MBW Explains is a series of analytical features in which we explore the context behind major music industry talking points – and suggest what might happen next. MBW Explains is supported by JKBX, a technology platform that offers consumers access to music royalties as an asset class.
Over 120,000 young people, from all corners of the world, applied to be part of HYBE x Geffen’s new ‘Global Girl Group’.
As we stand today, just 20 are left – each facing the daunting task of competing to ‘win’ a permanent place in the band (whose name is still to be announced).
That competition is now playing out live on the internet, in front of a worldwide, teenage-leaning audience – via the 12-week series, The Debut: Dream Academy, which launched September 1 on YouTube (and via ABEMA in Japan).
The show’s audience will play a crucial role in determining which girls from the 20 finalists end up in the final ‘Global Girl Group’ – voting on who they want to reach the final stages of Debut: Dream Academy via both TikTok and HYBE’s Weverse fan platform.
This is a hugely ambitious project from HYBE and Geffen/Universal Music Group; they’re not only looking to launch the world’s next favorite pop group, but to globalize an entire A&R system, hailing from Korea, for training and developing musical acts.
At a press conference last week, HYBE Chairman Bang Si-Hyuk and Interscope Geffen A&M Chairman and CEO John Janick both made reference to this system, dubbing it “the K-pop methodology”.
“I have wanted to form an international group based on K-pop methodology for a while,” Bang explained.
“To do this I believed we needed a capable partner. When I met John [Janick], from the first moment, we both felt instantly that we had a connection, musically and creatively.”
“To develop a global group with Bang, with the best of K-Pop methodology, and our Geffen team, is truly special and will bring to life a first-of-its kind experience in music.”
John Janick, Interscope Geffen A&M
Janick added: “To develop a global group with Bang, with the best of K-pop methodology, and our Geffen team, is truly special and will bring to life a first-of-its-kind experience in music.”
WHAT’S THE CONTEXT?
So what is the ‘K-pop methology’, exactly?
One key element: K-pop groups have traditionally been carefully planned in advance by labels.
Their members are chosen systematically, with their image, sound, and stage performance each meticulously cultivated to attract a targeted audience.
The HYBE x Geffen ‘Global Girl Group’ project is following this script, while opening the door on the process to make it visible – and interactive – for the watching masses on their TVs/laptops/phones.
Also, in typical K-pop fashion, the project to create HYBE x Geffen’s girl group has been an intricate, far-reaching operation. In untypical K-pop fashion, it hasn’t only been restricted to Korea.
The project’s 20 finalists hail from all over the world, including from Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, India, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and the US.
Don’t forget how many applicants have fallen by the wayside by this point – over 119,980 performers, even before Debut: Dream Academy began, have been rejected by HYBE and Geffen.
The selection of the 20 finalists involved a panel of experts that included Tom March (President, Geffen Records), Mitra Darab (President, HYBE x Geffen / HxG), Sungdeuk Son (Executive Creator, HxG), Humberto Leon (Creative Director), and Jay Ihn (Head of Creative Production, HxG).
This is all leading up to a live The Debut: Dream Academy finale on November 17 (around two years after the project was first announced, in 2021) where the top contestants will vie for a spot in the final group.
The ‘Global Girl Group’ project’s carefully planned integration with HYBE’s fan app (Weverse), social media platforms that carry weight with music fans (TikTok, YouTube) and TV (Netflix) is par for the course for K-pop.
Choosing group members by way of an elimination reality show has been a staple of the genre for years.
Examples include Duble Kick Entertainment’s 2016 program Finding Momoland, a TV show in which contestants vied to become members of K-pop girl group Momoland. Elsewhere, Produce 101 was a reality show with heavy fan involvement that resulted in K-pop acts I.O.I. and Wanna One.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The ‘finale’ of The Debut: Dream Academy won’t spell the end of the Global Girl Group’s media blitz, either – not by a long shot.
A separate Netflix documentary, for one thing, is coming, which promises to chronicle “the years-long process of creating this one-of-a-kind girl group”.
Directed by award-winning filmmaker Nadia Hallgren (Becoming) and produced by HYBE, Interscope Films and Boardwalk Pictures, the doc is set to premiere in 2024.
And there’ll be the music, of course.
HYBE and Geffen are clearly hoping that by hooking a worldwide audience into the drama of the voted-for selection of the ‘Global Girl Group’ members, it will nurture a lasting emotional connection between soon-to-be fans of the band and the personalities that comprise it.
Meanwhile, the HYBE x Geffen joint venture is just one part of a multi-pronged, multi-year effort by HYBE to expand from its K-pop base into being a global music recording company.
Earlier this year, amidst what would become an unsuccessful effort to take control of rival K-pop label SM Entertainment, HYBE CEO Park Jiwon declared: “K-pop flourished in an environment where we could challenge ourselves. We should conserve the ground so that we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s major record labels.”
HYBE’s biggest move in that effort to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the international giants took place in 2021, when it spent USD $1.05 billion on the acquisition of Ithaca Holdings, the company run by famed music manager Scooter Braun, known for managing Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and other stars.
Through Ithaca Holdings – now called HYBE America – the South Korean company has secured a foothold in the US market, for instance through its acquisition earlier this year of Atlanta-headquartered rap powerhouse QC Media Holdings, a.k.a. Quality Control, home to acts such as Lil Baby, Migos, Lil Yachty and City Girls.
In an interview with CNN earlier this year, Bang Si-Hyuk admitted that “globally, [K-pop] is not occupying much of the market”.
He continued: “On the other hand, Latin music and afrobeats is very rapidly growing. So being where we are, it is more urgent to increase the exposure. For that purpose, I’m taking over labels and management companies in America to be able to build the infrastructure.”
“K-pop flourished in an environment where we could challenge ourselves. We should conserve the ground so that we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s major record labels.”
Park Jiwon, HYBE, speaking in February
HYBE is also entering into partnerships with global entertainment companies, such as its 2022 deal with the Asia-Pacific division of the Walt Disney Company that will see Disney+ carry five HYBE-produced TV properties. Two of these will be exclusive series featuring BTS, the world’s leading K-pop group and the single biggest reason for HYBE’s dominance in the K-pop market.
(The Disney deal also highlights the fact that HYBE isn’t taking its eye off the K-pop ball, even as it expands beyond it. Despite its failure to take control of SM Entertainment earlier this year, HYBE continues acquiring companies in the K-pop space, most recently with the acquisition of BeLift Lab, the label behind K-pop stars Enhyphen.)
Both sides of the HYBE x Geffen tie-up are playing to their strengths.
HYBE’s contribution to the project centers around the discovery, training and development of new artists, fan content production and fan communications management. Geffen’s role is more on the side of music production, marketing and global distribution operations.
Something worth remembering: Geffen, as part of Interscope Geffen A&M, is part of the label group that successfully helped creatively guide Korean group BLACKPINK to the top of US charts, and even into US stadiums.
(BLACKPINK’s latest studio album, Born Pink, hit No.1 on the Billboard 200 in 2022; the band recently played three stadiums in the States on their Born Pink world tour, including Dodger Stadium in L.A.; according to Luminate data, BLACKPINK’s music has over 3.6 billion streams in the US to date.)
For the BLACKPINK project, Interscope partnered with HYBE’s K-pop rival, YG Entertainment.
HYBE will surely be hoping that some of Interscope/Geffen’s A&R learnings from the BLACKPINK experience will now greatly benefit their ‘Global Girl Group’ project.
A FINAL THOUGHT…
In trying to launch a truly global pop group – leaning heavily on ‘the K-pop methodology’ that originally brought the world BTS and BLACKPINK – one could argue that HYBE and Geffen are fighting against macro music industry trends.
Statistics suggest that ‘going global’ with a pop blockbuster is becoming harder by the day, as key territories around the world push local artists, rather than world-straddling megastars, to the top of their domestic charts.
A perfect example of this landed last Tuesday (August 29), when the Italian recorded music industry group FIMI reported that 19 of the 20 biggest-selling albums in the market in H1 2023 were by local artists.
This phenomenon has been dubbed ‘glocalization’; a recent report, co-authored by former Spotify Chief Economist Will Page, and published by the London School of Economics, found that this ‘glocalization’ phenomenon is taking place in numerous countries, including the UK, France, Sweden and Poland.
Interestingly, though, by teaming up with HYBE, Geffen/Universal Music Group has adopted a couple of key weapons in their fight to globalize the girl group that ultimately emerges from Debut: Dream Academy.
The first is HYBE’s Weverse platform, which, as mentioned, will keep fans of Debut: Dream Academy up to date with what’s happening on the show – and enable them to vote for their favorite members.
HYBE wants the platform to be a global bridge between artists and fans that goes far beyond Korea. And Weverse is already proving to be a significant commercial success.
In its latest earnings report, for Q2 2023, HYBE reported that Weverse reached 10 million monthly active users (MAUs) in July, shortly after the end of Q2.
That’s a jump of more than 66% compared to the 6 million MAUs the platform had at the end of the same quarter a year earlier. The app has had over 100 million registered downloads to date.
Another trick up the sleeve of HYBE and Geffen’s now-forming girl band? Proprietary AI technology.
In each case, the vocal sounded like the voice of the original artist (the alter-ego of HYBE artist Lee Hyun) – just in six different mother tongues. (You can switch between languages on Masquerade’s official YouTube video, above, by hitting ‘settings’ and then ‘audio track’.)
HYBE was able to achieve this multi-lingual marvel by using technology from Supertone, an AI company that specializes in creating convincing artificial vocals – which HYBE acquired in 2022.
In some parts of the world, music audiences are unaccustomed to listening to songs in a language other than their own. Without doubt, this fact has limited the appeal of many K-pop artists in markets outside Asia.
With its Supertone technology, HYBE has found a promising new avenue that could overcome this barrier. Future HYBE artists could release songs in Spanish in Latin America and Spain; English in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, and so on.
What might that mean? Tracks from artists with global ambitions instantly being ‘glocalized’ at the touch of a button.
One good analogy: Think about McDonald’s. Its McD’s restaurants operate in approximately 114 countries worldwide, but with tweaks to its standard menu to make it more palatable/recognizable to local audiences in each market.
Could this sort of customization, powered by AI – and combined with the K-pop method, plus the power of HYBE’s Weverse and Geffen’s A&R and marketing chops – help catapult the HYBE x Geffen ‘Global Girl Group’ to mainstream superstardom around the world?
Don’t bet against it.
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