Label V

With WayV, All Eyes Are On C-pop

As Korea's SM Entertainment launches its latest experiment, the idol industry places its bets on emerging C-pop groups

By Tássia Assis

WayV, a boy group composed of members from Korean label SM Entertainment's experimental collective NCT, debuted today (January 17) in China with their three-song digital EP, The Vision. The group benefits from the popularity of known faces WinWin, Lucas, and Ten, while properly introducing member Kun to a fixed unit and welcoming rookies Xiaojun, Hendery, and Yangyang to the ensemble. For SM, WayV represent the next step in the company's plan to extend their reach across the globe with region-specific idol groups — but they're also a gamble.

This is not the first time that SM Entertainment has tested the billion-dollar Chinese market, where the most popular acts have profits that average more than $17 million USD per month. In 2008, the company debuted Super Junior-M, a Mandarin subunit of popular boy group Super Junior, and promoted soloist Zhang Liyin's first solo album, I WILL. In 2012, idol group EXO debuted with two subunits, EXO-K and EXO-M, with the intent of promoting in Korea and China simultaneously.

However, following the implementation of THAAD restrictions in 2017, which banned South Korean music and television content to be streamed in China, Hallyu's (or Korean pop culture) world expansion took a blow that led to focusing in other markets, such as the West, Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The tensions also halted SM's ambitious plan to debut WayV in 2018; in fact, removing the NCT label from the group's name — they're rumored to have been originally named NCT Vision — seemed to be a calculated decision.

In order to overcome any THAAD-related obstacles, SM's strategy for WayV is to promote them under Label V, a Chinese company who will manage the group’s activities in China. (It's unconfirmed whether SM will manage the group and its seven members outside of China.) Now, with the release of their new EP, curious eyes turn toward the burgeoning C-pop idol industry, making this a timely moment for a proper introduction to the genre.

C-pop is, first of all, a term much like K-pop, embracing various styles under Chinese popular music. It has three main subgenres: Cantopop (sung in Cantonese), Minnan Pop (sung in Taiwanese Hokkien), and the most popular, Mandopop (sung in Mandarin).

China tends to prefer soloists over groups, with popular solo artists Jay Chou, JJ Lin, and Jolin Tsai historically owning the market, but this hasn't stopped K-pop idol groups from developing massive audiences in the country. Legendary boy band Big Bang has over 7 million followers on their Weibo page, while EXO's Sehun has amassed more than 10 million fans on his profile. Many Chinese idols who work in the K-pop industry also tend to carve out successful solo careers in the country, such as EXO's Lay Zhang and GOT7's Jackson Wang.

Getty Images

Chinese idols Lay Zhang (left) and Jackson Wang (right)

However, the soloist trend might be starting to change. The aforementioned political tension between South Korea and China has posed obstacles for the Hallyu expansion, but also left enough space in Chinese entertainment to prompt a surge of their own productions. The country's edition of Produce 101 drew more than 4.3 billion views in total, while Idol Producer, a similar survival show produced by Baidu's iQiyi, garnered over 100 million votes to decide the top 20 trainees.

The enormous success of both shows has led to online commentary naming 2018 "the first year of the idols' reign" in China. Meanwhile, several Chinese music shows, inspired by Korea's popular weekly music broadcasts, also launched last year, including iQiyi's Idol Hits and tech giant Tencent's Yo! Bang, a streaming show that gives out awards based on chart results.

With so much excitement around C-pop in its home country — and deep-pocketed investors who believe idol groups might finally break out in China — the moment is certainly promising, even though the industry itself is still figuring things out. The government’s extensive internet censorship — which restricts access to most content for the rest of the world — is one of the biggest hurdles. Still, there are a slew of idol groups to look forward to in 2019. Take a look.

  1. Nine Percent

    The temporary boy band formed by Idol Producer released their first album To The Nines last November, accumulating almost a million digital sales and landing at No. 2 on the Billboard China V chart. After the survival show ended, the group was sent to Los Angeles for two weeks to further their training, where they worked with producer Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins and Emmy-nominated choreographer Christopher Scott. Another reality show, Nine Percent: Flower Road Journey, followed the group during their trip.

    Cai Xukun, the first-place contestant, was already a popular figure due to his activities with group SWIN S and his own solo work, and K-pop fans might know members Zhu Zhengting (formerly known as JungJung) and Justin (Huang Minghao) from the Korean version of Produce 101, where both competed. The group also includes Fan Chengcheng (actress Fan BingBing's younger brother), Chen Linong, Lin Yanjun, Wang Ziyi, Xiao Gui, and You Zhangjing.

    Their latest release, "I Need a Doctor," is a melodramatic pop song about heartache, echoing the best of *NSYNC's lovesick anthem, "I Drive Myself Crazy." It's an addictive track that showcases why they're the nation's pick (and probably will become yours, too).

  2. Rocket Girls 101

    The winners of Produce 101 released their first EP, 撞 (Collide), in August, garnering over two million digital sales on QQ Music, China's biggest streaming platform, as well as a double-diamond certification. Meng Meiqi and Wu Xuanyi, from K-pop group WJSN, finished in the top two spots on the show, and former The Rap of China contestant Yamy placed fifth. Completing the eleven-member set are Yang Chaoyue, Duan Aojuan, Lai Meiyun, Zhang Zining, Sunnee, Li Ziting, Fu Jing, and Xu Mengjie.

    While their debut was nearly derailed because of management issues, the girls are known for their bubbly pop songs, such as "Calorie," a top-charting single for the movie Xihong City's Richest Man. However, it's "Sailor Moon," a b-side promoted on live shows, that reveals their true potential. The song features an exciting mix of futuristic sounds and 8-bit music, with addictive "oh oh oh la la la las" and Yamy's rap elevating the track to another dimension. The only thing missing is an official music video, but for now, the live performances do a great job displaying the girls' charisma and skill.

  3. NEX7

    Managed by Yuehua Entertainment, the same company that represents K-pop groups WJSN (in partnership with Korea's Starship Entertainment) and UNIQ, septet NEX7 are yet another debut to ride on the popularity of Idol Producer. All members participated on the show, with Fan Chengcheng, Zhu Zhengting, and Justin (Huang Minghao) making it to the final line-up. The remaining members are Ding Zeren (who was a former SM Entertainment trainee), Bi Wenjun, Huang Xinchun, and Li Quanzhe, and the group recently released their second album, Next to You, selling over two million digital copies on NetEase Cloud Music, another prominent music streaming service in the country.

    Because of their company's partnerships with Korea-based agencies, NEX7 trained in the country, and their debut song, "Wait a Minute," was in part produced by Ryan S. Jhun, who's worked on K-pop hits like SHINee's "Lucifer," EXO's "Love Me Right," and Red Velvet's "Dumb Dumb." The song is an explosion of hard-hitting sounds, plagued by the hook's unfortunate "woo woos" and "skrrrt skrrrts," but its melodic verses make up for it, as well as the trippy, colorful visual.

  4. FANXYRED

    Having first debuted under the name Acrush in 2017, FANXYRED are a group comprised of five androgynous young women who encourage fans to pursue their own identities. Inspired by singer Li Yuchun, who is considered the mother of unisex looks in China, Lu Keran, Peng Xichen, Linfan, An Junxi, and Peng Yiyang offer a fresh approach to girl groups.

    While their re-debut under the new name is still to be announced, they currently upload dance covers of K-pop songs and other videos on their company's YouTube channel.

  5. ONER

    Yet another fruit of Idol Producer, ONER are a quartet under Qin's Entertainment. They debuted in August 2018 with the album 过敏 (Allergy) and were awarded Popular Group of the Year at the Tencent Star Awards in December.

    Their debut single, "Dazzle," is an atmospheric deep-house track with an alluringly mysterious vibe. The music video — an aesthetically pleasing mash-up of neon lights, plants, and geometric objects (a C-pop twist on the iconic "SM box") — is an entrancing experience.

Other notable projects from Idol Producer are Awaken-F, MR-X, and Tangram. Produce 101 hasn't produced as many debuts, but some existing groups from the contestants are worth checking out, including S.I.N.G (Sing Girls), MERA, and KOGIGIRLS.

Of course, it's impossible to talk about idol groups in China and not mention the long-standing popularity of TFBoys. Karry Wang, Roy Wang, and Jackson Yee debuted in 2013 when they were only 12 and 13 years old, and their first hit, "青春少年手册 Manual of Youth," propelled them to widespread fame thanks to their wholesome image and patriotic message. They're still considered one of the most popular acts in China, with over 200 million followers combined on Weibo and staggering yearly profits.

On the soloist-dominated Chinese charts, TFBoys are still one of the few exceptions, but there's room for change as the idol industry places its bets on China. The development of their own music shows and other events create exposure to idol groups and foster fan culture, in a model inspired by the Japanese and Korean markets. With loyal and engaged fandoms of their own, Chinese groups can finally find sustainability and profit beyond one-hit wonders.

We're only halfway through January, but WayV's anticipated debut — in addition to the second season of Idol Producer and Youku's rookie idol survival show, All For One (where WayV are scheduled to guest), premiering on Friday (January 18) — prove that C-pop could be the next wave to take hold of global culture.