Late yesterday evening I thought that, since the year was half over, I would write something about a couple of the new (2016) rookie groups that I consider to have the potential and backing to succeed in the tough world of Kpop. As I began to jot down some notes I realized that without talking a little bit about Kpop as an entity some of what I wrote would be meaningless to some readers so here is some background information.
Kpop is a business, a huge, lightly regulated business that is becoming more and more saturated with both entertainment agencies and Kpop groups. To be able to succeed talent is only one of the requirements, it is no longer just enough to be able to sing, dance, and look good. You also have to be physically fit, determined, and be able to put up with sometimes harsh and rigorous training and exhaustive event schedules. Agencies also like it if you can speak a second language, play an instrument, write lyrics, or compose music. You might well have to subsume your natural character and fit the image the agency has determined for you, plus you will be expected to be good at ‘fan service’ and have no romantic life in case it upsets your fans. If you are naturally funny or have some other ‘talent’ that makes you stand out from the crowd so much the better. Even if you are incredibly good looking, talented and have all the attributes listed above you still need the backing and support of a reputable agency, and a lot of luck.
The Kpop business had, and has, good and bad guys. Originally Kpop agencies were largely unregulated and young wannabe idols were taken advantage of by said agencies who persuaded them to sign unfair contracts. Many trainees received little to no compensation during their trainee years and often lived in agency dorms sleeping 4 or more to a room. Then once they finally debuted the agency would deduct ‘expenses’ for all those trainee years. So some Kpop groups would not, and still often do not, receive a living wage for years after their debut. In 2013 the Wall Street Journal reported that SM Entertainment spent about 3 million US dollars to ‘rear’ a single idol, and that they expected that to be paid back.
Times have changed somewhat since the TVXQ lawsuit against SM which led to the Korean Fair Trade Commission stepping in with templates for future contracts. A law of 2014 does attempt to regulate working conditions and the overt sexualization of underage idols, but one only has to look at current music videos to see that isn’t really working out too well.
Which agency you sign with can make the difference between success or failure. If chosen to debut with one of the ‘big 3’, being SM Entertainment, JPY Entertainment, (although there are fears JPY might fall out of the top three within the next year or two) or YG Entertainment, then the chances of success are higher, not only because of the training, but also because of their power within the entertainment business. They have the contacts, the knowhow, the pool of talented producers, choreographers, sound technicians, stylists etc from which to draw in order to produce the best product. (Training with such a company does not, however, always equal success as trainees are often let go if they aren’t seen as being a good enough investment. Dismissed trainees do sometimes get picked up by other, smaller, agencies, while others just fade away and disappear from the music scene completely. Life is tough in this business.) Remember too that this really is a business and that idols are in many ways seen as commodities.
There quite a few midsize agencies who focus on fewer groups who are doing quite well, noticeably FNC Entertainment, Starship Entertainment, and Plan A Entertainment. There are also entertainment companies who are relying on one group to carry the load until new rookie groups from within those agencies can successfully debut. And then there’s the fly by night agencies who basically con wannabe idols into signing with them with lofty promises which they are unable to keep. More than one idol group has made their debut with one of these agencies to find that unless their first release is a success there will never be a second one. This is a shame as some good talent has been lost to Kpop this way.
Entertainment agencies not only have Kpop artists under contract, they also have actors, comedians, models, and celebrities under their umbrella, so not all revenue come from Kpop. A top Kpop group, however, can bring in a lot of money. Big Bang from YG Entertainment is ranked 54th on the Forbes list of highest paid celebrities in the world, with earnings of 44 million US dollar for the period June 2015 to June 2016. That’s more than Katy Perry, Robert Downey Junior or Elton John. They didn’t just earn this money from music, they also appeared in commercials, print advertising, and at fan meeting etc. At least two members are also actors, and group leader G.Dragon has his fingers in the worlds of fashion, beauty, and design. He also writes and produces songs. Many idols work extremely hard for their money and fame.
Most contracts within the Kpop business allow artists to keep a larger percentage of their overseas and non musical earnings, which is why you see so many Kpop groups performing and working in Japan, which is of course the second largest music market in the world. China is also becoming a popular place to earn extra money. Fan meets in particular are good money makers, being easier to set up than a concert, and bringing in almost as much revenue.
Kpop has a huge following in Asia, and it is gradually spreading around the world. Concerts have been held on every continent except Africa and Antarctica, and with the advent of social media Kpop can be seen and heard on YouTube, and other sites, wherever you might live. Foreign fans are increasing in numbers as the phenomenon spreads around the globe. In 2012 Time magazine said Kpop was “South Korea’s biggest export,” and in 2014 the Economist said that the Kpop culture was”Asia’s foremost trendsetter.” It has become such that without a continually growing international fan base, along with its interest and support, many Kpop groups would cease to exist. The Korean market alone is no longer big enough to support the Kpop industry of today. This is true because whilst popular in Korea, Kpop is not the only genre of music Koreans listen to. Korean’s like to listen to an eclectic range of music from Trot, to traditional, and western styles of music.
Many people have a hard time understanding the allure of Kpop and see it as being unoriginal and lacking in authenticity. Others see it as being all style without substance with an emphasis on the visual, perhaps at the expense of the musical. These things may have some basis in truth if you are talking about Kpop in general; there are groups who don’t have much musical ability or dancing skills, but the same can be said for any genre of music. If you like rock music can you honestly tell me that every rock group is good, of course not, and so it also holds true for Kpop.
Kpop has some incredible singers, dancers, music, and choreography. There’s sweet songs of perfect love, and heart wrenching songs of that love being lost. There’s brash boys showcasing their swag, and beautiful girls hinting at promises, that due to censorship rules can’t be said. There’s songs that lean towards hip-hop, and others that have the hard edge of rock, or the smoothness of R&B. Kpop is varied and groups are beginning to strive to stand out from the crowd. If you look at Big Bang singing Fantastic Baby or Bang Bang Bang you would hardly classify them as belonging to the same genre as Crayon Pop performing Bar Bar Bar. Yes, the middle ground of Kpop has many groups who on the surface may look very similar, with the same clean cut wholesome appearance, pleasant songs and bright and cheerful outfits, but delve a little deeper and I bet even these groups have one or more harder hitting songs up their sleeves.
In some ways Kpop is seasonal and many Kpop groups strive to be the one with the hit summer song of the year. Cute expressions and pastel clothing start to appear on even the usually harder edged groups, and to be honest I’m too old for all that sugary sweetness. But summer will end and my favorite groups will put away all pretenses of summer and the songs and MVs will get darker and stronger, and weirder too and I’ll reminisce about MTV in its heyday and how music still has the power to move me. Yeah I’m old and I’ve lived through multiple music fads and been a fan of many music styles over all those years and I’m not embarrassed to say I like Kpop, why…..because it can make me smile. And that says it all.
Want some recommendations on who to listen to/ watch? Ask me in the comments below.
Have a great day everyone.