PRO current idol manufacturing system:
[Debate] Gradual improvements in the K-pop idol system
By Lee Seung-hwan, TV Critic
Both K-pop group Girls’ Generation and folk singer IU work under the thoroughgoing production efforts of their management companies. In addition to their musical activities, they are active in various other areas in the arts and television miniseries, and they are referred to as icons of the era amid enthusiastic attention from fans and the public. There is no reason to say IU is not an “idol” simply because she performs folk music. The South Korean idol industry has already become an independent ecosystem carrying within it a diverse range of genres. It is something of a prejudice to believe that all those working in it will be developed according to more or less the same system.
If Korean idols do possess a similarity, it is that they are required to be multi-talented. They have to be able to handle dancing and live performance, they have to have top-level acting talent, and they have to be well-spoken and demonstrate special talents. This seemingly harsh goal of the “complete entertainment industry man or woman” was, in reality, set by the public. In the era when performance-style singers were not that common, the public told their idols to “dance like Michael Jackson, perform live, and write your own music.” Those appearing in miniseries were criticized as “moving in on other people’s turf out of mere faith in their popularity.”
It might have been fine for everyone had they been able to dedicate themselves to music, but the collapse of the South Korean music market, with its failure to keep step with the arrival of the MP3, made that an impossibility. In a situation where survival was impossible without diversification of revenue windows, the solution was to foster new, multi-talented entertainers who could satisfy all of the public’s expectations. The expenses grew the longer the training period lasted, as did the level of dependence on the revenue flow generated by affiliated singers. Contract periods grew longer as a matter of course, and the idol industry turned into gambling, with large risks and large rewards.
It is too late for regrets, but the idol industry did assure itself a relatively stable market by winning over the pan-Asian market in the late 2000s, and a standard exclusive contract emerged to protect singers from unfair contract structures. Presented by the Fair Trade Commission in 2008, this contract is, strictly speaking, a recommendation, but the country’s three major management agencies are working to implement terms at its levels. The system has reached some degree of stability, and the contract that binds a singer for more than a decade is gradually becoming a thing of the past. The exclusive contract for Super Junior lasts five years, as does Big Bang’s, while 2PM’s does not exceed the maximum recommended level of seven years.
The current system is not problem-free. But at the present time, when it has managed to proceed from gambling to the industry stage, what is needed is not drastic change. Rather, it is consideration for how to effect gradual improvements in the system. This is even more the case if one considers how much trial and error preceded the emergence of even this imperfect system. And the efforts to formulate plans for such improvements will become possible from an affirmation of the idol development system.
AGAINST current idol manufacturing system:
[Debate] K-pop an extension of S.Korea’s troubled economic structure
By Choi Ji-seon, Music Critic
Another round has begun in the K-Pop/Korean Wave debate. The “idol” training system is once again appearing alongside the achievements of the so-called “post-Korean Wave” as a problematic topic of discussion. As is well known, K-Pop, as represented by “idols,” is the product of a very particular star system. Most characteristic of this is an education and training system that has been referred to as the “apprenticeship system” or “academy.” Based on this system, entertainment companies have overseen and controlled all areas and processes from planning and production to management. This bears a connection with the immense and complex organizations that companies have become compared to the past, as well as their adoption of a “one source, multi-use” strategy.
As a result, the training subjects have expanded and differentiated over time. In addition to singing and dancing, language studies have become an essential, along with personal skills such as acting talent and an entertainment sense, and adjustment of physical appearance. Apprentices are selected at a young age and subjected to a long and arduous training process.
The recent pop music produced by idols, which many have said represents an evolution, was born out of this process. The diverse array of images seen in pop groups and their dynamic and coordinated dancing are things that were manufactured this way. The creation of brands for the different entertainment companies and, further, the development of a “made in Korea” Asian pop with a meaning beyond that of popular domestic music also owe a debt to this system.
But as the training and development system has become more thorough and systematized, it has taken on a negative sense. Criticisms of the coordination and management of even the creative aspects, and of the mass production of uniform music, are nothing new. In addition, increased investment in entertainment companies has led to the firm establishment of a system designed to recoup as much of it as possible within a short period of time. As a result, apprentices have to go through a lot of efforts even after making their debut, and they have to remain as “exclusive property” for a long period of time. The unfair contract practices between companies and individuals, and the inappropriate compensation systems, will continue to be the topic of discussion in the days ahead, and they will also create a dilemma in terms of overseas expansion when compared to the current situation in the West.
But this emerged from a process of the idol star system becoming incorporated into the logic of capital and industry. This also bears connection with an economic and social structure in South Korea that demands excessively intense labor and fails to compensate it appropriately. It offers an unvarnished picture of a capitalist society that emphasizes extreme competition. It would not be strange to describe the myth of the overseas expansion of K-Pop as homologous to the Korean-style industry structure in which companies are compelled to emphasize exporting. In this sense, the system may be a cultural version of the “myth of economic growth,” which sought to integrate the work force and overcome other problems with the “fantasy of dedication and effort” and the “diligence ideology.” Such a star system becomes a double-edged sword.