The cost of enabling Korea’s Hallyu wave

Sometimes the ends don’t justify the means: Why the K-Pop industry needs reform

Brandon Tan

PHOTO: Photo by Oğuz Şerbetci on Unsplash

Society and culture | East Asia

3 July 2020

Despite the financial success and global appeal of K-pop, all that glitters is not gold, as the K-pop industry is in need of reform, writes Brandon Tan.

Korean pop, or K-pop is more than Psy’s outrageous Gangnam Style fad that became the first video to hit a billion views on YouTube. It’s a music genre beloved by its fans for incorporating well-rehearsed choreographies with addictive melodies.

The genre went worldwide when boy band BTS made history as the first K-pop group to both be nominated for a Grammy award and present at the official ceremony.

Economically, K-pop represents a form of soft power as a $5 billion industry that has successfully served as South Korea’s cultural export by spreading its influence as a core component of the Hallyu Korean wave.

Despite the genre’s critical acclaim and worldwide fanbase, the K-pop music industry incorporates sinister exploitative practices to sustain itself.

South China Morning Post columnist Yonden Lhatoo has described the industry as “the unholy business of putting youngsters through the meat grinder to churn out a seemingly endless supply of assembly-line clones, sliced and diced by cosmetic surgeons to meet the specious standard of plastic perfection that we all know as ‘K-beauty’.”

More on this: Dynastic politics and the slippery slope to war in North Korea

Similar to how 1940s Hollywood governed its movie stars through dubious contracts, many of the K-pop industry’s success stories are tainted by ‘slave contracts’.  This term, as the BBC’s Lucy Williamson explains, highlights how some studios heavily restrict the freedom of K-Pop groups by binding them to rigid terms and conditions. For starters, signing a contract represents a permanent commitment rather than a record deal, as South Korean artists join dedicated academies at a young age to undergo rigorous training dedicated to K-pop, and can train for over a decade before making their official debut within the fiercely competitive industry.

Furthermore, the industry is rife with documented stories of physical and mental abuse, with cases of sexual exploitation even being reported within South Korea. Although plastic surgery in Korea is more culturally accepted and promoted than other parts of the world, there have been claims of agencies forcing their idols to undergo plastic surgery in an attempt to maintain their aesthetics and appeal to their core audience.

So why do these industry practices continue to exist? Various factors can point to why this cycle perpetuates itself: the music industry is heavily reliant on merchandising, as sales are competing against piracy. In addition, producing K-pop is no easy endeavour, as it requires an extensive support staff in the form of managers and production crew, as well as expenses incurred from accommodation, training, and studio rental.  Lastly, entertainment lawyer Sang-hyuk Im notes that hard negotiation culture does not exist within Asia.

Thanks to K-Pop’s exposure to foreign music companies, the winds of change have started to blow through the industry. In 2009, one of K-Pop’s most successful groups, Dong Bang Shin Ki, took their management company to court arguing that their arduous contract length and profit sharing ratio was too restrictive. After the court ruled in favour of the group, the ruling prompted the Korean Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) to improve the deal artists receive from their management companies.  In March 2017, the KFTC released a report on these contracts, which led to a wave of reforms and entertainment companies correcting their practices.

With K-Pop poised to become a global phenomenon, we’ve seen a start to combating the industry’s practices. One can only hope that in the future the music industry remembers to treat their human resources with as much pride as what goes into marketing them.

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