K-pop's dark side: little artistic freedom

Factory system moulds the music, gobbles the profits and discards the acts when fame fades

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 3:59am

Girls' Generation, Wonder Girls, Rain, Big Bang. South Korea's major entertainment companies have, over the past decade, churned out some of the most familiar faces in Asian music. All are gorgeous - men and women with the perfect combination of sexy and wholesome.

But behind the success is an industry where fame comes with a hefty price tag and a clear expiry date, and where stars are more commodities than enduring musical or creative talents - a place where artists looking to express themselves have a hard time breaking the mould.

"Most artists and celebrities in Korea, they're crazy about wanting to succeed. I wasn't like that. I really loved music. I loved it so much that I didn't even pay attention to girls," said Son Han-byul a musician and former video jockey for MTV Korea.

The 27-year-old, who spent part of his childhood in Hong Kong and attended West Island School, spent four years making a name for himself as a host of radio and television music programmes. He wanted to produce music more influenced by British rock, pop and punk - an alternative to K-pop's usual dance anthems and ballads.

When Sony's Korean division started to scout talent, he was one of the first musicians signed. He chose Sony because he thought the international company would allow him creative licence, but for the next two years, he says it was "the same old same old".

They wanted to groom him as an MC, asking him go on the talk and game show circuit, record ballads and Korean pop music.

"Basically, to succeed in the Korean entertainment industry you need to go on these shows and make a fool of yourself - and I said f*** that."

For two years, he worked with the company, later on trying to strike a deal - he would record a track for the television drama City Hunter's official soundtrack if Sony would let him produce the music he wanted. But the deal went nowhere and though he is still signed with the company, Son went to work for an investment bank last year.

Son also rejected the factory model, in which stars are put through intensive training before their careers are launched.

One of the top three entertainment companyies in Korea, YG Entertainment, says training for its stars include vocal, dance and foreign language lessons three times a week as well as fitness training and music lessons.

Creative control, let alone control over their schedules, can be non-existent.

YG's rival SM Entertainment is still embroiled in a lawsuit filed in the Seoul courts in 2009 by three members of boy band Dong Ban Shin Ki who claim their 13-year contract gave them no control over their own schedules, saw them sleeping fewer than four hours a night, and all for a fraction of the profits.

YG says it considers its contracts fair and created them after much discussion with artists.

And, when the fame fades, stars are left with little.

For most, fame seems to last at most 10 years, Son said. "There's no one that's really been able to connect with both the older and younger generations like, say, Mariah Carey has," he said.

Son has met his fair share of past stars who've become jaded and depressed. "It's one of the reasons why I thought - maybe this industry isn't so great."

But despite this, says Son: "Once I have more time on my hands - maybe next year - I'll go back to Hongdae [Seoul's indie music capital] and just perform the kind of music I like to make."