Why Are K-Pop Groups So Big?
A few days ago, one of my coworkers asked me a question that should have been fairly simple for me to answer: Why are there so many people in K-pop groups?
I'm terrible at thinking on my feet though, even if it's something I know plenty about, and answered with the inexcusable, "That's just how the industry is." I cringe now just thinking about that answer. Talk about unhelpful. It quickly turned into one of those situations where I thought of all the better, more accurate answers I could have given, only for it to be way too late to actually share them.
So, I'll just take the time to write out my more accurate answer here instead. After all, with BTS becoming an overnight sensation here in America thanks to their performance at this year's American Music Awards and subsequent appearances on major talk shows like Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Late Late Show with James Corden, it's no surprise that tons of people are suddenly more aware of K-pop than ever before.
Some Basic Info
To start, it's important to note that the number of members in K-pop groups is pretty variable. Orange Caramel, a group that admittedly hasn't been active since 2014, has only three members, while mega boy group SEVENTEEN has a whopping 13 members. Both groups, however, can definitely be considered successful. Arguably the three most popular male groups in K-pop all have a different number of members: BIGBANG has five, BTS has seven, and EXO has nine (though they originally debuted with 12).
The size doesn't necessarily impact a group's likelihood of success or failure, but there are definitely some benefits of a larger number of members.
The Trainee System
Unlike Western groups, who tend to either form on their own or get put together only after failing to make it as a solo artist, K-pop groups are formed through entertainment agencies' vigorous trainee systems. Aspiring artists audition to join a company as a trainee, essentially becoming a student under the agency, in hopes of improving their skills enough for the company to put them in a group and let them debut.
While some K-pop artists were lucky enough to spend only a few months living the trainee lifestyle—notably Super Junior's Ryeowook, miss A's Suzy, and GOT7's Youngjae—most artists spent several years as trainees before debuting. Some even spent a decade training before they had the chance to finally show their talent to the world.
With the trainee system in place, it's much easier to debut larger groups, since agencies already have a large pool of talent to chose from. It's not like these huge groups are all randomly finding each other and deciding to form a group, they're put together by an agency for that exact purpose.
The easiest answer for why there are so many members, of course, is marketability. The more members there are to choose from in a group, the more likely it is that one of them will catch a potential fan's attention. It's the "there's someone for everyone" mentality. Agencies can focus on developing fans for individual artists within the group rather than the entire group as a whole, which works in their favor when it comes to merchandise.
K-pop albums are much more than just a CD, often giving fans photobooks, collectible photo cards, posters, and more. Some items within albums are random, member-specific items, which encourages fans to either buy multiple copies of an album to increase the chance of getting their favorite member (also known as their "bias"), or trade for or buy the specific member item they want.
Concerts are also a common place to see the marketability of individual members shine. Often times, half if not more of all of a group's concert-specific merchandise is of an individual member. That way, fans who love one member in particular can show their support for just them, while fans of the whole group are faced with the challenge of only buying one member or spending more money to buy every version of a particular item. These items range anywhere from passport and public transportation card cases to pillows and plushies. Just check out that list on the right of merchandise from Red Velvet's first concert and you'll see what I mean.
Male Groups and the Military
The K-pop industry also has to consider Korea's conscription, which states that all Korean men ages 18-35 must complete a mandatory two-year service in the military, no exceptions. From famous actors to international artists, all men must go through their required service. There's usually a little room for choice as far as when they can enlist, however they have to join before age 35.
A larger number of members often allows for groups to continue promoting even while a couple of the artists are in the military. Super Junior, a now 11-member group, recently released their latest single Black Suit, which featured only seven of the members due to two of them having enlisted and two others sitting out for other reasons.
The conscription is also an important factor when considering some male groups' inclusion of international members. Artists with dual citizenships are able to forego the mandatory service, meaning that they don't have an automatic two-year inactivity period attached to their name. This is especially beneficial when more than one member of a group is from another country since it means the group is almost guaranteed at least some form of continued presence while the Korean members complete their service. A great example of this is GOT7, who has a Chinese member (Jackson), an American member (Mark), and a Thai member (BamBam). That makes almost half of the group's seven members.
K-Pop's Inherent Versatility
The K-pop industry also has another very large difference from Western groups, and that's that it encourages members to pursue individual careers as well as their group activities. Unlike over here, where NSYNC and One Direction felt like they needed to break up to have active solo careers, artists doing things outside their group is extremely common in K-pop.
VIXX, a six-member group who's been active since their debut in 2012, is a perfect example. N, Hongbin, and Hyuk all have blooming acting careers, Ken and Leo are active in the musical industry, and Ravi is active as a solo artist and songwriter.
K-pop also encourages sub-units within a group, which is a way for a smaller group of members to release music still under the group's flagship. VIXX's only sub-unit, VIXX LR, has released two albums during periods where the other members were busy with their individual schedules. Sub-units also let artists showcase different styles that might not fit the entire group or divide a group depending on what language they promote in. That's the case for EXO and Super Junior, who initially debuted with two sub-units, a group who sang in Korean and a group who sang in Mandarin Chinese. Both groups have since stopped promoting as two separate units, however, mainly due to members leaving or being unable to perform.
There Is A Limit
Despite how it might look to some, there is a sort of unspoken limit to how big a group can get. SEVENTEEN's 13 member group is pretty much the top end of how big a group can get. That's mainly due to one important factor: choreography. Larger groups have a hard time fitting everyone on stage for weekly music show performances or other limited-space venues. It's why, if you watch the performance video below, you'll notice that some members run off stage from time to time to give a little more room to those who are still performing. It's a factor that's considered when they're creating choreography.
Large one-off group performances do occasionally happen, but those are usually for survival shows that are looking to show off all their contestants before the beginning of the season. Songs like Pick Me from Produce 101 Season 1, Me, It's Me from Produce 101 Season 2, and My Turn from The Unit all require specially-built stages in studio warehouses because of their sheer scale. They're one off, specialty performances that wouldn't be able to be replicated in any other situation.
Now That You Know
K-pop is an insanely versatile industry. It's one that produces amazing vocalists, skilled rappers, unbelievable dancers, and just about every style of music you could think of. Learning more about what the genre has to offer, even over here on the opposite end of the world. In the past couple years, K-pop has been (finally) separated into its own genre on iTunes, Google Play, and Spotify, making it as easy as clicking a button to find some new tunes.
In case that's still a little daunting, though, here are some 2017 releases that I personally recommend.
If You Want Something Fun to Dance To
Red Flavor by Red Velvet
If You Want Something with a Little Swag
Shall We Dance by Block B
If You Want Something That Will Get Stuck in Your Head
Wee Woo by PRISTIN
If You Want Something Really Epic
Not Today by BTS
If You Want Some Rockin' Female Vocals
Fly High by Dreamcatcher
If You Want a Heartbreaking Balad
I'm Fine by VROMANCE
If You Want Something Funky
Movie by BTOB
If You Want Something to Chill Out To
Really Really by Winner