When boy bands began suing their management companies in the late aughts, it became clear that being an Asian pop star wasn’t quite like the fantasy often depicted in music videos.
Lawsuits from TVXQ against SM Entertainment and Sung-hyun Woo against Ssing Entertainment forced the Korean Fair Trade Commission to cap contracts at seven years, down from 13. But the complaints in those lawsuits; inhumane working conditions and stiff penalties for even minor breaches of contract, were the norm in the industry and limiting their span only ever a band-aid solution.
Every year, there are new allegations about both personal and professional conflict between management and talent. Early this year, Clara was embroiled in a lawsuit where she claimed that she was being sexually harassed while her CEO claimed that the singer was violating her contract.
While group members seem as close as family to fans, in the corridors of their companies, they’re pitted against each other in ferocious competition for screen time in music videos, features on variety shows and radio, and places on stage. In the AKB48 documentary No Flowers Without Rain, the competition to replace departed center Atsuko Maeda frequently reduces members to tears as they struggle with the fact that their friends’ success often means their loss. The documentary also touches on the infamous "love ban", which became international news in 2013 when Minegishi Minami shaved her head for getting caught dating. While the girls interviewed about it understand the logic of the love ban, they also look undeniably miserable, as if contending with just how much they’ve had to give up.
Relationships aren’t prohibited for all Asian pop groups, but there are other sacrifices. In exchange for being given housing and training, most artists make very little money personally. The 360 deals offered by management companies mean they get a slice of income made not only from shows and record sales, but TV appearances, and other work too. Established acts like Girls' Generation and BIGBANG are now making millions of dollars – credited to the success of Hallyu in promoting K-pop overseas – but still only earn a tiny fraction of what their US or UK counterparts are earning. And those are for the most successful acts; one former AKB48 member, Ohori Megumi, revealed that when she was in the group, her monthly salary was only 45,000 yen (around $520 AUD).
With the intervention of the Fair Trade Commission in Korea and Japan, there are signs that as the industry matures, it’ll meet increasing regulation against the unethical pressures it puts on its young, impressionable stars. And when more companies are punished by these reports jeopardising their commercial chances in the West, others are less likely to repeat them.
A lot of agencies are also now offering psychological help for their young talents; Cube Entertainment is one of them.
In the last few years, there seems to be increasing admission of idol singers’ relationships too. While it would have been unheard of, 10 years ago, to admit that you are dating someone, just this year, Girls’ Generation members were in and out of relationships in full view of the world.
However, a lot of the celeb relationships come to an end nearly as soon as they are announced. “Busy schedule” is cited as the main reason and this again highlights the fact that the talents are very much in the grasp of their agencies.
It’s not uncommon to hear that celebs may see their boyfriend and girlfriend just once a month. Yet, it’s clear that there is a step toward transparency unlike before. Especially as the industry tries to appeal to a Western audience, the maneuvers, and tactics of the agencies and their control of talents is changing form.
It should be interesting to see how the rigid grip of the agencies on their talents change as more Asian pop stars make it in the west. Fortunately for agencies, there seems to be no slowing down in the raft of young hopefuls that face up to grueling auditions every year.
Are you one of them?
Why do you think people still want to be an Asian pop star?
Back in 2013, we spoke to 9MUSES about their eye-opening documentary 9MUSES of the Star Empire, that went behind the bright colours of the K-pop world we know and into the studios and dorms. Take a look...