Understanding The Negative Sides Of K-pop Industry

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The era of Korean pop music (shortly K-pop) began in the 1990s with the rise of Seotaiji and the Boys – a hip-hop group with their hit single Nan Arayo/I Know – who brought a new audience to music: teenagers. Idols’ job is not merely to sing, but also partaking in other fields such as K-dramas, movies, and so on. By now, it is reported that there are more than 1,000 entertainment companies are active in South Korea with the “big three” record labels and entertainment agencies being SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment.

Money is the “alpha and omega of K-pop,” writes John Lie (Lie, 2014). However, the songs themselves express the younger generation’s hopes, dreams, and problems at which they are targeted. These artists were usually recruited from a young age through street recruitment, open competitions, and auditions. While other methods were not uncommon, auditions within the entertainment companies have become the most common way for aspiring artists to make it into the trainee system. Once they are believed to be fully prepared, they debut into the K-pop world and perform until the finale lifespan of their group. This kind of lifestyle needs a mindset that most Koreans adopt: hard work is the key to success.

This essay will primarily draw on the theory of stress, burnout, and emotions. Aside from that, it also aims to examine the treatment they get throughout their career. There will be a focus on the contracts idol sign, what causes idol suing their companies, along with the training and treatment of the idols.

Slave contract is a contract aspiring K-pop idols known as “trainee” signs when joining a company that classified with terms and conditions that the artist thought not fair or unjust. The contract works by starting a debt when the artist signed on, that increases as time goes by. This debt covers monthly allowance and all the training costs. So any money they earn as an idol goes towards repaying their company, known as “break-even point.” Therefore, it can take ages for the groups to reach the break-even point.

There have been various cases of artists who were taking their company to court over unfair treatment. As an illustration, three members of DBSK – the first major group to take their company to court – mentioned a 13-year-long contract as one of the reasons, with the unfair distribution of profits and excessively long schedules which only allowed them to sleep 3-4 hours per day.

The problem with the distribution of profit is the system. For example, A gets to have all earnings, but will probably end up with extra money than the other members, and sometimes the members also received the wages even when they did not earn it. Another illustration is A is presumably the main visual – focus of the group – and the most famous member and therefore given the most opportunities by the company. Another issue concerning idol contract is the fact that the companies can schedule events without the idols’ consent.

According to Noon et al. (2013), companies may be possibly negligent for putting their workers under unreasonable pressure. In my opinion, excessive stress arising from the job situation probably contradicts health and safety. To illustrate, several of the girls self-harmed to cope with the pressure as reported by Neil Hannigan, a former trainee. The lack of concern from the company, managers, and other trainees is arguably more shocking than the actual incidence of self-harm. Whereas social support from co-workers and organizational support for individuals (accommodating their needs) can reduce stress and burnout (Dewe et al., 2012; see Halbesleben, 2006).

In addition, as stated in Layard’s (2005) research, the workers have not proportionately increased their net amount of happiness even though the societies have become more prosperous. First, for individuals, the costs of the greater affluence – including more considerable anxieties and the requirement to work longer hours – offset any additional happiness that spending the extra income might be expected to generate. Second, satisfaction is more related to a relative, rather than absolute, income.

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Well-known idols sometimes unveil how tough it was for them when they were still a trainee. Training can last anywhere from two months to eight years, and it consists of vocal (singing and rapping), dance, composition and musical instruments to foreign language and manners. Training for such an endeavor requires long and grueling hours in a dance studio for, on average, eight to ten hours a day and extra practice is expected after in preparation for the monthly evaluations. Thus, this intense training has been criticized for being unfair to artists (Jang, 2011). The trainees live in a boarding house – generally with about 30 other trainees – where their daily dawn-to-dusk schedules are tightly filled with lessons as well as regular weigh-ins. That proves by Marco – the first utterly non-Asian trainee – on his YouTube channel that they used to have lessons from midnight to 6 am.

Moreover, the idols are also overworked. For instance, Super Junior’s Leeteuk worked as the MC for three days during a company holiday to Hawaii. He later flew to Shanghai for a solo fan meeting, and after returning to South Korea, he attended various programs as well. Hence, it is no surprise that idols are seen falling asleep due to fatigue. In some circumstances, overworking can lead to mental problems, as reported by Blyton (2014) that ‘working very long hours can harm health, such as poor sleep quality, digestive problems and other consequences of the disruption to physiological rhythms.’

In 2008, Big Bang’s T.O.P developed depression and had frequent anxiety attacks. Recently, Kang Daniel was hospitalized due to fatigue for sleeping three hours a day. JJCC’s Prince Mak also once pointed out that he has never had more than two consecutive days of rest when taking occasional days off should act as a way of coping with ‘the routine frustrations of going to work’ (Edwards and Scullion, 1982).

Experts point out that idols can be extremely vulnerable to depression for various reasons. Kim Byung-soo, a psychiatrist at Asian Medical Center, cited unstable emotional states and separation of identity as significant causes of their recurrent depression. Similarly, Park Sang-hee, a psychiatrist at Sharon Counseling Center, who was also a member of a girl group in the ‘90s, addressed that idols usually are driven into depression by living an unstable and isolated life.

Idols go through a separation of their persona, which is classified into the “social” and “real” identities. As the gap widens, driven by the unbalance growth of their “social” ego that is filled with fame, idols may lose their true selves and depend heavily on the masked appearance that later could tear them apart.

Another step to depression could be isolation. Becoming an idol could be like crossing a river we can never return from. Some people may believe that crowds will always surround celebrities; however, their personal relationships are minimal and narrow. It is tough for them to get involved in serious relationships with others because they tend to become defensive by the thought that people like them just because of their appearance and reputation. Consequently, that makes them lonely and detached, even from their close friends and families.

A manager of a K-pop artist revealed that it is hard to protect idols from stress although they try to monitor their conditions as much as they can, stating that idols cannot get away from the pressure of living up to the public’s standard, notably when they have already experienced fame. From my standpoint, in order to avoid this problem in the future, the companies should have come to respect the health of their artists more, and therefore should actively advising artists to undergo treatment or take a temporary repose if they show signs of deteriorating health. That is, sending them off on vacation during their post-comeback periods to help them relieve stress and have some personal time. It may help them discover new meanings and direction in life, as well as finding new opportunities and perspectives. In addition, companies should also manage their schedules accordingly, make sure it does not make the idols struggle with a demanding workload.

K-pop is an astonishingly different kind of entertainment. It needs time, money, dedication, and sacrifice to make it in such an extremely competitive industry, making it all more valuable to listen to the music and see the choreography brought to life by the idols which have succeeded in nurturing their talents. To summarize, this essay has identified idol contracts, training, and treatment. Hence, to support the view that the life of an idol is hugely demanding, physically and psychologically, evidence has been set forward. The determination of idols and trainees makes both vulnerable to, and even accepting of, mistreatment. It would seem that some within the industry are aware and critical of their treatment (the fact that their favorite idols seldom receive wages). Also, there are several potentials for the company, such as further opportunities and personal satisfaction cannot outweigh the difficulties, which come with the job and lifestyle.

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