Entertainment industries across the world hide dark underbellies. From the starlets of Hollywood’s golden age with tumultuous private lives, Bollywood’s sagas of drama that span generations, to music industry’s legendary 27 club, the highs of creativity, glamour and fame have always had tight leashes. Now that Korean music, or Kpop as is it popularly known, has become a firm fixture our globalized popular culture, attention has turned towards its training grounds.
The business (yes, business) of becoming a Korean music star is not an easy one. Rather, it is a tightly controlled process that begins very early, and is today dominated by three major agencies – SM Entertainment, JYP, and YG. Talented children, whether they be visually appealing, or good singers and dancers, are often scouted during audition or even on the streets, and then quickly enter a binding contact with the agency.
They may then train in all the requisites of Kpop – singing, dancing, and participating in public engagements, etc., for years before they may be manufactured into a unit for their debut. The end product is often amazing – you only have to see some music videos, or the massive inflow of money that Kpop brings to Korea, to know about it. And yes, many of these trainees often put in their hard work and talents voluntarily into this entire boot-campish process, hoping to gain the fame and fortune that can so easily come after debut.
However, that doesn’t make the process any easier. Korean entertainment agencies today control their talents in a way that is reminiscent of the 50s Hollywood – not only are their skills honed, but their image is constructed and their personal life limited. Overworking, harassment, threats and abuse are not uncommon.
TVXQ (Source- Twitter)
Many avid listeners of Korean music today may not know about TVXQ, despite the fact that it was once the most successful Korean boy band, reaching international Asian success of the kind that was a forerunner of what would be achieved later by Big Bang and BTS. In 2009, three members of TVXQ attempted to split from SM Entertainment, claiming that their thirteen year contract had bound them to a company that was uncaring of their opinions, inputs or well-being, conducted activities without their permission and distributed profits unfairly. This is not the first time such a battle has happened.
EXO (Source- Wikipedia)
Boy band EXO continues to be Korea’s shining star, its catchy tunes and attractive members only barely able to keep public attention away from the two suits that were filed by its Chinese members to leave the then 12 member group.
Big Bang (Source- Getty Images)
A certain level of popularity, especially individual reorganization, seems to provide some immunity from an agency’s close grasp. An example of this is YG’s Big Bang, each member of which has had successful solo runs, and continue to be amongst the biggest money makers for their agency. Having endured scandals involving drugs, sex and accidents, the group is an example of how the tables can easily turn once artists establish themselves.
Hyuna and E'Dawn (Source)
This may be all the significant to note when one reads this – in 2018, Hyuna, a massively successful and beloved singer who is amongst the handful of Korean musicians to have a successful solo run, was expelled from her company, which cited ‘trust issues’, after she chose to reveal the fact that she was dating label mate E’Dwan since 2016, after the company denied the allegations. E’Dawn was also subsequently kicked out of Cube, the agency, with both apparently becoming aware of the fact only through the subsequent media reports.
There are always costs to be paid and sacrifices to be made for the sake of success. But nobody can deny the fact that in the case of Kpop, these sacrifices are excessive, and more for the sake of the companies than the ones who do the real work. While it may be the fans who may sometimes cause trouble for artists, such as by overreacting to dating rumours, it is these very fans who may be the first, last and only line of defence that can secure artists better deals.
Growing international focus and news about slave contracts, along with changing fan perception that has caused them to focus not just on the music but on the lives of the artists as well, has led to many positive changes, but there are still many hurdles to cross if further tragedies are to be prevented. The first death anniversary Kim Jong-hyun, who committed suicide at the age of 27 at the height of his career, is a grim reminder of the terrible cost of living in fame, especially when the the backstage is just as demanding and isolating.
By Niharika Rawat