Pres­sure and pop­u­lar­ity force some K-pop stars to aban­don their flock

JoongAng Daily - - Front Page - BY SUNG SO-YOUNG so@joongang.co.kr

Exo fans are still stunned after two of the group’s Chi­nese mem­bers filed sep­a­rate law­suits against SM En­ter­tain­ment to nul­lify the va­lid­ity of their con­tracts.

And some in­dus­try in­sid­ers are con­cerned that one of the most popular K-pop bands will soon see an ex­o­dus of its Chi­nese mem­bers, prompted by the de­par­ture of Luhan and Kris.

Most re­cently, Luhan filed a law­suit Oct. 10 against SM, while another Chi­nese mem­ber, Kris, did the same in May.

There are four Chi­nese mem­bers left, along with six re­main­ing Korean mem­bers.

Luhan re­port­edly cited un­fair dis­tri­bu­tion of in­come among group mem­bers, tight sched­ules and in­fringe­ment of pri­vacy as his rea­sons for sub­mit­ting a law­suit against SM to the Seoul Cen­tral Dis­trict Court. When Kris sued the agency, he put for­ward sim­i­lar rea­sons.

Whether Korean or not, boy and girl group mem­bers of­ten an­nounce their de­par­ture when their act’s pop­u­lar­ity is at its peak.

Fans and crit­ics see this as the ugly side of Korean show business and its in­cu­ba­tion sys­tem, the long process trainees at en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies go through, but some see the stars who at­tempt to leave their groups as peo­ple who “eat and run” — a newly coined ex­pres­sion in Korean — after gain­ing sought-after pop­u­lar­ity.

Of­ten short­ened as meok­twi, the prac­tice has neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, re­fer­ring to peo­ple who are driven by their own in­ter­ests.

But in a col­umn pub­lished Tues­day by on­line news agency Me­dia To­day, cul­ture critic Kim Heon-sik pub­licly blamed SM for fail­ing in its trainee sys­tem. The company is the coun­try’s largest en­ter­tain­ment agency that is home to mu­si­cians like Girls’ Gen­er­a­tion and Su­per Ju­nior.

“Korea’s idol in­cu­ba­tion sys­tem is a time-con­sum­ing process and also re­quires trainees to sacrifice [to be­come a star], but is it right to train [Chi­nese idols] in the same way as Korean mem­bers?” Kim asked.

“Many Korean singers tol­er­ate un­fair prac­tices from their agen­cies be- cause they know they can’t fight against gi­ants, but th­ese for­eign mem­bers are dif­fer­ent,” he con­tin­ued. “They have a big­ger stage back home. K-pop won’t achieve sus­tain­able growth if it keeps re­ly­ing on the tol­er­ance and fear of young en­ter­tain­ers.”

As Kim de­scribes, the coun­try’s three ma­jor en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies be­gin re­cruit­ing po­ten­tial stars from as young as 12 and 13. Their ed­u­ca­tion as po­ten­tial pop stars of­ten con­tin­ues for years.

As a re­sult, it is common to see idol group mem­bers brag­ging about how long they spent as trainees and it is also used as a mar­ket­ing strat­egy to pro­mote the group be­cause agen­cies and the pub­lic be­lieve the longer the mem­bers pre­pare, the bet­ter they will be.

For ex­am­ple, Jo Kwon, now one of 2AM, be­gan train­ing at JYP En­ter­tain­ment when he was 13. It took him al- most eight years to take to the stage as a pro­fes­sional singer.

“I cleaned the base­ment floor, changed wa­ter bot­tles and made cof­fee for Park Jin-young [head of JYP En­ter­tain­ment] when I was a trainee,” Jo told re­porters dur­ing a press con­fer­ence for the drama se­ries “Queen of the Of­fice,” in which he played a sup­port­ing role as a tem­po­rary rank-and-file worker last year.

“So I know how it feels like to live as a tem­po­rary worker,” he said.

“You feel in­se­cure ev­ery day be­cause you never know when you can de­but or you may be kicked out of the company one day. The life of a trainee and that of a tem­po­rary worker is quite sim­i­lar.”

Even after the de­but, the idols live to­gether and their every­day lives are con­trolled by their agen­cies. It is an open se­cret that most boy and girl group mem­bers are ex­pected to follow rules that ban dat­ing and smart­phones un­til they achieve some pop­u­lar­ity and recog­ni­tion.

But non-Korean mem­bers may not re­spond well to th­ese harsh rules.

“Many en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies re­cruit for­eign mem­bers to tar­get the global mu­sic mar­ket, but it seems like their cul­ture is dif­fer­ent from ours and they have a hard time putting up with [the rules],” said Lee Dong-yeon, a cul­ture critic and a pro­fes­sor of Korea Na­tional Univer­sity of Arts.

Another rea­son for the de­par­ture of some Chi­nese mem­bers is be­cause of their coun­try’s chang­ing en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket. Ac­cord­ing to global con­sult­ing firm PwC, the size of the Chi­nese dig­i­tal mu­sic mar­ket soared to $516 mil­lion last year, a 12.9 per­cent in­crease from the year be­fore.

“Once [Chi­nese mu­si­cians] make a name for them­selves as a mem­ber of a cer­tain group, they can work solo,” said Lee. “They prob­a­bly get some tempt­ing of­fers [from Chi­nese en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies], too. Some see th­ese neg­a­tively, but you know, it’s a jun­gle out there.”

SM En­ter­tain­ment re­leased a state­ment in re­sponse to Luhan’s re­cent law­suit.

“Since Luhan is fil­ing the law­suit the same way Kris did, we highly doubt there are peo­ple [re­fer­ring to Chi­nese agen­cies] who back them up,” the re­lease said.

Kris’s law­suit against SM is still un­der way, mean­ing he is still part of Exo, but the en­ter­tainer has al­ready fin­ished shoot­ing a film in China and has signed another film deal to co-star in a new project with Hankyung, a for­mer mem­ber of Su­per Ju­nior.

Hankyung, who was in Su­per Ju- nior, also filed a law­suit against SM in 2009. He won and has been act­ing and singing in China since then, likely based on the fame he gained in the Korean boy band.

Since th­ese for­mer boy band mem­bers are not Korean; lo­cal en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies can­not take le­gal ac­tion against them once they re­turn home.

But many Korean mem­bers from boy and girl groups have also walked out of their bands for var­i­ous rea­sons in re­cent years.

Kim Jae-joong, Park Yoo-chun and Kim Jun-su, for­mer mem­bers of TVXQ, sued SM for forc­ing them to sign so-called slave con­tracts in 2009, usu­ally re­fer­ring to long con­tract pe­ri­ods of more than 10 years.

The three, who have been per­form­ing un­der the name JYJ since 2010, par­tially won their law­suit years ago, but the trio has had a dif­fi­cult time ap­pear­ing on ma­jor TV net­works since then be­cause SM has al­legedly lob­bied broad­cast­ing sta­tions to en­sure they do not fea­ture the trio on any of their shows.

Ni­cole, a for­mer mem­ber of the girl group Kara, also re­fused to ex­tend her con­tract with her agency ear­lier this year, cit­ing that “she needs some time to invest in her fu­ture” while Dongho from UKiss wrapped up his five-year singing ca­reer last year when he de­cided to leave his boy group. He was 19, and his pri­mary rea­son was that “he wanted to live the life of an or­di­nary per­son,” ac­cord­ing to his for­mer agency. Most re­cently, Mblaq’s Lee Joon also said he would pur­sue a ca­reer as an ac­tor.

“All th­ese boy and girl group mem­bers know noth­ing when they are teenagers, but as they grow older, they de­velop their own egos and also come to have their own thoughts about their life,” said Lee, the Korea Na­tional Univer­sity of Arts pro­fes­sor.

“What they need is a con­ver­sa­tion with their agen­cies, but their agen­cies are still the same. They would rather get rid of mem­bers who try to raise prob­lems.”

Ac­cord­ing to Lee, K-pop may be global, but the sys­tem it­self is old­fash­ioned.

“With a string of th­ese is­sues, lo­cal en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies need to look into them­selves and pon­der upon their own prob­lems,” he added.

Filed a law­suit against En­ter­tain-ment SM in May against SM ear­lier Filed a law­suit this month Pro­vided by SM En­ter­tain­ment

From left: Kim Jun-su, Kim Jae-joong and Park Yoo-chun, who left TVXQ and later formed the trio JYJ

Hankyung, a for­mer mem­ber of Su­per Ju­nior

Ni­cole, an ex-mem­ber of Kara

Dongho, who used to be in U-Kiss

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