'The start of the Web3 idol': Influencers create their own new K-pop groups

Pictured is girl group QWER, a group formed by fitness YouTuber Kim Gye-ran. The members' journey to debut was documented in the web reality series titled "QWER Project" and uploaded to Kim Gye-ran's Tamago Production channel on YouTube. [TAMAGO PRODUCTION]

K-pop agencies are no longer the sole producers of idol groups, as other individuals, like YouTubers, are joining the ranks of producers by using their own followings on open access platforms to create music groups and regularly source feedback directly from fans.

Kim Gye-ran, a fitness YouTuber with 3.08 million subscribers, formed girl group QWER in October last year. The four QWER members themselves are well established on different platforms like TikTok, Twitch and YouTube: Chodan is a YouTuber, Magenta is active on Twitch, YouTube and TikTok, with 1.6 million followers on the latter, and Hina has a TikTok following of 4.1 million. The group’s main vocalist Siyeon is known for being the first non-Japanese member of the Japanese girl group NMB48, a “sister group” to the group AKB48.

Kim Gye-ran documented the girls' journey to debut as a K-pop girl group, turned it into a web reality series titled “QWER Project” and uploaded on his Tamago Production channel on YouTube.

Virtual idol group Isegye Idol [PARABLE ENTERTAINMENT]

And then there's Woowakgood: a game streamer of 15 years who is now the CEO of WAK Entertainment, a music agency with considerable influence in the virtual reality (VR) industry.

His “Vtuber idol project,” which started out as just a fun hobby, culminated in the virtual girl group Isegye Idol consisting of members Ine, Jingburger, Lilpa, Jururu, Gosegu and Viichan. Woowakgood has been running the agency for three years following the group’s unexpected smash success.

Each member also works as a streamer on their own personal channel. Lilpa placed eighth in views among global virtual game streamers on YouTube, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KCCA).

Virtual idol group StelLive [ACCELERS]

StelLive, another virtual idol group, was also created by a famous streamer: Gang Gi, who has a following of 630,000 subscribers. A pop-up store selling StelLive merchandise recently opened at The Hyundai Seoul, a department store in Yeouido. Around 7,000 people pre-registered to visit the store.

The common point in these three new K-pop groups is that the producers and the members of the K-pop groups themselves are already experienced and well established content creators.

Kim Gye-ran encouraged the QWER members in their personal streaming endeavors and even created a separate comedy series with Siyeon, in which she hosts a show titled “Detective QWER.” Isegye Idol’s producer Woowakgood promised from the very start that he would “support [the members] to work independently also as YouTubers.”

Fitness YouTuber Kim Gye-ran takes the mic at girl group QWER's showcase for the group's debut single ″Harmony from Discord″ that took place on Oct. 18 last year. [NEWS1]

In other words, they are building off individual creators' popularity to amplify the popularity of the group and then redistributing it to further grow the fandom of individual members.

“It’s the emergence of a whole new ecosystem through which [K-pop] idols are produced,” Kim Sang-kyun, professor of media and commerce management at Kyunghee University, said.

“It is a model that emerged from applying the idea of Web3, which incorporates the concept of co-production [and decentralization] and the division of its results, to the entertainment industry,” Kim said. “It can be defined as the start of the Web3 idol.”

“While producing QWER, I took into consideration the current viewers’ tendency to access a variety of social media channels,” Kim Gye-ran said.

“The fact that the members were active on social media before their debut is a huge advantage for them as entertainers. They will be able to show different sides of themselves, as members of the band and through a variety of other content.”

Girl group QWER Chodan plays the drums for the group's lead track ″Discord″ from its debut single ″Harmony from Discord″ at a showcase on Oct. 18, 2023. [NEWS1]

“I believe the stories of the members starting new challenges at different stages in their lives could be an inspiration to some people,” Chodan said. She was majoring in drums at Sungshin Women’s University while starting her career as an online streamer, before debuting as the leader of QWER.

QWER will drop its first EP, “Manito,” on Monday. It will depict the fateful story of the group members who met by chance, the group’s agency Tamago Production said.

The fact that fans act as both consumers and producers to these groups is what sets Web3 idols apart.

Woowakgood adopted a conventional TV audition show format in a Metaverse platform when it came to judging the prospective group members’ singing and streaming capabilities. Viewers acted as the judges to select the members for the Isegye Idol group. The group’s debut song “Re:Wind” was composed by Young Vibe, and “Kidding ”by Lee Tae-hoon — both of whom are viewers of Woowakgood’s videos.

Kim Gye-ran also structured his show’s narrative in a way that individual viewers could feel as if they were active participants. He documented the members’ debut journey, from their recruitment up to their debut, on the Tamago Production YouTube channel. Even Japanese idol Nishimura Honoka, who was a candidate but failed to debut as a member of QWER, was candidly shown.

The name for the group’s fan community Bawige, the Korean name for the Rift Scuttler from League of Legends, was made collaboratively with the fans during a livestream. The channel, which uploaded its first video seven months ago, has over 108 million cumulative views.

“Unlike the storytelling of the past, when content would be created separately from and given to the consumer, we are now in a story-living era, where the consumers actively participate in the production of media content,” professor Kim said.

The number of sales of QWER’s debut single “Harmony from Discord” in the week after its release was the ninth highest made ever among all girl groups’ first-week sales. The single’s lead track “Discord” is still on the Melon chart despite having been released in October last year.

The Isegye Festival, which was organized using virtual group Isegye Idol's IP, was held on Sep. 23, 2023. Eighteen acts including headliner Isegye Idol performed at the music festival for a total of eight hours. [PARABLE ENTERTAINMENT]

Isegye Idol reached music chart Melon’s “hall of fame,” which honors songs that are streamed over 1 million times in the first 24 hours after it is released, with four songs — the first act ever to do so. It was also the first virtual idol group to land at No. 3 on the Billboard K-pop 100.

The group’s intellectual property was used to make “Magical Girl Isegye Idol,” a webtoon published on Kakao Webtoon, as well as the “Isegye Festival.” Isegye Idol was the headline act for the festival, held in September last year at Songdo Moonlight Festival Park in Incheon, where a total of 16 acts performed in front of 10,000 people. The group also recently partnered with Genie Music to launch a popup store at The Hyundai Seoul department store in Yeouido, western Seoul.

“These groups formed their fan communities in their own special way, by communicating with their followers every day as creators,” Kang Su-jin, a director at Kakao Entertainment, said. “The two-way communication between the singers and fans was especially effective.”

To find out more about QWER and Isegye Idol, visit Celeb Confirmed!