Sevenlight, a relatively new group (they’d put out one EP), disbanded at the beginning of this month. Mainly I feel terrible for the good folks behind the Sevenlight France Twitter account; we non-Kazakh-or-Russian-speaking Q-pop followers are in desperate need of any translators we can get, and I hate to see anybody doing such work discouraged.
About Sevenlight itself my feelings were more mixed. Their debut single, “Núkte,” reminded me a lot of Infinite–a lot of Infinite: flowers! Angst! Soaring choruses! You could conceivably put “Núkte” and “The Eye” back-to-back and make a case that the former was inspired by the latter.
Sevenlight initially had seven members, and I know absolutely nothing about five of them. Tachi was one of the Black Dial alumni, and as best I know Sevenlight was his first post-Black Dial project. (One-sentence recap of the Saga of Black Dial: it was a three-singer, two-rapper group that debuted in the spring of 2017; by the end of the year the rappers had split, with much drama, to become EQ; the singers weren’t able to continue the group by themselves.) He apparently left Sevenlight after the EP’s recording and went solo; whether he saw the writing on the wall or just wasn’t happy with the group experience, I don’t know. Jan was known as Zhanbolat when he started with Renzo. It appears (if I’m reading the machine translation of this Instagram post right) that Sevenlight was to some degree his ship to captain, and he even tried to keep it going after the producer withdrew his support.
Sevenlight was drawing a great deal of inspiration from K-pop, right down to the BTS covers and the “special stages” seemingly designed to look as much like M! Countdown as possible, and I was ambivalent about that; I don’t want Q-pop to be a carbon copy of the older industry. Which does not mean I wanted Sevenlight to fail. That it did fail does not bode well for Q-pop as a whole.
Obviously the best person to diagnose the problem is not someone sitting thousands of miles away with no ability to read Kazakh or Russian. So apply salt generously (and do let me know if someone who can read Kazakh or Russian is opining on these sorts of things). But since I’m what you’ve got: if we go down the list of potential idol-pop revenue sources, a lot of what allows groups to break even in Korea may not be available to their Kazakhstani counterparts:
Touring. This still isn’t an option for much of anyone right now, although it will probably come back in Korea and Japan before Kazakhstan, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus. (One thing I don’t have a very good handle on is the variance in coronavirus among different Kazakhstani cities—whether the outbreak has been confined to Almaty and Astana or is equally in smaller cities. I also don’t have a very good idea of the touring economy in Kazakhstan, and how much money groups would make back on playing cities outside Almaty and Astana.) Even if they could tour outside Kazakhstan, the right set of circumstances would have to be in place to pay the travel costs.
Physical merchandise (albums). One of the more durable innovations of Japanese and Korean idol pop was the trick of getting people to buy more than one album (by printing multiple photosets, or, in AKB48’s case, including election tickets with albums). However distasteful you find the practice on the consumption side, there’s a baked-in assumption on the production side that this strategy works if you can print albums (and photobooks, postcards, game pieces, what have you) cheaply. Which is… not necessarily a good assumption, in Kazakhstan. I can’t tell! But the only group I know to have tried packaging an album in multiple ways is Ninety One, with the five-part release of Qarangy Zharyq three years ago, and as best I know they have not released a physical album since. I know of one unboxing event, and that was DNA this year. It may be that there’s as much album-packaging chatter in Q-pop as there is in other industries, and I’m just missing it, but I get the distinct impression that printing an album, let alone multiple different versions of an album, is much more expensive in Kazakhstan than it is in Korea or Japan.
Physical merchandise (everything else). God knows Juz Entertainment is trying, mainly with clothing, but I don’t know if it’s actually working’; Ninety One is much less likely to be photographed wearing clothes featuring their own lyrics these days. Again, it’s hard to tell what the production costs of such initiatives are. If other groups are getting their own branded merch produced, they’re still limited to the domestic audience. In theory you can order Juz products at the previous link and have them internationally shipped; in practice I don’t know anyone who’s pulled it off. (Shipping times are quoted as 10 days to two weeks if you’re in Kazakhstan but not a major city.)
I may be exaggerating slightly, and underestimating the willingness of dedicated fans to use Google Translate; I should know better, knowing plenty of fellow middle-aged people who thirty years ago were willing to pull off all kinds of logistical feats to get a hold of VHS tapes of subbed animé. But the systems are not at all in place to make buying Q-pop merchandise as easy as popping down to your favorite neighborhood K-pop store, which limits the amount of money Q-pop groups can make outside Kazakhstan. And given that the domestic economy was already ailing before coronavirus…
Endorsements. My understanding is that CF deals are generally the best tool to allow Korean idols to pay off trainee debts. (This is in part because I remember quite vividly when EXID went from barely-able-to-eat to posing in swimwear shoots.) Again, this is an area where Ninety One has made some progress (Fanta, Samsung) and everyone else… maybe? I’d be genuinely surprised if MM Entertainment, MadMen’s company, hadn’t managed to negotiate at least one endorsement. I spent a good chunk of time this morning feeding posts from this Q-pop gossip site into Google Translate, but if any endorsement deals have happened lately they’re not being reported.
Sponsors. HAHAHAHAHA now I’m nauseated. But trying to think about the matter more seriously: whether or not sponsors actually loom in the background of Kazakhstani entertainment more generally—and I can’t see why they wouldn’t—I don’t know how much they’d be sniffing around Q-pop performer, as opposed to actors or singers in more conventional music industries, such as toi singing.
Fan gifts. They do happen; whether they happen to the extent as in Korean idol fandoms, I doubt it. If nothing else, I suspect the average Korean teenager has more spending money than her Kazakhstani counterpart. (If you want a very quick illustration of where Kazakhstani consumption is right now, consider that the record player Ninety One was thrilled to receive retails for about $200 in American markets.)
I’m not even counting digital sales because that’s silly.
In sum, it looks like Q-pop groups are still limited to the domestic market; they don’t have either the proven demand outside Kazakhstan or the capital to be able to set up supply chains to tap into international markets. Korean idol pop only did it with significant government investment, and given the government in question, I’m reluctant to root for such a move, even if ZaQ’s openly advocated for it. (As I’ve written about before, the strategy has its drawbacks even for wildly successful Korean groups.) The problem Q-pop is facing as a whole is, when you’re limited to one market, and that one market starts to shrink, what are your options?