well. According to data provided by SOURCE MUSIC, daily view counts of the music video for “FEARLESS” even stayed steady between 440,000 and 530,000 for a week following the conclusion of the group’s promotional period. It shows a very similar trend to the view counts in the fifth week of promotions, meaning interest in the video continued on for some time. On June 1, LE SSERAFIM surprised five million monthly listeners on Spotify. Clearly, the group managed to grab long-term attention from the global music market through their music, performances and videos. The same trend could be seen in Korea. LE SSERAFIM staged their songs on various music programs during a five-week promotional period. During that time, “FEARLESS” entered at 97 on the daily charts for Melon, the most popular music-streaming service in Korea, steadily rising throughout May until finally settling into the top 10 until July 7, even after the group finished promoting the song on June 5. They held ninth place on Melon’s monthly chart for June which was 13 places higher than the previous month. LE SSERAFIM’s popularity during their very first stages may have stemmed from the high-profile members that HYBE LABELS recruited, but their content was what held down this curiosity and turned it into long-term followings.

The name LE SSERAFIM is an anagram of “I’M FEARLESS,” the main message of their debut album. SOURCE president So called it the end product of looking for “storytelling for their brand.” In fact, FEARLESS was produced after interviews with the group members, including KIM CHAEWON and SAKURA. KIM CHAEWON and HUH YUNJIN lent a hand in writing the lyrics for the track “Blue Flame” as well. The members of LE SSERAFIM also spoke firmly about another important message during their debut: their desire and aspiration to confront the world without fear. A girl group singing from day one about the contents of their own journals, their personal experiences and their goals shows changes that have taken place within the current girl group market that can’t be explained through sales figures alone. “I think creating a K-pop girl group that sings about their own thoughts is in line with the spirit of the era,” So said, reflecting that change in the market by explaining his reason for launching LE SSERAFIM. The new key to contemporary girl groups is to determine what message the girls are able to convey and move away from mere considerations of short-term market gains or consumer demand.

Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, the most popular female artists in the US today, sing about their own experiences. “Build a B*tch” by Bella Poarch imparts the message that women don’t need to be perfect and became so popular that the music video has been viewed over 400 million times since it was released last May. It used to be that the most popular songs by women were about pleading for their love interest to notice them; now, the range of subject matter covered by these artists around the world has expanded to include personal narratives and individual identities. In the K-pop girl group market, the same change has already begun. Girls’ Generation topped the Circle chart(formerly known as Gaon chart) in 2011 with The Boys, proving that there can indeed be boosts in album sales in the girl group market by focusing on their fandoms, too. BLACKPINK found such massive success in the global marketspace that now they compete with top artists from around the world for the most subscribers on YouTube. TWICE and IZ*ONE have had remarkable album sales, mainly in the Korean and Japanese markets. At the same time, the so-called “girl crush” concept, which emphasizes an independent, confident attitude, became popular in the K-pop girl group market. In short, the history of the market is essentially a process of overcoming what are considered to be roadblocks for female artists one by one. With their own ambitions contributing to both their songs and their group name, LE SSERAFIM’s arrival is arguably at once symbolic and contentious. Can this girl group born on the boundary—between the K-pop and global music industries, between the fandom-oriented and public-oriented markets, between being outspoken and managed by a large company—reflect the tide of the times and discover the industry’s formula for commercial success?

This, then, is a story about just how successful women can be by debuting right in the middle of the K-pop industry on the strength of their own experiences. “Starting from a few years ago, I thought the market needed a girl group that would exceed annual revenues of 100 billion won,” So said, but this doesn’t simply represent his wishes for a commercially successful group. How much commercial backing can a girl group singing “my scars are a part of me” (“FEARLESS”) get? Somewhere beyond the boundary encompassing the K-pop industry, a new domain has been created—one where girl groups can sing about their flaws and desires. How successful that domain is will dictate the potential of K-pop girl groups going forward in the future.