One month ago, something strange happened in the K-pop world: A girl group surprise-released their first music video on YouTube with zero hype, news or previously released information.
Surprise releases aren’t new to the global music industry, with most artists preferring later announcements to hype up album streams nowadays, but NewJeans created something remarkable in the larger context of their unexpected and unorthodox release in the K-pop industry, where expert planning and precise rollouts are cornerstones of the business. Korean companies utilize a proven method of announcing albums, releasing pre-order information, and teasing material from the album photo shoots, videos and songs before revealing everything all on release day to maximize immediate impact across the charts and the public. Only rarely will K-pop have a slow burn to slowly inch their way up the charts. New acts need to garner as much awareness ahead of their debut as possible to create any potential fanbase to support the initial investment a label has put into the artist.
NewJeans as five fresh faces dropping their music onto YouTube with no announcement was a risky-but-ultimately invigorating industry moment. Led by one of the scene’s most established creatives, the gamble is slowly but surely paying off.
NewJeans was helmed under ADOR, a newly created subsidiary under the HYBE Labels umbrella that includes BIGHIT Music (home to BTS and TOMORROW X TOGETHER), PLEDIS Entertainment (SEVENTEEN and fromis_9), KOZ Entertainment (Zico), BELIFT Lab (ENHYPEN) and SOURCE Music (LE SSERAFIM). The new label is under the direction of Min Hee Jin, HYBE’s current chief branding officer, who became famous for her work as the creative director under Korean super-label SM Entertainment, shaping top K-pop acts like Girls’ Generation, EXO and Red Velvet. In 2019, Min joined to help rebrand BIGHIT Entertainment into its larger corporation HYBE and was named CEO of her newly created label ADOR, standing for “All Doors, One Room.”
While envisioning game-changing new K-pop acts wasn’t a foreign task for Min, shifting how a label could shake the status-quo system became her challenge. “I wanted to create a label with a brand-new look that did things never seen in the K-pop scene before,” Min tells Billboard in this exclusive interview. “The kind of music I’m going for is something that hasn’t really been attempted in the K-pop scene, so an independent label was essential to push ahead with this.”
The members of NewJeans — Minji, Hanni, Danielle, Haerin and Hyein — see Min’s vision and meet her as part of forgoing the typical rules of the industry. “I thought to myself it would be cool to release them without any teasers,” Hyein, the group’s youngest at 14, says. “And I was surprised when I heard CEO Min’s explanation because she actually had the same idea!” Haerin, 16, adds, “When CEO Min explained that we wouldn’t have teasers, my initial thought was, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun.’”
Listeners have been enjoying the ride and more are joining as time goes by. After unveiling music videos for new songs “Attention,” “Hype Boy” and the sparse a cappella-based b-side “Hurt,” NewJeans released the full, four-track EP titled NWJNS on Aug. 1 worldwide. Initially, only “Attention” and “Hype Boy” entered the Global 200 chart at Nos. 82 and 116, respectively. But as time went on, both songs rose on the chart. “Attention,” with a sound inspired by ’90s R&B that would make SWV smile, also topped the Korean charts, while the uplifting future-bass rush of “Hype Boy” became a trend to dance to among fellow K-pop stars. “It’s been really fun watching other people do our songs and I keep checking because I’m really curious!” Danielle, the 17-year-old Australian-Korean, says.
The NWJNS EP as a whole began catching on too and hit its best position yet on World Albums this week at No. 11 after six weeks on the chart. In Korea, the EP hit No. 1 and broke sales records for a new group once it was put up for sale following the surprise release. NewJeans have since teamed up with Geffen Records, joining fellow HYBE artists BTS, SEVENTEEN and LE SSERAFIM at the Universal Music Group label.
Despite concern around NewJeans’ young age and what some see as suggestive lyrics in their music (a label representative pointed to a response in Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo when Billboard asked for comment), it’s clear that CEO Min, ADOR and NewJeans are blazing a path that feels remarkably fresh for an industry that’s big on creativity in its art but more conservative in its overall business practices. Read on for exclusive reflections from Min Hee Jin and the NewJeans members.
CEO Min, after a successful career at SM Entertainment, what made you want to join HYBE?
Min Hee Jin: You might not have expected it because I worked as a creative director at SM, but I long dreamed of making an album with the kind of music I want — a final product with the music I had in mind — and that’s why I wanted to create my own label. So I chose to join them because I thought It would be the fastest path toward establishing ADOR.
There were reports you were working on a group that would be in collaboration with BIGHIT and SOURCE Music. Why was it important for you to have your own label in ADOR?
Min: When I received the offer to work together before ADOR was ever formed, I thought it over carefully. Realistically, there would have been a number of different challenges involved, so I decided to focus on ADOR as originally planned. I had this vision of the ideal label for a long time while working in the industry: A label that puts out all kinds of radically different music! And I wanted to create a label with a brand-new look that did things never seen in the K-pop scene before. The kind of music I’m going for is something that hasn’t really been attempted in the K-pop scene, so an independent label was essential to push ahead with this. ADOR is an open door into the world of Min Hee Jin, the producer. The name ADOR, [standing for] “All Doors One Room,” represents my dreams and determination in that regard.
What went into NewJeans’ unorthodox debut in releasing the music and music videos ahead of the album release as well as having three singles? Did you have discussions about the strategy with HYBE?
Min: ADOR is a label that started with guaranteed autonomy, so it has no ties with HYBE’s management. They actually didn’t have any knowledge about anything we were going to release up until the first music video was released on July 22. [Laughs.] That was a strategy we used to put all the focus purely on their music, since the buzz around “Min Hee Jin’s girl group” was already so high. That’s how confident I was in the four tracks on the EP, which is also the reason why we decided to have three lead singles. I’ve always felt that it’s such a pity how it’s the lead singles that get all the attention.
Most important of all, there were reasons for selecting the songs I did and the way I ordered them on the EP, so it was important for all the tracks to stand out equally in order to showcase NewJeans’ true colors properly. I thought that having more singles than non-single tracks would make everyone curious what our plan was and make them want to listen more. That way, they’d be more curious about that lone non-single track, right? [Laughs.]
I loved that the music videos were filmed overseas with a diverse cast. Was it important to you to show this?
Min: Diversity is also a consideration, of course. Plus, everything was riding on secrecy for the surprise debut. I had planned NewJeans’ EP as a surprise party for the world, and surprise parties are only fun when you can keep them secret, so we wanted to film somewhere remote where we could be anonymous—so much so that we even kept our company and the group’s name secret while filming with the local crew. And Spain, where we filmed, is a very multicultural place where everyone lives together in harmony and it worked perfectly with the video, I think. I thought we could capture a beautiful place that could almost be in any country in the world.
I was really moved by the “HANNI Version” of the “Hype Boy” music video as I felt a subtle nod or recognition towards androgynous and non-binary people, or even the LGBTQ+ community with the “crush” in the video at the end. Have I understood it correctly?
Min: I’m really happy to hear that you were moved. The focal point of the music videos from NewJeans’ first EP is relationships between one person and another rather than simply focusing on those between girls and boys. The male character portrayed in the music video for “Attention” represents “something new” entering the members’ lives. The message is to cherish the relationships we form with others in day-to-day life, even when we’re separately experiencing the exciting unfamiliarity of facing “something new.” In “Hype Boy,” the chemistry of these relationships was episodic and revealed in different ways. In particular, I wanted to convey the message that there is beauty and virtue in loving and embracing each person’s individuality, rather than making assumptions about people using prejudices and stereotypes. It is often said that first love never lasts. And everyone has memories from their childhood that only they could fully appreciate and that they hold close to their heart. But it’s from those experiences that we grow and mature into adults. I wanted to depict situations that everyone eventually faces to show a positive perspective on the universal values that people strive for.
What does it mean to you, and the industry, that a label’s first-ever group with a “surprise” debut has been able to break records and top the charts with its singles?
Min: I find it significant that we’re able to give hope and assure people that it’s okay to try something new. We tend to stick with what’s stable because we fear failure, but nothing interesting ever happens if you just stick with what’s stable. If we’re ever going to make the world a little more interesting, we have to try new things and adopt an attitude of being more open and accepting about it. I always talk with the members of NewJeans. We’re ready to take on this adventure together, and I hope that all the new things we’re working on fill people’s lives with a lot more fun!
NewJeans, congratulations on such a successful debut! All four of your songs are making big impacts. What were your initial reactions to the music?
MINJI: The first time I heard them, I was instantly hooked. There’s a line in our song “Hype Boy” that goes, “Got me chasing a daydream,” and the song really did make me feel like I was in a dream when I heard it. So, of course, I fell in love right away when I first heard it.
HANNI: When we first heard “Attention,” it really left a strong impression! I just loved the energetic and hip vibe it has! The remaining songs really had a very new style that we hadn’t heard in K-pop, especially from a girl group. The fact that we are now able to call them our songs is very special and makes me feel very proud of the new color we introduced as a team through our debut!
DANIELLE, you co-wrote lyrics on “Attention,” and HANNI co-wrote lyrics on “Hype Boy.” Talk
to me about how this came about and what the process was like for you both?
HANNI: That was a task from CEO Min, as she wanted to see how we would interpret the songs and also wanted to use our lyrics in the songs as well! Lucky enough, Danielle’s lyrics got selected, and so did mine! When I first heard “Hype Boy,” it really reminded me of when Alice falls into the rabbit hole and it looks like the objects around her are moving in slow motion with the sound of the clock ticking. It felt like that, if I had to explain visually. So I kind of wanted the lyrics to portray time being out of my control. That’s why I wrote “got me chasing a daydream.”
DANIELLE: I’ve always been interested in writing lyrics and composition. Ever since I was little, I loved writing down my thoughts and feelings in a way that sounds good, which is how I tried writing lyrics for “Attention,” too. This is our first album, so CEO Min gave us plenty of opportunities to participate, including to try writing lyrics! It was an opportunity for us to think for ourselves, learn, and unleash our creativity. I’m so thankful I was given the honor of participating in the process.
How was the recording process for these songs?
MINJI: It was so fun. We all watched each other throughout the whole recording process and got a better sense of what makes one another’s vocals unique. It was an opportunity for each of us to learn more about ourselves, too. I was so proud of the way we kept working on our shortcomings to end up with what we did.
HAERIN: There were four tracks to record, and while recording them, I thought a lot about how to sing so that the listener would feel at ease but still find the songs catchy. We all learned a lot watching each other record and hearing all those details made me think about how best to approach each song.
Can you share a bit more about your musical and K-pop backgrounds?
MINJI: To be honest, I was just an ordinary student who really loved K-pop and other music. I really liked listening to music, but I wasn’t confident enough to sing and I had never danced. I joined the label completely by chance and I think I fell in love with music even more after learning a wider variety of music and culture at ADOR. And that’s the experience that led to all us members meeting and debuting as NewJeans.
HANNI: I’ve also been very involved in music and took part in a lot of extracurricular activities before I came to Korea! I took dance lessons for a few years and my mom taught me and my sister to sing when we were younger. She would bring us into the bathroom—because of the good echo!—and then she’d play a song for me to sing and would try to teach me to sing like the artist. I remember the first song she ever taught us was “All at Once” by Whitney Houston, an absolute gem of a song, Her voice and the song just radiate together.
How has working with CEO Min been? Did you know her creative work prior to joining the label?
MINJI: I knew all about CEO Min’s work and loved what she made, but I had no idea she was so closely involved with their direction. I wanted to know all about her before meeting her for the first time and that’s when I found out. I was so surprised! Working with CEO Min was beyond what I ever imagined. She can take anything we dream up and make it real.
HANNI: I knew about CEO Min through Plus Global Auditions and her previous work she did at SM, and just being able to work alongside her is amazing! I feel very valued as a person and she always emphasizes the importance of our opinions. Having the opportunity to train and debut under her wing and ADOR is something I couldn’t have ever dreamed of! The creative freedom she gives us is very uplifting and really helps us as a group to think carefully about how we should practice and represent ourselves the way we want to. She is always unconditionally supportive and loving towards us, and really is like my mom who lives in Korea!
I’d like you to introduce your group and members in your own words.
MINJI: All five of us are friends and they’re all precious to me. I feel like I can have a conversation with HANNI by just looking at her eyes. She’s always caring for the people around her and considerate towards them. DANIELLE’s bright smile just warms my heart and at times she is like an older sister you can learn things from. HAERIN is the most honest person in the world, so I feel like she’s someone I can trust and lean on. She’s really thoughtful, too. Everything about HYEIN is amazing. She says she doesn’t see it, but that’s actually one of the best things about her. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.
HAERIN: All five members have their own characteristics that make them special, but what first comes to mind is how good DANIELLE is at embodying emotions when she sings. She has the power to draw the listener in with her ability to express intricate emotions through the lyrics of any song.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with international fans?
HANNI: Thank you thank you so much for all the love and support you’ve given us since our debut! Because we just debuted recently, we’ve been focusing on promoting and performing in Korea, but I promise you that, whenever the opportunity comes, we are going to catch a plane and head over to you all! Words can’t explain the amount of joy and gratitude we have for our fans all around the world. I hope that you can continue to listen and enjoy our music for a long time.
HAERIN: Thank you for supporting our music, our performances, and everything we do. I’m really happy to see that our music transcends language and cultural barriers. We’ll keep working on better and better music and performances and I hope we can continue this journey together!