In 2009, three members of DBSK filed a lawsuit against SM Entertainment, claiming that their 13-year contracts were excessively long and had been extended without their knowledge, their schedules were overtaxing, and payment distribution was unfair.
BBC News recently published an article titled “The dark side of South Korean pop music“. Say what? There’s an evil force beneath all these sweet dance tunes, candy-colored costumes, and spectacular white smiles? According to BBC, yes (although it’s not quite that simple). It’s the management companies who sometimes bind their biggest stars into “slave contracts which tie [their] trainee-stars into long exclusive deals, with little control or financial reward.”
The notion that these A-list idol celebrities might be leading repressed lifestyles might come as a surprise to anyone who only sees their designer fashions, the extravagant gifts they receive, the pricey cars they drive. To those of us held in thrall by the glittery world of Korean entertainment, these trappings of luxury are part of the immaculate image we’ve come to expect of our boy bands and girl groups. But scratch the gleaming surface and you’ll see hints of a far less glamorous reality: idols fainting onstage from exhaustion or taking indefinite leaves of absence, and the multiple lawsuits against management companies claiming overly rigorous schedules, minuscule payouts, and binding contracts that can span longer than a decade.
In January of this year, several members of Kara filed a lawsuit to terminate their contract with DSP Entertainment, claiming that the company forced them into stressful schedules and denied them a fair share of profits.
What’s strange about this is that K-Pop is an extremely well-known and lucrative industry. BBC states that global sales likely reached $60 million in 2010. So with all the money supposedly coming in, what’s going on? Basically, says BBC, there are two problems. One is that K-Pop is expensive to produce. All those slick pop tunes, polished dance moves, and pristine physiques (that we all know and love) comes at a serious price. Your favorite idol group no doubt requires a huge team of managers, choreographers, stylists, writers, and producers, as well as “years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation, and living expenses” per member. That adds up, and the costs need to be recouped. After doing so, claims a director for DSP Entertainment, “there is sometimes little left for the performers.”
The other problem is that despite the overall figures, the domestic market is not covering costs, with CD sales performing poorly, and digital music sites attempting to compete with pirated music sites by slashing their prices to just a few cents per song. With such a grim outlook at home, the artists have no choice but to expand overseas. According to one music distribution label executive, “Many top artists make more money from one week in Japan than they do in one year in Korea.” That means a ton more obligations for the already-busy singers.
In 2009, Super Junior’s Hangeng filed for contract termination from SM, claiming that his 13-year contract length was unlawful, would take an unfair sum of money to terminate, and that he was forced to do things that were not in his contract. Oh, and he also developed kidney disease as a result of not having a single day off in two years.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel. One insider believes that the current business model is “not sustainable” — meaning that the K-Pop industry will have no choice but to undergo a major upheaval in the future. And when that happens, it will hopefully reflect some changes in favor of the artists.
What do you think? Is there really so little money after figures are finalized that the celebrities can’t be compensated adequately? If so, can things be resolved by lightening their loads, or should they be pushing ahead to try to make more money? And as a fan, how do you help your favorite idols? Obviously, these are some pretty tough questions to answer, and we think BBC did an admirable job in reporting both sides of the situation. Definitely worth a read!