“Mystic89 isn’t an agency that represents idols, or indie music. But I think it turned out, as the agency can portray both.” Or so Park Jiyoon said in a 2013 interview with Soompi. Her observation is not wholly without merit. Founded in 2001 by Yoon Jong-shin, MYSTIC89 does seem to be a hybrid of indie label, Pastel Music and that of a more conventional idol producing entertainment agency with an eye on fitting into mainstream trends. Not that any of those under the MYSTIC89 roster fit very snugly into the idol label, nor are any of them marketed as if they would. Unlike idols who usually tailor themselves to a prepackaged image, MYSTIC89 marketing approach is the reverse. Instead of images their singers are marketed based on their own unique selling points, be it the timbre of their voice, their lyrical or composing style, or all of the above.
Uniqueness is a relative term though and MYSTIC89 naturally has its own idea about what is ‘unique’ and what type of uniqueness they look for when signing a singer. Ideally, it is something that is not too strange, frightening, or dark, and ideally there is an angle to it that engenders it with mainstream appeal. For those whose unique selling points are not quite as amenable to mass appeal as others, there is a small allowance for flexibility. For these special cases it is merely a matter of striking a balance between their ‘uniqueness’ and what appeals to a general audience predicated on a cost-benefit calculus. In this model costs — things that would detract from mainstream acceptability — are permissible as long as they are not so high that they offset too much of the gains.
In practice this balancing act looks a lot like Puer Kim, who debuted under MYSTIC89 earlier this year. Before joining MYSTIC89 she was an indie singer, whose style ran contrary to what was popular in the mainstream. Her lyrics were strange and often dark, her visuals unsettling, and sometimes surreal, and her videos of the sort of low-tech aesthetic for which indie rookie idols have often been written off for by audiences. For example, the music video for her song, “it’s hard to be the daughter of a woman loved by god,” is a poorly lit black and white video that includes a scene where Puer Kim, dressed in a low-cut black dress, stands in front of a table and cuts the rind off a melon melon with a knife.
This is the sort of style that any other entertainment agency would have gutted for her major debut, but not MYSTIC89 who have made it a point of retaining Puer Kim’s personal color, sometimes even literally as with her latest mini album, Purifier. The teaser for the album is modeled after the fruit-cutting scene, albeit with the necessary alterations to bring it more inline with recent trends. In comparison to the video, the teaser is of a higher quality, better lit, and in color, although there is still the shot of Puer Kim standing in front of a table, cutting a melon.
Of course, these changes to the aesthetic rob the teaser of what made the original video so strange and unsettling. But those characteristics do not have a place in a production that is meant to appeal to appeal to mainstream audiences. Again, it can be weird, but not too weird, or as in the case of Puer Kim’s debut single, “Manyo Maash,” dark, but not too dark — certainly not dark enough that it includes a critique of two of the biggest entertainment agencies. Indeed, even the potential subversiveness of her latest single, “Bank,” the video for which could be interpreted as a critique of any system that runs contrary to the platitude, “People are more valuable than money” that appears in the video, has been effectively neutered. In the absence of any marketing providing a clue or an idea as to how the vide should be interpreted, k-pop news sites defaulted to the easiest and most obvious interpretation. To them, it is all about fiscal responsibility, which Puer Kim happens to be very serious about. And who is to say that they are wrong? It certainly will not be MYSTIC89, since to introducing a conflicting interpretation would be much too costly.
In hindsight, MYSTIC89 was never going to be the entertainment agency that indulged her potential ‘anti-idolness' for much the same reason. Darker concepts are a hard sell when it is idol groups doing them, and for a singer like Puer Kim, who would not even benefit from the cover of ‘idolness,’ she would have been doomed to niche status. Once branded 'niche' her options would be limited. She could press on and release music for a limited audience, with limited financial returns or sacrifice her artistry and become more appealing to mainstream audiences. There is that third option though, the one employed by MYSTIC89 that is newer, riskier, and far from ideal: do both.