As the Miley Cyrus song goes, “it’s the climb”. But for most K-pop groups, even just one failed or “flop” comeback can spell the difference between the company planning the next comeback or the dreaded announcement of disbandment. Oh, the pressure! Remember Cube Entertainment “forcing” 4Minute fans to make “Hate” a hit as it will play a big role in the members’ decision to continue with the group or not renew their contracts? To think 4Minute at that time was already a huge name, coming from the astonishing success of Crazy

Lucky for us, here are some groups that persevered for some time before finally experiencing that breakthrough.  And how these groups we named staged their breakthroughs! Quite unique, if I may say so. 


Number of Years Before Making It Big: More than a year

How they got past the struggle: That one song. 

You may think, “It only took a year for INFINITE to make a breakthrough in the market? Then why are they on this list?” But you don’t understand — the situation for INFINITE was close to desperate before, during, and that year after their debut. Why you ask? It so happens that their (this takes on a whole new level of meaning later) company, Woollim Entertainment, prior to INFINITE‘s breakthrough was more of an indie, anti-establishment agency hosting talents like Nell and Epik High. Though these artists were quite famous in Korea and were regarded and respected as legit artists even then, they weren’t exactly the most lucrative or income-generating talents, to the disadvantage of Woollim’s coffers. 

Thus, on their road to debuting, INFINITE was a witness and you may say, the direct victim of the company’s precarious finances. For one, INFINITE didn’t even have its own dormitory when the group debuted. Where did they live during their trainee period, you ask? With Woollim’s CEO, that’s where. Even their earliest music videos for their releases were filmed in the CEO’s house. Quick, go to YouTube and look for INFINITE’s music video for their debut single, Come Back Again. That house and that neighborhood were their CEO’s and since they lived in the CEO’s house, technically theirs. Suffice it to say that the CEO didn’t have the money to pay the rent for separate accommodation or filming locations. At the very least, what the Woollim CEO had the money for was rent for the group’s single practice room. 

But while this would have made trainees go up in arms and complain of “inhumane” conditions, INFINITE continued to strive for their dream. This situation continued for six releases, one single album, and two EPS, where the group started recognition for their very intricate choreography and the dancing skills of the members to match before finally, the Korean public took a liking to the dance track with the slightest tinge of retro Be Mine, the lead single of their first full studio album Over the Top. Despite the relatively just-okay performance of INFINITE‘s releases, Woollim’s CEO took the huge (and some may argue was downright crazy) gamble of producing a full-length album for the boys. Thank goodness, it caught on with the public and solidified the boys’ position as the “knife choreography kings” of K-pop, alluding to their synchronic movements so sharp they could cut. The precise choreo and the hella catchy song really did the group huge favors. 

This success of INFINITE eventually allowed Woollim Entertainment to debut more idol groups such as Lovelyz (disbanded in 2021), Drippin, and Golden Child, as well as promote solo artists like IZ*ONE‘s Kwon Eunbi and Lee Sujeong, the only Lovelyz member who opted to re-sign with Woollim. INFINITE‘s breakthrough also went well for the company’s CEO Lee Jungyeop, as he acquired more investments and eventually merged his company with SM Entertainment’s SM Culture and Contents (SM C&C) in 2013. Three years later, SM C&C separated Woollim from its video content business so that the company can focus on music content.


Number of Years Before Making It Big: 5

How they got past the struggle: Thanks to the power of the Produce 101 franchise

NU’EST is one of those groups that actually got off to a very promising start but somehow needed a second breakthrough in the middle of its career as the group didn’t sustain the momentum it had after debuting. In fact, the group only hit its stride in 2017, which was more than five years after a great debut that was followed by a series of rather unfortunate events (read: poor planning by the agency).

When the group debuted in 2012, JR, Aron, Baekho, Minhyun, and Ren, showed immense promise that not a lot of debuting groups exhibited. The group debuted with Face, a single and music video that touched on bullying and modern societal pressures. It instantly set them apart from other boy bands. A lot of K-pop fans even argued that while most groups don’t tend to have the strongest material in their debut era as the company is still doing some trial and error to see what clicks with the public and what doesn’t. However, NU’EST’s first EP did not only contain a banging lead single, NU, Establish, Style, Tempo, Not Over Your and Sandy on their next EP titled Action was also well-accepted by the radio-listening and music streaming public. For a while, the Face music video even held the record for being the most-watched among debuting K-pop acts at nearly 50 million views, to be surpassed only by Twice and Blackpink later. 

It also helped that the members were very varied in terms of image, from Ren and his androgynous and gender-bending norms to Baekho with his more muscular build reminiscent of the members of 2PM. Ren went as far as starring in an ad campaign for the China-based online mall VIP Shop wearing a skirt and long hair. On the other hand, the main vocalist Baekho was featured in various fitness magazines and pictorials with his defined body for everyone to swoon over. Their success continued with Hello, an emotive ballad released a day before Valentine’s Day in 2013, as the song became their highest-charting single at the time. 

But unlike most groups that put most of their efforts into establishing themselves in the local Korean market before branching overseas, the boys of NU’EST set themselves apart by also trying their best at gaining a following overseas. During their debut year, they already performed at the very first KCON in the US and later celebrated their first anniversary with a Japanese concert. As mentioned earlier, they also had exposure in China as NU’EST-M, singing in Mandarin with Yuehua Entertainment’s Jason. 

Alas, this shift towards focusing more on the international market, although successful, also took its toll on their homecourt popularity. After promoting Hello, NU’EST concentrated so much on promoting in Japan and China that their Korean fans started becoming disengaged with the group.  Unfortunately, the group’s singles after Hello, such as Sleep Talking, Good Bye Bye, I’m Bad, Overcome, and Love Paint (Every Afternoon) didn’t resonate as much with Korean listeners, and as Baekho admitted in Produce 101, the company Pledis advised them to join the competition because they (the company) can’t procure funding for new NU’EST releases anymore. He also admitted that during that time, it was junior company-mates SEVENTEEN that was funding Pledis operations and that his groupmates are so jealous of their hoobaes.    

But all of that thankfully changed when all except Aron joined the second season of PD101. While Minhyun had to promote with WANNA ONE as he secured one of the 11 slots for the project group, JR, Baekhyun, and Ren reunited with Aron to release music under the “sub-unit” NU’EST-W. All their songs charted and a number of their tracks from their back catalog such as Hello and Face returned to Korean singles charts (and stayed there for months!) Although the group officially disbanded as Ren, JR, and Aron opted to not re-sign with Pledis upon the expiration of their 10-year contract, it does comfort us to know that the group did experience their breakthrough (more like a renaissance) and enjoyed their success for a few years before officially parting ways. 


Number of Years Before Making It Big: Close to 3 years

How they got past the struggle: The OG queens of the fancam

These days, every performance by K-pop artists, whether it’s through a televised program or even in concerts, has a slew of fancams being uploaded only within minutes after the number is finished. Fancams seem to be taken for granted as they have become staples of K-entertainment already, thanks to the readiness of tools such as WiFi connection and a mobile phone, which almost 100% of show or concert attendees are already equipped with. But when you ask the 2nd generation girl group EXID for their opinions of fancams, you will surely be met with profuse gratitude and amazement at how something as commonplace as a fancam actually spelled the survival of their careers.

The quintet produced several K-Pop hits, one of which is one of the most quintessential K-Pop songs in history, their career-defining single Up & Down. The group’s history has, just like the song’s title, been with countless fluctuations, not to mention that the initial group that debuted in 2011 is quite different from the EXID second-gen K-pop fans know. The group’s history started in pretty much the same fashion as most idol groups, with a entertainment company (in this case, a scouting venture AB Entertainment and producer Shinsadong Tiger) gathered idol wannabes (read: trainees) to form a group. An ex-trainee at JYP Entertainment who failed to debut with a group, Yuji and a number of her co-members at the federation of JYP dropouts namely Hani, Haeryeong and Jeonghwa answered AB Entertainment’s casting call. Two more were added: LE, who was already making a name for herself in the underground rap scene and Dami, the only trainee originally from AB Entertainment and rounded out the final lineup. Although three of the names are familiar, this is still different from the EXID we know and love today, yes?

Debuted in 2012 with the single Whoz That Girl, the group that basically bridged the second and third generations of K-pop acts performed quite okay on the charts (peaking at No.36), considering they were from a mid-sized company with only Shinsandong Tiger as the industry-recognized backer on their team. But in a scene reminiscent of idol groups like Le Sserafim (a.k.a. groups that lost members very shortly after they debuted), members Yuji, Haeryeong, and Dami left the group. Yuji and Dami allegedly want to focus on their studies, while Haeryeong left to pursue an acting career. But then, Haeryeong resurfaced as a member of BESTIE in 2013 while EXID welcomed Solji and Hyerin shortly after. 

With the addition of vocal standouts Solji (who was actually a vocal trainer for EXID) and Hyerin (who was previously eliminated from the lineup of the group), EXID released the EP Hippity Hop and digital single Every Night, which did well but did not really announce the arrival of chart-topping queens they were destined to be, although the latter’s music video did create some buzz with its sexy bloody vampire theme. Even their eventual breakthrough smash hit Up & Down went unnoticed when it was released in August 2014, as it did not even crack the top 100 of the Gaon (now Circle) Music Chart. So, what sort of miracle happened that saved the group from permanent residency in the land of nugu-dom?

The turning point for EXID was when a fancam of Hani performing Up & Down went viral in October (that would be two months after the song was released) and almost immediately, the single shot all the way up to the top ten on the real-time charts, and topping the Gaon chart a few hours after its re-entry. The girls were even invited back onto music programs to promote the song months after their promotions had ended in September. The group then finally achieved their first music show win 35 months after debut in January 2015. Even for that music show win, they had to wait for the perfect timing as the entire December, it was Apink’s LUV that carved its own niche in K-pop history, eventually totaling 17 music show wins (and still remains unbeaten by any girl group to this day). Years later, tales of Hani’s viral fancam are still being brought up to groups that may seem on the brink of giving up. More of that later. 

So, back to EXID, the success they experienced in their careers went on until 2020, when the girls opted not to renew with Banana Culture, the company that handled the group during that time. Prior to their break from their company, the group continued to churn chart toppers such as Ah Yeah and Hot Pink in 2015 (both of which were met with slight criticism that the songs sound too much like Up & Down, but hey, why fix what ain’t broken and provided them with music success in the first place?), L.I.E from their first full-length album STREET, Night Rather Than Day (their first comeback without Solji, who had to undergo surgery for her hyperthyroidism), DDD (which Solji only participated in its recording but was absent in the music video and promotions), Lady, and Me & You. The group also launched successful careers in both China and Japan.  

But as the girls promised, the girls staged a comeback of sorts in September 2022 even though they were already signed to different companies, with only LE staying in Banana Culture. To celebrate their 10th anniversary as a group, they released X under Sony Music. From being in danger of nugu-dom to being one of the most recognizable groups of second gen K-pop, EXID has indeed come a long way, and all it took was a fancam.  

Brave Girls

Number of Years Before Making It Big: Nine-ish

How they got past the struggle: The mandatory Korean military service 

Now, if you’re looking for the most melodramatic rise to K-pop stardom, have we got one heck of a story for you! The Brave Girls’ story is basically that Cinderella story that has the girls struggle throughout their story and when all hope was lost, their fortunes took a sudden turn that basically changed their lives. 

Actually, the girl group we all know as Brave Girls started in 2011, at the tailend of the second generation of K-pop acts. Their start was very promising because after all, they are the Brave Girls, the first girl group produced by Brave Entertainment – as in industry legend Brave Brothers, the iconic producer (yes, Brave Brothers is composed of a single person, Kang Dongchul, as confusing as his moniker may be) of monster hits such as AOA’s Miniskirt and Short Hair, HyunA’s Ice Cream, and Sunmi’s Full Moon, among so many others. It was a promising start as Eunyoung, Seoa, Yejin, Yoojin, and Hyeran released The Difference with the lead single Do You Know peaked in the Gaon album and singles charts at numbers 2 and 19, respectively. They capped their debut year with a win from the 19th Korea Culture Entertainment Awards, where they were named Rookie of the Year. The group then released Easily, Nowadays You, and For You, which kept them afloat in public consciousness, although still not asserting themselves as one of the industry’s premier girl groups. 

Then, something weird happened. By the end of 2013, Brave Brothers himself claimed that he will be working on the group’s next full-length album. With such a huge claim by THE successful producer himself, the public anticipated a solid album with one hit release after another that would finally catapult the group into finally being a Korean household name. 

Alas, this was not the way things went as for some reason, Mr. Brave ended up producing one hit song after another for FNC Entertainment’s AOA, not for his own girl group. An act of the utmost betrayal? Did FNC pay Mr. Brave that much to make him divert all his focus to their group instead of working on his own group? Suffice it to say that most of the group did not take these events in stride as three of them quit and Yoojin and Hyeran welcomed five new members; Minyoung, Yujeong, Eunji, Hayun, and Yuna when the group came back in 2016 with the EP High Heels, which released two singles, Deepend and High Heels. The two songs, although characteristically very catchy just like any other Brave Brothers track, failed to catch the attention of the public. After that comeback, the two members of the original line-up have also left the group, so post-High Heels, it was a completely different group from the one that debuted in 2011. 

The group’s numbers further dwindled when Hayun left the group in 2018, only months after the re-release of the song Rollin, the original version of which was the first song the remaining five members released. With the constant line-up changes and songs that couldn’t seem to catch on with the public, alas, talks of disbanding, according to the company’s publicity team, was inevitable. It was only a matter of when the official announcement will occur, with the four remaining members already packing their personal belongings in their dormitory and planning what their next career moves will be. That is, until a COVID pandemic miracle of sorts happened. 

A compilation montage of footage from their performances of their song Rollin taken at various South Korean military camps was uploaded to YouTube in late February 2021. The video flashed witty captions and comments like, “If we play this song at the front lines, victory is ours,” alongside scenes of South Korean soldiers cheering and copying the rather unique choreography points of the track, including the hip rolling move with the arms extended to the side and the fists rolled and that infamous stingray dance. In a matter of days, the original video garnered millions of views and thousands of comments on YouTube, causing Brave Girls‘ popularity to skyrocket.

Rollin not just gave the group instant recognition; the song itself went on the re-chart, as it topped South Korea’s music charts, scoring a Perfect All-Kill for the group (being #1 in all real-time and weekly music charts in Korea) while also topping Billboard’s latest K-pop 100 chart, ousting IU‘s Celebrity, which had held the top spot for seven straight weeks. Brave Entertainment had to move cautiously and see if the sudden success was fleeting. On March 14, 2021, the group took home their first-ever music show win.  

South Korean service members make up a solid portion of the Brave Girls fandom, in a country where all men between the ages of 18 and 28 are mandated to serve in the military for 18 to 21 months. The girl group has staged more than 100 performances at South Korean military camps, despite the remote locations and low profits. Seeing how successful the girls were with Rollin and their summer 2021 comeback Summer Queen and the Chi Mat Ba Ram, plus the re-released We Ride made the guys who served in the military in the late 2010s nostalgic and proud of the group, as they felt that they were part of their struggles. The group went on to participate in the second season of the reality show Queendom while having two more releases, After We Ride and Thank You

But as of the moment, Brave Entertainment is in hot waters once again as the fans are thinking the company (unlike Bana Culture in our EXID discussion earlier) has not been successful in stretching the girls’ proverbial 15 minutes of fame. Brave Girls’ 2022 activities have been tepid, with the groups’ ranking on Queendom 2 lackluster (they almost always came last) and the group’s concert plans in Korea shelved, which further irritated the fans when the group’s US tour made up of nine shows in July 2022 pushed through. There’s still no news of the group’s activities in 2023, which has sparked protests among Korean Fearless (the group’s fandom). It is quite upsetting when these things happen, yes? Just when the group has finally achieved a clear breakthrough, the company may have messed things up.

With a lot of fourth-gen groups, particularly girl groups like Le Sserafim, Ive, StayC, and NewJeans not even breaking a sweat to achieve instant success, it can be argued that we may not see a lot of stories similar to Infinite, EXID, Brave Girls, and NU’EST in the near future. But then, as long as we have a steady number of K-pop groups being introduced to the public every single day, there will always be room for more quirky idol group success stories, yes?

Featured Image: NU’EST Official Twitter