K-pop in 2021 – what to expect: The return of Red Velvet and Shinee, Aespa’s continued rise, and synergy between Korean pop and video games

K-pop in 2021 – what to expect: The return of Red Velvet and Shinee, Aespa’s continued rise, and synergy between Korean pop and video games

As the new year kicks off, 2021 shows great promise for K-pop built off the potential it showed last year.

Though 2020 was a tough year, it also brought an immense show of strength from Seoul-based pop acts: BTS made history with every other breath they took, while Blackpink and NCT soared to greater heights than ever before.

Established artists showed their worth as soloists, while younger acts asserted their rising power in K-pop with impactful releases. Musically, disco pop made its mark on the K-pop scene and artists sold millions upon millions of albums.

While it is too early to predict 2021’s dominant musical trends, some of the songs of the year might already be on the way.

January is already gearing up to be a big month for K-pop: TVXQ!’s Yunho, Jeong Se-woon, MCND, Victon, Treasure, (G)I-dle , Epik High, Ab6ix, Cravity, Oneus, and Golden Child are just some of the Korean acts that have releases planned for this month.

February is looking exciting too, with Shinee rumoured to be making their long-awaited return that month; the band last released music together in 2018 prior to members enlisting in South Korea’s military to fulfil the country’s mandatory draft.

Though K-pop acts typically don’t share long-term release schedules, individual members of some of the biggest acts are expected to share new solo projects: Blackpink members Lisa and Rosé , who are said to be dropping songs, and BTS member V, who has said he’s working on an upcoming and long-awaited solo mixtape.

Other long-awaited returns include those of Red Velvet , which were on hiatus as a full act last year while member Wendy recovered from a serious injury, and G-Dragon and CL are also expected to make waves with releases.

New acts especially are are likely to have a big impact on K-pop this year, with last year’s rookies continuing to resonate and come into their own.

Additional buzzworthy groups are set to arrive from the likes of Source Music, which houses GFriend and is a subsidiary of Big Hit Entertainment, the label of BTS, and SM Entertainment, which launched girl group Aespa last year.

There is also talk of JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment revealing new groups this year, and there are likely to be several K-pop acts targeted not at Korean audiences but at others throughout Asia.

Aespa, a quartet that is marketed as featuring not only the human singers but also virtual counterparts, are part of a growing trend that industry experts expect to see continue in 2021: K-pop’s integration into the world of video games.

“If I was good at predicting, [2021 will see] more creative and commercial confluence between K-pop and esports,” Bernie Cho, head of the distribution label DFSB Kollective, told the Post when asked what he thinks the biggest K-pop trend of 2021 will be.

Though K-pop is immensely popular, and South Korean film had a major year in 2020 with Oscar winner Parasite , South Korea’s most lucrative creative export is esports .

The trend of integrating Korean pop with video games isn’t new; K-pop stars are often involved in promoting video games, and Aespa was preceded by the 2018 arrival of League of Legends ’ virtual girl group K/DA, which is often voiced by female K-pop stars.

Big Hit Entertainment has worked with Netmarble, one of South Korea’s biggest tech companies, on several BTS-oriented games.

Cho says to expect a lot more of this sort of thing: SM Entertainment recently announced a partnership with the South Korean esports organisation T1 with the apparent aim of taking the K-pop training system into the world of esports, while earlier last year Blackpink’s music was featured in the popular game PUBG Mobile, and BTS featured T1 players in some of their videos during which the band competed with the esports icons.

More collaborations of this sort are expected, as gaming has a sizeable audience for K-pop to tap into and vice versa.

Another trend we can expect to see grow is the biggest one in music today: TikTok. Many K-pop acts launched accounts on the short-video platform last year, and challenged fans to different dance challenges.

Several songs, such as Zico’s Any Song and Rain’s Gang, went viral on the platform, and companies appear to be scouting talent who are active on the app: new NCT member Shotaro was a dancer on TikTok ahead of his debut with the group last year.

This year all eyes will be on Big Hit Entertainment, which had a successful initial public offering of shares last year but whose stock price has been unstable since then.

The company, which managed only BTS and one other artist for a long time, has expanded rapidly, launching Tomorrow X Together in 2019 and investing in other K-pop companies such as Source and Pledis Entertainment, which is home to Seventeen and Nu’est.

It teamed up for a joint venture with CJ ENM, which led to the formation of popular new boy band Enhypen last year and will debut a Japan-oriented act this year.

Although Big Hit has grown rapidly and has numerous IPs under its auspices and plans for more, it has to show shareholders that the company is a stable investment.

Other companies will also have to compete with Big Hit now that its stable of K-pop acts includes several of the bestselling one; as well as BTS, Seventeen and Gfriend are major players. This gives Big Hit a lot of power in the industry.

Because of the continuing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, K-pop in 2021 is still a bit up in the air: touring cannot be planned until the state of the world normalises to the point where artists can travel safely and people can be in venues together in a way that takes no risks.

Digital engagement is expected to go even further after 2020 saw K-pop innovate with numerous online concerts and various events to connect fans and artists across the internet. Seventeen and Blackpink kick things off online with concerts later this month.

Every year brings new excitement, records, and upsets to the world of K-pop, and 2021 is gearing up to be a big one.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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