Korean music critic talks K-pop companies maintaining absolute control over idols/media, having to self-publish for being industry critical

Music critic Hwang Sunyeop recently tried to get an opinion piece published by media outlets, but found them unwilling to publish criticism of the K-pop industry without revising his entire core opinion and censoring certain things. That led to him taking to his own site to post it.

Note: This was translated by @WomenLeisure, I just did some touching up.

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Idols Who Want To Promote But Can’t

I gave up publishing this in the media and uploaded it to my blog. It’s not that I don’t know these kinds of magazines are intertwined with various agencies and interests. But then they should have provided an exact guideline in the first place. When I sent it to them, they asked me to change my thesis completely, not even a partial revision.

The major Korean media outlets only praise K-pop’s continued achievements and one cannot hardly find any that mention criticism. It’s like the whole scene (media) is swayed (in a chokehold) by the major agencies. Asking me to delete the mention of 2NE1’s appearance in Coachella just made me laugh. If they object to these words then where should I find the reason for writing a column? Is reason for media’s existence a nothing more than just be an agency’s tabloid? It was not an earth shattering article, yet I thought a lot that night.

At Coachella in April, K-pop fans around the world were surprised. 2NE1 showed up as a whole six years after the group disbanded. The impact of just one song, “I Am The Best,” a short performance, was simply enormous and incredible. Domestic and foreign media made headlines for their surprise appearance, and fans also welcomed the return of the team with fierce reactions. Personally, I was happy and refreshed because I felt I was seeing the group’s own opinions about the former agency.

As it has been mentioned many times, their disbandment was contrary to their wishes. It‘s akin to one way notification by the agency, thereby forcing the breaking up. This case remains as a sad example of proving once again that the K-pop scene is centered on the agency, not the artist. After six years of circling, in 2022, they still haven’t been transferred trademark rights and performed a surprise stage in a way of “putting out the fire after” to avoid YG Entertainment‘s eyes. In other words, there was a reason to prepare in secret.

• The fate of an artist is at the mercy of the agency

Although it is said the lifespan of idols is longer than before, only handful of teams continue their activities steadily. Most of them cannot overcome the turbulent flow of the K-pop scene and naturally disappear, or they leave the team and start a new journey for a new career. What is clear in the midst of this is that there are also people who want to maintain the team. Moreover, a dream many groups have in common is the desire to leave current agency and to continue their activities on their own. However, in reality, it is not that simple. This is because it is not easy to transfer their product/commercial value to another agency.

Come to think of it, even H.O.T. couldn’t use their names at the reunion performance due to trademark issues and BEAST eventually renamed to Highlight. On the other hand, T-ara regained their rights after a long legal fight. Although idol scene has been around for nearly 30 years, the artists are not using much power in their relationship with their agency regardless of their growing influence. It would not be an exaggeration to-say that the artists’ rights have gone backward since Seo Taiji And Boys, who completely won hegemony battle over profit distribution 30 years ago. The irony of not being able to write/use their own names.

In addition, high dependence on the system also hinders independence. The success in the K-pop scene is dependent on more than 80% of the established system and the agency’s name value. It is not easy to stand alone (to leave agency) because of heavy dependence on activities such as A&R and promotions, etc. A hasty transfer guarantees the risk that even the popularity that had been maintained can be blown away in an instant. It’s like a manager who has worked for a large corporation for 20 years doesn’t have much competitiveness when he leaves the company.

• GOT7, an inspiring new start

It is fortunate that the number of precedents has been gradually increasing recently. In particular, the recent comeback of GOT7 is noteworthy. They were able to launch the second act of the group again with the goodwill of JYP Entertainment, which transferred the trademark without any compensation and had support of very large label, Warner Music Korea. Looking back, I think it is the first case since Shinhwa that the team’s trademark rights were transferred to another company. (In the case of 2AM and T-ara, there was no separate agency.) The high quality of the new album reflects the ability and experience of them leading the music work themselves. Personally, this is particularly encouraging because I have seen several cases where the quality of the work fall drastically as soon as members leave the familiar system.

There is an increasing number of cases where some of the members are forced to continue their group activities even after they have moved to another agency. Not long ago, SNSD announced that they were preparing for a comeback to mark the 15th anniversary of their debut. As a complete group, this is the first activity since Sooyoung, Seohyun, and Tiffany left SM Entertainment five years ago. Most of the members still have contracts with the original agency and the progress is going smoothly. Looking back on the case of S.E.S., they made a comeback with full support for 20th anniversary. So it may be more flexible now than during the H.O.T. or Shinhwa era. If you look at the case of f(x), which was close to neglect at the end of their activities, I think it might be a case-by-case thing. 

•To promote the rights of artists, for a K-pop scene where everyone is happy

Although the artist’s ability is an absolute must in K-pop scene, the players who come to the forefront are relatively few. Those who sweated and endured through fierce competition to gain one’s competency and presence are great but on the other hand, they are also suffering from the anxiety they can be replaced at any time except for some. However, the music industry is also a realm of ‘human standards’. It is my personal wish that the industry be more ‘artist-centered’ than the present time where humans are considered as consumer goods. In every area from trainees to global stars.

Including the groups who once had immense popularity, there are lot of groups that are wasting their time without receiving any plans bc they reach a certain age limit at some point and agency focuses on new groups. Who will compensate for the lives of those who want to be on stage but are not given any role bc they have no plans from their agencies and the burning thirst of the fandom that awaits them? In a situation where the agency’s power is still absolute, I hope that little by little the artist will take the initiative in a just way and write a new chapter outside of the original agency. I want to see a K-pop scene where everyone is happy together, not just some.

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Like the author says, it’s nothing that groundbreaking, but it outlines the harsh reality that while artists have certainly benefitted from K-pop’s boom, it’s the companies who have undoubtedly benefited more. They maintain arguably more control over artists than ever and do so because the groups are seen as largely disposable, not only to the companies but fans (despite what they say). And in that sense, one thing I thought was unexplored is that companies doing stuff like the trademark control and making it as difficult as possible to continue outside of the company helps the idol cycle refresh and pushes many fans toward the new groups companies are investing in. Inevitably they are new idols who are cheaper labor with minimal leverage while still maintaining the same (or better) revenue. The author wishing for that to change is obviously the correct outlook, but I wonder about the company incentives to change without being forced.

Most importantly, I thought the intro to this explaining the article being rejected due to being critical of companies and being asked to remove any reference to 2NE1’s Coachella appearance was especially telling. It’s obviously not just the artists that companies have control over, but the “journalists” as well, who are frequently turned into PR mouthpieces under the guise of being independent. It’s sort of a self-regulating system, because outlets need access for eyeballs and credibility with fandoms, thus the companies effectively exert control over them as well.

Thus, there are situations like this frustrated music critic just self-publishing on a blog. Huh … novel idea for finding honest takes.

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