Whither the Mandopop group?
Gone are the kind of debuts that Taiwanese boy bands such as F4 and girl groups such as S.H.E once enjoyed, with massive crowds turning up to see them and buy their albums across Asia. Mandopop groups these days are facing an uphill task in making their mark in the music industry.
Snazzier South Korean pop exports and a slump in the Taiwan music industry have led to a squeeze for wannabe Mando-popsters - especially if you are not a solo singer and counting on safety in numbers in a packaged act to appeal collectively to fans.
Due to poor physical album sales and digital downloads, most Mandopop record lables now are finding it tougher to invest in grooming new groups, says Mr Colin Goh, co-founder and managing director of home-grown record label Ocean Butterflies Music.
Successful acts making it beyond the shores of Taiwan in recent years have largely been solo singers, such as piano-plonking singer-songwriter Yen-J and powerhouse singer Jia Jia.
For instance, Yen-J played to a 10,000-strong full house in the Taipei Arena in July, and went on a world tour that included a stop in Singapore in January.
Singer William Liao, who is part of Taiwanese boyband Lollipop@F, made his group debut alongside three members in 2010. They were formerly from six-man boyband Lollipop.
He and some bandmates re-grouped and underwent 200 days of intensive training in 2010 before relaunching as Lollipop@F.
Liao, 28, says much has to be invested in the visual packaging, which includes outfits, of a pop group. "That's why I've noticed that record labels these days tend to promote solo singers, balladeers," he adds.
That disparity boils down to simple maths: grooming and managing a multi-member act costs significantly more compared with that of an individual artist - and the returns no longer justify the cost.
The sagging Taiwanese economy has meant shrinking investment in its local entertainment industry says Nanyang Technological University Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, whose research interest covers popular music in Asia.
According to an article discussing the state of the Taiwanese music industry, published in Taiwan's CommonWealth economic-political magazine in March, out of the more than 300 venture capital firms in Taiwan, "fewer than 10 per cent" have put funds into cultural and creative industries in the past five years.
The soft-power of pop often co-relates to the harder economic power of a nation. In recent years, Mandopop has had to contend with the unstoppable force of K-pop, as South Korea rose in influence as an electronics and manufacturing giant.
A significant blow to Mandopop has been the rapid ascendancy and dominance of K-pop machinery, says Dr Liew.
The impressive K-pop machinery churns out "highly regimented boy and girl groups", he adds, "distinguished by their sophisticatedly manicured and stylised presentations" and "unprecedented synchronised dance choreographies".
In other words, K-pop stars who sing and dance like perfect-looking automatons.
Thus, Mandopop groups have had to deal with a shift in consumer preference towards "all things Korean in the music industry", says Mr James Kang, artists and repertoire director of Warner Music.
The value of the South Korean recorded music market increased from US$148.5 million in 2008 to US$195.8 million in 2011, according to data on the website of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), which represents the recording industry worldwide.
By 2012, it was the 11th largest recorded music market, up from 33 in 2005.
Even Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan is jumping on the bandwagon and launched his own K-pop boyband JJCC in March.
The quintet, made up of four Korean members and an Australian Chinese member, have performed their debut single, At First, on South Korea's top music variety shows M! Countdown and Inkigayo.
Warner Music's Mr Kang estimates that top Korean companies typically invest three to five times more than what Mandopop labels sink into their acts.
With most K-pop groups trained and marketed for the global stage - girl group Wonder Girls have tried to crack the United States market, and Gangnam Style mega-star Psy has just released his single Hangover featuring American rapper Snoop Dogg - Korean entertainment companies allocate more resources in hopes of reaping larger profits once the act makes it internationally.
A representative from mega-artist agency SM Entertainment revealed in 2011 on a variety show, reported K-pop news site allkpop, that it cost US$2.5 million (S$3.1 million) to train each member in girl group Girls' Generation before the nonet's 2007 debut.
The influx of Korean acts makes it inevitable that the newer Mandopop groups will be measured against their Korean counterparts because they have the same target audience, says Ms Liu Xin Hui, promotions manager at record label HIM International, which counts girl groups S.H.E and Popu Lady in its stable.
Aspiring K-pop stars undergo intensive dancing, singing and even language lessons for three to five years. For instance, the nine members of A-list girl group Girls' Generation each trained for three to seven years.
In contrast, Taiwanese Mandopop groups typically train for one or two years before their debuts.
Ocean Butterflies' Mr Goh says: "Training for the Mandopop groups will not take such a long period. Companies launch the group as soon as possible when they have found the ideal members to form the group."
For instance, Taiwanese female quintet Popu Lady reportedly underwent training for a year before making their debut in 2012.
To win back market share, industry experts say Mandopop groups could train as rigorously as the Korean groups to hone their showmanship.
"Although the Taiwanese had tried to meet the K-pop challenge by following its styles with groups such as Super 7, it is evident that they lack the training and energy of their Korean competitors," says Dr Liew. Super 7 call themselves the Taiwanese version of Girls' Generation and even wore outfits that were blatant copies of Girl Generation's costumes.
Similarly, Warner Music's Mr Kang says that Mandopop groups would "have to build themselves up to a high standard" before they make their debuts: "This includes years of training and having an 'international' sense in terms of packaging and marketing."
However, he feels that a bigger problem is that Mandopop groups need to find their own niche, instead of "copying K-Pop groups in terms of music and style".
A blatant ripoff of the K-pop style is a no-no, judging from the negative reception to Taiwanese girl group Super 7: Netizens have set up an anti- Super 7 Facebook page and blasted the group for trying to copy Girls' Generation.
Keeping the scene fresh by investing in new acts would be another way to go, says Dr Liew: "I think Mandopop should learn from K-pop to place greater emphasis and investment on new stars at an earlier age, rather than continuously cash in on the veterans."
Lollipop@F's Fabien Yang, 28, feels that substandard Mandopop groups that bank on weird selling points to get famous will only give the Koreans an edge in the music market.
Though he did not mention names, he said in Mandarin: "There have been a number of such Mandopop groups that have come on the scene. It could be the lack of budget, or something is wrong with their sense, or their choice of songs. This will only give the Koreans a chance to say that this is the standard of Mandopop groups."
Another way is for Mandopop groups to tap into the K-pop craze by collaborating with Korean stars, says HIM's Ms Liu.
She cited Taiwanese boyband Fahrenheit member Aaron Yan's duet with Korean singer G.NA, on the track 1/2, which is the opening theme for the Taiwanese drama Fall In Love With Me and was released last month.
Not all is bleak for Mandopop groups, though.
They have the advantage of knowing the language to access a vast Chinese-speaking market, and are able to connect with such fans directly, without needing translators - although some K-pop groups are getting around this by recruiting ethnic Chinese members or singing Chinese songs.
"K-pop music still has the language barrier in the Chinese market, and this is something where Mandopop group has the advantage," says Mr Goh.
Although the K-pop wave has been nothing short of phenomenal, Dr Liew points out that its "regional presence stretches less than two decades"; in comparison, Mandopop has been around for close to a century.
"One is not sure when the Korean wave would ebb and join J-pop," adds Dr Liew, referring to the wane of made-in-Japan pop acts, which enjoyed regional popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.
"The Korean wave is a fad, and the fervour around it will pass one day," says Ms Liu.
"Mandopop will always be there. We just have to wait for the right time for it to make its comeback."
TAIWANESE MANDOPOP GROUPS
Who: Selina Jen and Ella Chen, both 32, and Hebe Tien, 31
Debut Year: 2001
The female trio is Taiwan's heavenly girl group. It is a befitting title seeing how they are still on top of their game after 13 years, despite competition from younger, more nubile female groups.
Their latest and 13th album, Blossomy (2012), made it to the top 10 albums, in terms of sales in Taiwan, with 46,000 copies.
The group has weathered periods of uncertainty, such as Jen's serious injuries and long recovery period after suffering third-degree burns in a filming accident in Shanghai in October 2010, but remained together.
Their appeal has likewise remained intact even after two members went from fun-loving Miss to respectable Mrs: Chen tied the knot with Malaysian businessman Alvin Lai, 36, in 2012 and Jen with 41-year-old lawyer Richard Chang in 2011.
The bachelorette Hebe has found success in her well-received solo singing career and released three solo albums To Hebe (2010), My Love (2011) and Insignificance (2013).
Her latest album Insignificance (2013) has peaked at the No. 1 spot on Taiwan's authoritative G-Music album charts.
Who: Female quintet made up of Ting Hsuan, 24, Hung Shih, 26, Da Yuan, 24, Bao Er, 24, and Liu Yu-shan, 22
Debut Year: 2012
Avid followers of Taiwanese entertainment scene will find the Popu Lady girls familiar, as most have prior showbiz experience.
Most notably, Da Yuan made her debut on popular Taiwanese talk show University in 2010, and has acted in movies such as Bad Girls (2012) and The Fierce Wife Final Episode (2012) as well as in TV drama Onsen Beauty (2013).
All five members have doe eyes, sweet faces and long tresses. They even put out a 68-page photo book that accompanied their first EP, Keep Keep Loving (2012) - the EP-book package made the Top 10 best-selling charts in Taiwan when it hit stores.
However, netizens have commented that the girls are a far cry in terms of singing prowess from their record label seniors S.H.E.
Who: Tia Li, 29, Puff Kuo, 25, and Emily Song, 31
Debut Year: 2011 As the all-girl trio’s name suggests, they are the stuff of nerdy boys’ dreams. One of the members, the doll-like Tia Li, has earned the title of “goddess for otaku” (a Japanese nickname for geeks, usually obsessed with anime and manga).
The group have Korean connections: Song is Korean and started out modelling in her home country before moving to Taiwan to try her luck; and Taiwanese model-turned-singer Kuo played pretend wife to K-pop’s Super Junior member Kim Hee Chul on the celebrity marriage reality show We Got Married in April.
Who: Modi (Chiu Yi-cheng), 23, Prince (Chiu Sheng-yi), 25, and LilJay (Liao Yeun-chieh), 27
Debut Year: 2011 This boyband is made up of former members of other boybands.
LilJay and Prince were formerly from boyband Lollipop, which split in 2009 (the remaining members became Lollipop@F). The youngest member, Modi, was from boyband Choc7; he is also Prince’s younger brother.
The group have released two albums Moonwalk (2011) and 365 (2012).