Perhaps one of the most creative launches of a girl group in the history of K-pop, LOONA excited fans and even casual K-pop listeners. Maybe you’ve heard the name, or maybe for the thousandth time, you saw a tweet or YouTube comment that said the words “STAN LOONA” –  it is somewhat inevitable that you would have already encountered the group that have been regarded as one of the most exciting and “up-and-coming” K-pop groups.

And that’s where the problem with LOONA is. The group has been around since 2016, which means they are already in their sixth year. So, for them to already have completed close to six years in the Korean music scene and still be regarded as an “up-and-coming” group like eternal rookies is alarming. Moreover, despite the enormous hype and cult following among international fans, they’re almost an unknown group in Korea. Ask any normal Korean on the street and chances are, they don’t know who LOONA is.

Introduction to Loonaverse

All the way back to March of 2016, a company was formed by the name of BlockBerry Creative with the objective of creating “the most unique girl group.” How are they exactly going to do that? By revealing a girl as part of the group every single month through a solo debut. This pattern would then continue until all 12 girls are introduced and would then debut as a full group. 

In October of 2016, HeeJin, the first girl was revealed along with a solo single and solo album. From October to February 2017, HyunJin, HaSeul, YeoJin, and ViVi all debuted in a similar manner. A sub-unit was formed, called “1/3”. From May to July, JinSoul, KimLip, and Choerry all had solo debuts and formed a subunit called “Odd Eye Circle”. From November to March of 2018, Yves, Chuu, GoWon, and finally, the last girl of the puzzle, Olivia Hye (who holds the record of being a trainee for one day before debuting) had solo debuts, and we’re in the final subunit, “yyxy” (pronounced y y ‘by’ y). In the span of 2.5 years, LOONA has produced 62 songs, 32 of which have music videos. 

As for the amount of money spent, BlockBerry Creative gambled an insane USD 8,900,000. This is not really that shocking as the Ilkwang Group, the umbrella organization where BlockBerry Creative is included, has deep pockets. How deep, you ask? The company provides and manufactures arms and steel for different militaries. As in, they are players in the international military-armed forces game. So, budgets aren’t really a huge concern for the group. 

Even the concept of LOONA is unique and one of the most exciting things to have ever come out of K-pop. You see, LOONA is not just a girl group, but they’re all protagonists in a sci-fi universe known as the LOONAVERSE, which has been revealed in all of the girls’ music videos.

With each MV, we follow a central plot or story that is advanced through each sequential music video. Much like the way each Avenger had his or her own movie but also appears together in those extravaganza MCU blockbusters. To understand the LOONAVERSE easily, think of its similarities with the Bible. There’s the creation, their exile from paradise, and finally their union as twelve with their debut single, Hi High

So, what went wrong? 

Asking because the members are obviously talented and hardworking, the concepts are exciting and attention-grabbing, and there are definitely no problems when it comes to funding. So, why has mainstream popularity continued to evade LOONA through their five years as an active group? 

A couple of factors emerge. For one, after all the excitement that the twelve songs and twelve music videos brought from 2016 to 2018 brought us, we got Hi High. Now here’s some real talk: Hi High was so underwhelming. This was supposed to be the first song that has all twelve members in a song, a culmination of the exciting concepts in each of the girl’s solo releases. And we were given a music video with the twelve girls in bright sceneries, running together. That’s it. The song and video just weren’t the highly-anticipated spectacle everybody was hoping for.

If we’re looking for a music video that went all-out in both the song and concept, look no further than WJSN’s Secret, the first song and MV the group had with then-fresh-out-of-IOI Yeonjung in tow. From the amazing mystical concepts that truly embody the Cosmic Girls to the vocal ad-libs the new member provides, fans were just excited. Unfortunately, the LOONAVERSE concept, with all its mystery and sci-fi elements, was not reflected in the way it deserves in the Hi High music video.  

Another factor that continues to plague LOONA to this day is the lack of a fitting marketing campaign for the group. Alas, as mentioned earlier, budget is not a problem at all for BlockBerry Creative. But then, this is really where the breadth of experience among the Big 3 companies comes in. They just know how to market their groups well, giving them substantial opportunities so that they can really get into public consciousness and become household names. So, even if money is out of the question, the marketing arms of these entertainment agencies need to point out which opportunities, whether through reality shows, variety show appearances, or even viral videos,  can maximize the group’s popularity. 

So then, since 2018, LOONA has amassed a very loyal international following while still keeping a low (at almost nugu levels) profile in their native Korea. By 2020, the group has attained steady sales figures with their albums, although their singles have not charted high locally.

In 2020, they released two EPs, [#] and [12:00], with album sales of 83,000+ and 113,000+, respectively. That’s a load of albums considering they only released their first EP as a full 12-member group a couple of years prior to 2020. This also shows that they do have a large fanbase that is ready to buy their albums anytime. But since those albums can be bought even from overseas, their lack of presence in the singles charts does show that they have an unstable Korean fanbase who can stream their songs on Korean music websites like crazy. 

Financial woes

The group finally won its first music show trophy in 2020.  So, I guess that LOONA is already far from being a nugu group, but at the same time is also still far from being a household name in the level of Girl’s Generation, Apink, TWICE, or even (G)-IDLE. Thus, it was quite a surprise when talks of LOONA’s disbandment started surfacing all across social media and the Internet. Manic and obsessive Orbits, most of whom are overseas fans, rang alarms as news items of financial woes being experienced by BlockBerry Creative caught everyone off-guard. 

BlockBerry Creative, a subsidiary of Polaris Group, suddenly in financial turmoil? (A little background: Polaris Group was formerly a subsidiary of arms-trade company Ilgwang Group; They are now a subsidiary of Levite United, which was founded by Lee Jong-myung, whose father is Ilgwang Group’s founder.) Where did these rumors of financial woes begin? Is there even truth to this? Apparently, the company had some issues with their payroll and leave it to employees not getting their salary on time to complain on social media in no time. Those who were affected by it weren’t exactly those directly hired by the company, but ”external” employees like choreographers, consultants, and other companies they have contracts with. These parties have not gotten paid for months, culminating in some of them to finally voicing their complaints on social media in late September of 2021.

With the company’s other payables such as taxes, IOUs, and insurances, the company had to come up with KRW 900 million (equivalent to USD 760,000) fast. It came to a point where these companies were asked by BlockBerry Creative to halt all work. The company eventually released a statement saying they are trying their best to honor all their obligations, while fans were terrified of how this challenge faced by the company would affect LOONA’s future comebacks. 

Alas, speculations subsided when the group released Not Friends, a song featuring them but is actually included from Ryan Jhun’s “Maxis By Ryan Jhun” project. This means that the song, although it had Kim Lip listed as one of its composers, was not released by BlockBerry Creative. The song, which actually only featured JinSoul, HeeJin, KimLip, and Yves, may have been a contributing factor to the album’s success, as it did chart both in the Gaon Album Chart and the Billboard US World Digital Songs Chart (as with all LOONA singles).  And although it may not have proven that BlockBerry Creative is indeed out of the woods when it comes to their financial woes, the release may have been effective in placating the Orbit fandom, at the very least assuring them that the group has not disbanded yet, given the sorry state of their record label.

What is happening now?

This brings us to the group’s current situation. Most members have been quite active in most of their activities (except Chuu who had to beg off from their Loonaverse concert in February due to health concerns) and on social media, posting frequently on VLive for updates. To the delight of the Orbits, LOONA was also announced as part of the official lineup for the second season of Mnet’s highly successful Queendom. The show has proven to be part blessing, part curse to its participants as a few groups really reaped the rewards of their participation with heightened profiles (OH MY GIRL, Mamamoo, and (G)-IDLE), while some practically had Queendom as their sort of swan song before disintegrating or fading off into the sunset (AOA and Lovelyz), while some groups really just used to show the fans that they were still active despite lineup changes (as in the cases of iKON and BtoB in their participation in Kingdom, the male group equivalent). 

As for LOONA’s chances of winning the entire thing, I would say they are quite high. The group undoubtedly has the largest fandom out of all the participating acts and ultimately, fanbase size plays a big role in voting the winner of the competition. But then again, if the voting public would be objective (this is a very unlikely scenario since we’re talking about an Mnet competition) and base their votes on the performance levels and discography of the participants, it is most likely that the Cosmic Girls, VIVIZ (should they be allowed to use the GFriend catalog), and even Hyolyn (who may pull a surprise if she relies heavily on the SISTAR catalog) will trump the competition. But if LOONA plays its cards right, then maybe Queendom will usher in the real era of LOONA

Featured Image: Official Loona Twitter