The struggle of stanning an underrated group, pt.2

A year ago I wrote “The struggle of stanning an underrated group, pt.1,” and intended to post pt.2 soon after. With Corona putting the world on hold for a year, “soon” has become a relative concept, so I’m not gonna beat myself up that I took so long to complete it. A lot has changed due to the pandemic. A few changes have benefited underrated groups, others have been to their detriment. My ult underrated group Spectrum had to disband due to the financial pressures of Covid, and many more of my faves are facing uncertain futures. Even without the cloud of Corona, underrated groups have always had an uphill battle, and stanning a lesser-known group has never been easy. In part one, I lamented the absence of information, and subpar fan and artist support, but that’s not all that’s lacking. Many basics of K-Pop fanlife are deficient or missing when you follow an underrated group.

Most fans take for granted that the artists we love will have comebacks. After all, it’s first and foremost about the music, so every fan wants as much music as we can get. Other than a high-profile exception like BlackPink, popular K-Pop groups get an average of 3 comebacks a year. Some get less, some get more, but if a group gets one or none, it spells trouble. It’s slightly different with veteran groups. When an artist earns 7-year status, they may do fewer comebacks because their debt to the company is paid. Still, even veteran groups typically have multiple releases a year because they can finally reap the reward of better contracts. However, averages and typicals go out the window when it comes to underrated groups. They get a comeback when the company can afford it, and even underrated veterans (if they reach that status) have comebacks infrequently, if ever.

ZE:A is a long-underrated group, a 10-year veteran that debuted with struggling Star Empire Entertainment. They had multiple comebacks in the very beginning, but soon dropped to one-a-year then none-a-year. Military service accounts for members missing from comebacks, but it’s not an excuse for no comebacks at all. ZE:A is an example of how low funds and poor management can squander a little popularity. Rather than sign new contracts at the 7-year mark, ZE:A left Star Empire, but they didn’t disband. Their fans continue to support the individual members, but if they’re waiting for a ZE:A comeback, they’ll probably be waiting a very long time. That’s just one example of a long-time group with no releases, and I struggle to mention more because most underrated groups don’t make it to the 7-year veteran mark.

“Mazeltov” is ZE:A’s best known song, and it remains a solid 2nd gen, auto-tuned bop

In addition to a drought of comebacks, stans of underrated groups experience a barren desert when it comes to one huge element of K-Pop fanlife: merch. The first image that pops in my mind when I think of “K-Pop stan” is a happy person wearing a gigantic smile and a licensed headband, tour shirt, hoodie, shoulder bag, wristband and jewelry while clutching an armful of idol plushies against a background of albums and lightsticks and posters and banners and photocards and stickers and… you get the picture. We K-Pop fans do love our merch! That’s why I squealed with delight when I received my first 7 O’Clock album and saw it included not just a fancy book and photocard, but a STICKER too! I was the proud new owner of three whole pieces of 7OC merch! I’d wanted to buy the version that included a folded poster, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I guess I was lucky to even find a retailer stocking any version of the album, since most sellers weren’t. So yeah, I’d say stans of underrated groups are in no danger of going broke buying merch.

When it comes to K-Pop shirts, I live in mine, and so do my kids. We especially love the subtle ones, where it looks like it could be any regular shirt, but if you look at it closely enough, the image resembling a brand logo is actually a band logo. Shirts like this are cryptic enough to let you pass as a local, but still fly your stan flag proudly. Only K-Pop fans will know, and it’s a fun way of spotting each other “in the wild” so to speak. A couple years ago I was in Target walking behind a girl whose shirt simply had nine names listed on the back. It was nothing to the untrained eye, but my K-Pop eyes were trained. As I passed her, I said slyly, “Stray Kids everywhere all around the world…” and she looked up and smiled big, saying, “Yeeeaahhhh.” It was a fun little moment. Recently my daughter was out for a walk in our neighborhood wearing her GOT7 tour shirt. She had her hair tied back and a hat and a mask on, and wouldn’t have been easily recognized. But our one K-Pop friend in our neighborhood texted me “I just saw your daughter out walking and waved Hello – I knew it was her because she was wearing the Eyes on You tour shirt!” Obviously there aren’t many GOT7 stans taking walks in our neighborhood lol. The point here is, merch makes a difference!

In regards to tours, underrated groups are less likely to hold concerts outside South Korea, and even rarer to tour internationally. It became somewhat easier after 2017, as a handful of promoters began filling a niche of touring lesser known artists. Just before the pandemic hit the states, my daughters and I saw Vanner at a 240-seat venue in LA, one of five stops on their “Rising in the US” tour. A tour of that size with such a small scale fanbase would not have been possible before K-Pop’s rising tide. Even with the Korean Wave however, low-profile groups rarely get globe-crossing tours of their own. Worsely, now that Covid has niche promoters swimming in red ink, small venue tours may be gone for quite awhile. They’re likely to be replaced permanently with virtual concerts and fanmeets.

Online concerts are okay, but they don’t come close to the excitement of live concerts, not for the fans or the idols. But in the absence of in-person experiences, at least they’re something. Arguably, the rise of online concerts is a huge benefit to underrated groups. It’s obviously more financially feasible for a group to perform online to reach international audiences than trying to fund traditionally costly tours beyond Korea. It may be more profitable too, as contracts often have higher percentages to the artist from international tour returns. Let’s hope companies are honoring that with overseas online revenue, but even if they aren’t, any money flowing into smaller entertainment companies at this tough time is a good thing. 

Another way smaller companies are making money right now is online fansigns. Lottery-style fansigns have been around forever where the more albums you buy, the better your odds are of winning, but it’s mostly been the realm of Korean fans. They’re an incredibly efficient means to boost album sales, but until 2020, winners were limited to those that could travel to Seoul for the fansign. Now that they’re online, any fan in the world can try their luck. If the group is super popular, any fan hoping to win will still have to spend a fortune, but fans of lesser-known groups can win fansigns by buying as few as one album. This boosts sales because casual fans of underrated groups were unlikely to buy albums before, but now they’ll buy for a chance to talk to an idol. It’s arguable whether fans “in it for the y/n moments” are true blue stans, but in my humble opinion, who cares?

If increased fansign profit results in more comebacks and better songs & MVs for my underdog faves, I’m all for it baby! Higher quantity and quality of content means more fans, and more fans means more popularity. Popularity means more merch, and bigger tours, and even more fansigns. This leads to even more profit, which leads to steady comebacks, and so on and so on and so forth. That’s showbiz success, kid, and every underrated idol is chasing it with all their heart.

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