Prior to last month, I knew next to nothing about K-pop (Korean popular music) besides having heard a few songs in passing and the rumors of the industry’s infamous elements, most notably a string of high profile suicides over the last few years. As an American with no connection to music or South Korean culture, I wondered if I was getting an accurate picture of the industry or if I was being misled by the most lurid and morbid elements eagerly conveyed by the media.
So I decided to do a deep dive down the internet rabbit hole of K-pop to understand what it is, how it works, and what I think about it. For anything that’s not my personal opinion or that goes beyond basic historical knowledge, I’ll cite my sources, which are a mixture of news articles, academic articles, YouTube videos, and some content aggregators like Wikipedia and Statista. I welcome any corrections or criticisms on inaccurate sources or things I didn’t understand.
I’ll warn you upfront – this essay is over 30,000 words long. It is the largest post I have made on dormin.org besides my novel. Since I sympathize with anyone who doesn’t want to make such a large time investment into a subject of passing curiosity, I will present my key findings here divided between the five parts of the essay. If you’re not sure if you want to read everything, you can jump to any individual part and understand it without reading the other sections.
- “K-pop” is both a genre of music and an entire industry which “manufacturers” performers and their performance output (music, dance routines, shows, merchandise, etc.) in a highly systematized top-down manner
- The global popularity of K-pop is extraordinary considering the relatively small population of South Korea, and the relatively small size of K-pop production companies
- K-pop’s industrial/corporate structure represents a Korean (and East-Asian) cultural alternative to Western pop and broader music production
- K-pop stars and bands are manufactured and controlled by production companies in the same manner Western athletes are trained and traded by sports teams.
- K-pop stars are crafted into idealized portrays of individuals by East Asian cultural standards
- K-pop fandom is both more intense on average than Western fandom, and has a larger percentage of unhealthily obsessive fans
- K-pop fandom is based on a parasocial relationship between fans and stars
- K-pop stars are forced to abide by extremely restrictive behavioral norms to appease production companies and fans
- Trying to become a K-pop star is a terrible idea by any rational cost-benefit analysis
- The process by which production companies train K-pop stars is abusive and depends on the ignorance of children/teenagers and clueless and/or malicious parents
- Even after making it through the extraordinarily difficult audition and training process, the vast majority of K-pop stars will have short careers and earn little or possibly no money
- K-pop is an extremely centralized, hierarchical industry, where structural, business, and creative decisions are almost entirely made by corporate management, rather than the performers
- Raw creativity in the music production process is largely outsourced to Westerners who write, produce, and choreograph the music
- The K-pop industry is subsidized and supported by the South Korean government, if not implicitly or explicitly directed, as a conscious form of soft power projection and social control.
As you can tell, I came away from my research with a negative view of K-pop. I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world, but I find its fandom to be unhealthy and its production process to be exploitative. That being said, there are undoubtedly many tremendous talents in the K-pop world and the cultural power of K-pop is remarkable. I’ll give my summarized thoughts on K-pop as a whole at the conclusion of the essay.
Part 1 – The Basics
What is K-pop?
“K-pop” refers to a genre of music and the industry which creates it. Both are based out of South Korea and particularly Seoul.
What is K-pop music?
K-pop is an offshoot of 90s Western pop with heavy influences from synthetics and hip hop. Lyrics are mostly Korean, but with English words and sometimes other languages thrown in. K-pop is usually sung by mono-gendered bands with members aged from their mid-teens to late 20s. Such bands typically resemble the structure and appearance of American boy bands from the 90s and 2000s (ie. NSYNC). As a representative K-pop sample, check out “DNA” by BTS:
Properly understood, “K-pop music” is inseparable from “K-pop performance.” The music itself is one component of a larger presentation which includes dance choreography, music videos, fashion, and the personas of bands and individual band members. Though these elements are also present in Western music, they are far more important to K-pop music. K-pop fandom is considered the appreciation of all these aspects as an integrated whole.
What are the Origins of K-pop?
The Western influence on Korean music began in the 1940s with the American occupation of much of the Korean peninsula after its liberation from Imperial Japan. With the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950s, further American presence was added, with over 300,000 US troops at the peak. After the war, the American military stayed at dozens of bases throughout South Korea as a permanent fixture of the country. Over the decades, these soldiers imported American culture and media, including American music. Presently, there are still 20,000 US soldiers in South Korea.
The early Western musical influence in South Korea was based on folk and hippie music in the 60s and 70s, and then evolved into sappy ballads in the 80s. These genres merged with traditional Korean music to form a small, localized music industry. Creative expansion was restrained by the South Korean government’s censorship and restrictions on movement in and out of the country. In the 1970s, the government banned American rock music and Korean offshoots for their connotations with drug use. Until 1983, South Korean citizens were banned from traveling abroad for tourism, and the last restrictions weren’t lifted until 1988 (year of the Seoul Summer Olympics).
Korean music had a revolution in the early 1990s with the three-member band, Seo Taiji and the Boys. Founded in 1992, the Boys debuted on a South Korean television talent show and received the lowest ratings of the night. Unexpectedly, their premiere song was a huge hit and launched the band to fame. The Boys soon became the first successful Korean rap group and redefined the Korean music industry. Leader Seo Taiji was a rare experimenter in a country still emerging from isolation and relative cultural stagnancy. Prior to forming the Boys, he had been part of an indie heavy metal band.
Through their music, style, and appearance, Seo Taiji and the Boys inadvertently became the first K-Pop band. While their music was more hip hop-based, the Boys pioneered the mixture of Western pop and hip hop presented with intense, highly-choreographed dance routines within a refined aesthetic theme. For a sample, see here:
Seo Taiji and the Boys disbanded in 1996. But by the end of its short career, mimicking boy bands had sprung up throughout South Korea. These bands were picked up by a new wave of music production companies which would become the basis of the K-pop industry. They looked to Japan and its well established “J-pop” industry as a template for the sustained production of popular musical talent. Thus, while the Boys were independent, experimental, and subversive, the bands created in their wake were more institutionalized, sanitized, and formed by top-down design.
How Big is K-pop?
In 2017, the entire K-pop industry produced $5 billion in revenue. For the closest American comparison I can find – in 2019, American record labels earned $8.7 billion in revenue. Unfortunately, I can’t find numbers for total music industry revenue in the US, so this isn’t quite a fair comparison. The two might be difficult to compare due to diverging industry structures; for instance, in South Korea, $1.2 billion of its 2017 revenues came from karaoke sales, only $250 million less than its digital music sales
Nevertheless, considering that South Korea has less than 1/6th the US population and 1/14th the GDP, that’s pretty damn impressive.
Also of note, in 2019, South Korea was the 6th largest music market in the world, ahead of China and behind France. In 2017, South Korea exported $513 million worth of music and imported only $14 million worth, which is an extremely strong indicator of the country’s preference for K-pop over Western pop.
BTS (AKA Bangtan Boys) is the most popular K-pop band in the world today and ever. According to the 2019 IFPI Global Music Report, BTS was the 7th most listened to artist in the world, and had the 3rd most popular album globally. Despite Spotify not streaming in South Korea, BTS was its second most popular artist in 2019.
Perhaps more relevantly, a 2017 Hyundai Research Institute report claimed that BTS alone was worth $3.6 billion to the South Korean economy annually when accounting for adjacent economic activity and tourism. Supposedly 1/13th of all tourists to South Korea in 2017 came because of BTS. A 2019 report from Hollywood Reporter brought the figure up $4.65 billion.
How Big is K-pop in America?
I can’t find firm figures, but the general consensus is that K-pop has been blowing up in the US since at least 2017, with articles about the genre’s American explosion popping up in the New York Times NPR the Guardian etc. From 2015 to 2019, demand for K-pop concert tickets increased 1,900% in the US. This growth seems to be largely thanks to BTS, which is about 5X more popular than Blackpink, the second most popular K-pop band in America.
However, I came across an interesting Digital Music News article from June 2018 which convincingly made the case that K-pop’s popularity in America is overstated by rabid fans and media hype. It points out that all K-pop songs which hit the Top 100 Billboard charts plummet the week after arrival, and tend to exit entirely within a few weeks. Furthermore, though the Top 100 Billboard Charts are often used as indicators of popularity by the media, they’re actually an outdated proxy since they rely on physical album sales. Physical sales have been plummeting in the West for a decade, but as confirmed by other sources, South Korea still has unusually high physical sales, with its raw numbers somehow increasing threefold from 2014-2018. Assuming American K-pop fans even somewhat follow this trend, it’s likely that K-pop’s success metrics are being artificially boosted.
Granted, K-pop has continued to gain in popularity since then, with 2019 producing the industry’s highest international sales ever. So my guess is that the Digital Music News article is right that K-pop popularity in the US is overstated by the media, but K-pop is still a rapidly growing musical niche.
Part 2 – The Product
As mentioned, I am not a music-person. I’ve barely played instruments, I don’t know how to read music, I don’t have the slightest sense of how to make music, and I suspect I’m tone-deaf. So I’m not going to dive into the nuances of K-pop music, its influences, its styles, etc. Likewise, I know little about the crucial choreography and fashion components of K-pop.
What interests me more about K-pop is its unique fusion of Western commercialism with Korean (or broadly East Asian) cultural values.
From the West, K-pop gets its music genres, most of its dancing and fashion, and the idea of corporate committees algorithmically crafting superstimuli to capture mass-appeal. For better or worse, all the things you associate with Western pop are more extreme in K-pop. South Korea took American pop music and cranked it up to 11. K-pop is super pop. Uber pop. Ultimate pop. It’s the closest thing to the Josie and the Pussycats movie in real life.
But past the hyper-Western-pop surface, K-pop is an extremely Asian cultural artifact with its emphasis on being ultra-refined, artificial, and presenting an impossible idealization of humanity. And the process by which K-pop is produced is far more centralized and hierarchically controlled than Western music.
I’m going to run through what I consider to be the most important parts of the K-pop product and do my best to summarize how they work and integrate into a greater whole.
K-pop stars are known as “idols,” as derived from J-pop’s Japanese idols. Since the beginning of K-pop 25 years ago, there have been about 1900 idols spread across 370 groups and some number of solo careers.
Idols are conceptually different than Western musical stars. Wikipedia describes them as a “type of entertainer whose image is manufactured to cultivate a dedicated consumer fan following.” Idols are more than singers, dancers, or even all-purpose performers, they’re personas – a combination of performance, appearance, and personality which combine to create a character.
These characters are manufactured from the ground-up by production companies. Idols enter the K-pop system as trainees with little-to-no performance experience in their teens or early 20s. They spend an average of 3-5 years training within production company facilities while doing no public performances. The idol debuts to the public in his/her late teens or early 20s as a fully-formed product, though some idols debut in their teenage years, including a few as young as 12. The artificiality of this process appears to be a feature, not a bug. The singing, dancing, impossibly good-looking uber-humans who emerge from training are meant to be consummate entertainers whose entire lives are performances.
Idols represent fantasies of idealized people from an East Asian cultural perspective. The prototypical idol is young, attractive, perfectly groomed, effete if a boy, petite if a girl, heterosexual, supremely talented, a great singer, a great dancer, a charismatic presence on stage, has impossible anime hair that changes every week, has flawless skin, wears striking clothes, has an air of mystique yet is relatable, and is romantically single.
Of course, nobody on earth actually embodies all those traits. To achieve at least a public presentation of such an ideal, idols are subjected to extraordinarily strict controls over their appearance, lifestyle, and behavior. Somewhere between many and most idols are prohibited either formally by contract or informally by company rules from smoking, drinking, doing drugs, clubbing, gaining weight past a mandated level, engaging in political discourse, taking breaks from performance schedules, living anywhere other than in company-owned dorms with their bandmates, fraternizing with idols from other companies, and dating (I’ll go into more detail on all this in Parts 3 and 4).
Even within the bounds of permissible behavior, idols are carefully managed. For instance, an idol’s sex appeal is a balancing act. One of K-pop’s early distinguishing features from J-pop was more overt sexuality in contrast to the Japanese focus on kawaii or cuteness. K-pop stars are supposed to be hot, physically fit, perfectly groomed, and clearly fuckable.
However, there are firm limits on the permitted sexiness of idols. K-pop is meant to appeal to the mass-market, which in South Korea means being family-friendly. One K-pop agent said she recruits girls that are “attractive in a way that’s sexy but wholesome.” In appearance and performance, K-pop stars can be scantily clad, but almost never sexually explicit; songs never mention sex, and only the edgiest of stars might get away with referring to carnal acts by metaphors. In other words, idols should be sexy, but not sexual. So while K-pop stars can gyrate their perfectly toned nubile bodies in short-shorts, they can’t go on stage nearly naked and twerk against a much older man to a song (arguably) about date rape.
Idols are also given assigned personalities by their production companies which vary from amplifications of their natural personalities to whole-cloth inventions. Maybe this is one of those impenetrable cultural things you can’t understand unless you’re inside, or maybe my Googling skills failed me, but try as I might, I haven’t been able to find good descriptions of individual idol personas, or how they differ beyond basic characteristics like “bubbly,” “smiles a lot,” “shy,” “sweet,” etc. The idol personas are some mixture of looks, fashion, musical talent, dancing, training, and personal life details, but I have trouble digging past a shallow layer. For instance, from a Quora question, “Without saying their name, who are your favorite K-pop idols?”:
“This woman is the leader of a 9-member girlgroup. She was among the 2 main vocalists and she is considered a great vocalist. Her voice can comfort broken hearts. She had a solo debut in 2015, but she is among the top soloists in terms of talent and popularity. I ship her with a former member of her group. She is dealing with depression. Rocks every type of hair.”
Though K-pop has international appeal, especially across East Asia, K-pop is still a very South Korean product. Hence, 96% of all idols have been South Korean, with most of the rest being Chinese or Japanese, and a handful being from the United States, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and India, though there are current and former trainees from other countries. Among the few Western trainees, somewhere between many and most are fully or partially ethnically Asian.
This lack of racial and ethnic diversity has been increasingly a news issue in K-pop, I suspect due to the rising importance of the American market. According to a bunch of online articles, even the concept of non-Asian K-pop idols is controversial in South Korea and not broadly accepted. This may be a rare area where the production companies and fans are in opposition, with the companies wanting to diversify idols to tap into new markets and the fans being more conservative.
It’s my sense that the companies have even tried experimenting with diversity to test fan reactions, but haven’t gotten good results. The one high-profile black idol, Kentucky-born Alex Reid, was recruited from acting gigs by DR Entertainment and integrated into BP Rania, an existing group with five members. From Wikipedia: “The unveil received approval from Korean netizens, with many complimenting her appearance; on the other hand, the unveil resulted in a ‘heated debate between hardcore and casual fans of K-pop and hip-hop, points of contention between cultural appropriation, creative licenses, and proper representation.’”
Reid quit the group less than a year after debuting. Fellow members reported that she was isolated by cultural differences and not being able to speak Korean, and critics accused of her of not sufficiently adapting to Korean culture. Reid later stated in an interview that she was subject to bullying, racism, and a generally toxic atmosphere.
Like idols, K-pop bands are conceptually different from Western bands. The closest Western equivalent is a boy band like NSYNC or One Direction, but that doesn’t quite capture the distance.
K-pop bands function more like Western sports teams. The band itself is owned and operated by the music production company, while the members are trained, molded, utilized, and swapped out like players.
Bands are formed during the idol training period by the production companies. Individual idols are assigned to slots in new or existing bands and then made to train and live alongside their bandmates for years. As far as I can tell, the band-placement process is determined almost entirely by marketing strategies, and individual idols are expected to contour to the company’s designs for the band.
Individual band members are assigned overlapping roles in the band to coincide with their idol personas:
- The “leader” is usually older, and operates as the mentor and spokesman for the band.
- The “visuals” are one or more of the most attractive members who take the flashiest positions.
- The “face” is a frontman who represents the band at events.
- The “dance lines” are the best dancers who lead the choreographed dance performances.
- The “vocal lines” are the best singers.
- The “rap lines” do what you’d expect them to do.
- The maknae and hyung/unnie are respectively younger male and female members given junior positions.
- In addition, some band members have specialties outside musical performances, such as acting, modeling, or advertising.
If that seems like a lot of roles, that’s because K-pop bands are typically larger than Western bands. Just from eye-balling pictures of K-pop bands, the smallest ones seem to have at least four-to-six members, while plenty of bands have a dozen or more members. At the highest end, NCT has 21 members.
Then again, the J-pop group, AKB48, has 134 members divided among several teams.
Pictured – 9% of AKB48
Just as idols are designed around personas, bands are designed around unifying aesthetic concepts which inform their music, fashion, dance routines, and constituent personas. Some band concepts include “cute,” “badass,” “coy,” “girl crush,” “funny,” “school uniforms,” “blonde” “party,” athletic,” and “military.” Fashion is especially crucial, with the idols always being publicly seen together with an aesthetic uniform, most notably “street,” “retro,” “sexy,” “black and white,” and “futurism.” As with everything else, these themes are driven by marketing and the band’s popularity with fans, so production companies regularly swap themes or aesthetic pallets as the bands produce new albums.
The process by which a music production company forms, prepares, and launches a band resembles that of a film production company running a movie franchise. After years of preparation behind the scenes, bands debut through televised premieres of their music videos, a practice which originated from the early days of K-pop before widespread use of the internet. These premieres are heavily advertised in advance and set an early benchmark for the band’s success which can incentivize the production company to more aggressively push their marketing, or to reassemble the band’s concept or membership.
K-pop bands spend the bulk of their time training, touring, and producing new music. And as with everything else about K-pop, “producing new music” has a more expansive meaning than in the West.
Production companies are constantly making (designing, writing, etc.) new music for their bands. I’m a little unclear on the process, but I believe after making each new song, the companies give it to a band to record, and then do an internal review to speculate on whether the song will be a hit with fans. This is similar to the standard Western production process of determining which songs become “singles,” but in K-pop, it’s not just the song itself that’s evaluated, but the accompanying proposed choreographed dance, music video, and general performance. Again, the music is just one component of a wider performance.
If the song is approved, then it becomes part of what is extremely confusingly called a “comeback.” A comeback is a single that is marketed, performed live, made into a music video, and integrated into the band’s touring showcase. Most bands will launch a few comebacks per year though less successful bands will languish without any new productions for years. Such bands will typically trade out members or concepts, or will fold entirely.
Production companies shift band membership at will both during training and after debuting. Idols can be removed for underperforming, breaking contracts, or violating implicit rules, though I get the sense that PR departments rarely frame removals these ways. Due to South Korea’s military draft, many male idols will leave their bands for two-year stretches and then come back, though most try to push their military service off until their late 20s to get the most out of their careers. Sometimes idols just retire, though it’s never clear how voluntarily. On the other hand, young idols are commonly added to existing bands to give an opportunity to perform, or sometimes aspiring bands will be folded into existing bands.
The swapping can be extreme enough to turn some bands into near Ships of Theseus. Girl’s Day was founded in 2010 with five members, two of which were swapped out for two other girls the same year, and a third of which was removed two years later. Brave Girls was formed in 2011 with five members, but in 2016, three were removed, and five new members were added. In addition, bands will sometimes have sub-bands which perform different specialized shows (eg. rap-focused, dance-focused, etc.) or in different countries based on the ethnicity of the band members (eg. the Chinese members play in China).
Male idols are prototypically pretty boys or cute. They are boyish, angelic, slim, effete, often metrosexual, impeccably groomed, just as fashionable as the girls, and use make up. All of which can be summarized as androgynous, at least to Western eyes. While the male idols are undoubtedly attractive, they have many distinctly un-manly features by Western standards.
First, East Asian cultures tend to prefer more boyish, effete men as the masculine ideal, which has been called “soft masculinity.” It’s not only more acceptable, but preferred for Korean men to care about their appearance in a metrosexual manner (lots of attention to fashion, hairstyles, make up, etc.). Casual glances at East Asian media, celebrities, and anime shows a prominence of men in their late teens and early 20s who would be considered soft or effeminate compared to Western, testosterone-soaked beefcakes like Ryan Gosling or Channing Tatum. China uses the term “little fresh meat” to describe handsome young men, and South Korea has the similar “flower boy.”
(I find this topic fascinating and it could probably use its own blog post.)
Second, male K-pop idols are designed around the sexual/aesthetic preferences of teenage girls, K-pop’s core audience. I can’t find a decent study on this, but it’s my intuitive sense that teenage girls prefer more effeminate men and then gradually transition to preferring masculine men as they enter their mid-20s and older. Beyond personal anecdotes, I can point to the evolution of male heartthrobs from kids movies to adult movies: consider young Zac Efron and adult Zac Efron. I welcome attempts at evolutionary explanations for this.
Granted, there are partial exceptions to the soft masculine presentation in K-pop. There are some super buff male idols and muscular abs seem to be a common masculine feature of all idols, even the women. Also, while the average weight of a male idol is only 136 pounds, the average height is 5 foot, 10 inches, which is quite tall compared to the South Korean average of 5 foot, 7 inches. Though as far as I can tell, the metrosexual focus on grooming and fashion is universal.
Minho from Shinee
What’s more striking is that K-pop may have literally made South Korean men more effeminate, or at least that’s one way to put the thesis of Sun Jung’s 2010 Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption.
According to Jung, Koreans in the 80s and 90s tended to favor a more traditional Western masculinity, likely informed by the presence of American troops and the Western media. Older men went for a Don Draper power suit-and-tie look in highly ordered South Korean offices, and virtually all younger men were manned up by their mandatory military service. Supposedly East Asian movies and television shows tended to portray Koreans as thugs and rebels.
Then K-pop came along… and now when I Google “South Korean men,” I see:
As opposed to “American men:”
No, Tom Hiddleston isn’t American
Or “British men:”
No, Hugh Jackman isn’t British.
Or “Italian men:”
Or “Arab men:”
Jung attributes this social transition to Korean music production companies attempting to break into foreign markets. The companies sanded off the harder aspects of Korean masculinity and adopted the softer, cuter manliness of China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, and particularly Japan, which has 2.5X South Korea’s population and a much larger consumer base. The result is what he calls a “manufactured versatile masculinity,” though to my eyes it looks like South Korea was simply pulled into predominant East Asian masculinity norms.
While male idols have a wide variety of looks, hairstyles, and at least some variability in physique, female idols have far greater convergence on appearance. Specifically, on the appearance of a conventionally attractive Asian women. This uniformity seems to be achieved through a combination of relative genetic uniformity, selection effect, physical conditioning, and plastic surgery (as described more in Part 4).
Female idols are prototypically cute, bouncy, toned, almost always have long hair, usually have dark hair, and have perfect skin. The faces of female idols tend to have narrow and tall noses, double eyelids, big eyes, small mouths, and sharp chins. The average weight of female idols is 102 pounds, and the average height is just under 5 foot, 5 inches. Needless to say, there are no Nicki Minajs or Megan Thee Stallions, or any thiccness in K-pop, at least by Western standards.
The femininity and sexualization of female idols have attracted a lot of controversy and attention from the media and social scientists. The confusion at the center of it all seems to go back to the sexy but not sexual concept. More so than the male idols, female idols are selected and crafted to generate sex appeal, yet they also lean more into cute, innocent, childish themes.
One Korean studies professor diagnoses K-pop as having a Madonna-whore complex. Others say K-pop’s treatment of women is an even more hardcore form of the Western capitalist’s commodification of female sexuality for profit. Some critics tie this treatment into an Orientalist sense of Asian femininity which emphasizes passivity, submissiveness, and “dollification.” More reasonably, there are concerns about K-pop sexualizing underage girls, or even hinting at Lolita-style titillation.
(As a side-note, the Wikipedia page on “sexualization and sexual exploitation in K-pop” seems super biased towards feminist perspectives.)
My low-confidence take on K-pop feminine sexuality is that it’s… confusing. The gap between sexy and sexual is jarring in its artificiality or even coldness. I think the ambiguity of this paradigm is what allows and promotes so many hot takes as to what is really going on, or what the production companies are really up to, whether that’s rapaciously commoditizing female bodies or covertly catering to middle-aged borderline pedophiles.
Having watched a whole bunch of music videos and looked through promotional photos, there’s definitely something qualitatively different about K-pop feminine sexuality than you get in the West, and it creates an uncomfortable dissidence. I think when I see a woman embracing her sexuality, I expect a confidence and possession over such acts which K-pop purposefully shies away from.
The result is cold and hollow. There’s none of the raw sexuality you get from Beyoncé or Britney Spears’s dancing. There most certainly isn’t any of the personalized sexuality you get from Lana del Rey describing the taste of her vagina or Nicki Minaj rapping about rim jobs. Instead K-pop has women creepily chosen for their looks in their mid-teenage years (or younger), trained to be visually appealing for years, and then presented to the world in hyper-corporatized circumstances to do hyper-choreographed dances which reinforce hyper-manufactured idol personas.
Maybe this is just a reflection of my Western upbringing or personal preferences, but to me, K-pop feminine sexuality misses the soul of sexuality. Like everything else in K-pop, it’s overly-calculated, overly-performative, and under-personalized. And while that formula can generally work to create catchy songs, I find it off-putting when applied to sexuality.
I only listened to tens of hours of K-pop while researching this essay, and again, I know little about music, so take the following as a very basic summary of the music.
K-pop music sounds like a highly saturated version of the poppiest Western pop music. Everything you associate with Western pop songs exists in K-pop, but more so. It’s peppy, upbeat, fast, rhythmic, and simple, and can be aptly described as bubblegum music.
I have to admit that K-pop is catchy. In fact, the more I listened to it, the catchier I found it. This music is a superstimuli after all; it’s algorithmically designed to follow pleasure-response patterns painstakingly uncovered over a half-century of Western pop music production. The people who produce this stuff know what they’re doing, and even though I’m not a K-pop music fan, that doesn’t stop me from nodding along to the beat when a new song comes on.
Aside from the random English phrases thrown into songs, I can’t understand any of the lyrics, but from Googling, most songs seem to be about generically uplifting catchphrases and affirmation of confidence, or sappy romances, which is pretty much the average in the West along the lines of someone like Katy Perry. Occasionally there are some slightly more subversive themes too, like individuality and resistance against South Korean homogeneity and conformity.
More nefariously, due to a combination of marketing goals, government censorship, and possibly conscious societal conditioning (more on that in Part 5), K-pop lyrics strictly stay away from anything remotely controversial, including sex, drugs, politics, religion, social movements, or physical aggression. There are occasional exceptions, but basically most songs can’t be about anything which might offend older, conservative Korean gentlemen.
It’s worth remembering that while K-pop is designed for broad appeal, the core fan base is teenagers. So K-pop music’s maturity in terms of musical complexity and lyrics is probably targeted at the level of High School Musical.
The closest parallel to K-pop in the West is boy/girl bands where a single-gendered group of extremely attractive teenage or early-20-somethings sing very poppy love songs and upbeat jams. But what I find interesting is the difference in consumption patterns of such bands between the West and South Korea.
As far as I can tell, boy bands (and to a lesser degree girl bands) tend to come in trendy waves in the West which quickly peter out. There was the Jackson 5 in the 60s, the New Kids on the Block in 80s, NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys in the 90s, the Jonas Brothers in the 2000s, and then One Direction in the 2010s. The only comparable girl bands I can think of are Destiny’s Child and Spice Girls in the 90s. In all of these cases, the bands came on strong, achieved huge popularity, but broke up after a few years and often received considerable backlash and mockery. I’m sure there were plenty of moderately successful boy and girl bands between those heavy-hitters, but as a casual music fan, I can’t name any others, and I’m guessing they didn’t have a big impact on the music scene, or even the pop music scene.
But in South Korea (and China, Japan, and the rest of East Asia), boy/girl bands have been the dominant pop music force for the last 25 years. While teenagers are the core target demographic for this type of music, as I’ll show in Part 3, about 30% of K-pop fans are in their 20s, and another 30% are over the age of 30.
Why are boy/girl bands so successful in East Asia? I have no idea.
I know even less about dancing than music, but it needs to be mentioned.
Dancing is arguably the single most important performance component of K-pop. On its own, K-pop dancing appears to be hip hop dancing sped up and refined for more poppy sounds, but there’s a lot of marketing alchemy beneath the surface. Every major song release has its own specially choreographed dance which all or part of the band is trained to perform in the music video and live. The dancing is often just as big of a contributor to the song’s success as the actual music. Each dance must simultaneously fit the music, make the idols look good, and show off the idols’ athleticism, while being simple enough for fans to follow along and mimic the moves.
The level of proficiency and the sheer volume of K-pop’s dance output is impressive. As a Vox primer on K-pop points out, the average K-pop band’s dancing blows away the choreographed dance sets from NSYNC and by my untrained eye, they at least rival the dancing of Western superstars like Beyoncé (though a friend of mine says I am completely wrong). The fact that hundreds of K-pop stars are developed to dance at such a high level of execution while also singing and engaging in general performance (as opposed to being a specialized background dancer) is amazing.
But at the same time, watching K-pop dancing gives me that same sense of deep artificiality that everything else in K-pop does. Just as with the music, idol personas, and band aesthetics, there is little-to-no creative design input from the idols themselves; it’s all manufactured and handed down by a team of behind-the-scenes specialists organized by the production companies. Though I’m sure more knowledgeable dance experts would disagree, to my eye, various K-pop dances look as similar as their songs sound.
So as with the music, I see how K-pop dance is catchy, and even more so than the music, I admire the technical skill involved, but I can’t say I’m a fan. It still feels too cold and distant.
Part 3 – The Fans
As with the music and performances, K-pop fandom is Western pop fandom, but more so. The K-pop production process and especially the idol system are designed to produce a stronger bond between fans and stars than we get in the West. This bond can be characterized as the simulation of a personal relationship between a star and a fan via carefully manufactured performances both on and off stage. As a result, compared to Western fandom, K-pop fandom is more personalized, intense, and has a greater tendency to veer into obsession.
Before I dive into the details, I want to throw up a few important caveats:
First, it’s possible that my perception of K-pop fandom is a product of the worst tales of fan obsession being picked up by the Western media for its lurid content. Maybe the average South Korean sees Western fandom’s obsession with the Olsen Twins’s age of consent or Britney Spears’s virginity to be evidence of our bizarre, unhealthy fandom culture.
Second, there is undoubtedly a subsection of Western fandom that has a K-pop-like pseudo-personalized relationship with its targets of adoration.
Third, there are undoubtedly extreme Western fans who go beyond the bounds of healthy fandom into obsessive, creepy, stalker territory, much like the extreme wing of K-pop fandom.
And yet, with those caveats in mind, it’s still my judgement that K-pop fandom is more intense and has more unhealthy elements. I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but that’s my judgement after having read through dozens of forum pages, Reddit threads, Quora answers, and articles on fan adoration of idols.
I couldn’t find any data on the demographics of K-pop listeners as a whole, but there are individual band data sets that a 2019 YouTube video and forum post helpfully gathered. This data can be used as proxies for general K-pop fandom demographics. To start, the two most popular K-pop bands in the world today are BTS and EXO:
Both BTS and EXO are boy bands. Both have a solid majority of female listeners, though EXO skews younger, with two-thirds of its listeners being under 30, while BTS skews older, with 30% of listeners being above 40.
Two of the biggest girlgroups (though not as big as BTS or EXO) are Blackpink and Red Velvet:
The top girlgroups and boygroups look fairly similar. The girlgroups have more gender parity, but still female dominance. Most listeners are under 30, but there’s still a fat tail with a little less than 25% of listeners being over 40. Likewise, there’s a surprising dearth of listeners in their 30s.
However, arguably the biggest girlgroup of all, which sold about half as many albums as BTS, is Twice:
Twice is famous for its popularity in the military and its high number of fanboys. While it’s listeners skew male, there’s still a fairly narrow gender gap. Age distribution is similar to the other top bands.
On the highest end of male dominance is Izone, an up-and-coming 12-member girlgroup:
Worth noting, not only does Izone have the highest male dominance of any K-pop group, but it also skews younger, with only 9% of listeners being above 40.
On the highest end of female dominance is Seventeen, a boy band with thirteen members:
Seventeen’s fans skew even younger than Izone’s, with almost 50% of listeners being under 20. Yet there remains a core of older fans too, with 27% being over 40. So even the most kid-friendly K-pop band has a following among older listeners.
To summarize these results and extrapolate them to K-pop’s general listener demographics:
- Probably around 70% of K-pop fans are female.
- 60-70% of K-pop fans are under 30, roughly split 50/50 between ages 10-19 and 20-29.
- 20-25% of K-pop fans are over 40, though mostly younger than 50.
- Only 10-15%+ of K-pop fans are aged 30-39.
- Male K-pop fans tend to prefer girlgroups.
- Female K-pop fans have no gender preference.
The last two bulletpoints show an interesting divergence from Western trends. According to 2019 data from Spotify (whose userbase is 85-ish% non-Asian), “male users listened to 94.2 percent male artists, 3.3 percent female artists, and 2.5 percent mixed groups. Female listener habits were more diverse, as they listened to 55 percent male artists, 30.8 percent female artists, and 14.2 percent mixed groups.”
Vice claims this disparity is caused by Spotify’s faulty algorithms, but I’m skeptical. The gender alignment matches my experiences and intuitions with myself and people I know. K-pop following the opposite trend is more mysterious to me. Is it just a matter of lusty boys listening to hot girls? But aren’t Western boys lusty too? A friend of mine suggested that in the West, there are gay or effeminate connotations for a man who listens to female artists, and there’s probably something to that, but I don’t know why that’s different in East Asia.
(I tried to do some Googling on the gender breakdown of top musicians in the West, but I found a lot of the research to be heavily ideologically tinged. IMO, a lot of personal judgement comes into play when determining “hits,” “popstars” and especially relative levels of popularity. But for what it’s worth, this is some fairly good hard data showing heavy male dominance: “In an analysis of the top 600 songs from 2012 to 2017 — defined by Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 chart for each of those six years — the study found that of 1,239 performing artists, 22.4 percent of them were women.” From eyeballing “top ten musical earners of the year” charts over the past decade, men tend to be the majority, but women often take the number one spot. So I think it’s safe to say that men do indeed significantly outpace women in representation in popular music production. I couldn’t find comparable data for K-pop bands.)
I found the next few sections especially difficult to write because it’s more qualitative and culturally-contextual, and I very much feel like an outsider looking in, so feel free to tell me I have completely misunderstood K-pop fandom. By my understanding, the average K-pop fan has a more dedicated and intimate relationship with her chosen idol than the average Western pop music fan. And there is almost certainly a higher proportion of super hardcore K-pop fans than Western music fans.
From University of Chicago Professor Jenna Gibson: “The K-Pop industry has very smartly built itself around creating incredibly dedicated fanbases. Fans with enough time on their hands could see their favorite idol on a music show on Monday, a fan sign event on Tuesday, a radio show recording on Wednesday, and on and on… Fan communities also take more personal responsibility for promoting their favorite group and keeping the group’s public image clean.”
For the closest thing to hard metrics on fan intensity, we can look at social media data. The Billboard’s “Social 50” uses data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia to rank fan chatter. As of mid-August 2020, BTS has held the #1 spot for 192 weeks, beating Justin Bieber’s previous record of 163 weeks. Billboard won’t let me look through the charts in detail without paying a subscription fee, but other sources say the top spots are often dominated by K-pop groups.
Big Sound, the company which provides the data for the Social 50, determines fan engagement by plotting interactions with artist pages against the number of artist followers. They find a strikingly consistent trend line among pop stars:
Of the top twenty bands which outcompete the trend, “most” are K-pop bands. And at the very top…
BTS receives 4,000 times more social media mentions than expected given its number of registered fans while EXO receives 14,000 times the number. I have no doubt that BTS, EXO, and the rest of the K-pop bands fare well on these metrics partially because their fans are predominantly teenagers and 20-somethings who spend a lot of time online, but still… the level of fan engagement is astounding.
Numbers are one way to measure intensity, but what about the qualitative aspect?
This is obviously a lot harder to measure, but we can look at social media and forums to start. If I Google “quora favorite K-pop idol,” the first result’s first answer contains almost 1,300 words, 11 pictures, and excerpts like:
“Kwon Ji-Yong is the man I love most in this world. I’ve never had a true father figure in my life. Not one that I would consider a father. There was always an empty void in my heart and when I discovered K-Pop and learned about Ji-Yong, it was like the empty void had been filled.”
“I’ve never met him and I doubt I will but if I ever do, I would tell him how much he means to me and how much he has helped me get through tough times in my life. I want to tell him how much he inspires me and how much respect I have for him. I want him to know that no matter what, I’ll never stop loving him. He’s never stopped loving me, so why should I stop loving him? He means the entire world to me. I don’t want anything from him expect [sic] for him to be happy and content with his life. I want him to live his best life. I want him to be able to love without getting hate for it.”
“Kwon Ji-Yong will forever remain as my favorite person, no matter what happens or who comes into my life. The love I have for him is so strong and so powerful, it’s impossible for anyone to break that apart and come before him. I love him so, so much. I always will.”
“I love him. I absolutely love him. He’s my ultimate favorite person. I have such a high level of respect and love for him, it’s unimaginable. Yes, I have yet to meet him but that doesn’t matter. He’s such an inspirational person and after the things he’s been caught up in, he didn’t quit. He has so much determination in his soul and that won’t ever go away. No one can take his determination, loyalty, braveness, fire, passion, and fierceness away from him. He’s worked so hard and has gotten so far.”
“I don’t look at him as someone who I fell in love with, although I did. I view him as a person who I respect and who has inspired me. He’s such an inspiration to millions of people.”
A passionate fan to say the least. In contrast, when I Google “quora favorite pop star,” the first result’s first answer is… a picture of Michael Jackson.
If I change the search to “quora favorite musician,” the top result is a monster 4,300 word response which mostly reads like:
“Bluetech’s electronic music is transcendent, often taking me to other internal worlds and dimensions, with lush, multi-layered and textured songs that beg to be repeated and re-explored. I can say with certainty that every time I listen to Bluetech, if I’m really paying attention, I will discover something new each time, maybe a bleep or a bloop that I didn’t hear before, or a pattern that perhaps eluded me on previous listens.”
There’s definitely a ton of passion in this response, but it’s overwhelmingly nerdy and abstract.
To access some of those Western emotions, I tried “quora why do you love beyonce,” and found a whole bunch of threads expressing bafflement at her popularity or suggesting she’s overrated, though there were some hardcore fan diatribes in the mix. But with “quora why do you love BTS,” it goes right back to…
“Actually I don’t like BTS, I LOVE THEM. They are the best thing ever happened to me. I love them so much because they are different and unique in their own way, they all have angelic voices which is very soothing to listen to, they all cares for each other and they even cares a lot for their fans. They loves their fans a lot and not to mention they all have amazing visuals which is also a reason why I am attracted to them. They never fails to make me smile,they are my happiness. Their meaningful and deep song lyrics also makes me love them a lot. Whenever I see them happy and smiling, it makes me happy as well and it makes me smile.Whenever I see them sad or crying it breaks my heart and makes me cry as well…”
Why are K-pop fans so intense (on average, with a bigger fat tail, etc.)? Why does K-pop fandom seem so much more personalized than in the West?
I think the reason goes back to the concept of idols and how they are so much more than mere musicians.
K-pop idols are essentially fantasy personas with whom fans are meant to establish simulated personal relationships. For the dedicated K-pop fan, an idol is meant to feel like a presence in one’s life. Less charitably, K-pop idols are designed to be simulacrums of fulfilling emotions, connections, and meaning for a K-pop fan. The particular fantasy/simulation/simulacrum that K-pop idols aim for is somewhere between a friend, romantic partner, and power fantasy.
The general term for this type of illusion is “parasocial relationship.” From Wikipedia:
“A parasocial interaction, an exposure that garners interest in a persona, becomes a parasocial relationship after repeated exposure to the media persona causes the media users to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship, and identification. Positive information learned about the media persona results in increased attraction and the relationship progresses. Parasocial relationships are enhanced due to trust and self-disclosure provided by the media persona. Media users are loyal and feel directly connected to the persona much like their close friends by observing and interpreting their appearance, gestures, voice, conversation, and conduct. Media personas have a significant amount of influence over media users, positive or negative, informing the way that they perceive certain topics or even their purchasing habits.”
In other words, a parasocial relationship isn’t actually an interpersonal relationship in any recognizable sense. It’s a simulacrum of a relationship. It’s a fantasy of a personal connection where there is none.
A key to understanding K-pop fandom is that it is a simulated relationship, and relationships go both ways. Fans don’t just worship their idealized girl/boyfriend from afar, rather they expect to take an active role in managing their idols.
Again from Professor Gibson: “In a perverse way, because fans put in so much effort to promote and publicize a good image of their idol, some of them get the idea that they should have some say over the idol’s actions and personal life.” National University of Singapore Professor Sun Jung describes K-pop fandom as “an assertive bottom-up” process where fans “consider their stars to be subjects whom they keenly manage and systematically guide.”
I find this aspect of K-pop fandom particularly difficult to explain. Many K-pop fans sort of treat their idols like something between a player on a sports team and company stock. They want their idol to become more famous in the same way I want my favorite baseball player to have a good season and I want a stock in my portfolio to go up. Even putting aside any practical value, there’s an inherent joy in making an emotional investment in something and then watching it succeed.
But unlike professional sports and stocks, there are practical ways that fans really can impact an idol’s career. Professor Jung uses the term fancom to describe both formal and informal fan groups which organize efforts to boost their favorite idols or bands.
For instance, fancoms will increase music video or streaming views both by spamming Twitter hashtags with links and by manually rewatching videos over-and-over again. Fancoms run advertising and promotional campaigns on their own dimes, including online and offline marketing, from handing out flyers at music events to paying for digital advertisements. Numerous fancoms have even coughed up enough of their own money to buy billboard advertisements for their idols in Times Square in New York City. Fancoms organize charity drives and give charitable donations in the name of their chosen idols. At times, fancoms have demonstrated astounding organizational power, like when BTS’s fancom, commonly known as “BTS Army,” matched BTS’s $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter organizations in a mere 24 hours (which was a rare foray into politics by both a K-pop band and its fans).
Fancoms have especially found power on social media and Twitter where they’re infamous for spamming promotions for their idols and using their numbers for mob activism. Earlier this year, numerous fancoms aligned to purchase tickets to President Trump’s Tulsa campaign rally to block legitimate buyers and tank his attendance numbers.
A big part of the appeal of these fancoms is the social aspect primarily carried through social media. Fans form relationships, meet friends, and gain followings within the contexts of their fandoms. For heavily-online people, these fandom social circles often eclipse real-life social circles, providing all the comfort and drama a person needs, or at least a simulation of such.
Such dramas can take on a life of their own and come to dominate the fancoms. For instance, In the mid-2000s, popular group TVXQ split into two groups after three of its five members sued their production company for allegedly maintaining an abusive contract. The fancom erupted into a civil war that has lasted 17 years and counting. The original fancom split, with one side organizing a massive petition to pressure the Korean courts into backing the lawsuit, while the other side accused the rebels of greedily breaking the contract for a higher share of the profits. The two sides have been launching advertising and counter-advertising campaigns against each other since the break in an unending war for market dominance.
Another interesting element of K-pop fandom is its granularity. While K-pop bands soak up much of the adoration, individual band members attract the greatest devotion. Not just the superstar leaders, but every single individual band member will have his or her own following.
Keep in mind that K-pop bands are generally larger than Western bands, with many top groups having a dozen or more members. This seems to amplify the competitive element of K-pop – bands compete with each other for general market share while band members compete with each other for prominence in the band. This intra-band competition naturally creates narratives, from the glorious reign of the leader, to the compelling underdog journey of a newer, more marginal member.
Hence, one of K-pop fandom’s biggest innovations is fancams. Basically, a fan will go to a live performance and keep her camera focused on one member of the band the entire time. While the rest of the band performs, the fan only watches her chosen idol’s singing, dancing, expressions, emotions, etc. The fan will then put this fancam online for other fans to enjoy.
All of this plays into the simulacrum. The success or failure of a chosen idol is a matter of pride and fulfillment for the dedicated K-pop fan. Whether a particular fancom effort really does boost an idol’s career is usually nebulous, but nevertheless, the mere effort serves as one side of the simulated relationship, which in turn should be reciprocated by the idol through his performances, social media statements, and other public outreach to fans.
YouTuber D’Angelo Wallace suggests that for a lot of these fans, fandom is the most important thing in their lives. It’s their source of self-esteem, their primary social outlet, and their only real source of meaning. I can’t say that I personally know any teenage South Koreans to verify this, but it wouldn’t surprise me given that South Korea has one of the most online populations in the world. This is a country with a video game addiction epidemic, and 40% of its teenagers spend at least three hours on their smartphones per day, which doesn’t sound that bad, except that South Korean teenagers also spend 12-16 hours per day in classrooms in one of the most grueling and intensive education systems on earth.
(For a great on-the-ground look at South Korea’s education system, check out this.)
It’s not hard for me to imagine a teenage South Korean whose life has been dominated by schooling to the point of having almost no social life, hobbies, or passions, to find purpose in her three daily hours of fancom and Tweeting. It’s not even hard for me to imagine that this simulated relationship with her chosen idol – as expertly designed by distant mega corps – could become one of the most important things in her life.
In case it’s not clear, I have quite a negative outlook on K-pop fandom given its reliance on artificiality and fantasy. But one counterpoint I considered is that there is nothing wrong with fantasy in and of itself. Why is a teenage girl indulging in the fantasy of some sort of relationship with EXO worse than, say… someone indulging in the fantasy of being some sort of mythical warrior in Dark Souls, or clever political operator in Game of Thrones, or a sexual dynamo in online porn? It’s all just fantasy after all.
But I think the K-pop fandom is worse. It’s worse because it blurs fantasy with reality. Most people are (hopefully) never in doubt of what’s real when playing video games, reading a book, or watching porn. But K-pop intentionally obscures those boundaries. It is designed to encourage young, impressionable, immature people to believe in non-existent connections between themselves and idols. In other words, K-pop fandom often leaves the realm of fantasy and becomes delusion.
When K-pop fans fall too far into the delusions, they become…
Sasaeng is a term for an obsessive stalker of a K-pop idol. While Western pop stars have their crazy fans too, the prevalence of stories about sasaeng fans is a good indication of K-pop’s fat tail on the fan craziness distribution. According to a South Korean manager, a given idol will have between 500-1,000 sasaengs, and around 100 stalkers on any given day. In 2016, South Korea instituted a law to criminalize stalking with a penalty of up to a $17,000 fine and two years in prison.
Sasaengs seem to be individuals (primarily 17-22 year old women) who have been so taken by their simulacrums of relationships with idols that they desperately try to convert them into reality. Thus they attempt to access and become part of the private lives of their chosen idols to gain an ever more visceral understanding of them, and in turn, hope that they can somehow spark a genuine connection. As one admitted sasaeng puts it:
“I feel like I get to know more about and get closer to the idol I love. If I go to a concert, there are thousands of people attending, so the idol would not know who I am. But if I become sasaeng, they will recognize me. If I keep telling them, ‘I am so-and-so. I saw you at that place before. I am so-and-so’, they will start to take note of me and ask ‘Did you come again today?’ To sasaeng, being recognized by idols is a good thing.”
Usually sasaengs just stalk their favored idol. They follow them around on the streets, stand outside their dorms, take pictures of them, etc. There are even fan taxis which charge $600+ per day (a lot of money for a South Korean teenager) to follow the idol everywhere. On numerous occasions, these taxis have caused major motor accidents while attempting to fulfill their stalking duties.
A favored tactic of sasaengs is to infiltrate organizations in and around K-pop. They get jobs at not just the production companies, but travel agencies, airlines, phone companies, and credit card companies. If they can get close enough to an idol, they’ll copy as much personal information as possible, which is then either shared with other sasaengs or sold for profit. Such info is used to further stalk the idols, occasionally escalating to trespassing, break-ins, and theft, like when a sasaeng stole and sold idol D.O.’s underwear in 2014. Other times sasaesngs are a bit more subtle, like the female EXO fans who shaved their heads so they could follow the band members into the men’s bathroom.
Sasaengs tend not to operate alone, but rather in groups which work together to efficiently gain access or information on an idol. From University of London’s Cai Padget:
“These networks are similar to a business: only those who are recognized within the group will be given information regarding the idols’ whereabouts. This results in hordes of fans following idols about every day, as they try to complete their schedule, and into their private life. One example of this is sasaengs breaking into idols’ dormitories and leaving their excrement on the ﬂoor, or when Baekhyun sasaengs gate-crashed his brother’s wedding in order to see him, which unsurprisingly, left the idol angry and upset.”
On the other end of the tactical spectrum, sasaengs simply do everything they can to get an idol’s attention. A “common” tactic is to mail an idol a letter written in blood (sometimes menstrual, sometimes regular), as happened to at least Taecyon, G-Dragon, and Lee Hong Ki. Or sometimes sasaengs just assault the idol, like in 2012 when Yoochun was randomly slapped by a fan while walking out of a salon. Or better yet, they attempt to kidnap the idol, like when some fans tried to lure EXO members by acquiring a van identical to their regular transport.
Yoochun, the slapee, was a member of JYJ, splinter group of TVXQ. Both groups were the focus of the aforementioned 17 year fan civil war, and as a result, have attracted particularly intense sasaeng activity. From Wikipedia:
“[There were] reports of sasaeng fans tapping TVXQ band members’ phones, breaking into the band’s apartment, and poisoning member Yunho, who had to have his stomach pumped as a result. Sasaeng fans also installed cameras in JYJ member Yoochun‘s private parking lot.”
“Yoochun said that sasaeng fans had been following the group for eight years, since they were members of TVXQ, and that the constant surveillance “felt like prison”. Band member Junsu said that sasaeng fans had tapped his private phone calls, installed GPS trackers on the band’s cars, and broken into their private property. Jaejoong issued an apology for lashing out at fans. A video of TVXQ member Changmin dragging and throwing a sasaeng from her cab was uploaded in 2018.”
Production companies having increasingly stepped up efforts to defend idols from sasaengs, including maintaining fan blacklists. For instance, fans can get on JYP Entertainment’s blacklist by “following the artist’s vehicle to the JYP head office, the practice room, the house, the workshop or any other destinations; waiting or continuously observing the artist outside their home or studio; initiating physical contact with the artist on any official or unofficial schedules; and selling or buying event tickets that are not supposed to be available for purchase.”
In 2019, Big Hit Entertaining lashed out against obsessive fans of BTS with what only can be described as a mass-semi-doxxing. The company released its blacklist with social media IDs, birthdays, and the reason for blacklisting, with only some of the information obscured. And to their credit, some fancoms have organized vigilante efforts to take down sasaengs. The identity of Taecyon’s menstrual blood letter writer was rapidly ascertained and exposed by online investigators.
(For a great cinematic look at sasaeng fans, check out Perfect Blue, a [serious] Japanese anime film that focuses on the intense fan pressure faced by a J-pop idol.)
What gets lost when diving into K-pop fandom, fancoms, fancams, simulations, simulacrums, sasaengs, menstrual blood letters, and everything in between, is that the idols at the center of all this admiration are just people.
The more I remind myself of that fact, the more I feel like idols are living a nightmarish existence. A combination of fan pressure and production company policy (the two feed off of each other on a positive feedback loop) creates an enormous and unending totalitarian force on the idols to conform to exacting and unreal standards. Much of their private behavior and literally all of their public behavior is monitored and controlled, with the cost of deviation being humiliation and/or professional disaster. Yes, this happens to Western pop stars too to some degree, especially for public-facing behavior, but one of the main reasons to become a Western musical star is to get enough money and fame to enjoy life to the fullest. Meanwhile, K-pop Idols seem to only reinforce their lifestyles prisons as they become more successful and attract more exacting scrutiny to conform to fan expectations.
Idols are young, beautiful, perfectly groomed, athletic, and possess flawless skin, impeccable fashion, and Final Fantasy hair. The crafted personalities of idols target niches (playful, bad boy, aloof, etc.) but converge on confidence, competence, coolness, charisma, sexy-but-not-sexualness, and romantically availability. But most of that stuff is still surface level, and isn’t too far removed from Western pop stars. To make the K-pop idol into a simulacrum, he or she must not merely present as perfection, but live as an idealization. Behavior both on and off the stage must support the constructed persona or else the illusion breaks.
Thus, the primary behavioral mode of an idol is as a consummate performer. Idols don’t live anything close to recognizably normal lives, even by the standards of Western pop stars. They live in facilities with other idols provided by their production companies, they spend basically all-day every day either training, performing, or touring, and their eating and sleeping schedules are managed by their production companies. Multiple idols have reported getting an average of 3-4 hours of sleep per night and never getting more than two consecutive rest days. Their rare breaks from this grueling schedule are typically spent on marketing campaigns. They (ideally) do not engage in any sort of personal relationships with individuals outside their bands, including idols from other companies, close friends, or romantic partners.
This aggregated lifestyle complex creates the sense that the idols live for their fans. As in, they literally do not have lives outside of performing for fans, much like how from the perspective of a naive teenager, the perfect girl/boyfriend would not have a life outside of catering to his/her romantic partner.
While some portion of this controlling force is exerted externally, I think most is self-reinforced by the idol. To maintain at least the appearance of idealization idols must sand off their individuality and humanity. Real people with their variations and flaws are not fit for idoldom.
In a 2018 interview, Park Kyung of Block B explained:
“There are many [idols] 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… So personally, I think celebrities have a hard time dealing with their emotions… they don’t have many opportunities to express how they really feel, since their job requires them to hide their emotions.”
A key restriction on the idol persona is maintaining K-pop’s family-friendly branding. Aside from the spectacle of their performances and hyperactive schedules, idols are forced to maintain lives as artificial and milquetoast as their music videos. There can be nothing remotely resembling controversial behavior by the standards of still-conservative East Asian societies. No drugs, no crime, no Korean politics (especially feminism), no fights, no strange behavior of any sort, and most notoriously… no sex or dating.
As Australian National University Professor Roald Maliangkay puts it, “the idols are ideally all virgins and single, so as to allow their fans to dream endlessly about a romantic chance encounter.” Of course, this is pure fantasy. The romantic potential between a random fan and an idol is only slightly less real than the romantic potential between a schoolgirl in a dating sim video game and the game’s player. I assume on some level that even teenage K-pop fans are aware that they aren’t going to date a member of BTS regardless of how long he stays single.
Yet both the production companies and the fans commit to this fantasy and idols are expected to oblige. Idols are semi-regularly hounded by fans for the sin of having private romantic relationships, even to the point of being cancelled in Western parlance. Over time, this has developed into a full-fledged “dating ban” for idols.
I want to be careful in describing the dating bans, because based on my research, there are plenty of people both exaggerating and downplaying them. I’m confident in saying that somewhere between most and almost all idols are banned from dating for at least a significant portion of their careers (plus the entirety of their pre-idol training period). The nature of these prohibitions is hard to pin down because they vary by company, band, and in being either contractual or informal. And also the production companies aren’t too open about these sorts of things.
But the dating bans certainly exist, both based on statements from idols and occasionally the companies themselves. Of the “Big Three” (the three largest K-pop production companies), JYP Entertainment bans dating for the first three years of idoldom, SM Entertainment has no formal ban but informally demands that idols aren’t open about their relationships, and YG Entertainment completely prohibits dating except for special granted exceptions (though one source says its idols can date after an unspecified number of years). Among smaller companies, Pledis Entertainment has a 3-4 year dating ban, but Banana Culture Entertainment supposedly has no formal or informal ban. Big Hit Entertainment, best known as the production company behind BTS, has no contractual dating ban but claims that its idols are too busy to date (which is almost certainly PR speak for an informal dating ban).
It’s worth remembering that K-pop idols are extremely attractive, extremely athletic, extremely famous superstars between the ages of 18-30. If there are any people on earth who want to date and can theoretically do so, it’s them. And yet idols agree to either legally or informally abstain from dating from anywhere between something like five and fifteen years. And by “dating,” I don’t just mean longterm relationships. I also mean casual dating.
Hence there are cases like Seungri’s 2012 “sex scandal.” After Seungri went to Japan on a promotional tour, a Japanese actress went to a local tabloid with a story that she and Seungri had gone out for drinks, went back to her place, and had sex. She even had some suggestive photos which did indeed indicate that they probably had sex. That is, consensual sex between two single adults of legal age. And ok, Seungri might have been into (consensual) choking in bed.
In other words, an entirely normal hook up constituted a “sex scandal” in K-pop and jeopardized the idol’s career. Based on this and other cases, it’s safe to say that not just dating, but sex itself is somewhere between banned and heavily discouraged for idols.
(Despite not doing anything wrong in the 2012 scandal, I have to note Seungri isn’t exactly innocent. In 2019, he was arrested for pimping out women to VIP clients at a night club he owned. Now that’s a real sex scandal.)
To go even deeper, K-pop idols may even be bound by the Pence Rule, meaning that all unsupervised fraternizing across gender lines is banned or discouraged. According to former idol Grazy Grace, if she was “caught … lounging around and talking to the opposite sex, like trainees and idols, [they] would always be separated.” The production companies also schedule events and concerts to minimize contact between girlgroups and boygroups.
However, I don’t want to overstate the dating/sex bans either. It’s plausible (probably likely), that there’s a lot of dating and sex going on covertly among idols. It might even be an open secret that all “bans” are actually requirements to keep relationships out of the public eye. According to a band member under contract at JYP Entertainment, the company’s dating ban was reduced from five to three years because too many idols were caught having sex.
On the other hand, the dating bans are not without teeth. K-pop idols have been unceremoniously fired or reprimanded for breaking the rules. The highest profile case occurred in 2018 when HyunA and E’Dawn were fired from their respective bands and companies when it became public knowledge they were dating despite both being under contractual bans. HyunA was one of the biggest idols in the world at the time, and Cube Entertainment’s official statement on her departure blamed a “loss of trust.” Which I guess meant that they couldn’t trust her to continue being a volcel. Though undoubtedly a blow to her career, HyunA was later picked up by P-Nation, the production company owned by the notoriously scandal-tolerant pop star, Psy.
Of course, the firings aren’t the only costs imposed by dating bans. The psychological strain and limitations on natural behavior are immense. I’m sure there are plenty of behind-the-scenes punishments and pressures inflicted by the production companies to prevent idols from dating. Even if the dating bans are as liberal as an unspoken prohibition on open dating, they’re still a draconian, invasive rule to live by, especially for super hot, athletic, famous people in the prime of their lives. To my knowledge, no K-pop star has opened up about this to any significant extent beyond brief public statements, but I imagine many deal with anxiety, shame, and fear over their very natural impulses.
Those who do brave public relationships undoubtedly strain under the scrutiny. Idols Seolhyun and Zico managed to publicly date for six months but broke up due to the public pressure. I’m sure countless more get together in secret and dread being caught.
Other idols just give up on sex and/or dating entirely. In a 2018 interview, idol Jackson from GOT7 was asked about his dating life, and he replied that he was under a contractual dating ban. When pressed, Jackson admitted that he will not date even when the dating ban ends, explaining:
“Right now I am too busy to even sleep. Honestly I want to date someone, but dating isn’t a joke. It’s not a play. It’s not only fun. You have to take responsibility. So I need to have free time to meet someone.”
In other words, Jackson wants to date but has given up on doing so because being an idol has crowded out any modicum of ordinary personal life.
But at least some idols get some access to dating… either in secret under the threat of losing their jobs, or when they’re late in their careers and have already gone through a decade of celibacy. On other issues, idols have far less leeway.
In 2017, after a humiliating scandal, idol T.O.P. wrote the following letter to his fans:
“This is Choi Seung-hyun. First of all, I would like to sincerely apologize for causing great disappointment and disturbance with a huge wrongdoing. I am too ashamed of myself to stand in front of everyone for an apology. I have no excuses and feel very regretful and fearful, so I am carefully writing down these feelings as words. Our members, my agency, the public… My fans who have supported me, and my family, I have left an irreparable scar in everyone’s hearts, so I believe I deserve to be punished. My heart aches, and I am also very ashamed of myself. I will meditate and reflect on [my mistake] again and again. I will never make such an irresponsible mistake again. Once more, I apologize for not being able to apologize to everyone personally. I will deeply repent my wrongdoing. I am very ashamed of myself. I apologize.”
The crime which prompted such an agonizing apology was… smoking marijuana four times.
T.O.P. was a member of Big Bang, one of the most popular K-pop groups of all time. In 2017, he left the group to serve his mandatory military service, but a few months later he was arrested on narcotics charges. While in police holding, T.O.P. overdosed on benzodiazepines, likely as a suicide attempt. He survived, and then wrote the letter, which I suppose can also be interpreted as an apology for his suicide attempt, but that’s hardly better.
To spell it out… this guy had so much pressure on him from fans that he tried to kill himself after being caught smoking a joint, and then he produced a written seppuku out of shame. And yes, part of the issue here is that South Korea and East Asia have a far greater taboo on drugs than in the West, but still… he smoked pot.
And worse yet, T.O.P. was one of the lucky ones. Suicide is practically becoming a regular occurrence among K-pop idols.
In 2017, 27 year old idol Kim Jong Hyun killed himself in his apartment in Seoul by inhaling charcoal fumes. Kim had been reportedly suffering from depression, and shortly before his death, he told a friend, “I’m broken from the inside. The depression that has slowly nibbled me away has now devoured me, and I couldn’t overcome it… Becoming famous was probably not my life. They tell me that’s why I’m having a hard time … Why did I choose that? It’s funny that I’m able to endure this much.”
One of the attendees of Kim’s funeral was Sulli, a veteran idol who left her group to launch a solo career. Two years later, at age 25, Sulli hanged herself in her apartment in Seoul. Sulli had been political by K-pop standards for her advocacy of the no bra movement and support for abortion, which prompted huge backlash from fans on social media. After her death, Sulli’s manager revealed she was also suffering from depression, likely connected to years of intense social pressure and cyberbullying.
A close friend of Sulli’s was 28 year old idol Goo Hara. Just over a month after Sulli’s death, Hara committed suicide in her Seoul apartment by undisclosed means. Six months earlier, she had attempted suicide after a year-long scandal involving being blackmailed by her ex-boyfriend over a sex tape.
High-profile South Korean suicides are by no means confined to K-pop, but rather spread across actors, athletes and politicians. Journalist Kim Dae-O, who has reported on thirty South Korean suicides, says it’s hard to narrow down the causes, but the country’s cultural obsession with consumer gossip and shaming plays a role.
It’s worth mentioning that South Korea has the tenth highest suicide rate in the world, (about 70% higher than the US) so the high rate of suicide among its celebrities might just reflect this baseline.
The trio of idol suicides is just the tip of the iceberg for mental health problems among K-pop idols. In a society with a strong taboo against acknowledging, let alone treating mental health problems, idols are only recently starting to openly discuss the rampant depression and anxiety in their ranks. In 2009, idol Leeteuk created a mental health group for idols which he called a “gathering of depressed souls.” In an interview, Leeteuk described his mental state during his career: “I tried to be patient, but this is too hard… I fell like my body’s about to break into nothingness. I think it’s telling me I should die.”
Since 2018, idols Park Kyung, Younha, Suga, RM, and more have discussed their mental health problems in interviews. Some idols have sought counselling, though some like Leeteuk and Heechul have somewhat counterproductively broadcast their therapy sessions to fans. While production companies are slowly ramping up mental health services, the consensus is that there is still an enormous amount of untreated mental health problems among idols.
Of course, there is a baseline of mental illness in any population, and that the causal direction between mental illness and being a celebrity might run both ways. Plus, mental health problems are becoming increasingly exposed among Western pop stars. So the unique qualities of K-pop are not entirely to blame for the mental health problems of idols.
But… given the specific challenges faced by idols, especially during their training periods (as I’ll describe in Part 4), I think it’s fair to put a decent amount of causal weight on K-pop fandom and the production companies that feed it. Idols live highly restricted, obsessively monitored, artificial lives which seem practically designed to inculcate isolation, loneliness, low self esteem, and all the mental health problems associated with them.
I tried to go into my research of K-pop fandom with an open mind… but it’s hard for me not to come to a negative conclusion. Almost everything about the fan culture seems toxic, even by Western celebrity standards. Fans indulge in fantasies which unhealthily blur the line between fiction and reality, a significant subsection of fans fall into criminal obsessiveness, and the enormous pressure created by the fans and companies box K-pop idols into extremely suppressive, restrictive lives which sometimes resemble an odd form of slavery.
I’m not sure who to blame for all this. The easiest target is the production companies for masterminding this system for profit. But the fans probably deserve just as much blame for not only falling into these machinations, but greatly strengthening them through fan activism. The two sides have played off and reinforced each other to the unending detriment of the ostensible champions of K-pop… the idols themselves.
Yet again, this is something that I don’t think I’ll ever grasp as a K-pop outsider. Do production companies not care about what they’re putting their idols through? Do the fans, who sometimes practically worship idols as gods, not understand?
While the suicides of Kim Jong Hyun, Sulli, and Goo Hara have been tragic, the consensus is that they have acted as wakeup calls for the industry. Even the New York Times wrote articles about each of their deaths. Fortunately, from my research, I get the sense that there is slow-but-steady progress in reigning in the worst parts of K-pop, including the toxicity of its fandom.
Unfortunately, I think the very worst part of K-pop is more deeply rooted. It’s not the delusions of the fans, the callousness of the production companies, or even the restrictive lives of the stars… it’s what comes before all of that.
Part 4 – The Process
Before idols become superstars to be worshiped by legions of adoring fans, they are first selected from the masses and put through an extraordinarily rigorous training regimen. The nature of this process – including its difficulty, exclusivity, mental and physical impacts, potential rewards, and overall cost-benefit matrix – is what initially inspired me to write this essay.
I won’t bother withholding or concealing my judgement… trying to become a K-pop idol is a horrible decision. I do not recommend that anyone try it. But if for some godforsaken reason you want to become a K-pop idol, here is the process…
While K-pop idols have been scouted as young as age five, the standard minimum age to begin the idol journey is ten years old. The average age at which aspiring idols start is 18 years old, though some start as late as 24. SM Entertainment, one of the Big Three, reportedly rarely takes talents older than 17.
Aspiring idols are pretty much always skinny but athletic. Prior dance experience is the single most important skill, but singing talent is also appreciated. Aspiring idols need to be attractive, but don’t need to be at the very top of the beauty curve. Rather, they just need the potential for extreme attractiveness since the process itself will go a long way towards crafting them into idealized physical form.
As mentioned, 96% of idols have been Korean, and nearly all of the rest have been Chinese, Japanese, or at least ethnically East Asian.
Ok, so you’re a thin, athletic, pretty, mid-teenaged, Korean girl or boy with dance experience. The first step on your K-pop idol journey is to get discovered by the production companies. Idols can be discovered by two means – scouting or open auditions.
Company scouts scour for future idols in schools, theaters, YouTube, and anything remotely artistic that involves young people. Sometimes scouts just stumble on talents, like idols Taeyong and Jaemin who were randomly approached on the street by agents. Other times scouts go to great lengths to nab prospective idols, like when BTS’s Jungkook was scouted by seven companies at once at age 14. Or when SM Entertainment attempted to recruit Krystal Jung at age five. Krystal’s parents balked at the effort and offered their 11 year old daughter instead. SM signed Jessica and waited three years before signing Krystal.
Scouted idols are given closed auditions. They are assigned a company producer who creates a one minute video showcase displaying the idol’s relevant skills and appearance. If the showcase is good enough, the company signs the talent. I can’t find any data on what percentage of scouted talents make it through the audition process, but it’s safe to say the acceptance rate is higher than the alternative. But closed auditions are not necessarily an easy path to the top; there are reports of companies forcing prospective idols to lose weight for their videos by engaging in crash dieting, such as the ominously named “water diet.”
The alternative is open auditions where everybody is welcome to apply to become an idol. Such auditions are held continuously throughout the year to sift for talent. For instance, JYP Entertainment holds open auditions on the first and third Sundays of every month. While most of these auditions are held in South Korea, they’re also put on around the world, including in Japan, China, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and a few locations in South America. As far as I can tell, there have never been auditions in Africa or the Middle East.
Auditions test for attractiveness, star power, and either singing, dancing, or rapping depending on the talent’s specialty. For the first round of the open auditions, performances generally take place in front of 1-3 judges and a recording device, and last 1-2 minutes. Alternatively, applicants can send in their own homemade audition tapes. The few individuals who make it through the first round move on to tougher rounds of more varying length and intensity. Idol Rain claims to have had to dance for two hours straight in front of his company’s CEO to pass the final audition round.
What are the odds of getting through the entire open audition process? The head of idol training at SM Entertainment says more than 10,000 to 1. Another source says “a handful” of applicants out of more than 10,000 make it.
Open auditions are so popular and ingrained in the South Korean culture that American Idolstyle tv shows have sprung up to capture the process. According to one source, in 2012, the show Superstar K received 2 million auditions. That was 4% of South Korea’s population at the time. Assuming the country’s demographics haven’t changed much, that means something like 1/6th of South Koreans between the ages of 0 and 24 auditioned.
Ok, so you’re a thin, athletic, pretty, mid-teenaged, Korean girl or boy with dance experience, and you’ve competed against millions of people from around the world and passed an audition process with a 0.01% acceptance rate. But now you get to be a pop superstar idol, right?
Wrong. Now you get to be a trainee with a production company. The average successful trainee spends 3-5 years in the training process before debuting as an idol. At the low end, some lucky idols only spent a few months or less in training. At the high end, some spent upwards of a decade in training, with idol G-Dragon waiting 11 years in the system before his debut.
Once past a production company’s auditions, aspiring idols are offered a contract which outlines the terms of their training and potential future idol career. These agreements have become known as slave contracts in the popular culture for their lengths, penalties, and extraordinarily restrictive terms. Trainees are required to train with the company for a set period of time which can only end with the trainee debuting as an idol, the company dropping the idol, or the idol dropping out of training at the cost of a contractual penalty. While lengths vary by company, two years seems to be a minimum and seven years is now the legal maximum. Penalties for breaking contracts have allegedly been set on paper as high as literally in the billions of dollars (trillions of Korean won).
Unsurprisingly, many of these contracts have non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). The public knowledge of these contracts (including most of what I’m writing here) comes from trainee dropouts no longer under contract, ex idols who don’t care, or idol veterans who have just enough clout to get away with revealing tidbits about the training process. One of my biggest sources is former SME Entertainment trainee Nick Hannigan, a rare white American trainee, who states in an interview that Korean trainees (and presumably East Asians in general) won’t publicly discuss their training because they see it as a “matter of respect and secrecy.”
Idol training is not an afterschool activity or summer camp. It’s a lifestyle. Trainees (who recall are usually teenagers, if not grade schoolers) give up their old lives and dedicate themselves entirely to K-pop. The only comparable equivalent in the West is the training regimens of Olympic athletes, or maybe military boot camps. One source says that bringing an aspiring performer through the entire K-pop training process costs production companies an average of $2.5-5 million.
Trainees leave home and move into company dorms where they live, eat, sleep, and train with other trainees in accordance with schedules and guidelines laid out by the companies which specify trainee behavior to the hour. A typical housing arrangement will have 6-9 trainees in a single apartment with 3-4 trainees per room, plus the group’s company manager will live with them. Everything is paid for by the production company, including food, housing, medical care, education, travel, and anything else connected to training.
Trainees train as much as (in)humanly possible. Two sources say trainees train for 10-12 hours per day, another says three to fifteen hours per day, and Hannigan says 8-10 hours per day. During all this, trainees will continue going to ordinary primary or secondary school unless they are over 18. Recall, in South Korea, a standard school day is usually 12-16 hours when including nearly universal extra tutoring sessions.
On a typical day, a trainee might wake up at 5AM, train until school starts around 9AM, then resume training after school at 6PM, and continue until 10PM or sometimes as late as 1AM. Weekends will almost always be entirely dedicated to training, but trainees might occasionally get Sundays off, though a significant portion of whatever free time they have is dedicated to homework, assigned by both the production companies and school. Hannigan says he usually had one hour of free time each day, but he typically spent it practicing because “no one really relaxes.”
You might be wondering when trainees sleep, and the answer is… not often. If those training hours are even remotely accurate, then on top of the already grueling Korean school schedules, trainees can’t be getting more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep per night. Hannigan claims he usually got 4-6 hours of sleep per night. That might sound insane, but according to this aforementioned Reddit post on South Korean schools, even normal South Korean students only get 4-5 hours of sleep per night. For slightly harder evidence, a 2009 lawsuit by band DBSK against their production company made public scheduling records which showed the idols were permitted to sleep 3-4 hours per day (not all year, but for stretches of weeks).
What do trainees do during all this training time? Dancing is the central focus for nearly all idols, but they also receive training in singing, rapping, acting, modeling, and many other performance types to varying degrees based on their specialties. Companies tend to train idols to develop their strengths while ignoring their weaknesses. For instance, Hannigan reported that his admittedly bad singing skills were barely developed, and he spent most of his time dancing.
Trainees are also given varying levels of language classes. Foreign trainees are taught Korean while Korean trainees are taught English and passable levels in other Asian languages. All of this is done to accommodate the increasing multi-language lyric composition of K-pop.
Arguably even worse than what the trainees must do is what they must not do. Which is… pretty much everything that isn’t training or going to school.
Like the dating bans, this is another area where I want to be careful with my summary. Not all trainees have the same bans or to the same extents. There is a great deal of variation in what individual trainees can do based on their production companies, individual contracts, and whether particular bans are contractual or informal.
With all that said, here is a list of things that somewhere between many, most, and all K-pop trainees are not allowed to do:
- Own a cell phone
- Operate a social media account
- Go in public without wearing sunglasses, including indoors
- Go anywhere alone, even on days off
- Leave their apartments at night
- Leave their apartments or studios during the day to go anywhere but school without permission
- Respond to any name but their stage name or an assigned number
- Go above a mandated weight
- Consume types of food outside of mandated dietary guidelines
- Eat or drink anything after 7PM
- Drink alcohol (legal drinking age in South Korea is 19)
- Use drugs
- Go to nightclubs
- Fraternize with members of the opposite sex
- Talk to anyone (friends, family, media, etc.) about training
Ostensibly these rules are in place to keep the trainees focused on training, prepare their bodies and minds for idoldom, and to clamp down on any potential controversies. Some of these rules are justifiable because many idols are still children, though a significant minority are in their late teens and early 20s. Other rules are strict, but maybe within the range of what a particularly conservative boarding school might prohibit. But some restrictions go far beyond safety and protection into outright abuse, particularly dietary restrictions, which I’ll cover in the next subsection.
The punishments handed down by the companies for rule violations are no better, but again, I’ll throw out the caveat that practices vary by company and we can only rely on anecdotes.
Many idols have stated that trainees are frequently punished for petty infractions or being late. Shouting from older production company managers is particularly common, and Hannagan, who is generally positive towards his company, admits that he heard “harsh words” from trainers towards trainees who didn’t improve quickly enough. A former SM trainee reports something like struggle sessions where she would have to write down what she did wrong and not be allowed to practice until she was correct. She also claimed to have forced meditation sessions where “you have to sit there for an hour and you can’t even open your eyes and after they tell you to write down what you did wrong that week.”
But punishment can also be physical; idol Prince Mak reports being forced to go on 30 kilometer runs, and that his company used collective punishment so all members of a band were punished if one idol violated a rule. The former SM trainee claimed she was punished by being forced to sing while running around a room, doing sit-ups, or while being hit in the stomach.
She is not the only one to mention idols being hit. From a 2016 interview with idol Jay Park:
“The culture in itself was kinda like when you get certain lyrics wrong or you get a certain dance move wrong they would literally hit you. That’s kinda like the Korean way, you know? It’s not like that now, it’s much better now, but back then [if you got a dance move wrong] they were like, “You mothafucka!” They wouldn’t do that to me because I was very good at dancing, but I would see this dude next to me and he was getting some shit wrong and he getting his ass whooped.”
Thankfully, both from Jay’s statement and my scrolling through forums, the consensus is that outright physical assaults don’t happen much anymore, if at all.
When reading about the training process, I had to keep reminding myself that nearly all the trainees are kids. Out of some combination of benevolent paternalism and manipulative control, the production company managers who run the training operations frame themselves as surrogate parents. From Hannigan:
“The thing I dreaded everyday was, there were these evaluations, usually weekly/ every 2 weeks to mark the progress, and I was really scared not to live up to the expectations, that I had not improved enough. The people you learn from there, they are like your parents, and you are naturally scared to disappoint them…”
As mentioned, band managers live with the trainees in their apartments, making the managers the one adult surrounded by 6-9 trainees. According to one report, male company staff members had to be called “Papa,” and women were called “Mama.” On rare days off training, there was a stigma against trainees being alone since there was an expectation that they would use the free time to “spend bonding time with their family.” A British-born ex-trainee says that she and other girls were monitored by an “uncle” who confirmed they were home by curfew and periodically checked in on them with phone calls.
(Granted, I think this is one of those things that is far less creepy in South Korea and much of the world where casually referring to non-family members by familial titles is the norm.)
You may be wondering when between school, training, and four hours of sleep per night trainees get to see their real parents, and the answer is… probably not often. One source says SM Entertainment trainees are allowed to visit their families once per year, while another trainee said she would call her mom for the 15 minutes per day she was permitted to have a phone, but I can’t find any other sources.
South Korea has been extensively criticized for being a shallow, beauty-obsessed culture with unrealistic standards. To me, these standards seem like another version of the “Western norm but more hardcore” trend we see throughout K-pop. Unfortunately, with idols being held up as the idealization of South Korean beauty, they are expected and forced to contour their bodies to blatantly unhealthy extremes through typically abusive means.
I’ll start with weight standards, and fortunately for me, some maniac has compiled a massive database of over 1900 idols’ physical stats, so I’ll be using that as my source for the numbers. Note that these weight and height figures refer to idols who have premiered and at least have some sort of career. So consider these stats to be aspirational markers that trainees aim for.
The average male idol is 5 foot, 10 inches (178 cm) and 136 pounds (62 kg), which by the admittedly rough standards of BMI, is on the low end of the healthy range. 25% of male idols are below the healthy BMI range, 0% are above the healthy range, and only 6.1% weigh 154 pounds (70 kg) or more. The heaviest male idol is Shindong, probably the only traditional idol of either gender who looks chubby, at 198 pounds (98 kg). The lightest current adult male idol is VOK at 108 pounds (49 kg).
Ok, so the men aren’t that bad. They’re definitely on the smaller side, but their weights aren’t too far removed from what one would expect for a smaller teenage pretty boy. But the women…
The average female idol is just under 5 foot, 5 inches (165 cm) and 102 pounds (46 kg), which is underweight according to BMI. 86% of female idols weigh less than 110 pounds (50 kg), 82% are in the underweight BMI range or worse, with almost 10% being “severely underweight” or “very severely underweight.” Only 8.8% are in the normal BMI range. The heaviest female idol is Yunu at 130 pounds (59 kg) and almost 5 foot 8 inches (172 cm) tall. The lightest adult female idols are Yukyung and Sebin, both at almost 82 pounds (37 kg), and 5 foot 2 inches (156 cm) and 5 foot 3 inches (160 cm) respectively.
So the vast majority of female idols are at unhealthily low weights with a significant minority in the clearly dangerous range. The lightest male idol is heavier than the average female idol. No female idol comes close to being overweight or even on the high end of normal in BMI.
(Keep in mind that these men and women are performing highly intensive physical workouts for 10-12 hours per day, 6-7 days per week, for years straight.)
How are such weights achieved and maintained?
Regimented diets are formulated by the production companies for every trainee. Each meal is given or assigned to the trainee, and can be altered for weight-control purposes by the trainers at will. Trainees are regularly weighed in front of trainers, sometimes every day, and sometimes specific body parts like the thighs will be tape measured.
According to many sources, idols are given a weight target and are punished for going above it. One former female trainee says her target weight was 104 pounds (47 kg). At weekly weigh-ins, each trainee’s weight was publicly announced, and violating the limit resulted in her food being rationed or taken away entirely. Another former female idol says that in her company, trainees under 5 foot 3 inches (160 cm) had to reach 83 pounds (38 kilograms) by their debuts. Her company had set up a CCTV camera in her apartment facing the refrigerator to track what girls were eating, prompting many to eat in secret.
In a lot of these cases, it’s not clear where the line is between externally-imposed punishments and self-imposed measures. Regardless, periodic starvation is common among trainees, with the British former trainee calling it “normalized.”  Idol Momo Hirai didn’t eat for a week to make a weight goal set by a trainer before she could be put on stage.
Extreme dieting is even more common. For instance, idol Soyu lost 18 pounds (8 kg) in a month by consuming nothing but four quail eggs without yolk and some milk each day while doing regular physical idol training. Idol Yejun ate nothing but fruit and salads until he lost 33 pounds (15 kg). Idol Xiumin would go long stretches where he only ate every other day. Corroborated by other sources, the British trainee said it was “common” for girls to pass out while training and have to be carried back to their apartments. Such incidents were seen as honorable indications of great effort being put into their training goals.
Then there’s cosmetics… permanent cosmetics. Yet again, I’ll note that different companies have different policies, it’s not clear what’s contractual or informal, etc. But the consensus is that somewhere between many and most trainees are “encouraged” to get plastic surgery, which could mean anything from a suggestion to an implicit threat of contract termination. Some trainees even get plastic surgery before they begin training.
The most common procedures are the “K-pop Combo:”
- Double eyelid surgery (give smooth eyelids a wrinkle)
- Cut slits into the sides of the eyelids to make the eyes appear larger
- Add fillers to raise the bridge of the nose
- V-line surgery (sand down the jawbone to create a narrow, “fragile,” “childlike” appearance)
My sense is that virtually all trainees get at least some work done before their debuts. For instance, eight out of nine members of girlgroup SNSD had the entire K-pop Combo, with the ninth member only getting 3/4rs of it. Yet as with Western celebrities, cosmetic surgery carries a stigma and production companies generally try to conceal work done on their idols. At least all the surgeries are paid for by the production companies.
Like suicides, this plastic surgery trend needs to be contextualized within South Korean culture. South Korea has the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in the world (Greece is #2, US #6). 20% of South Korean women have had work done, including 1/3rd of women between 19-29. South Korean men are 20% of plastic surgery customers in the country.
Which is to say that plastic surgery is not as big of a deal in South Korea as it is in the US or Europe. The idea of being forced or strongly encouraged to permanently alter one’s physical features for the sake of a remote shot at fame sounds dystopian to me, but I guess it’s not as bad in South Korea.
At least all of the above is still probably, arguably, maybe legal. But unsurprisingly, production companies sometimes go outside the bounds of the law when dealing with their dozens of young, attractive, athletic boys and girls who desperately want to be stars. It’s impossible to say how common this is, but there have been enough stories of sexual abuse among production companies to suspect there are many more out of sight.
On the most extreme end, in 2012, Open World Entertainment CEO Jang Seok-woo was arrested for sexual harassment, assault, and rape of the trainees in his program, with over thirty victims identified. In 2014, the CEO of XX entertainment was arrested for similar crimes. Multiple male trainees from the company confessed to E News that they were raped and told to keep silent or risk losing their spots as trainees. In 2019, six of the ten members of ATEEN, a group which had yet to debut, sued the female CEO of DS&A Entertainment for sexual harassment.
What seems to be more common is for the trainees to engage in prostitution at the behest of corrupt trainers. There have been many reports of trainers managing “sponsor lists” where names and descriptions of trainees are passed around to wealthy individuals as sugar baby offerings.
An anonymous female trainee on PD Notebook, a South Korean investigative news program, said that older men would come to training sessions to watch the girls dance and choose who they wanted. One approached her and offered $4,400 per month for two meetings per month. An anonymous male trainee on the same show said that his trainers introduced him to an older woman with whom he began to regularly meet and receive gifts or cash payments ranging in value from $70 to almost $1,000, which eventually added up to over $18,000. The two had a falling out before any sexual activity commenced. In 2017, a production company CEO was sentenced to twenty months in prison and fined $18,000 for sex trafficking.
For systemic, albeit adjacent evidence, the South Korean National Human Rights Commission conducted an investigation into the South Korean acting industry in 2010, and found that 60% of actresses had been asked to provide sexual services to further their careers, 31.5% had been sexually harassed, and 6% had been sexually assaulted or raped. Granted, these were film and television actresses and not K-pop stars, but the two groups are in close proximity to one another in the entertainment industry.
Physical and Mental Health
Shockingly, moving away from home to live in a cult-like environment which endlessly stresses perfection under the constant watch of superiors while doing exhaustive physical training for 10-12 hours per day while still attending a rigorous school and eating a borderline starvation diet does not result in healthy trainees.
Dance training, which is the largest component of the training process, wreaks havoc on young, still-developing trainee bodies. I didn’t find many details about these injuries beyond references to sprains, bruises, and what you’d expect, but as a point of comparison, idol Tao reported twelve physical injuries between March 2012 and February 2015. Given the schedules the trainees maintain, overexertion and general overtraining aren’t the exceptions, but the standard.
Worse than twisted ankles is the intermixing of physical and mental illness. Virtually all interviewed former K-pop trainees agree that depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies are rampant.
A lot of the mental problems are tied up with the dieting. The standard ordained diets for trainees are basically a form of institutionalized anorexia, and often triggers bulimia or the absence of periods. One former trainee explained that she would have her weekly public weigh-ins on Fridays and then binge eat over the weekends, but she and other trainees would throw up anything they ate that wasn’t on the diet plan. After going through the entire training process, idol IU said in an interview:
“My heart was empty. I always felt anxious after I made my debut and from a certain time, I filled the void through food… rather than feeling good, I always had that feeling of anxiety thinking there’s still something lacking… at that time, I ate until I threw up and I even sought treatment.”
Despite the prohibition and illegality, underage drinking is also prevalent among idols as a coping mechanism. Hannigan, the American ex-trainee, says trainees would sneak away from their apartments on rare days off to drink alcohol, which is corroborated by a former SM Entertainment trainee who as an underage teenager would go to bars and drink with strangers.
Multiple sources say that self-harm is prevalent among trainees, especially women. Hannigan says it was common for his female peers to cut themselves as a form of stress relief. They would hide the scars beneath their clothes to avoid the stigma of “showing weakness,” but it was known among the trainees and trainers who was doing it. Company personnel would ignore the cutting as long as the trainee kept on schedule, unless “it gets too far where they actually bleed to death.”
Greatly adding to the stress is the hyper-competitive atmosphere where trainees constantly vie for attention and position from the production company in the hopes of being chosen next to debut. Trainers hold periodic (weekly, biweekly, or monthly) showcase events where the trainees perform for executives and are given evaluations in front of the entire trainee group. Excessively low evaluations result in immediate expulsion from the whole trainee program. Multiple trainees report making few or no friends despite spending years in the program in close proximity to peers. Competitive impulses can manifest as bullying, primarily directed at foreign trainees or the most successful trainees in a given school. As mentioned, African American trainee Alex Reid was bullied enough by trainees and then band members to quit less than a year after debuting.
The heavy investment of energy and pain over years leads some trainees into an almost ruthless nihilistic mindset. When asked what advice he would give to aspiring idols, Hannigan said:
“Don’t live for it, you have other things to live for besides being a trainee. That’s a mistake that some of the other trainees made, they basically thought that this is their life now, completely. They feel “I don’t have family, I don’t have friends, this is all I’ve got”. That’s why there is so much underage drinking there, that’s why some of the girls are suicidal, because they get this idea in their heads that this is the only thing they’ve got and that if they let go of this, there’s no life for them, and that’s not true.”
Hannigan is not the only ex-trainee to mention seeing suicidal tendencies. It doesn’t seem to be a common occurrence (trainees who can’t handle it usually just dropout), but just as with the idols, suicide is not unheard of among trainees. In 2015, DSP Media trainee Ahn So-jin killed herself by jumping from her apartment window after narrowly missing a debut opportunity and having her contract terminated.
Sprained ankles, eating disorders, and cutting are the visible manifestations of physical and mental health problems among trainees, but there are also more subtle issues. Most trainees enter the system as teenagers, with some starting in elementary school. Especially in a more conservative society like South Korea, such individuals have barely developed a sense of self or personal expression. Putting children and young adults through the extraordinarily rigorous, stressful, painful training process likely causes social maldevelopments and a suppression of personal growth.
In a 2016 interview, idol Jay Park said that his training eroded his enjoyment of his craft to the point where he stopped listening to music and writing songs. Describing his experiences, he said:
“It helped in a lot of ways, but it also killed my passion and creativity in a lot of ways as well. It’s kind of like programming almost. Sing it like this, do it like this. So like you lose your individuality.”
Behavior modification lessons exacerbate the problem. Idol personas have set personalities designed by committees for marketing purposes. Trainees are taught to conform to their assigned personalities, at least in public. One former SM trainee says she was taught how to stand, how to sit, where to keep her hands while doing nothing, how to stop touching her nose, and how to always be seen as “fun and bubbly,” which meant always smiling in public and never being caught looking angry.
On the more moderate side, Hannigan says that companies basically encourage trainees to amplify pre-existing personality traits rather than assign entire new ones. But British ex-trainee Dia says that completely contrary to her real personality, her idol persona was supposed to be “very reserved, sweet, and innocent.” Dia quit the training program partially because she didn’t want to “keep up this docile personality in public.”
Take it as my personal speculation, but my guess is that the personality impacts are far deeper than a handful of interviews can reveal. Even putting aside many of the extreme aspects of the training process, the scheduling alone seems to be enough to have significant dampening affect on personal development. Between school and training, trainees easily have 16-20 hour workdays, with maybe an hour at most for free time, and few or no days off. That would be intense enough for a few days or weeks, but most serious trainees go through this for years. Some spend as much as a decade in the system.
For trainees, there is no time for life, hobbies, passions, or thought beyond K-pop. That is their existence. That is their purpose. My guess is that whoever or whatever else they might be or become is suppressed by sheer necessity.
Eudioas, a British-born trainee dropout
The kicker to all of this is that if a trainee decides that training is too tough or the idol dream isn’t for her or she doesn’t want to be a prostitute, she can leave training any time, but… then she goes into debt.
In addition to the massive penalties put into the contract for dropping out, trainees are usually mandated to repay their company for the full cost of their training. All the housing, food, clothes, cosmetics, plastic surgery, and personnel costs for running a 24/7 operation suddenly fall on the teenager who couldn’t handle another 16 hour workday without food. This is confirmed in pretty much every trainee story I read.
I never found a statement on the costs of these debts, though Euodias, says she owes thousands of pounds. Admittedly, that sounds a lot lower than the costs of even just room and board, so maybe the penalty is only for a fraction of the training costs. But that’s probably a product of a 2017 legal ruling by the South Korea Fair Trade Commission which mandated a reduction in contract cancellation fees.
Ok, so you’re a thin, athletic, pretty, mid-teenaged, Korean girl or boy with dance experience, and you’ve competed against millions of people from around the world and passed an audition process with a 0.01% acceptance rate, and then you’ve lived in a cult-like environment which endlessly stresses perfection under the constant watch of superiors while doing exhaustive physical training for 10-12 hours per day while still attending a rigorous school and eating a borderline starvation diet for 3-5 years. But at least now you can become a K-pop idol and have a life of fame and fortune, right?
No, probably not.
Most trainees never debut as idols. They either drop out of training or they finish their contracts and their company doesn’t opt to renew it, though I don’t know what percentage of failed trainees fall in each category.
What are the odds of a trainee debuting?
Two sources say 0.1% of trainees debut. That’s not counting the millions of people who go to open auditions or even everyone scouted for closed auditions; that’s only counting trainees who attend company programs. One of the sources says that there are 100,000 trainees waiting at any given time to debut.
However, these figures are misleading. From reading a bunch of blog posts and forums, the consensus is that there are two types of trainees. One is the type outlined above, while the other type is far more moderate, usually training a few days per week after school and still living at home with their parents. This latter type is vastly more numerous, and in most cases, training is more of a hobby or extracurricular activity. Trainees of this sort rarely ever debut, and if they have significant talent, they will likely be scooped up by a 24/7 aggressive training program eventually.
Presumably, the 0.1% and 100,000 trainee figures count all of these lesser trainees. So what are the odds of more serious trainees under contract at big production companies of debuting?
According to Statista’s 2018 polling of production companies, 27% of companies debut over 90% of trainees, 46% of companies debut 60-90% of trainees, and 27% of companies debut less than 60% of trainees.
That sounds like complete nonsense. I can’t verify the survey methodology without paying $2,000 for a Statista premium subscription, but even still, I’m inclined to entirely dismiss these numbers. I can’t imagine that high of a percentage of trainees stay in those conditions for the years required to reach debut, or that the production companies have enough space to debut so many idols. And presumably there would be vastly more K-pop idols running around if those numbers were close to accurate.
Looking elsewhere, a random but seemingly well-informed Quora poster says the debut rates at JYP and SM (two of the Big Three) are 10-12% and 5-8% respectively. Another commenter estimates 30%. An article from journalist Jeff Yang says that “most” trainees never debut. A Koreaboo article says “a small percentage of trainees” will debut. According to the data set from a K-pop news site, in 2016 there were 1,440 trainees, and In 2015, 324 idols debuted across 60 bands. Assuming the numbers roughly hold steady each year, that’s a trainee debut rate of 22.5%.
So for an individual who signs a contract with a major production company to become a trainee, I’d estimate the odds of debuting at 10-30%.
Ok, so you’re a thin, athletic, pretty, mid-teenaged, Korean girl or boy with dance experience, and you’ve competed against millions of people from around the world and passed an audition process with a 0.01% acceptance rate, and then you’ve lived in a cult-like environment which endlessly stresses perfection under the constant watch of superiors while doing exhaustive physical training for 10-12 hours per day while still attending a rigorous school and eating a borderline starvation diet for 3-5 years, and then you are one of the lucky 10-30% of trainees who officially debut with a band and become a K-pop idol with all the fame that entails. At least now you’ll get rich, right?
No… probably not for a while. Likely not ever.
How much money do K-pop idols make? Of course, idols make different amounts based on the success of their bands, and even within bands there are often different payscales managed by the production companies based on seniority and fame. But what does an average idol make?
Unfortunately, I can’t find any recent data. But according to South Korea’s National Tax Service, in 2013, the average K-pop idol’s income was…
Which is about the bottom end of what an American plumber makes each year.
In some ways, the $43,000 figure is misleadingly low. The National Tax Service reported that average idol salary increased 72% from 2010 to 2013, and K-pop is far more successful globally today than seven years ago, so we can assume idols make more on average these days. Plus the average South Korean salaried employee only makes about $33,000 per year. And there’s always seven years of inflation to consider.
But the $43,000 is also misleadingly high because the average is being dragged up by the top earners. From the National Tax Service again:
If 90% of idols earn 11% of idol income, and the average income is $43,000 (or whatever higher number it is now), then that means that most idols earn dismally low salaries. I can’t find precise figures on what the median or typical idol makes, but I can extrapolate that it’s barely anything, even well under South Korea’s minimum wage (about $7 per hour).
How is that possible?
Just as Western music producers need to pay record labels a cut of their earnings, K-pop idols need to pay their production companies a cut. The difference is that Western record labels usually take about 15-20% of sales, while K-pop production companies usually take 50-80% and as much as 97%. See here:
This data and graph (bigger picture) admittedly come from a shaky source: a K-pop media outlet which doesn’t cite its own source. Also, their data says that FNC Entertainment collects 110% on “physical sales renewed,” so that doesn’t inspire confidence.
However, from my readings of anecdotes from idols, forum discussions, and blogs, the 50-80% range is the consensus, and many bands push higher. For confirmed numbers, we have a lawsuit from two members of EXO against SM Entertainment claiming that the band’s profit cut was 3-5% of total revenue divided by 12 band members. Idol Prince Mak says BTS gives 80% of its revenues to its production company but plenty of other bands give 90%.
But even the company cuts don’t fully capture how little most idols make. The companies spend years training their talents to become idols, but they don’t do it for free. When aspiring K-pop stars sign their “slave contracts” as teenagers or children, and agree to become trainees for years in the hopes of debuting as idola, they also agree to repay their companies for the cost of their training.
A key caveat here is that this norm does not apply to the Big Three. SM, JYP, and YG allow their idols to begin earning full profits as soon as they debut, at least after taking their cuts. But all other production companies put the idols in debt the instant they debut, and the idols must repay their debts with their share of the profits. Thus most idols earn little-to-nothing from their production for the first few years of their careers until they finally hit a “breakeven point” and fully repay their companies.
For instance, former idol Prince Mak says that a typical rookie band will have a 90:10 split with its production company, with the 10% split among the members of the band, and then much of the earnings going back to the company for debt repayment. So at a typical concert event, the band will earn $4,000 (figure provided by Prince Mak), $3,600 of which will go to the company. The remaining $400 will be divided up among the band members, and recall that in K-pop it’s not uncommon for bands to have eight or more members. So if the band has six members, that’s $67 per person. And then some portion of that $67 goes to the production company to pay back debts.
I’m not clear on all the details of how this works. I’m guessing there are tax and legal considerations to manage when a company pays an employee and then contractually obligates the employee to immediately pay a debt owed to the company. I think what happens is that the company divides the idol’s cut between a paltry allowance and debt repayment until the debt is repaid. I assume there’s some financial footwork done to avoid paying the eventual debt repayments as salaries to avoid taxable events, but I can’t find any confirmation on that.
On top of the revenue cut and debt, idols also have to pay companies for many production-related expenses, like makeup, nails, hair care, clothing, food, etc. As far as I can tell, these costs are not factored into the company cut, and idols will even add these costs onto their debts if they don’t generate sufficient revenue to cover them. For bands that don’t immediately take off, idols can find themselves trapped in a debt spiral. H.O of the shortlived K-pop group, MADTOWN, explained in a 2018 interview that upon debuting, his band was saddled with $500,000 worth of debt just for debut production costs, which was then divided among seven members for an individual debt level of over $71,000. Since the band folded within three years, it’s unlikely that he ever paid off the initial debt load.
So how much can an idol make after giving 50-97% of her earnings to her production company and paying back the company for training debts and paying the company for some production costs? Confirmed figures from the idols themselves include:
- After five years as an idol, 31 year old Cao Lu of FIESTAR was making $450 per month ($5,400 annually).
- Prince Mak formerly of JJCC says he made about $1-2 per day in profit throughout his career as an idol.
- Grazy Grace says that she never paid back her debts and made no income throughout her three years as an idol, though she did earn $500 from other activities.
- Mir from MBLAQ earned $12,400 in his first six months, and $42,000 from his first hit album.
- Across their first three years, each of the six members of B.A.P was paid $20,845 (an average of $580 per month, $6,500 annually). In the same time frame, their production company earned $9 million from the band.
- Members of AOA earned no money for their first three years.
- An anonymous idol said she was getting $500 per month while repaying debts.
- Idol G.O. says the average idol group makes $20,000 per year, divided among its members.
The consensus from the forums, interviews, etc. is that most new bands from the non-Big Three don’t break even until their second or third year (if they break even at all). Before they pass that point, they earn a small allowance or nothing at all. A common comment from these idols is that they were never exactly sure how much money they made. Whether by accident or design, the accounting process which produced their monthly salaries (or lack thereof) was too complicated to follow. Grazy Grace also said that many idols worked part-time jobs to support themselves during their idol careers.
Further complicating matters is extensive profit sharing between band members. Most revenue earned by a single member independently is automatically divided among all members as long as the income is derived from an activity which is considered an off-shoot of the band’s popularity. For instance, if a single band member films a commercial or appears on a variety show, her paycheck will be divided. However, if the band member takes an acting gig, she keeps the full paycheck since it’s considered a separate activity from the band.
Which is to say that idols have fairly limited ability to make money outside of their direct K-pop activity. An ambitious idol can’t supplement her income too much through aggressively pursuing independent gigs, at least not unless most other band members are doing the same thing. And again, K-pop bands are huge compared to the West.
Given these figures, it shouldn’t be too surprising that prostitution is probably relatively common among idols. As with the trainees, “sponsor lists” of idols willing to serve as sugar babies are passed around to wealthy johns. According to idol Serri, all idols are inevitably contacted by brokers hoping to add them to their lists. She also claims that production companies are often complicit in sponsor lists by acting as recipient middlemen between the idol and sponsor for a cut. In 2016, idol Jisoo went public after she was contacted by a man on Instagram claiming to be a broker who could set her up with men for up to $3,300 per session. Journalist Kim Myo Sung claims to have seen a list with numerous famous idols and price levels corresponding to their popularity, as well as a sponsorship contract which included a clause for the idol to terminate any pregnancies.
Putting all the available data, rumors, and discussions together, I’d guess that most K-pop idols make little-to-no money, likely less than $10,000 per year. Admittedly, this doesn’t account for some costs like housing which are covered by the production companies. However, if G.O’s estimate that the average K-pop band makes $20,000 per year is accurate, then even my guess is a considerable overstatement. While there is a small cluster of idols which pull up the average salary by making the vast majority of profits (the top 10% of idols at most judging by the National Tax Service data), the median idol likely earns well under the federal American poverty line ($12,760 annually).
To make matters worse, the consensus among fans is that the rate of early K-pop band failure is extremely high. In an interview, one idol trainer said: “If a group makes it big, the money rolls in. But in my experience, that is less likely than winning the lottery.” Unfortunately, I can’t find any raw data on what percentage of bands disband within the first 2-3 years (before paying off their debts) but I can roughly extrapolate from the National Tax Service’s 2015 data. Again:
So 1% of K-pop idols are part of bands that hit it big and become rich. The next 9% do well for themselves (though keep in mind they still have to repay their debts). The other 90% of idols are part of bands that make little-to-no-money. We can assume that this 90% consists mostly, if not almost entirely of rookie bands, since any band which generates such little earnings after 2-3 years will be terminated by its production company. We can also assume that each year, some of the top 10% retires or falls into the bottom 90%, while some of the 90% moves into the top 10%.
Based on this, my guess is that something like 70-80% of K-pop bands fail within their first 1-3 years. And keep in mind that most idols debut in their late teens or early 20s, few idols perform into their 30s, and all men must accept military conscription before age 28. So even successful idols usually only last for something like 5-10 years.
Making It Big
Ok, so you’re a thin, athletic, pretty, mid-teenaged, Korean girl or boy with dance experience, and you’ve competed against millions of people from around the world and passed an audition process with a 0.01% acceptance rate, and then you’ve lived in a cult-like environment which endlessly stresses perfection under the constant watch of superiors while doing exhaustive physical training for 10-12 hours per day while still attending a rigorous school and eating a borderline starvation diet for 3-5 years, and then you are one of the lucky 10-30% of trainees who officially debut with a band and become a K-pop idol, and then your band survives for more than 2-3 years while you live below the poverty line and pay off your debt, and then your band becomes mega-successful and you sell millions of copies of your albums and you become one of the biggest names in music on earth. Finally, after all that, will you become rich?
Recall – BTS is the most popular K-pop band today and ever. According to the 2019 IFPI Global Music Report, BTS was the 7th most listened to artist in the world, and had the 3rd most popular album in the world. Despite Spotify not streaming in South Korea, BTS was its second most popular artist in 2019.
So how much money does the most popular K-pop band in history make?
In 2018, BTS earned $57 million in pre-tax income. That’s a nice chunk of change, and it made them the highest earning boyband in the world. But…
That $57 million is divided among BTS’s seven members. So that’s just over $8 million per idol. That’s not bad either. But…
From June 2017 to June 2018, U2 made $118 million, Coldplay made $115 million, Ed Sheeran made $110 million, Bruno Mars made $100 million, Katy Perry made $83 million, Taylor Swift made $80 million, Jay-Z made $77 million, Guns N’ Roses made $71 million, Roger Waters made $68 million, and Diddy made $64 million. All together, the idols of BTS made as much as The Weeknd ($57 million). Separately, the members of BTS made 2/3rds of John Lennon’s 2018 earnings, despite him being dead. Perhaps for a fairer reference point, we can compare BTS to a Western boy band. At the height of its popularity in 2016, One Direction made $110 million divided by four members.
It’s important to put these figures in context.
Of course hit K-pop musicians won’t make as much money as Western musicians since the latter have a far bigger market to sell to, but… I also don’t want to overstate this point. In the last few years, BTS has easily been among the most popular bands on earth, with listener numbers that compete with the very top Western bands. On the other hand, BTS’s earnings are incredible compared to Western pop stars considering the relative sizes of the companies backing them (more on that in Part 5).
But still… my point here is that after going through the brutal challenges, pressures, and struggles to reach idolhood, and even if lightning strikes and a K-pop band becomes successful, the top idols earn fairly little money by Western standards.
The Slow Relaxation
I couldn’t figure out quite where to put this minor but important point, so I’m making a small subsection for it. Unfortunately, I can’t find precise sourcing for the following, but it’s my understanding based on a consensus from interviews, blogs, and forums.
Trainees are pretty much entirely controlled by their companies once they sign the slave contracts. They are put on strict schedules, told where to live, what to eat, how to change their bodies, etc.
Once a trainee debuts, the control over her loosens… a little bit. She will still probably live in a company dorm and have her schedule managed, but there is less direct oversight than during the training process. However, many idols have noted that they get no freedom during their first few years of idoldom anyway because they have to work their asses off to do every gig possible to hopefully pay off their debts.
Finally, if/once an idol’s group makes it big and serious money starts rolling in (usually around year three), then the idol is given a bit more leeway by the company. Oversight is lessened, they are sometimes allowed to live independently, and they are freer to manage their careers and media appearances. Within reason.
So throughout a successful idol’s career, there is something like a slow relaxation process. The more successful they are, the more control they have over their lives.
Is Trying to Become an Idol Worth It?
First, I need to reiterate a caveat.
The K-pop production companies are secretive and relatively few idols are open about their experiences as trainees or in the idol lifestyle. The account of the idol manufacturing process that I’ve relayed here is an amalgamation of anecdotes. Thus, there are two broad ways to understand all this:
- All of these horrible aspects of idoldom are just lurid anecdotes which the media picked up and sensationalized. While the idol process is tough, I’m just focusing on its worst excesses, and not presenting an accurate depiction of the average idol experience.
- All of these horrible aspects of idoldom are just the tip of the iceberg. The aforementioned corporate secrecy, particularly Korean cultural norms, and maybe even the desire to avoid embarrassing current superstars, all combine to obscure the public’s understanding of the idol process. The process might even be way worse than the scant surviving stories can portray.
To put my cards on the table, I think the second option is more likely. The sheer number of stories, the secrecy, and the highly-structured nature of the training process make systematic abuse likely in my eyes.
As a result, no, I don’t think trying to become an idol is worth it. I think the costs in terms of time, energy, suffering, and opportunity cost do not come close to justifying the extremely slim chance of getting through the idol farming system gauntlet and actually becoming a successful K-pop idol. I don’t know why anyone with even a remote understanding of what trying to become an idol entails would try to do so.
Ok, that’s not true. I know exactly why people try to become idols.
They try to become idols because it’s a shot at fame, and because standing on stage as a hot and hyper-competent demi-god while thousands of fans cheer you on is a glorious achievement that only an infinitesimal fraction of humanity will ever experience. People want to try to become idols because it’s a path to greatness.
And at least it’s a defined path. Becoming an idol isn’t easy, but it has fairly few uncertainties as far as high-risk career options go. It’s not like trying to become a novelist or Hollywood star or even Western musician where you just kind of have to produce your own content and hope the right people see it and like it. There’s a loneliness and fog to such ambitions which scare most people away and cause aspirants to fall to despair. At least K-pop tells you exactly what you need to do to succeed: pass an audition, sign a contract, survive training, debut, perform well, and then be successful.
But even considering all that stuff, I can’t help but think the primary reason people want to be idols is because they’re children, or very close to it. That is, naïve children who don’t know anything about the world but who follow K-pop and think it’s cool, and therefore want to sign seven year contracts to work sixteen hour days and eat borderline-starvation diets in the hopes of becoming just like their heroes.
To give the production companies their due, former SM Entertainment CEO Kim Young-min has described their treatment of trainees:
“…we ask our trainees to go through many educational hurdles. They go to normal school during the day, and then receive after-school training that lasts until late at night. But this is no different than typical middle or high school kids, who go to after-school programs to cram for college entrance exams. Of course, one difference is that education at SM is free. We pay for the teachers, facilities, equipment, costumes, and virtually everything the trainees need.”
From Chris Lee, the head trainer under Kim:
“We are extremely selective in choosing performers, so just to make it to our program, all SM trainees must defy the odds of 10,000 or more to one. Therefore, whether it be their own choice or the will of their parents, these young trainees are ready to devote their body and soul to perfecting their artistic skills at SM. We consider that SM’s role is to fulfill the desire of the trainees. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the [training] staff members are the slaves, not the trainees. During training, SM pays for every single cost incurred by the pupils. Critics often accuse us of imprisoning them until they make their debuts, but all of our trainees are free to quit any time they like. Just like teachers in regular schools, we are teaching them how to sing and dance. Just like schools, we have rules, too. For example, trainees cannot date another trainee; they cannot use their cell phones during practice. These basic rules in no way violate the human rights of these kids.”
Ok, points taken. By all accounts, the Big Three treat their trainees better than the other companies and don’t start their idols off with debt. Plus it’s worth remembering that South Korean schools are extremely intense by Western standards, and some of the hardcore restrictions on trainees are in line with basic school restrictions or not much worse. And most importantly, all the trainees voluntarily sign their contracts, and if they are too young to do so, their parents voluntarily sign. To even get to the point where a contract is offered, the aspiring idol has to be highly motivated and devoted to performing. The production companies offer a chance to fulfill dreams and they expect discipline in return.
All of that is valid, and yet… I still think K-pop training programs are abusive. If even half the reports are true or representative, I think the production companies are leveraging the ignorance of children and teenagers to lure them into horribly unbalanced contracts where the primary money-makers throw children into a meat grinder until they break, or are revealed to be useless, or get lucky and make a big profit for the company. And just as bad as the production companies are the clueless or conniving parents who somehow sign off on putting their children through this ordeal. Yes, the contracts are freely entered into, but I can’t honestly believe that most children and parents have a full understanding of their cost-benefit matrix. But the companies certainly do.
Fortunately, I’m not alone in these thoughts. Production companies have been getting sued left-and-right for years by trainees and idols. I don’t know enough about Korean law to grasp the technicalities, but my understanding is that the companies have been steadily losing ground. In 2009, the South Korean Fair Trade Commission placed a seven year cap on trainee and idol contracts after three members of boyband TVXQ sued SM Entertainment to get out of their 13 year contract with its billions of dollars in potential penalties. In 2017, the Commission handed down a slate of six new contract regulations:
- A reduction in debt penalties for trainees breaking their contracts
- A prohibition on clauses forcing trainees and idols to renew their contracts
- A requirement for the companies to give due notice before cancelling a contract
- A prohibition on cancelling contracts for unclear reasons
- The removal of clauses which force trainees to pay penalties immediately upon breaking their contract
- An expansion of existing laws to cover all South Korean courts, not just Seoul
Sounds like a good start, but there’s nothing to prevent abuse within the bounds of training programs. There’s nothing to stop the companies from having the contractual power to starve children, work them to the bone, and dispose of them at will.
One wonders why people put up with this. Why do parents and aspiring idols work within this insane system? Why don’t some entrepreneurial musicians start their own bands or production companies and raise idols without forcing them through this madness?
To understand why not, you have to grasp…
Part 5 – The Machine
The inner workings of K-pop production companies are understandably obscure and mysterious. East Asian corporate culture prizes hierarchy, compliance, and privacy, especially compared to the comparatively free-wheeling, entrepreneurial atmosphere of Western tech companies. So while I don’t have anywhere close to a comprehensive understanding of how K-pop production companies operate, I think I have enough details from interviews and academic articles to piece together some of their methods and to understand how the general market structure of K-pop contributes to its worst aspects.
While researching K-pop and especially the trainee system, I was constantly reminded of the book, Little Soldiers by Lenora Chu, on which I wrote a review a while ago.
Little Soldiers is a memoir in which Chu (an American of Chinese descent) recounts her experience of raising and educating her young son in Shanghai while researching the Chinese education system. She discovered things like three year old children taking pre-MBA classes, kindergarteners not being allowed to drink water in class, elementary school students having 60+ hours per week of study and extracurriculars, etc. By her account, even for preschool and elementary children, the entire Chinese education system is based on a hyper-competitive, highly evaluative system where kids are pushed to the breaking point for the sake of hopefully gaining tiny marginal academic advantages over their peers.
While reading the book, I constantly wondered… what’s the point? Why would parents put their children through all this, especially such young children?
But of course, I knew the point…. to give their children an advantage in life. Chinese parents believe that by being so strict with their kids from the start, they instill discipline, inculcate more learning ability, and boost their child over others. Doing this in pre-school hopefully leads to advantages in elementary school, which hopefully leads to compounding advantages in high school, and then college, and then grad school, and then professionally, and then for marriage, and then financially, and then for the rest of their lives.
But after reading the book, and looking at Chinese education results, and having experience in the Chinese education system myself (not as a student), I still wonder: what’s the point?
It’s not at all clear that this ultra-rigorous, painful, exhausting education process actually gets good results. Despite the comparatively soft, squishy, weak education system of the US (and presumably the rest of the West), young Americans don’t seem appreciably worse off than young Chinese people. At best, the Chinese education system creates great test-takers, as evidenced by PISA and SAT scores, but as Scott Alexander points out, this data is highly ambiguous to say the least. Some people like the Education Realist go as far as to say the Asian academic strength metrics are a complete illusion propped up by rampant cheating and brute force study methods which don’t indicate any genuine academic merit.
But even if the benefits are real, are they worth it? Is it worth unending work, stunted personal development, and a generally miserable childhood to go to a slightly better university which will hopefully lead to a slightly higher income?
The parallel between Chu’s description of the Chinese education system and my description of the K-pop trainee system are obvious.
Aspiring K-pop stars go through a nightmarish training gauntlet for years which includes 16+ hour work weeks (including school), borderline-starvation diets, extensive behavior restrictions, and a variety of other abuses, just to have a shot at becoming an idol. Meanwhile, Western pop stars… don’t. I mean, they certainly train a lot and work hard and face their own difficulties, but somehow the West produces great pop stars without these abusive training camps. I can’t say I’m an expert on the relevant technical matters, but I can’t imagine that there is something inherent to the artistry of K-pop which absolutely necessitates this process.
So then why does the training process exist? Why is K-pop based on such an extreme system when it doesn’t seem to produce appreciably better results?
I don’t have a full answer to this question, but I think part of it has to do with…
The South Korean music industry is far more centralized than the Western music production industry due to the concentration of creative control within the production companies rather than the performers. This allows South Korean companies to exert more control over their talent than in the West. Consider:
No musical artist or band works alone. They all have managers, agents, and production companies to assist in the stardom process: music production, music distribution, arranging events/concerts, wardrobes, travel, licensing, merchandising, etc.
Now, put all that stuff aside except the actual music creation process.
Every musical artist exists on a spectrum of creative control. On one end of the spectrum is absolute artist control. The artist makes every creative decision regarding his musical performances. This artist sings, writes the music, produces the tracks, picks his own clothes, forms his own dance choreography, designs his own shows, etc. For example, Michael Jackson was famous for his obsessive attention to detail over his performances and image. He wrote most of his most famous songs, chose his outfits, designed his dance choreography, etc.
On the other end of the spectrum, absolute creative control lies with the music production company. A team is assigned to build to a performance for the musical artist, or in extreme cases, the team already has a performance built and searches for a musical artist to slide into it. This is not to say that there is no artistry or talent involved, only that the creativity is distributed to a committee rather than concentrated in a single artist or band. For example, Rhianna was a prototypical performer on this side of the spectrum early in her career. She had a good-but-not-great singing voice, looked pretty, wore fancy outfits, put on great shows, but made few creative decisions regarding her acts.
On the spectrum of creative control, K-pop music is nearly always overwhelmingly tilted towards the production companies. With rare exceptions (EDIT – “Anonymous” in the comment section has good examples of some of the more famous idols and groups exercising a bit more creative control over their work, including Itzy and Hwasa.), virtually all creative decisions are made by company committees and no creative decisions are made by the idols themselves.
Because of this, the companies have all the power. The creativity is the X factor, the special sauce, the heart of the product. Dancing, singing, and most other aspects of performing can be taught by brute force to any individual of sufficient inherent ability. Hence, K-pop idols are largely interchangeable. At worse, they’ve been called “trained monkeys.” The companies can manufacture them from the ground-up through the training process and then clothe them in creative work generated more efficiently by others.
Among other reasons, I don’t think this paradigm would work in the West because there’s a cultural stigma against inauthenticity. Performers who have too little creative control over their work are considered artificial, sterile, shallow, and inauthentic. Though some of these performers rise to fame and fortune, there’s still an artistry stigma against their quality as musicians. The true “musical greats” are nearly all auteurs to one degree or another championed for their innovation, craft, and authenticity as true artists.
South Korean culture seems to have no such qualms. I believe that neither K-pop fans nor East Asian cultures in general place much, if any emphasis on authenticity as an artistic virtue.
(I know that’s a massive claim, and I was originally going to try to fully justify it in this essay, but this thing is long enough already so I’ll branch it off into another future essay. For now, I’ll at least put together some pieces to form the greater picture.)
Hence K-pop fans don’t mind if virtually every aspect of an idol’s performance – the melody, the lyrics, the outfits, the persona, etc. – are crafted by unseen committees operating under marketing-based directives. I think the closest the West gets to this phenomenon is the so-called “Disney kids” whose careers are closely guided and managed through music, tv, and movies by the Disney Corporation. But at least stars like Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Zendaya, and the Jonas Brothers eventually break out and helm more independent trajectories, often to great fame and fortune. The public expects child stars to transition to adulthood and find their own mature artistic voice, for better or worse. At least the public expects that they aren’t micromanaged by Disney until their mid-30s while giving 90% of their paychecks to the company to pay back their debts.
To put this together – the South Korean tolerance for artistic inauthenticity allows artistic decision making to be hoarded by production companies who then use their power and wealth to manufacture stars who essentially serve as vassals that perform and have careers due to creative grants bestowed upon them.
I think this explains why there is no indie K-pop scene, or barely any South Korean indie music at all. Or maybe there is… I honestly don’t know. A 2018 Metro article says there’s a thriving indie scene in South Korea, but a 2020 Koreaboo article says the indie scene is “dead” because a crazy punk band got naked on stage in 2005, subsequently got arrested and put on probation for two years, and then all the state-backed media agencies banned all the indie music production companies for a while. The Wikipedia article for “Korean indie” seems to suggest it’s mostly a local scene in a few regions of South Korea, though there is increasing interest from production companies. As far as I can tell, what Korean indie music does exist is mostly rock, punk, and folk, but not K-pop.
(EDIT – a commenter has pointed out that the most popular music in South Korea as shown by the Gaoan Music Chart is a mixture of K-pop, rappers, and ballads. The latter two have a fair amount of independent production.)
Given the extraordinary costs and vanishingly small odds of success of becoming a trainee within the K-pop idol manufacturing process, I would think that Korean entrepreneurs or independently-minded performers would circumvent the idol system. I mean, do you really need performers to practice 10-12 hours per day and nearly starve themselves and live in cultish compounds to become idols? Can’t some talented singers just practice and write/produce songs in their free time, rent a studio for recordings, and release their music on Apple Music or Spotify (or whatever they use in South Korea)? Couldn’t they even make simple music videos to showcase their dancing and fashion, and put them on YouTube? Thousands of Western artists are doing this all the time on video and digital music distribution platforms, and occasionally they launch to phenomenal careers, like Justin Bieber and countless Soundcloud rappers. I don’t know of any logistical issues that prohibit South Koreans from doing the same thing.
My guess is that there are three reasons we aren’t seeing independent music producers and entrepreneurs destroy the current market structure dominated by major production companies:
First, as I’ll get into later, the production companies are supported by the South Korean government. Financial and regulatory control creates barriers to entry for smaller competitors.
Second, I think K-pop fans have a strong preference for the capital-intensive components of K-pop which indie producers would have trouble replicating. That is, K-pop fans like that their idols devote practically every second of their lives to performing, and that they obsessively maintain inhuman beauty standards through costly plastic surgery and expensive clothes, and that K-pop music videos are shot with high production values that no home studio could ever match. These are all aspects that Western audiences generally find off-putting because of their artificiality, but because of South Korea’s high tolerance (if not preference) for artificiality, these capital-intensive production aspects serve to erect more barriers to entry for the K-pop market.
Third, there seems to be a lack of entrepreneurial culture and/or climate in South Korea. It’s easy to see this in South Korea’s education system, which like China’s, is highly oriented towards rote memorization, testing, and extraordinarily long hours. I suspect that kids raised in an environment where the only formal path to success is to get a near-perfect score on a country-wide standardized test are not going to be naturally inclined towards entrepreneurialism. Plus South Korea, like Japan and much of East Asia, is a generally conservative, hierarchical, risk-averse society compared to the more individualist West.
Just to show I’m not completely talking out of my ass, Googling “South Korea entrepreneurship” brings up a whole lot of articles talking about the lack of entrepreneurialism in South Korea. From a 2010 article:
“I found almost unanimous opinion that a negative attitude lingers towards “entrepreneurs,” “risk” and “failure,” which is blocking the emergence of new innovators.”
From a 2016 article:
“Despite the impressive number, Korea is still in the premature stage, in terms of entrepreneurship, due to its traditional cultural principles. One of the key characteristics of Korean businesses is a highly centralized and bureaucratized managerial structure… Professor Kae H. Chung mentions that an authority is centered towards the upper level of the managerial hierarchy, suppressing individualism, an important component of entrepreneurship; ideally, as Jonathan Rosenberg states… “when it comes to the quality of decision-making, pay level is intrinsically irrelevant and experience is valuable only if it is used to frame a winning argument.””
To recap – the K-pop production companies have a stranglehold on K-pop creativity, and innovators won’t disrupt this paradigm because the companies are too entrenched due to government and cultural forces, and there isn’t enough entrepreneurial energy to break their position.
To go another level deeper… who are the creatives? Yes, the production companies control the creativity, but who among these faceless suits is actually making the creative decisions?
K-pop production companies outsource most of their creativity to Western artists. At least as of 2016, an estimated 80% of K-pop songs were written or produced by Westerners, particularly Scandinavians.
From a 2013 paper by Korea University Sociology Professor Park Gil-sung:
“…the actual production, performance, and dissemination of K-pop contents have little to do with the so-called Asian pop-culture system, which would entail K-pop producers globally promoting their artists by actively mimicking Chinese, Japanese, or Indian popular music. Instead, after drawing upon Korean talent pools and management to generate music and performers, K-pop producers rely heavily on the global music industries of North America and Europe for creativity… all three major entertainment companies in the K-pop industry have actively outsourced creativity and reprocessed it in their own labs to generate megahits in Korea, Asia, and the rest of the world.”
Park describes K-pop production across a global supply chain. First, creativity is sourced in the US, Europe, and Japan to produce the performances; second, South Korean production teams tweak the material and then package it in home-grown talent farmed through their trainee system; third, the performances are channeled through digital and live performance distribution systems around the world. A different 2016 paper characterizes this process as akin to a corporation importing raw material, processing it into a product, and then exporting it for consumption.
Park uses SM Entertainment, the largest of the Big Three, as a case study for their accomplishment of “master[ing] the process of outsourcing creativity, while internally supplying and training talented young artists.” Founded in 1995, CEO Lee Soo-man pioneered the system which was to become the foundation of K-pop. Lee had a breakthrough when he linked up with Pelle Lidell, a Swedish music producer who ran production camps in the US and Europe. In 2010, Lidell established a production camp in Sweden to gather Scandinavian and British producers who churned out 21 songs for SM in four days.
Once songs are delivered to SM, they are tweaked and refined for K-pop. Initially, Lee would manually edit them to his satisfaction, but as the company expanded and the workload became too great, he began to institutionalize the process and even wrote a manual for “manufacturing creativity.” Over the years, SM expanded and refined its outsourcing and inhouse processes until it had a network across Europe to generate hits and a dedicated inhouse team to effectively package them. Other K-pop production companies have largely followed this model, though none as prolifically as SM, which is still the largest of the Big Three.
Aside from sheer efficiency, another factor driving the creative outsourcing is the lack of individualized credit given to creatives in South Korean companies. East Asian companies in general tend to be more hierarchical, with value and credit flowing upwards to bosses. In a creative field like music, this results in lower-level creatives not receiving adequate attention or rewards for individualized work. This issue is further exacerbated by a top-down production method where bosses and committees order their creatives to work along marketing-based principles, thereby restricting creative freedom. Lidell notes that at least Korean companies are quite clear in their directives while he “could never get [his] head around J-pop and what the Japanese wanted.”
There is some evidence that K-pop idols are slowly gaining more control over creative input. A 2019 Vice article says the number of self-producing K-pop bands is “rapidly increasing.” Three of BTS’s seven members are involved in their songwriting process, though how much involvement they have is a matter of debate. Some people claim their pronounced writing credits are a PR stunt, likely fueled by BTS’s global appeal which reaches deep into Western markets where artistic authenticity is more appreciated. From University of London’s Cai Padget:
“However an increase in idol-written lyrics could just be the company tapping in on a future trend, which is likely considering they are a business, rather than an increasing respect for artistic freedom, meaning that ultimately the artists have no more freedom than before as they are still being used rather than respected.”
Padget also notes that while production companies have been loosening the reigns and allowing more creative expression from their idols, most creative idols seemingly don’t have enough time to write or produce music given their incredibly busy schedules. And I’m sure it doesn’t help that idols receive no writing or production training throughout their lengthy training process.
A big irony of K-pop is that its most successful song of all time wasn’t produced by the K-pop production company system. “Gangnam Style,” was such a momentous event for K-pop that many analysts refer to the entire genre as existing in pre-Gangnam and post-Gangnam eras. Yet the song’s creator, Psy, is an example of the rare indie K-pop producer.
As you can tell by looking at him, Psy does not fit the mold of a typical idol. He was born to a wealthy family in the Gangnam District of Seoul, the flashiest part of the city. In grade school, he was known as the class clown and didn’t get along with teachers. Psy enrolled in Boston University to get a business degree to prepare to work under his father, but he quickly dropped out and spent his tuition money on musical equipment to launch an indie music production career. He later enrolled in the private Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts while continuing to dabble in independent production.
After graduating, Psy spent ten years as a weird rebel on the fringes of the K-pop system. In 2001, he released his first album, Psy from the Psycho World!, and was promptly fined by the South Korean government for “inappropriate lyrics,” though I can’t find any description of what constituted “inappropriate” besides one song entitled “I Love Sex.” The next year, at a live performance he smashed a toy American army tank on the ground and joined in anti-American chants from the crowd. Two years later, at another concert, Psy rapped a verse about American soldiers and their families dying “slowly and painfully,” for which he has since apologized.
From 2003-2005, Psy was conscripted by the military but avoided active duty by opting for a technical job at a software company. In 2007, Psy was charged by the government for dereliction of duty for constantly missing work to further his music career. That year, he was redrafted and forced to serve a normal military role until 2009.
My understanding is that Psy survived in K-pop despite breaking every norm of the industry because he carved out his own odd niche. Instead of the sterile uber-hotness of most idols, Psy was pudgy and normal looking. He was a great dancer, but in a goofy way that appeared far more natural compared to the obsessively-practiced moves of the typical idol. Instead of bowing to censorship and cashing in on watered-down family-friendly lyrics, Psy’s music (which he personally wrote, produced, and dance choreographed) was repeatedly investigated by the government, and many of his albums were officially prohibited from sales to people under 19 due to their allegedly anti-societal content. And yet Psy also managed to pick up some accolades and remained a name in the K-pop scene.
Then in 2012, Psy released “Gangnam Style,” a Weird Al-ish parody of shallow consumerism in his home district of Seoul. The song was not intended for global markets but out of nowhere it rose to a worldwide phenomenon. On December 21, the “Gangnam Style” music video became the first YouTube video to pass 1 billion views, and remained the most-watched and most liked video until 2017.
Psy, who had previously alternated between independent music production and working under the K-pop production companies, used his newfound fame to operate almost as a freelancer, bouncing between YG Entertainment (one of the Big Three), US-based Schoolboy Records, and independently funding his own productions. Fame did not blunt his rebellious streak, as the music video to “Gentleman” (his next song after “Gangnam Style”) was banned in South Korea for “showing destruction of [government] property.”
I bring up Psy as a counterpoint to some of my critiques in this essay. I think the K-pop production system has many foul elements, and is arguably evil on the whole given what it does to its artists and fans. And I think the unique cultural attributes of South Korea and probably broadly East Asia share a significant portion of that blame.
However, I have no doubt that despite those issues, there are brilliant, talented, creative minds in South Korea. As a controversial, politically outspoken, fringe figure, Psy did more to globally popularize K-pop than any faceless production company and its legions of trainees. Many of the top idols within those companies are universally acknowledged as incredibly charismatic performers who deserve the extreme level of adoration they receive. And K-pop itself originated from Seo Taiji and the Boys, a group of auteurs who daringly challenged the status quo of a conservative society and birthed an entire genre of music.
As artificial, committee-designed, and even soulless as I think so much of K-pop is, I also acknowledge the wonderful creativity on its margins, and I hope such voices gain more control over the industry in the future.
K-pop is heavily intertwined and influenced by the South Korean government.
The story that prompted this particular bit of statecraft sounds apocryphal, but supposedly in the mid-1990s, South Korean President Kim Young Sam was shown a report that the export revenues created by Jurassic Park for the United States were worth the export sale of 1.5 million Hyundai cars. This led the president to conclude that the future of economic competition was to be won in the cultural sphere rather than manufacturing sector. Thus the president and his administration launched a major initiative to manually boost South Korea’s cultural production through the creation of an array of new research agencies, government projects, and tax cuts and subsidies for entertainment companies. The state even founded a college for the study of Japanese manga comics.
In 2014, the South Korean government spent 1% of its national budget on cultural activities. Going by 2017 data, that’s about $35 billion, a tremendous amount considering the fairly small size of the major K-pop production companies (which max out at $0.5 billion in revenue). Unfortunately, I’m not sure precisely how this money is distributed but according to a 2020 American Affairs article, the South Korean government currently provides more start-up capital to small and mid-sized entertainment firms than venture capitalists. The government has also pledged to help K-pop idols get around military conscription, though as far as I can tell, there is no outright exemption.
Right around the same time the government began its major cultural initiative, “Hallyu” or the “Korean Wave” began – a burst of South Korean cultural productivity including K-pop, Korean soap operas, Korean movies, and Korean cosmetics. Combined, these new products launched the country onto the cultural world stage.
But it’s not clear where the cause-and-effect lies. Did the government jump-start a cultural renaissance through some incredible act of foresight? Or did the government just happen to invest right when Korean creativity was taking off?
I couldn’t say for sure without a deeper dive into the question, but my libertarian senses say the government got lucky. More significantly, annual government expenditure on cultural matters prior to 2012 was under $1 million, and spiked soon afterward. I can’t imagine such sums made a significant impact.
Regardless, the South Korean government presently spends quite a bit of money on its people’s music. So why does the government care so much about K-pop?
First, the South Korean government sees K-pop as its greatest source of soft power, or even prestige. Today, it is the country’s most profitable and well-known cultural export, and makes South Korea a globally known nation. NPR has likened the relationship between the South Korean government and K-pop to the US government and the automobile or banking sectors. The military even blasts K-pop music 6.2 miles across the North Korean border to psych out their starving brethren and hopefully encourage defection with lyrics about how happy and awesome the South is. The government and/or private civilians may also be launching drones into the North carrying USB drives full of K-pop.
The overseas growth of K-pop is encouraged by pseudo-imperialistic strategies. Over the past decade, K-pop production companies have scouted out local talent across East Asian (particularly China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand), recruited trainees, folded them into bands, and then launched the bands as first wave cultural assaults to gain footholds in the countries. Such bands will replace the usual random English phrases in their songs with Chinese, Thai, or whatever language best suits their targeted country. While these strategies are primarily used to expand the K-pop markets and make money, I have no doubt the South Korean government also enjoys seeing its cultural influence spread to new regions.
Second, I hope it’s not too conspiratorial to suggest that the South Korean government sees K-pop as a means of social control. As stated, K-pop music is strictly family-friendly with no mention of drugs, violence, politics, and more than allusions to sex, all of which play into the cultural expectations of older, conservative Koreans who dominate the political and economic elite.
Given the financial support granted by the government, I’m sure the production companies are happy to oblige, but just in case they aren’t, the government is surprisingly liberal in its censorship. Or rather, the media companies which function as quasi-governmental agencies are rather liberal with their censorship on their broadcasting channels, radio stations, and websites. Wikipedia has a “non-exhaustive” list of 37 K-pop music videos which have been banned from major South Korean media outlets for reasons including:
- “Homosexual imagery”
- “Lyrics depicting sexual intercourse between a man and a woman”
- “Lyrics alluding to sexual activity with three people”
- “Lyrics describing unwholesome dating methods”
- “Explicit dance moves”
- “Depiction of traffic violations – driving without a seatbelt on, dancing on top of buses and in roads”
- “Violent lyrics”
- “Imagery of nudity, tattoos, and smoking”
- “Use of a brand name”
- “Mention of Instagram”
- “Indirect advertisement”
- “Use of a Japanese word for the title”
- “’Devaluing human life by having the members be wrapped in plastic packages”
I previously mentioned that the music video for Psy’s 2013 hit, “Gentleman,” was banned in South Korea for “showing destruction of [government] property.” To witness Psy’s debauchery for yourself, watch the first six seconds of the music video:
That’s it. That is the destruction of government property. Watch the whole video if you don’t believe me. I guess the censors care more about traffic cones than pulling off a woman’s bathing suit or doing a crotch-thrust dance on a playground full of children.
My understanding is that the government has far more power than even censorship. If necessary, they can even provide directives to the companies to alter their operations, though this seems to be rarely done. For instance, in 2019, the government’s “Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” issued “guidelines” to the K-pop industry to make K-pop idols more diverse. The concern wasn’t racial or ethnic, but physical, with the letter complaining that most female idols look like “twins” and are “skinny and have similar hairstyles and makeup with outfits exposing their bodies.”
But if there is anything Koreans love, it’s their hot idols. A popular petition calling for the Ministry’s abolition on the grounds of censorship soon amassed enough signatures to catch the executive office’s attention, and the Ministry was quietly told to shut up. No similar petitions have been launched to defend Psy kicking a traffic cone or those women who wrapped themselves in plastic packages.
While a lot of the censorship may be petty (and basically pointless since everything is on YouTube anyway), it’s also a continuation of dark policies which a fairly liberal society and state should have moved beyond. The South Korean government employed ample censorship for decades after the Korean War while it flailed back-and-forth between autocratic military rule and fledgling republicanism. The media was especially closely monitored due to fears of North Korean and communist propaganda. 1987 marked the start of the Sixth Republic and the foundations of legitimate liberal rule, but some vestiges of censorship remain. State control over K-pop, whether by subsidies, guidelines, or outright censorship of content, seems to be one of the last forms of government control over cultural norms left in South Korea.
One of the other great ironies of K-pop is that it was founded on subversion. In addition to their musical innovation, Seo Taiji and the Boys were known for their controversial lyrics which challenged conservative Korean norms. Their song, “Gyosil Idea” accused the Korean education system of manipulating and “brainwashing” youth, while other songs allegedly contained anti-government insinuations. The state repeatedly clamped down on The Boys’s tracks, even demanding the rewriting of lyrics, but also prompting tremendous pushback from the public through national petitions and letter writing campaigns. Eventually, the pressure from the government was great enough to contribute to the dissolution of Seo Taiji and the Boys after a short four year run.
To Give Credit Where It’s Due
In this essay I have been mostly negative toward K-pop and overwhelmingly negative toward the K-pop production companies. So let me give some credit where it’s due.
The global popularity of K-pop is staggering when considering the relative size of South Korea. I can’t think of another country which is synonymous with an entire genre of music and which has such a dedicated global following. No, it’s not quite US or UK levels, but considering that South Korea was dirt-poor only 70 years ago, it’s amazing that this country of just over 50 million people is such a major cultural force around the world. Going by sales and my subjective evaluation, K-pop has long since outpaced J-pop, it’s greatest source of inspiration. The music industry of mighty China sitting nearby with 28 times the population is utterly dwarfed by South Korea’s.
Likewise, the global popularity of K-pop is also staggering considering the relative size of the South Korean production companies. In 2019, of the Big Three:
- SM Entertainment reported revenues of $554 million, and profits of $34 million
- YG Entertainment reported revenues of $223 million, and profits of $1.7 million
- JYP Entertainment reported revenues of $130 million, and profits of $36 million
Also in 2019, for the first time ever, the Big Three were surpassed in profitability by another production company. Big Hit Entertainment, producers of BTS and almost nothing else, reported $495 million in revenue, and $83 million in profits.
In comparison, of the US’s “Big Three” in 2019:
- Universal Music Group reported revenues of $7.7 billion, and profits of $1.3 billion
- Sony Music (which is American owned and operated but a distant subsidiary of Japanese Sony) reported revenues of $4.17 billion, and profits of $1.3 billion
- Warner Music Group reported revenues of $4.47 billion, and profits of $256 million
So the four largest South Korean music production companies combined don’t make half as much revenue as the third-largest American record label.
Again, that’s pretty damn amazing. The American companies have billions of dollars to throw behind their pop stars while the faceless, grey, slave-driving Korean mega-corps are practically mom-and-pop shops with their paltry hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The incomes of each member of BTS might be minor compared to Western pop stars, but as a whole, the band earned about half as much as its production company, or even more impressively, about 1/10th of corporate revenues. There’s no doubt that the major K-pop production companies are massively punching above their weights.
Finally, the K-pop production companies deserve credit for refining their process. Throughout all these years of outsourcing talent, they have apparently been learning Western techniques and slowly building their own inhouse creative teams. From Pelle Lidell, the Swedish music producer who was instrumental in SM Entertainment:
“If I compare 2009 with 2017 and look at all the new hot producers in Korea, they were not there eight years ago. That is just looking at an eight-year perspective, the huge increase in competency… The Eastern competency level [in pop music production] today is almost on par with the Western, which is standing still.”
This seems to be a broader East Asian trend, or maybe even a business modus operandi. Famously, during the 1970s-90s, Japanese and Korean car companies took Western and European designs, applied higher quality standards and a variety of innovative improvements, and ended up crushing the American car manufacturers with superior products in the 90s and 2000s. A similar process occurred with Japanese and Korean electronics throughout the same era.
While I think the gap between Korean and Western music is too big for K-pop to crush Western pop in the same manner, judging by the surging earnings of BTS and a few of the top bands, it looks the East Asians are catching up in yet another domain. The Korean production companies have learned the best practices from Western music producers, used them to launch their own artists to global superstardom, and are likely in the process of trying to convert their creativity imports into homegrown creative production.
After all that, what do I think of K-pop?
I wish I could make a grand judgement on the music, performances, and industry as a whole, but I’m of two minds.
One part of me puts K-pop in the category of blood diamonds. Even if there’s nothing ethically wrong with the product on its own, in my judgement the product is produced by immoral means and contributes to suffering. The K-pop production companies exploit ignorant children, teenagers, and parents, inflicting medium-term pain and significant long-term opportunity costs. The music also feeds a fan culture which leads to obsessiveness and unhealthy psychological loops. And at the center of it all, idols seem to live miserable lives with few meaningful rewards except for the very top performers.
If my assessment on all these levels is correct, then I don’t want to enjoy K-pop. I don’t care if the music is catchy, dancing is fun, or the idols are beautiful if misery and exploitation are behind it all.
But the other part of me still says I can’t make a firm judgement on K-pop. It’s all too vast and mysterious for me to wrap my mind around. The idea that parents would allow or encourage their children to become idols seems so crazy to me that I feel like I must be missing something. Being an outside observer of a culture can allow for a greater level of objectivity and perspective, but at the expense of texture and nuance.
As I mentioned, maybe Western celebrity culture is just as insane to a hard-Googling South Korean as K-pop culture is to me. Maybe my South Korean counterpart would conclude that Americans are fine with hounding our stars into perpetual misery with the paparazzi, and that Hollywood is literally run by pedophiles. I could come up with explanations for how there is some truth to these claims, but the incidents are probably mostly isolated and the public is on the right side, and so on, but he might have similar explanations for K-pop’s apparent failings.
Hopefully the feedback I get from this essay will push me a bit closer to making a judgement. If I’m not shown any serious errors in my sources or analysis, I’ll be more confident in condemning K-pop, at least in its past and current forms. The impenetrability of East Asian culture can only go so far.
But If diehard K-pop fans and cultural insiders can show me the error of my ways, I’m more than willing to adjust parts of the essay to reflect my change in thought.
 https://www.ifpi.org/media/downloads/GMR2019-en.pdf – IFPI Global Music Report 2019
 “K-pop in Korea: How the Pop Music Industry is Changing a Post-Development Society.” Ingyu Oh.