Article by Molokwu Dayan
The entertainment industry of South Korea is quite unique from the rest of the world’s, one special yet major aspect is the Korean pop music famously known as Kpop. It is a structured almost cartel-like system that creates idols from aspiring individuals desiring to be artists, with the leaders in the form of CEOs whose rings would be their entertainment companies wherein these individuals unwittingly playing pawns/ merchandise are transformed. An idol is to be worshipped, fawned over and acts as a carrier of the devotees’ expectations and desire and wholesomely perfection embodied in a figure. Humans are of course imperfect creatures and helplessly flawed so how do they transcend from this plane to deity status? This is achieved through a grueling process called “Training” originating from Japan and adopted by this side of South Korea’s pop music makers.
This is an extensive and intensive process that spans physical and language training. Trainees may enter an agency through auditions or scouting. Once recruited are given accommodation and classes not limited to singing, dancing, rapping, foreign languages such as Mandarin, English, Japanese while they prepare for debut. They are also taught attitude management and skills to deal with the media. Young trainers sometimes attend school at the same time. It is important to note that there is no age limit to becoming a trainee and no limit to the duration one can spend as a trainee. Several outsiders and commentries have called it “robotic”, “extreme” system of artist management. Popularized by Lee Sooman, founder of SM entertainment called it a culture technology.
KOREA’S SOCIETAL ETHICS AS THE ROOT OF THIS SYSTEM
CEO Kim Young-min of SM ent. defends the system arguing that individuals trained within the system are no different from typical middle/high school kids who go to after school programs to cram for collegeentran exams”. With this analogy, one might agree with the argument but Korea is also very notable for its extremely high standard of education so much that preteens, teenagers and young adults make up the large number of suicide cases in the country, this correlation shows how faulty the system is inherently. Therefore, connecting it back to the earlier statement, it shows the mindset of runners of this system towards the trainees, “only the strongest will survive” no matter your dedication. It already shows the system as being not a nurturing ground but an elimination system in and of itself. I cannot critique this system without rightfully acknowledging South Korea’s rugged history and struggle-filled path to the independent republic it is today. I believe the ancestors who shed blood, their tears and sweat from their effort passed it on to future generations well and it can be easily discerned in every industry that makes up the country. Despite Kpop being an industry for artists primarily that are dreamers and should naturally be the most impractical type of people, harsh realities and survival tactics are the order of business. Well, I guess it can still be considered an artist’s impractical heart that spurs every trainee toiling to debut despite the great odds the industry sets them up for.
DOES TRAINING EQUATE SUCCESS OF THESE IDOLS?
The average period of training is 3years and the agency is responsible for all expenses during this period, it is an investment amount to 3million USD for one trainee. According to CEO Kim Young-min, it includes “facilities, equipments, costumes, virtually everything the trainees need”. For an investment that costly, I imagine such agency will go to great lengths to ensure their success. By success they expect a 100% return from the debuted artists/group. It is a known practice that groups do not earn their wages but are kept on allowances while whatever sales/concerts/appearances the group earns goes to the agency’s pockets. Bear in mind these are human beings whose every action is targeted to minimize costs and maximize profits, to achieve this absolute control must be in place coupled with exhaustive type of activities that would push any human to their limits because human beings cannot play the role of inanimate raw materials used in any production process but the debts they unwittingly incurred during their training periods of varying lengths make them trudge through what should be the fulfilment of their dreams. In my opinion, this is not success. Going with the general criteria for success after years of toiling, they eventually begin to see the earnings in their pockets and the agency begins to let go of the leash in little ways like sponsoring their solo careers, getting them brand endorsements which the majority of the earning go to the artist…
Park Kyung(BLOCK B) said once, “There are many people who debuted with no sense of self yet, and they come to realize later that every move and every word they say is being observed so they become cautious and lose their freedom”.
This realization has to encompass the loss they must feel about their childhood, teen years (depends on when the training starts) and how deprived they must feel. It was not until recently (this latter part of 2019) that agencies decided to give mental health a bigger focus that artists like Seungcheol(SEVENTEEN), Kang Daniel were given leave due to their mental state of health. Jung Taekwoon(VIXX) recently opened up to fans that he was diagnosed of panic disorder, depression, HyunA also opened up about her struggles.. This discussion was acknowledged after the loss of industry greats like Kim Jonghyun(SHINee) who lost his battle with depression and committed suicide in 2017, of course some would say it’s the curse of being a celebrity, I strongly disagree!
A certain agency would give journals to trainees and timeout period where there must fill the journal with a breakdown of why they are at fault and deserved to be scolded and or punished…..oh the way any sense of self must have been eroded, how confidence and self-esteem issues must have blossomed and twined their hearts with thorns that would bog down the periods of their supposed success when the rat race to debuted must have ended. If a training period of getting complete control over an individual’s self just to ensure your pockets are lined exists, this blowup of suicides of idols should really not be a surprise.
The training does not correlate with the success of idols. The agency should be ready to handle the problems that comes with self expression, artistry and just human behavior if they want to make profit off people’s music careers. That is the true mettle of any music label/agency.
MOLOKWU DAYAN is a phenomenal writer. She is an Economics Undergraduate student who hopes to be a pivotal catalyst for change in South Korea and a Singer/Songwriter. Her interests are in books, art, music, foreign cultures(south Korea). Check out her YouTube channel here!