Ethics in the Korean Entertainment Industry: the dark underbelly of K-pop
Since the proliferation of the internet, music industries across the world have experienced an immense boost due to easier access for target audiences. One such global phenomenon is the growth of the appeal of Korean pop music industry in its neighboring countries and eventually to the Western parts of the world. Termed as the “Hallyu Wave”, Korean pop or K-pop for short, has quickly become one of the biggest exports of South Korea, rising from $31.2 million in 2009 to $4.7 billion in 2016. Some of the success is attributed to the viral music video “Gangnam Style” by Psy in 2012, but K-pop had been already gaining traction among international audiences due to the industry’s strategic global marketing techniques. With insane budgets for music videos, creative and experimental costumes, intense vocal prowess and dance moves, K-pop has gained the unyielding loyalty of adolescent cohorts of the world. However, behind the façade of colourful outfits and the catchy tunes lies the often overlooked problem of severe abuse and mistreatment of K-pop idols that shows how horrifying the Korean entertainment industry can be.
Unlike western entertainment culture where artists make it to the industry organically, the K-pop industry is rather “manufactured” due to its formulaic methods. Singer/Dancers or simply, “idols” are scouted by entertainment agencies as young as twelve years of age and enrolled in a training program where they receive training for singing, dancing and entertaining. These trainees are then grouped into one band and are made to debut when they are deemed ready (usually when they are 16–18 years old.) The company that scouts them enters into a legal contract with the trainee and acts as their trainer, producer, director, marketer and manager of the individual and his or her music, ensuring a guaranteed debut if the trainee sticks in the company long enough. The grim reality, however, is that most big companies have a history of issuing “slave contracts” with their trainees and idols, which have inhuman and exploitative clauses and can last from seven to thirteen years. Some clauses which are considered normal in the Korean culture are, prevention of idols from dating, not letting them meet their family members for extended periods of time, forcing all the group members to live in congested dorms where their activities are strictly monitored, forcing them on extreme diets(on one account, an idol admitted that her company forced her to be on a 5 day diet consisting of only water) and even going as far as forcing idols to get plastic surgery before they debut as a group. Additionally, after a group’s debut, companies sign them up for grueling schedules with no off days. A group that is promoting is expected to give 3–7 performances per day at various venues. Idols are made to travel back and forth all day and night and barely get two to three hours of sleep. Due to these harsh conditions, they are frequently hospitalized or injected with IV fluids before their performances due to the risk of collapsing on stage from exhaustion. Moreover, they are required to constantly interact and entertain fans on social media in their free time. Idols are expected to be at the whim of their fans and are portrayed as devoting their whole life to them by being prohibited from having a romantic life or talking about it. Any misdemeanor on the fans’ part cannot be condemned or acted against, as it is heavily frowned upon. This often causes problematic situations with fans harassing their idols and getting away with it.
It is clear that the K-pop industry is commodifying the idols themselves and not just their skills as an artist. One would think that a lifestyle so taxing would surely pay incredibly well to be sustainable. However, this is unfortunately not the case. Entertainment companies are notorious for paying their artists peanuts from their music revenue by writing off the production and promotional expenses of an album onto the artists themselves. Additionally, an artist that newly debuts has a huge debt of training and management fees to pay off that the company racks up against them. The usual revenue cut for newer groups can sometimes be as less as 10%. Divided between members of the group, this comes down to less than the minimum wage rate for music that is technically the idol’s creation.
With conditions like this, why is the K-pop industry still so revered? For one, their target audiences, who are mainly teenagers from the age of 12–18 are either not aware of the unforgiving nature of the industry or consider it normal. Secondly, individuals who come onboard an entertainment company as a trainee are usually too young to fully understand the legal and ethical ramifications of their contract. Most trainees become K-pop idols to transition into more serious segments of the entertainment industry like acting and non-pop music genres but are stuck in lengthy contracts that they cannot contest due to the predatory outcomes that result in a legal battle. For example, a big enough entertainment company has the authority to blacklist their former idols from music shows so they do not get any exposure for future albums.
With such rampant maltreatment, it comes as no surprise that most idols suffer severe mental and physical health problems, which makes them dependent on drugs and in some cases, has even driven them to suicide. Oddly enough, in South Korean society, working/performing despite being ill or exhausted is considered a sign of a strong work ethic rather than an endangerment to one’s health, and is met with praise and protest the same is considered unprofessional. Due to this sort of culture, K-pop idols miss out on important aspects of character development during a pivotal age of their life due to punishing schedules and stipulations. The “perfect” image that they are forced to always uphold also contributes to their stress. Any deviation from this image is met with harsh criticism from the public. Idols are under constant scrutiny from their fans and the media due to a lack of implementation of laws of privacy. They cannot fight back because companies hold their career hostage, making this a never-ending cycle of abuse.
In recent years, the South Korean government has made a “model contract” to urge companies to move away from slave contracts in the K-pop industry. However, this is more of a guideline than a law and has had little effect. It is outrageous that the inhumane treatment of idols is common knowledge, yet almost nothing is being done to rectify it. With the K-pop industry being almost 80 years old, it is degrading that despite blatantly exploiting individuals since its inception, the companies face no consequences due to the absence of the adequate legal framework. Methods of ethical production need to be introduced to fix the malpractices of the industry. It is high time that the law accounts for the over-capitalistic behavior of these companies and offers some protection to the victims of this industry to avoid further abuse in the future.