My Take on “Big3 Privilege”

“Big3 Privilege”, a term used by people in Korean-pop fandoms, familiar with the three companies that are giants in the industry at the moment. But how did they become the Big3? Did they achieve this overnight? Or was it a gradual build up over decades?

Just like how we have Samsung, LG, Lotte etc, the mega companies that the Korean economy heavily relies on, we have SM, YG, JYP, the mega K-pop companies that were there from the early days, the companies that produced the foundations of K-pop as we know it today.

The CEO of YG, Yang Hyun-suk was himself, a member of Seo Taiji and Boys, that some would say is probably the very first korean boy group that found commercial success in the mainstream. He founded YG in 1996 after his group disbanded. A pioneer.

We also have Park Jin Young, who founded JYP in 1998. He debuted as a solo singer 3 years before launching his company. Another pioneer.

But the pioneer of the pioneers would be none other than Lee Soo-man, who founded his company, SM, in 1989. So SM existed even before JYP and Seo Taiji and Boys happened.

Interestingly, Lee Soo-man also debuted as a singer, and that was way back in 1972. At 66, he is the oldest of the 3 CEOs. The other 2 being 46 and 48.

So why this long look into history and start-ups? What am I trying to say?

Well, to start, I disagree with the label ‘privilege’. 

When you say privilege, I would imagine getting things handed to you without having to work for it. But these 3 companies were founded from scratch by performers who had a vision and a dream to build up their country’s music and entertainment scene.

These companies worked hard from the early days to build their wealth and impact. SM, founded in 1989, is 29 years old (non-korean counting system). YG is 22 and JYP, 21. These are not new companies. They have worked hard for more than two decades, survived the ups and downs of the economy, and continue to succeed in producing successful music acts today.

So would you call what they have now ‘privilege’? No. The wealth and influence these companies enjoy now should be called ‘fruits of labour’, results achieved through more than 20 years of hard work. It was not a free trip up to the top for them.

Privilege would be if they were just sitting there, and one day, the Korean government just picked the 3 of them and said, “Hey you three dudes over there, I’m going to give you big companies worth millions and you just run them, okay? And I’ll make sure your company is protected and every single artiste you produce will get special treatment. They’ll just sit in air-conditioned rooms, sleep all day, perform once in a while and get tons of money from us anyway.”

But we know very well, that’s not the case. In fact, the Big3 are very hard on their idols and artistes and squeeze everything they can from them to make profits. Big3 have to work just as hard, if not harder, to maintain their positions.

There is nothing to guarantee their continued success as a company in a fickle global market that is free to choose. But that’s not true, they have great advantage, you say?

Let’s look at some examples.

DSP, founded in 1991 (before YG & JYP), struck gold with groups like Sechs Kies, FIN.K.L., SS501, KARA and were at one point, a huge rival of SM’s. But they faltered and declined and are not even listed in Top 10 as of 2017 (

Then there’s Star Empire, founded in 2000 (just after YG & JYP). They had some success with Jewelry’s hit song ‘One More Time’ but did not see huge successes after that. They too, are not in the Top 10 as of 2017.

So Big3 is Big3, not Big4 or Big5 because only 3 companies survived 2 decades in the music entertainment industry. Not only did they survive, they also saw sustained successes (huge ones too) over the 2 decades. And to achieve that, one would expect any business to have to utilize every resource they possess to ensure the continued growth and development of the company. That is just pure business instinct.

The second generation companies like FNC, Cube, Big Hit, Jellyfish, Starship were founded between 2005-2008. They are 10 to 13 years old. Half the age of Big3. And the even younger companies like RBW, Pledis were founded 2010, 2015 respectively. Just a few years old. And it makes sense that a young company is unlikely to climb to the level of Big3 with just a few years of experience.

These second generation companies have definitely found some successes and the newer companies are beginning to find success too. This shows that every company stands a chance to become the giants that SM, YG and JYP are. But of course, it is subject to each company’s ability to play the fickle market that can love you today and hate you tomorrow.

And as we have seen recently, second generation company Big Hit has successfully climbed up to join the ranks of the biggest companies after 13 years in the business with their most successful act, BTS. They are proof that it is possible for any company to grow and develop success over time. But now that they are up there, they have to leverage on what they earned and continue to produce more successful groups if they want to maintain or improve their position in 2028.

If they succeed in doing that, and SM, YG and JYP are still doing well in 2028, it would be Big4 instead of Big3 10 years later.

So is it privilege? To me, it is more about the natural progression of time/age, factors of economy as well as the business acumen of each company’s management. In a nutshell, it is simply survival of the fittest.

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