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Why K-pop idols flee from their groups

14th Anniversary Going Forward
Oct 20,2014
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Exo Provided by SM Entertainment
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Kim Jun-su, Kim Jae-joong and Park Yoo-chun, who left TVXQ and later formed the trio JYJ

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 because 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 almost 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 Junior, 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 U-Kiss 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 old-fashioned.

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



BY SUNG SO-YOUNG [so@joongang.co.kr]