Video saved the K-pop stars: After years of struggle, Brave Girls find success via YouTube

  • A compilation of the group performing on army bases went viral, helping their song reach number one in South Korea - four years after its release
  • More than 50 new K-pop groups launch every year, but many of them never make waves
Agence France-Presse |

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Less than a month after a compilation of Brave Girls performing on South Korean army bases went viral, one of their songs reached number one in South Korea and topped the Billboard K-pop 100 in the US four years after it was originally released. Photo: AFP

K-pop group The Brave Girls were losing courage earlier this year, on the verge of abandoning their dreams after years of going nowhere.

Then a YouTuber called Viditor uploaded a compilation of them performing on South Korean army bases - and saved their careers.

“Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ rollin’/I am waiting for you/Babe just only you,” they chant, as people in uniforms dance and wave glow-sticks.

It went viral and struck chords across the country.

Less than a month later, the song reached number one in South Korea and topped the Billboard K-pop 100 in the US, four years after it was originally released - with their popularity reinforced by their story of struggle against the odds.

The fan-led ascent is a reversal of the usual K-pop model, where bands are usually assembled, trained intensively and launched by record companies, whose marketing and promotion is crucial to their success.

“At the start of the year, I thought it was time for us to end it,” lead singer Kim Min-young said.

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“Reaction to our songs had always been cold ... It seemed like no one wanted to see us on stage,” she said tearfully.

The Brave Girls started out as a five-piece a decade ago, but fell largely on deaf ears. They were relaunched as a septet in 2016, but the reshuffle did nothing to boost their popularity.

Their five singles and two mini-albums were misses rather than hits, and departures over the next few years brought them down to four members.

They were reduced to performing on army bases, the South Korean equivalent of a daytime appearance on a side stage at a music festival.

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“Our members all felt the emotional burden,” said Kim, 30. “I wasn’t brave enough to give up on my career or start something new. And I thought if I left, it would be the end of Brave Girls. So I wanted to keep the team together till the end.”

But their tour of duty proved to be the making of them.

South Korea requires all able-bodied men to serve in uniform to defend it against the nuclear-armed North, a period when they are often dispatched to remote places and deprived of the joys of modern life.

The story of Brave Girls’ struggle only serves to reinforce their recent surge in popularity. Photo: AFP

The common experiences unifies people from all different walks of life, and Viditor’s compilation - complete with witty captions such as “Play this song during battles and we will definitely win wars” - resonated with those who had seen them in the military.

The clip amassed around 15 million views in little more than a month.

“Viditor, you have rediscovered the Brave Girls,” wrote one poster. “You are nothing short of the commander of South Korea’s 600,000 soldiers.”

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The uploader - who said she wanted to remain anonymous to maintain her privacy - said she was astonished by the reaction.

She has put together hundreds of compilations of other bands’ tracks but never before had similar impact.

“I thought I could make an entertaining video with soldiers’ hilarious reactions and funny comments,” she said by email.

“But I never saw this coming. I am still in disbelief over what has happened.”

Brave Girls members (L to R) Hong Eun-ji, Kim Min-young, Nam Yu-jeong and Lee Yu-na speak with a staff member during rehearsal for a Youtube-livestreamed commercial event at a studio in Gwacheon, south of Seoul. Photo: AFP

Many K-pop groups are launched every year, but most acts disappear quickly.

Exposure on major television stations has long been a must-have for aspiring K-pop idols. But cultural commentator Jung Ho-jai said the raunchy moves in the original “Rollin’” video were too risque for the networks.

They were left with little choice but to take any gigs, however remote and badly paid.

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But once Viditor posted her video, he said, “somehow YouTube algorithms saw potential in the clip and began displaying it to a wider audience.

“It has proved how important YouTube has become as a media platform.”

K-pop firms are increasingly turning to social media sites like YouTube, TikTok and Facebook to develop their bands’ fanbases.

“Well over 50 new groups tap into the market every year but less than half appear on major TV stations,” Kim Jin-hyung, chief executive of Wuzo Entertainment, said.

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“In order for idols to survive, we have to target online platforms that meet the demands of fans.”

But for the Brave Girls, it was an amateur poster who made the difference.

Member Lee Yu-na said: “Something very miraculous and inexplicable has happened to us.”

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