The History of Kpop, Chapter 10: The Downside of the Debut

Excerpts from
The History, Development, and Future of Kpop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt


Last week in “The History of Kpop,” we talked about how Kpop groups are trained and organized, and the logic behind their formation.

Training is one thing, but debuting is entirely another. Companies experiment with different combinations in order to find just the right alchemy of talent and personality to form a group. The members can’t be so alike that they are indistinguishable from one another, but also need to fit a uniform image; something that unites them into a cohesive and easily recognized whole. Eventually, the group is assembled and set to debut, and begins practicing exclusively with the set members.

According to most statistics, only about one in ten of the trainees actually get the chance to debut. The rest are relegated to destroyed dreams and a ruined academic career, having spent all of their studying time learning to sing and dance. Staff warn the children not to get attached to one another because they may not get to debut together, but regardless, heartbreak ensues as best friends are too often ripped apart when one debuts and the other is cut.

In fact, in an interview on the talk show “Big Brothers,” in 2011, Seohyun of Girls’ Generation told a story about her best friend who was also a trainee at SM Entertainment when they were younger. In the story about her friend, Seohyun says:

“She was training to be in Girls’ Generation with us, so for five years, she slept, ate, and practiced with us. For five years we had the same dream and we had no doubt that we were going to be in the same group. For five years we worked hard together as trainees, and after our showcase we were convinced that we were going to be in the same group. But people at our agency always told us, ‘Don’t get too close to each other.’ I thought, why are they saying that? They told us, ‘What if you aren’t in the same group? You shouldn’t be too close to each other.’ I thought, that’s not going to happen. We’re definitely going to be in the same group. We have the same dream.  But after our showcase, the members who were going to debut were chosen. I looked at the list of names, and my friend’s name should have been there, but it wasn’t. Rather than being happy that I was debuting, I was so sorry to my friend that I couldn’t even talk to her. After the decision was announced I couldn’t even look at my friend’s face. I was preparing to debut and she was still a trainee. Since I still had to go to the practice room, I would see her. I couldn’t even look her in the eyes because I was so sorry. One day, my friend grabbed my hand and took me to the bathroom. She looked at me and started to cry, and we cried together. We didn’t say anything, but we knew how the other was feeling, so we kept crying while holding hands. Honestly, we cried like that for several weeks.”

As one can see from this interview, the training system is brutal. It pits friends against friends and forces young children to think of each other as competitors rather than as peers that they could grow close to, share their experiences and their problems with, and find comfort in. However, after all of the hours spent dancing in a small studio, all of the sleepless nights rehearsing for showcases, and after all of the heartbreak of seeing your friends cut from the academy, the few trainees who debut are given the opportunity of a lifetime – they become idols.

Because entertainment companies put massive amounts of effort, time, and resources towards making their trainees into idols, they make sure to protect their investments, not just through ensuring that they have the talent to make it in the industry, but also that each trainee is obedient to the company itself. Thus, trainees are forced to sign airtight contracts upon their debut. SM Entertainment used to be notorious for having their artists sign contracts that bound them to the company for 13 years, and according to most rumors at the time, paid the idols only fractions of what they actually earned and forced them to attend all events and performances required of them by the company without hesitation, failure to do so resulting in a fine for that artist.

SM Entertainment has received much criticism for these policies, and has actually been sued by artists from three very prominent male groups (TVXQ!, Super Junior, and EXO). The phrase “slave contract” became associated with big-name labels, forcing most entertainment companies to make their artist contracts a bit more equitable. Despite these newly adopted slightly more artist-friendly contracts, lawsuits by artists against their agencies continue to be a very real threat, as seen most recently with Kris’ departure from EXO.

In the entertainment companies’ defense, the amount of investment that they make in each individual trainee is not insignificant. The company discovers each trainee, trains them, grooms them, produces their music, manages them, provides transportation, and even houses the trainees that are foreigners or that live too far from Seoul to commute. The financial risk that these entertainment companies take on by providing 20+ trainees with long-term, specialized skill and education is huge. Furthermore, it must be taken into consideration that SM did this not just for their future idols, but also for those nine out of every ten trainees that eventually get cut. This means that entertainment companies’ investments total millions of dollars per group, and they thus expect the group, once debuted, to earn that money back.

In addition to these contracts, idols are expected to stay out of trouble post-debut. They are not supposed to go to clubs, drink, or date, the former two of which were often punishable by law considering most idols are underage when they debut. These restrictions are placed on idols in accordance with the public’s idealized image of their idols as innocent, respectful, and talented young men and women, who parents would want as son- or daughter-in-laws and children and teenagers would want as a role model older brother or sister. Failure to conform to these expectations can potentially result, as we previously saw in Hyun Jinyoung’s marijuana scandal, in the downfall of the artist.

To idols, staying out of trouble means more than not getting drunk in public or getting caught on a date though. It means being the perfect human that everyone perceives them to be at all times. In fact, Isak of former SM Entertainment duo Isak ‘N’ Jiyeon replied without hesitation when asked what the hardest part about being a K-pop star was, saying:

The image. Pop stars from different parts of the world can be themselves with an understanding from fans, but Kpop stars constantly have to be conservative, clean-cut, and goody-goody. I know a lot of stars who have suffered from just one slight decision and it’s heartbreaking to see their careers go down the drain.

Because Korea is such a connected society via internet, a written account of one rude interaction at a coffee shop or a drunken picture taken at a club can be uploaded to online communities and go viral with ease. Idols learn quickly to trust no one, because sharing information with the wrong people and trusting them to keep it a secret could mean the swift end of their pop-star careers. The entertainment companies go to great lengths to keep their stars off of the internet when they first debut. In fact, most idols aren’t even allowed to have mobile phones much less social media accounts like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram when they are freshly debuted. They earn these rights only after achieving some level of success, realizing that every word they say and every move that they make has a profound effect on their image, and the gravity of the risk that is thus associated with their careers.

Sadly, the necessary caution of their day-to-day lives and careers, combined with the rigorous training they went through in their youth robs most idols of the normalcy we take for granted each day. The ability to go for a walk with your friends without having your picture taken, being able to arrive at an airport without a security detail, dating, spending time with your family, and even having friends are all opportunities that are limited for idols. As mentioned earlier, the ultra-competitive environment of the star academy systems often keeps trainees from becoming close, and Isak admitted that she tried to be friendly with other trainees, but that she “paid for it” later. Being tied up with training and practice from a young age and then moving into the hectic schedule of an idol later keeps idols from enjoying their adolescence.

One of the more heart-wrenching examples of this was on that same 2011 episode of “Big Brothers” in which Seohyun appeared and talked about her trainee friend. On the show, Taeyeon, the lead singer of Girls’ Generation, was asked if she could pass three of any of her own traits down to her children, what they would be. Her fellow Girls’ Generation members suggested her voice as an obvious answer. After a thoughtful hesitation, Taeyeon replied to everybody’s shock, that she did not want to give her future children her voice. When asked why, she replied, “Because if I give them my voice, they’ll want to become singers. They can’t become singers.

Everyone on the show let the comment slide, but the fact that Taeyeon acknowledged that she would not wish her own life – a life in which she is one of the most famous and admired singers in Asia and and arguably the world – upon her children, says so much about the physical, mental, and emotional trials that idols are put through in order to achieve fame, and the toll that fame takes on them once it is achieved.

Thus concludes our final installment on the production of a Korean idol. Although they struggle individually with the physical trials of training, protecting their images in accordance with the public’s expectations, and with the emotional distance they must maintain from friends and loved ones, they are the nation’s, Asia’s, and now the world’s most beloved celebrities. They earn millions of dollars for their entertainment companies and for themselves, and are given the rare opportunity to pursue their childhood dream as their adult career. However, in the process, they are subjected to a system in which they forfeit their time, their private lives, and their personalities to be molded into a product that their entertainment companies think will achieve maximum revenues from their consumer fans. Within the Korean music industry, they are simply the product created by the in-house entertainment company system, designed and manufactured to create profit. They are powerless not only to their producers, but to the desires of their fans, who constantly hunger for new material and new images of the idols.

In our next few installments of “The History of Kpop,” we will explore exactly how the unique nature of Kpop fans gives them a certain power to alter the products that they consume. Furthermore, we will see how in addition to the entertainment companies and the idols that they produce, the fans themselves play a distinct and important role in the Korean music industry system.




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