On Christmas Eve, girl group 1931 posted on their official Weibo account, “The idol group ‘1931’ under Huanju Media will be ceasing operation on December 29th, 2017. We appreciate the efforts of all the members, as well as our fans’ support over the past three years. Our youth would not have been possible without you. Thank you for the memories.”
After this statement was released, fans initially didn’t catch up to it, as many were not paying attention to social media on the holiday. However, it still sent waves throughout the idol industry. Just one month prior, 6 of 1931’s members were still actively promoting their new song Feeling Good that incorporates elements of electronic and hip-hop music.
Shortly after, the members of 1931 reposted the statement onto their timelines, each commenting with something to the tune of “thanking everybody one last time as the member of 1931.”:
After the disband announcement, some saw it as an indication of success for the idol group GNZ48, who is also based in the same city as 1931, Guangzhou. While this may mean less competition for GNZ48, from a broader point of view, it’s not good news for them either.
The outside world was able to peek inside the world of this seemingly not-so-popular group through the short video clips uploaded by group member Ma Jianyue, who was also a contestant on the popular variety show “U Can U Bibi” that gained popularity after her appearance during the 4th season. On the show, she talked about her unsuccessful idol career and “exposed” the truth behind the “500-million-RMB girl group,” which helped her generate quite a lot of controversy. Even YY’s founder Li Xueling has joined in on the conversation on Weibo, saying “damn, this actually looks to be really bad.” After the incident, Ma Jianyue even was given the label of “that idol on ‘U Can U Bibi’.”
1931 was a girl group created by Huanju Media in collaboration with both Chinese and international musicians, with an investment of over ￥500 million RMB and high hopes of mainstream success. The name 1931 comes from “1 dream, 9 friends, 3 wishes, 1 realization.” On November 27th, 2014, the group first debuted with high levels of media attention. The group has a total of 18 members, all of them carefully selected from the initial pool of 40,000 people through rounds of audition. The members are split into Red and White Teams, with 9 members on each. Chen Yaochuan, a famous producer who witnessed the first generation of idol culture in China, was appointed as the chief producer of the group. Not long after, streaming platform YY built a dedicated venue specifically for 1931’s activities.
During an interview, Ma Jianyue gave a detailed analysis of the Chinese girl group industry. She said that current Chinese girl groups either completely copy the models of Japanese groups or those of Korean ones, so they are really catering to the fans of Japanese or Korean idols; there’s very little Chinese influence in these groups. Additionally, the actual idol group fan base is fairly limited, yet there has been a huge influx of new girl groups, meaning that it’s very hard to build a true, loyal fan base like that of SNH48.
Due to the similarity between all the girl groups, 1931 couldn’t really stand out. Studio 48, the leading idol company responsible for many regional 48-member groups, has expanded its business quickly to many major cities across the country. But while the company supplied the market with large amounts of entertainment, it didn’t leave enough time for the consumer base to grow. For example, just in Shanghai alone, aside from SNH48, there are also groups such as Idol School, ATF, and Trainee18. From the early days of copying Japanese idol groups to the current Chinese idol market built largely on “otaku” culture, the competition has been brutal. Even for Ju Jingyi, a now-independent top artist under Studio48, her clout in the mainstream entertainment world isn’t anything to brag about.
While the group was still active, 1931 only held very limited events, with most of them being the regularly scheduled shows in the dedicated theater built by YY. Till this day, the group hasn’t had a “hit” song, nor has it been on “trending” on any of the major social media platforms. The only time it received massive attention from the mainstream was when Ma “exposed” the group, and ironically, 1931 saw an increase in commercial appearances after the controversy.
Of course, 1931 isn’t the only idol group that has failed. It seems that many of the new girl groups tend to not make any announcements even if they end up ceasing operation. In the case of 1931, Huanju chose to end the group that hasn’t been profitable for them before reaching the point of no return. But what about others?
2016 was seen as the year of the rise of girl groups. Since that year, over 200 idol girl groups have emerged, many vanishing just as quickly as they came. The surge of idol groups also drove TV stations to produce new variety shows like “Born Us,” “Summer Sweetie,” “Ladybees,” and “National Beauty,” all featuring their respective girl groups.
For most groups, this quick come-and-go rhythm isn’t new anymore. And Huanju’s exit from the idol arena further proves that money can’t guarantee success in the idol industry. Even for an industry leader, Studio48, they have been trying to distance themselves from the shadows of AKB48 and inching towards the mainstream entertainment market.
There is no doubt that there will be more groups to disappear or to be integrated in 2018. In this highly fragmented market, the real revenue-generating “celebrities” are born on platforms such as Douyin, Kuaishou, Momo, Huajiao, and Weibo, in a way diverting the attention away from these bigger players, making it even harder for idol groups to achieve commercial success.
What does the future hold for idol groups? One thing is for certain: after the uncontrolled growth in the beginning, and the superficial “bloom” of the idol market, combined with discouraged investors in a fast-paced industry, the idol market will be facing an even more uncertain fate in 2018.
Translated by Kane Ge
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