The Controversy Over K-pop Band NewJeans

The video had none of the hallmarks of K-pop. No catchy tune, no snazzy outfits, no slick dance routines. Definitely no stars. It was set in an unremarkable auditorium with plain white tables and a large projector screen.

But it included screenshots of chats between two power players in the industry and instantly became the talk of the K-pop world.

It was the live broadcast of a two-hour emotional tell-all delivered last month by Min Hee-Jin, the producer of NewJeans, arguably today’s hottest K-pop act. She had called a news conference to dispute accusations of corporate malfeasance by her employer, Hybe, the K-pop colossus behind BTS.

The unusually public and hostile feud — which has included allegations of plagiarism, chart rigging and shamanism — has led to hundreds of millions of dollars being wiped off Hybe’s market value. And it has cast a cloud over Hybe’s relationship with a rising star, NewJeans, while its biggest act, BTS, is on hiatus.

“It’s about money, it’s about control and also the ownership of an artist,” said Andrew Eungi Kim, referring to NewJeans. A professor at Korea University, Mr. Kim studies the country’s cultural influence, a phenomenon known as hallyu.

The members of BTS, who are all serving in South Korea’s military because of mandatory conscription, are not expected to reunite until next year. As some of them have released solo albums, NewJeans has racked up its share of accolades. In the past year it has topped the Billboard 200, played at Lollapalooza and appeared in commercials for Apple and Coca-Cola.

The creative force behind the act is Ms. Min, who was recruited by Hybe to develop a girl band. Her pushback against Hybe and its founder, Bang Si-hyuk, has resonated widely in South Korea, where corporate life can be punishingly hierarchal.

“She’s like a powerless visionary who is fighting against a giant corporation,” Mr. Kim said.

Started nearly two decades ago as a label called Big Hit, Hybe became the dominant force in K-pop thanks largely to the global success of BTS. It went public in 2020, and a year later, its market value peaked around $12 billion. Since then, its shares have lost about half of their value amid concerns that it would not be able to replicate the profitability of BTS.

Hybe has had success with other groups like Seventeen and Tomorrow X Together. It has also expanded in the United States with deals like the purchase of Ithaca Holdings, which manages Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. In 2022, it released NewJeans’ first single, “Attention,” without the characteristic fanfare of K-pop debuts. The following year was Hybe’s most lucrative on record, with the company posting annual profit of about 186.6 billion Korean won, or $136 million.

One of the first public indications of the turmoil at Hybe came on April 22, when it announced that it was going to audit Ador, a subsidiary run by Ms. Min. It accused Ms. Min of illegally trying to take control of Ador and asked her to step down. Hybe owns 80 percent of Ador, Ms. Min has an 18 percent stake and the rest is owned by other executives. On April 25, Hybe filed a police complaint against her.

Ms. Min responded publicly the same day with a news conference. Dressed in a green T-shirt with white stripes and a Los Angeles Dodgers hat, she appeared disheveled and broke down several times. She rejected Hybe’s accusations and shared screenshots of chats with Mr. Bang, the firm’s founder, that she suggested were proof of a fraught work environment.

She also said that she had not been compensated fairly and accused Hybe of plagiarizing her work with NewJeans to improve other acts. Hybe has denied her allegations.

To Ms. Min, the dispute was a tug of war between creative and corporate interests.

“All I care about is NewJeans,” Ms. Min said in comments that were livestreamed by the major South Korean broadcasters.

Two days later, a new song by NewJeans, “Bubble Gum,” was released as scheduled.

In a written response to questions, Ms. Min said, “It is time to reconsider the nature of the entertainment industry.” For K-pop to keep prospering, she added, the industry needs to focus “fundamentally on creators and creation” instead of on money and management.

After Ms. Min’s appearance, rumors involving Hybe artists, chart-rigging and cults circulated the internet. To fans, this sullied the image of their favorite acts.

One group of BTS fans took out an advertisement in local newspapers, criticizing Hybe for airing its dirty laundry. Another protested outside Hybe’s offices.

Ian Liu, a NewJeans fan from Jakarta, Indonesia, had a similar sentiment. “The artists are collateral damage,” he said.

Hybe was also involved in a public feud last year, though that was with outside parties. It was a bidding war for SM Entertainment, another K-pop firm, that was won by Kakao, a South Korean technology giant.

The dispute with Ms. Lee, who is the chief executive of Ador, is headed to the courts.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen at this point,” said Lee Gyu Tag, a professor of cultural studies and anthropology at George Mason University’s Korea branch. “In the end, this issue between Hybe and Ador will be a learning opportunity for other agencies to learn how to effectively manage their companies.”

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