The Kpop industry achieved remarkable results with the “Big 3” companies, but it underwent a global shift after HYBE emerged.
From the late 1990s to the 2010s, the South Korean idol industry was dominated by three major companies: SM, YG, and JYP, which were called the “Big 3”. These companies greatly shaped the industry, laying foundations to recruitment and training methods, as well as expansion to markets such as China, Japan, and other Asian nations.
Once, the US market bore a huge hurdle to Kpop artists – with JYP’s efforts failing to bear remarkable results. However, Big Hit Entertainment (now HYBE Labels) would later introduce BTS, who then made it to the top of the Billboard charts.
The BTS phenomenon eventually allowed HYBE to surpass the Big 3 in the infamous US market, marking a new chapter in Kpop history.
How the “Big 3” changed Kpop
SM Entertainment – laying the foundation for Kpop: SM Entertainment was established in 1995 by Lee Soo Man, often referred to as the “father of modern Kpop”. Under SM, various top-tier Kpop groups, such as TVXQ, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, SHINee, EXO, aespa, and so on, made their debut.
SM is known for its innovative approach, fusing elements of electronic dance and hip-hop into its music. The company’s first explosive success was with boy group H.O.T in the late 1990s. While there were artists before H.O.T, it was through this group that SM significantly shaped the Kpop industry.
YG Entertainment – Unique artistry and stylistic music: YG was founded by Yang Hyun Suk, a former member of Kpop group Seo Taiji and Boys, which was a sensation back in the 1990s.
Compared to its competitors in the industry, YG took a different approach. Instead of focusing on debuting a large number of artists and hiring various producers, YG dedicated attention to nurturing talents in-house, allowing them to develop distinct musical styles. This strategy paid off with the introduction of YG’s first male group, BIGBANG, whose hip-hop genre and captivating performances attracted a new generation of Kpop fans.
After BIGBANG, YG would continue to cultivate a unique identity in the Kpop ecosystem with artists like 2NE1, BLACKPINK, Winner, iKON, TREASURE, and the upcoming BABYMONSTER.
JYP Entertainment – strong aspirations overseas, sensational domestic recognition: Founded by Park Jin Young in 1997, JYP saw success with several solo artists and the renowned group G.O.D in the 2000s. Wonder Girls’ 2007 debut also achieved sensational success with hits like “Tell Me,” “Nobody,” and “So Hot”, boosting JYP’s position in the Kpop industry.
Although Park Jin Young’s plan for the American market fell short, it still helped to lay the foundation for Kpop’s current global popularity. Now, JYP has further solidified its position by creating popular groups like 2AM, 2PM, TWICE, GOT7, ITZY, Stray Kids, and so on.
The rise of Big Hit Entertainment – Global ascension and transformation to HYBE
Established in 2005 by Bang Shi Hyuk, Big Hit Entertainment was initially a small company with limited influence. Everything changed with the debut of BTS, however.
In particular, Big Hit introduced a new approach to artist management and promotion. Instead of following traditional Kpop formulas, the company emphasized individuality and storytelling. The success of BTS catapulted them to global fame and propelled Big Hit to stand alongside the Big 3.
Thanks to the monumental success of BTS, in 2020, the company behind BTS went public on the South Korean stock market, with a market valuation exceeding 4 billion USD. In 2021, the company rebranded as HYBE Labels.
With relentless growth, HYBE’s ambitions are evident with its acquisitions of smaller agencies, such as Pledis and Source Music.
Global expansion: How Kpop companies go international
According to Kollectionk, Kpop companies have successfully expanded their artists’ market to a global scale, with many groups enjoying international fame.
HYBE is known to play a core role in this global expansion, thanks to its utilization of the following strategies:
Localization: Seeking resonance with local markets instead of focusing only on exporting Korean-made contents. By partnering with local companies, sourcing local talents, and producing contents which suit the preferences of different regions, HYBE has enjoyed great success.
Diversification: Instead of only paying attention to music production, HYBE’s business model spans across various other areas such as merchandising, live events, and so on. The corporation’s acquisition of various other companies, including Justin Bieber and Ariana Grand’s Ithaca Holdings, is one example.
Digitalization: HYBE has smartly adopted social media and online platforms for the promotion of their artists. From early adoption of YouTube music to the fan communication platform Weverse, the corporation has done an excellent job.
Finally, HYBE also has a distinct corporate culture, which closely follows its philosophy of “Music and Artist for healing”.
As of the moment, it is irrefutable that BTS is the Kpop artist with the strongest influence in the US market, followed by BLACKPINK. Now, the boy group is standing side-by-side with top-tier local artists, and is constantly further establishing their position by topping the US Billboard’s Hot 100 charts or winning prestigious music awards.
BTS’ dominance in the American music market has inspired competitors, notably SM. The entertainment agency has created SuperM, which combines notable artists from different SM groups to create the “Kpop avengers”.
In addition, the former SM CEO, Lee Soo Man, once expressed his wish to form a Kpop group based in Hollywood. He even shared the plan for NCT Hollywood – a new unit of NCT focused solely on the US market. However, with Lee Soo Man’s departure from SM, the plan now seems far away.
Meanwhile, YG Entertainment has made significant strides in expanding globally, focusing on strong musical styles that resonate with international audiences. The success of YG’s strategy has been reflected through the success of BLACKPINK.
JYP Entertainment, on the other hand, has introduced “multinational groups” since the days of Miss A, GOT7, and TWICE, which feature members from South Korea, China, Thailand, and Japan.
“Expanding internationally is not just about exporting music, but also about understanding and integrating with diverse cultures,” JYP said. And in fact, their localization act has bore great success through the debut of NiziU.
The Big 4 and Implementation
While HYBE, SM, YG, and JYP – collectively known as the Kpop “Big 4” – lead in global expansion speed, many other companies are also making their mark with optimized strategies.
Content identification is the first thing these companies consider, including selecting idols from various countries, creating songs in different languages, and producing different versions of music videos.
Using social media is also equally important. Companies use platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to promote their artists worldwide.
In recent years, collaborations with international artists have become more popular. Such collaborations not only excite fans but also help expand the global reach of Kpop.
From humble beginnings to global domination, the journey of Kpop companies is truly remarkable. This is evidence of the power of music, strategy, and understanding of culture.
Source: K14, Kollectionk