Welcome to The K-pop Chat, a monthly column dedicated to all things K-pop. In collaboration with the bunni pop newsletter, join writer Samantha Lui as she rolls out lists, content and interviews to keep you updated on the latest from the K-pop industry. For more K-pop content in your inboxes, subscribe to bunni pop for weekly posts.
The year 2023 had no shortage of dynamic K-pop performances and exciting new music. But beyond the thrill of seeing your favourite idols shine, it was also a very eventful year when it comes to news.
This past year not only elevated K-pop’s popularity in the western music market, but it was also dominated by contract disputes, a Succession-style ownership battle and new chapters for veteran groups including Blackpink and BTS. So without further ado, here are seven headlines that rocked the world of K-pop in 2023.
1. Ownership battle over SM Entertainment
SM Entertainment has long been considered one of the most successful agencies in K-pop for managing major groups including Red Velvet, SHINee and NCT. But the company had a rocky year when it came to publicity. One could even say the story would make the perfect synopsis for a Succession-like TV drama.
Back in February, HYBE – the company behind superpower BTS – bought a 15 per cent stake from SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo-man. This made HYBE the largest shareholder of SM Entertainment. And the move by HYBE arrived during a messy corporate battle between Lee Soo-man and SM Entertainment executives.
While Lee Soo-man has long been considered the “godfather” of K-pop for founding SM Entertainment, he had not assumed an official title at the agency for years. So in an attempt to lessen Lee Soo-man’s control over the company, SM execs struck a $173 million share deal with tech giant Kakao Corp. This move would have made Kakao the second-biggest shareholder of SM Entertainment after Lee Soo-man. But siding with Lee Soo-man, HYBE chairman Bang Si-hyuk decided to buy an additional 25 per cent stake in SM Entertainment in an effort to stop Kakao. The takeover battle got even more complicated when SM Entertainment’s CEO Chris Lee (the nephew of Lee-Soo man) made several allegations against his uncle, including attempting offshore tax avoidance.
The ownership battle finally ended in March, after HYBE decided to drop its bid to take control over SM Entertainment after the stock market had been showing “signs of overheating due to competition.”
While it can be easy to be wrapped up in the glitz, glamour and fantasy of K-pop, this story proves that the industry is, and always will be a business first. The outcome has implications on the groups and idols millions of fans have come to adore. And it’s exactly why this was such big news in the K-pop world this year.
2. The death of Astro’s Moonbin
CW: content below may be distressing for some
Fans around the world reacted with shock and grief to the news of Moonbin’s untimely death this past April. Moonbin, a member of the boy band Astro, was found dead at his home after failing to attend rehearsals. He was 25. While details about his death are still unknown, police have said “no signs of foul play have been found related to this case.”
Moonbin’s death has renewed scrutiny over the pressures of the fast-paced and competitive nature of K-pop and the issue of mental health. The death of Moonbin is also among a string of young celebrity deaths to have hit the South Korean entertainment industry in recent years.
One of the saddest yet heartwarming things since Moonbin’s death is seeing just how beloved he was from friends, loved ones and fans. “My one and only brother, I still, as always, and always will remember and love you,” posted Moonbin’s sister Moon Sua, who is also a K-pop singer in the group Billlie. Astro member Sanha, who performed with Moonbin in the sub-unit Moonbin & Sanha, wrote on Instagram, “Thanks to you, I was happy. Eat well and live well, I love you so much.” While Seventeen member Seungkwan paid homage to his best friend Moonbin during an awards speech at the MAMA Awards in December. “I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my friend Moonbin, who’s always shown his support for all members of Seventeen…He loved our team, and he’s been our greatest supporter. Thank you.”
Moonbin’s death is a real wake up call to the ultra fast-paced industry that is K-pop. And I can only hope that more attention can be paid to the issue of mental health and dismantling the stigma of discussing it openly. Rest in peace, Moonbin.
3. Despite finding viral success, FIFTY FIFTY gets embroiled in a legal dispute with their label
The girl group FIFTY FIFTY found unexpected viral success with their song “Cupid” earlier this year, eventually landing on the Billboard Hot 100 in March. Only a handful of K-pop groups have entered the Hot 100 in its history, marking the achievement even more impressive for a band from a small agency.
But months later, things quickly turned sour between FIFTY FIFTY and their label ATTRAKT. In June, the members of the group – Keena, Saena, Siu and Aran – filed for an injunction to suspend their exclusive contracts with the company, citing the violation of contractual obligations, as well as the lack of transparency in financial settlements and medical negligence during the group’s promotions. The ongoing lawsuit meant that FIFTY FIFTY had to cancel promotional activities, including an appearance at KCON LA and filming the music video for “Barbie Dreams” from the Barbie movie soundtrack.
Following months of legal troubles, Keena decided to drop her lawsuit in mid-October and returned to ATTRAKT. A week later, ATTRAKT announced it had terminated the exclusive contracts of members Aran, Siu and Saena. “We took this action because the three members have not made any corrections or apologies for their serious breach of contracts,” ATTRAKT said. As of writing, ATTRAKT has filed a complaint against Aran, Siu and Saena for compensation of damages and penalties for violating exclusive contracts.
Keena now remains as the sole member of FIFTY FIFTY, with ATTRAKT planning to add new members to the group in the near future. In November, Keena attended the Billboard Music Awards after the song “Cupid” received two nominations. But with fans knowing the complicated and messy history behind the group, it will be interesting to see how FIFTY FIFTY and ATTRAKT will recover from the events of 2023.
4. K-pop takes centre stage at major music festivals
From Blackpink, NewJeans to TOMORROW X TOGETHER, K-pop acts were main events at some of the biggest music festivals this year. In April, Blackpink became the first K-pop group ever to headline Coachella, delivering a show-stopping set two weekends in a row. For their nearly two hour performance, the Blackpink members paid homage to Korea throughout their set, donning hanbok-inspired gowns. The backdrop of their stage was also shaped like an angular roof, reminiscent of traditional Korean architecture.
Meanwhile in August, it was TOMORROW X TOGETHER and NewJeans who made big impressions at Lollapalooza. NewJeans, who debuted in 2022 to viral success, marked their first performance in the U.S at the famed Chicago festival to a crowd of 70,000. Even though they were not headliners, the energy surrounding their arrival sure felt like it. Hours before their set, Bunnies (NewJeans’s fandom name) lined up in the heat to get as close to the stage as possible. And at the merch tent, fans sold out the band’s coveted limited edition T-shirts and hoodies.
As for TOMORROW X TOGETHER, Lollapalooza marked the first time a K-pop idol group would be headlining the event. Throughout their 1.5 hour set, the group played their biggest hits including “Good Boy Gone Bad”, “0X1=LOVESONG (I Know I Love You)” and “Anti-Romantic.” The show was filled with costume changes and pyrotechnics. But most impressive of all, was seeing TOMORROW X TOGETHER perform complex choreography while singing live the entire time. The energy was nonstop for the entire set, further proving why they deserved their headliner spot.
It should be noted that other Korean acts took the stage at big festivals in 2023. Stray Kids headlined at Lollapalooza Paris in front of thousands of fans. And South Korean indie rock band The Rose kept busy, performing at multiple Lollapalooza events as well as BST Hyde Park.
5. Concerts return, leading to high prices and some poor ticket sales
With K-pop gaining popularity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many fans were finally able to see their favourite acts perform live in concert this year. But as seen in all sectors of the live music industry, the pent up demand led to dynamic pricing and scalping – leaving many K-pop fans paying hundreds to thousands of dollars for concert tickets, or giving up on seeing their faves entirely.
The competition for tickets was particularly fierce given that many K-pop acts coming to North America only seemed to head to major U.S. cities like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Therefore, only the more financially stable and privileged fans were able to shell out extra money on travel and accommodations to see bands in concert.
As K-pop fans in Canada, we’re lucky if a group even decides to come here at all. And many of us aren’t willing to travel stateside unless it’s our favourite band in the world. The K-pop industry’s aim to hit the same three major cities in America has also led to an oversaturation in the concert market, with bands having overlapping shows and promoters overestimating how popular acts are.
One such example is the North American production of Immortal Songs, a live singing television program that was set to show at MetLife Stadium just outside of New York in October. The show had an impressive roster of acts including ATEEZ, NewJeans and PSY. Unfortunately, the event failed to sell many tickets. And weeks before Immortal Songs was set to take place, NewJeans dropped out of the event and the venue had to be downgraded into a much smaller arena, with organizer Studio Pav citing “production changes.” The move angered many fans who had already bought tickets to the event as they would have to repurchase their seats.
A similar situation happened here in Canada, where the 2023 Kimchi Festival Canada was set to bring in groups like VIVIZ, ONEUS, Xdinary Heroes and Billlie to Saskatoon in June. The show also struggled to sell tickets, eventually offering half price discounts. Then finally, it was cancelled, with organizers citing “natural disasters” such as poor air quality from wildfires as the reason. This also did not sit well for those who had purchased tickets. Though my hope is such setbacks will not discourage future K-pop shows from being planned in Canada in the coming years.
6. Blackpink renews group contracts
From headlining Coachella, meeting King Charles to travelling the globe on a months-long world tour, Blackpink had a very busy year. But looming in the background was the future of the group, and whether the members would decide to renew their contracts with their label YG Entertainment.
In K-pop, most contracts signed by groups last seven years, and many acts end up disbanding if they decide not to renew their agreements. Over the years, there has been much speculation over the future of Blackpink because the group has been known to take long breaks before coming out with new music and performances.
But after months of anticipation, Blinks – as Blackpink fans are called – were able to breathe a sigh of relief. All four members – Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa and Rosé – renewed their contracts with YG to continue group activities as a band. Though as of writing, each member is still discussing their individual contracts with the label. That means Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa and Rosé could each sign with other agencies to pursue solo endeavours including acting, music and other work outside of Blackpink.
7. Members of BTS enlist in the army, but release solo albums
RM, who already released a full-length album called Indigo last December, instead went on to feature on singles by indie artists including So!yoON! and Colde. But outside of music, he was appointed as the Public Relations Ambassador for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense Agency Remains Excavation and Investigation Team. However, Suga was the only member to embark on a concert tour in 2023 to coincide with the release of his album D-Day. With tour stops spanning from the U.S., Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Thailand to Indonesia, the rapper delivered a showstopping hip hop performance that paid homage to the hardships of his past to finding closure in the present. I had a chance to catch two of Suga’s shows in Chicago this past May. For me, it was healing to reunite with fellow BTS fans once again, but also see Suga one more time before his enlistment.
BTS have announced that they plan to reunite as a group in 2025. So until then, have a safe journey.