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Korean pop has become extremely popular in the last five years not only in Asia, but worldwide. Annually, Korean artists sell millions of copies of their albums; spectacular concerts reinforce popularity. However, the South Korean entertainment industry has its own dark secrets.
How prestigious is it, in fact, to be an idol in one of the fastest developing Asian counties?
Being a K-pop star is not what teenage fans think it is. And if you are one of those who is ready to throw yourself into the maelstrom of the Korean pop industry, arm yourself, first at all, with patience. Do not deceive yourself that the way up to fame is short and that the red carpet has something in common with the magic carpet of Aladdin. Korean artists have a hard time during their pre-debut, but the light in the tunnel doesn’t show up when they start their real career.
To become a famous star in South Korea you need long, exhausting and, in most of the cases, undeserving training. The so called trainees are young enthusiasts, blinded by the fictional idea of becoming celebrities, believing that life is much easier on stage.
Usually trainees are still students that don’t give up their education because of the training. Besides attending regular classes, they spend at least four hours a day learning music, choreography and even foreign languages like Japanese and English. However, a lot of youngsters prefer to drop out of school in order to devote all of their time and efforts to the dream of becoming K-pop idols. In this case they start a full-time training, which sometimes continues from morning until night.
This way of life lasts differently for everyone. Jo Kwon from the famous boy band Big Bang and Girls Generation’s Sooyoung trained for seven years before their debut. For others, like the female singer G.NA, the training program continued five years. Only a few cases last less than a year, like the Wonder Girls’ Yubin, whose pre-debut lasted only three months.
Entertainment companies invest in their future stars from half a billion to one billion Korean wons, or roughly $500,000 to $1,000,000 USD. Of course, companies quickly retrieve their money and start to earn it back from their just debuted idols.
In the first months after their official debut, new celebrities and their entertainment companies concentrate on increasing the popularity of the idols. They take part in variety of TV shows, give autographs, and do everything to win the hearts of the ordinary people. For all this they receive nothing but fame and love. The wages of the K-pop stars, especially at the beginning of their career, are minimal, but responsibilities and work triple.
In addition, the incessant control that the management companies exercise over the Korean pop artists takes away their freedom as performers. Both the personal life and career of the K-pop celebrities depend on the decisions their representatives make. Often, these decisions can be life changing.
In 2010, three of the five members of the Asia’s most popular boy band Dong Bang Shin Ki (DBSK) began a lawsuit against their management company, SM Entertainment, on the grounds that their 13-year-contract was too strict, giving them no freedom as entertainers and no possibilities for self-success.
“The members did not receive the right treatment even from SM. Without getting any contract fees, the initial contract was that if their album sells more than 500,000 copies, each member will get about 10 million wons during the next album release. If they sell less than 500,000 copies of album, they will get nothing,” a representative of the affected boys commented in an interview during the legal proceedings.
Ultimately, the other two members continued to support their management company. However, DBSK was officially disbanded.
In July 2012, the members of the famous girl band T-ara were also engaged in a scandal. When their management company, Core Contents Media, officially terminated the contract of one of the singers, Hwayong, some of the Korean fans speculated that that Hwayoung was tormented by the rest of the girls. However, their management company denied these hearsays.
“I would like to say that the rumors surrounding T-ara concerning bullying are not true…T-ara’s teamwork is what is most important and after listening to the opinions of 19 staff members who are having a hard time because of the members, we have decided to terminate Hwayoung’s contract,” Kim Kwangsoo, the CEO of Core Content s Media, declared in an interview.
“If there is a member who makes the image of the group bad or only is in the group for the fame, it is necessary to change out members of the group. In order to keep T-ara’s future bright, we must always take precautions,” he added.
Korean performers enjoy exceptional popularity in Asia and overseas. While in their home country fans prefer to download music for free, in Japan K-pop artists make huge profits from selling their albums. Bernie Cho, the head of DFSB Kollective, a Korean music distribution company, declared that “a lot of top idols make more money for a week in Japan than they do for a year in South Korea.” However, international concerts are the main source of money for the Korean artists and their management companies.
In 2011, $3.8 billion were added to the Korean treasury just from entertainment, which is around 14% more than in 2010. As the K-pop industry gathers speed, the price of fame should not be underestimated.
Imag Courtesy of USAG-Humphreys