Is K-pop’s ‘universe’ building still worth it?

In universe building, groups weave unique, attractive narratives for their images and albums when making a debut or comeback.

Jie Ye-eun

Jie Ye-eun

The Korea Herald


K-pop girl group aespa (SM Entertainment)

August 25, 2022

SEOUL – In recent years, K-pop idols have vied to create unique concepts with distinctive background stories. To help their acts stand out from the ever-growing crowd of K-pop groups, local entertainment agencies have been cudgeling their brains over making overarching concepts, creating so-called “universes.”

Under such concepts, groups weave unique, attractive narratives for their images and albums when making a debut or comeback.

The word “universe” originally stems from the “totality of existence” in philosophical circles, but the term has stretched out further afield, being incorporated into movies, cartoons, novels and games to build up stories in fictional settings.

The idea of employing distinct concepts is not new in the K-pop scene. First-generation bands such as H.O.T., who laid the foundation for today’s K-pop industry in the late 1990s, introduced the idea by bestowing each member with respective characteristics and personalities. Exo’s emergence in 2012 opened a new chapter for universes with a unique backstory. The story described the bandmates as aliens from Exoplanet, and each member was given a supernatural power. The then never-before-seen concept, which still serves as EXO’s go-to storyline, stirred up quite the sensation among K-pop fans. And experts say the power of a “universe” continues to be effective, although its longevity remains in question.

“Universe building gives an artist a distinct identity and becomes an element for K-pop fans to play with. Connecting artists’ various content such as music, music video and performance to one universe allows fans to deeply immerse themselves in that content,” an industry official who wished to remain anonymous told The Korea Herald.

K-pop boy group EXO (SM Entertainment)

The latest generation of K-pop musicians took the universe concept to the next level. Aespa’s metaverse-based concept and BTS’ Bangtan Universe are some examples. SM Entertainment recently created its own Marvel-like multiverse, “SM Culture Universe,” which is also known as “Kwangya,” a shared universe for its artists.

The universe may not be “essential” in building fandom, but it provides a “great enjoyable source of fun” for the fans, according to Jeong Chang-hwan, chief executive officer of n.CH Entertainment, who began his career in the industry in 2000 and has worked with first- to fourth-generation K-pop acts.

“When social media was less active, creating a universe was almost meaningless. Since an increasing number of K-pop fans from both home and abroad enjoy talking about their favorite acts and their universe on the internet, agencies are keen to provide a playful concept for the fans,” he said. “Fans often create a universe to go along with a group’s popularity as well.”

The universe concept is here to stay, for now, experts said.

“It can be transformed into many unique formats from a storytelling concept to even more complicated ones. It can also be applied to songs, albums and artists’ characteristics, but without requiring continuity,” Jeong said. “Amid the growing demand, the universe is less likely to disappear anytime soon.”

Local music critics said most K-pop labels believe their acts’ peculiar universe can play a major role in raising groups’ popularity. Major firms even hire writers to create concepts to capture fans’ imaginations, they said.

“The universe created by earlier groups focused on short-term events or projects. Later acts have since come up with peculiar concepts after observing EXO’s success. Since having a strong fandom is more important for boy bands, labels have shown a higher tendency to depend on a universe to enable fans to immerse themselves further,” music critic Jung Min-jae said.

K-pop boy group BTS (Big Hit Music)

Jung, however, questioned the effectiveness of the universe concept on the latest groups’ popularity. Since the concept itself is getting old, K-pop acts will less likely benefit from it as much as EXO. It may help build initial fandom, but in the long run, groups need listenable songs to take another leap forward, the critic said.

“As far as I know, artists’ obsession with such distinct universes is only observed in the Korean music scene,” he said. Citing aespa’s case, Jung said, “A unique universe cannot differentiate an act. … The group’s universe only got the public’s attention after the hit ‘Next Level’ got popular.”

Another point mentioned by music critic Kim Yoon-ha was K-pop companies and artists’ “excessive” immersion into far-out concepts, although they may use it as a strategy to expand their business. Focusing too much on the universe can limit groups’ expansion in music, which is the most important element for popular singers, she said.

“General listeners, who do not have a huge interest in delving into a concept, may feel tired amid a flood of idol groups promoting their universe. Some may even have resistance to the idea,” Kim said. “The agencies need to carefully watch over a wide range of listeners’ emotional reactions to it.”

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