Has the K-Pop Girl Group Scene Undergone a Silent Revolution?

Girl Group Revolution Main

With all the excitement of K-pop at Christmas and New Year, the X-mas special music shows, the “Gayo Daejun,” street concerts, and (most importantly!) the Soompi Awards, December 2015 was a very busy month for Korean music. Amid all this excitement, most K-pop fans found little time to analyze some quite incredible end-of-year sales data pertaining to girl groups.

For a full breakdown of the stats in question, released by chart compiler Gaon, this Soompi news story has all the info you need to know.

At first glance, you might think this data reveals nothing new. Girls’ Generation is the biggest female act in K-pop, and, having released a full studio album last year, predictably finished streets ahead of any other act. Move on, there’s nothing to see here, you may say. However, if you take a few minutes to look at these stats, they will probably blow away any preconceptions you might have about Korean girl groups. Well those that are not Girls’ Generation, anyway.


Gaon released three end-of-year girl group top 20s, showing the differences in sales revenue for physical album sales, digital sales, as well as a combined physical-digital figure.

For one, I found this information staggering. Let’s start with the physical sales. Meteoric sales for Girls’ Generation. I mean nobody else came anywhere close — “Lionheart” and subunit TaeTiSeo’s “Dear Santa” EP combined sold almost three times more than any other girl group. The releases sold almost seven times more than AOA’s “Heart Attack” and new JYP Entertainment act TWICE’s “The Story Begins…” (in fifth and sixth place respectively).

There were also strong performances for other big-label acts. SM Entertainment labelmates f(x) finished third on this list, with Red Velvet right behind, and TWICE also made the top 10.

However, the most revealing thing about these figures is the fact that Girls’ Generation and a few others aside, physical sales rates are largely pitiful. People, it seems, are only prepared to fork it out for CDs in exceptional cases. Even JYP’s flagship girl groups struggled, with miss A and Wonder Girls limping in at Nos. 19 and 20 respectively.

Skeptics will say that the CD industry is dead, and given the evidence it is hard to argue. But when you start to look at the digital sales rates, things really start to get interesting. Only one “big three” (SM, YG, JYP) agency name makes the Gaon digital top five, and only six from the big three make the top 20.

Look a little closer and you will notice that the traditional girl group hierarchy picture, the one propagated largely by Korean media outlets, appears to have been completely obliterated. SISTAR in February 2015 was still being called an “Insurmountable Wall” by the experts on these matters over at Sports Chosun. Here’s what their panel of experts came up with about 11 months ago:


In terms of sales alone, that wall was not so much surmounted as blown to bits in 2015. Despite the strong and popular release “Shake It,” SISTAR’s sales were eclipsed by both AOA and EXID last year in terms of digital sales. In combined sales, SISTAR finished sixth.


Girl’s Day, considered the No. 4 act on the Sports Chosun ratings in February 2015, finished a disappointing eighth in overall sales, despite dropping a characteristically upbeat, sexy track in the form of “Ring Ma Bell.”

Girls Day

Sales aren’t everything, but they are any musician’s main lifeline, with concert earnings and ad revenue a useful sideline at best. If these revenue stats are anything to go by, it appears 2015 witnessed a girl group revolution that nobody really noticed — even while it was happening. If there was a changing of the guard, it was stealthy, sudden, and quite unexpected.

Doubters will point to the continued absence of 2NE1 as a reason why smaller-agency girl groups have had such a strong year, but even this cannot explain away the fact that some smaller-agency acts are clearly outperforming the big guns. This is especially true when you consider that, 2NE1 excepted, all of these said big guns released new material in 2015.

So which acts make up this new guard? For a start, A Pink was rated fifth on the Sports Chosun rankings, but only Girl’s Generation managed to outsell the act in overall sales last year. The girls made two very strong releases, and both were very well received. Member Eunji’s variety TV and drama appearances have given the act a huge boost, and both she and Namjoo appeared on 2015’s zeitgeist music show “King of Mask Singer.”

Importantly, “Remember” was a key track for the girls — a slight but noticeable departure from their super-sweet, cute sound and image into a more mature audio and visual feel.

As a fan of 80s synthpop, I personally liked the keyboards and production on the track. If the group can sway an anti-cute stick-in-the-mud like me, they probably did likewise for countless others, hence their strong turnout in 2015.

To finish the year as the biggest-selling act in female K-pop after Girls Generation — that is quite an achievement.

AOA was another big surprise. In my opinion, “Heart Attack” was one of AOA’s weakest releases to date.


Sure, it was catchy, but it lacked the raw energy of 2014’s “Like a Cat.” Music buyers would strongly disagree, however. Buoyed by Jimin’s “Unpretty Rapstar” stint, Seolhyun’s seemingly unstoppable rise through the variety show ranks, and the emergence of ChoA as a serious talent, AOA has gone from a group that complained of earning absolutely nothing at the end of 2014 into 2015’s third biggest digital earner — bagging fistfuls of advertising contracts on the way.

And if we are talking digital sales, we cannot avoid talking about EXID. Going into 2015, the five-piece was still a small act that hadn’t had a single novelty hit. Even February 2015’s girl group rankings had the act at a joint 11th place, on the same rung as acts such as 9MUSES and behind the likes of KARA and Secret. Boy has that changed fast.

KARA limped in at 17th in terms of overall sales, 9MUSES were 16th, and Secret propped up the top 20 in last place, while EXID shifted over 500,000 digital units, second only to Girls’ Generation.

EXID’s Hani, especially, has gone from an absolute K-pop nobody to variety show royalty in the space of 12 months, and the group has been raking in fans like there’s no tomorrow.

The girls’ success began with a viral fancam video, but now they’re just on a roll. Their latest effort features the girls just singing an impromptu version of “Hot Pink” in a restaurant over a few drinks with nothing but an acoustic guitar for accompaniment.

This video got just shy of 300,000 hits within its first 24 hours online. If any other girl group (besides maybe Girls’ Generation) had uploaded something like this, nobody would really have taken any notice — instead, this stuff is relentlessly taking the internet by storm.

Think it’s just domestic fans? Think again — check the YouTube comments under their videos — well over half are in English or other non-Korean languages. International fans are joining the EXID craze at a rate of knots, too.

But it’s not just about resurgent artists — there are rookies getting in on the act as well.

GFRIEND only debuted in January, but managed to outperform some real heavy-hitters like 4Minute, miss A, Wonder Girls, KARA, and T-ara in digital sales.

Although other new acts (such as Lovelyz and TWICE) also made the top 20, GFRIEND has proved to be a revelation. The girls’ agency, Source Music, pumped some serious money into the group’s debut, “Glass Bead,” to relatively little avail. It was the follow-up release “Me Gustas Tu” that really put the girls on the map, with a little helping hand from a certain viral video.

The other big turn-up was MAMAMOO, an act in its sophomore year in 2015, but which made the Gaon top 10 in terms of both digital and overall sales.

Fun, personable, and insanely talented, MAMAMOO is unique among Korean girl groups. In a K-pop scene saturated with all-female acts that tend to drown audiences in sickly saccharine cuteness or smother them with overpowering sexiness, this four-piece is a real breath of fresh air.


So why the abrupt girl group paradigm shift?

It is not simply a question of the cream rising to the top — there have been some outstanding girl group releases this year that barely raised a ripple in terms of sales. These included Melody Day’s “Speed Up,” 9MUSES’ “Hurt Locker,” “Go Easy” by Poten (apparently that is what 4TEN is calling itself nowadays), Purfles’ “A Bad Thing,” and D.Holic’s genre-bending “Chewy,” to name but a few.

Girl Group Releases 2015

But perhaps in some respects, girl group consumers are getting picky. Maybe they are drawn to the positive energy that Eunji and co seem to exude, to the multifarious talents of ChoA, Jimin, and friends, and to the carefree personae of Hani and chums.


There is so much to choose from now that fans no longer need to just follow the herd and take their cues from the “big three” agencies.

The pressing question, of course, is whether all this is sustainable. Will we still be talking about AOA, A Pink, GFRIEND, and EXID in the same breath as SISTAR, Girl’s Day, and Girls’ Generation at the dawn of 2017? What happens if 2NE1 makes a major comeback this year?

All questions aside, the numbers don’t lie. Sales equate real popularity, and the members of AOA, EXID, and A Pink (presumably GFRIEND too) have piqued the interest of TV producers and advertisers alike, all of which means real income for groups, some of whom might never even have dreamed they would make any money at all from the K-pop game.

There can be no doubt that YG, JYP, and SM traditionally led the field in the girl group stakes, but this was just not the case in 2015. Perhaps normal order will be restored in 2016. Maybe the empire strikes back, so to speak. But there is the off-chance that last year was not a blip, that acts from smaller agencies really can make it now, given the right combination of talent, timing, and good luck.

Whatever the case, the undeniable truth is that the likes of EXID, AOA, GFRIEND, and MAMAMOO have thrown a massive spanner into the girl group machine. Whatever happens next is going to be mighty interesting.


So what do you think, Soompiers? Has there been a shake-up on the girl group scene or are you expecting big-agency acts to return to the fore in 2016? Who do you think is set for success in the year ahead?

Let us know in the comments below!

timmydee is a music geek with a penchant for pop, an enthusiasm for electronica, and a hankering for hip hop.

*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not necessarily represent Soompi as a whole.