How K-Pop’s Record Labels Exploit Its “Idols”

Donald Trump’s humiliating Tulsa rally showed how K-pop fandom has been able to mobilize fans in a common political cause. But if boy band BTS declared their solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests, the big labels have remained tight-lipped — and even less willing to address their own record of exploiting and abusing hopeful young “idols.”

South Korean boy band BTS at the 2019 Seoul Music Awards on January 15, 2019. TV10 / YouTube

As Seoul reacts to the death of mayor Park Won-soon and Pyongyang’s hardening of its bellicose posture, American media attention is instead drawn to K-pop — or, rather, to its fans’ recent activism in the US political arena. After their successful sinking of Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally and their actions in solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, there has been avid discussion of K-pop fans’ ability to influence the presidential election. Amid the media buzz over K-pop fandom’s role in mobilizing Gen Z, one could easily mistake the political attitudes expressed by its fans for the reality of K-pop as an industry.

Now worth over $5 billion globally, K-pop’s success owes much to superb marketing and production values. Yet its brand is built on the obsessive micromanagement of idols’ public images and private lives — bound to an extreme culture of labor exploitation. Its cutthroat market is a reflection of the social contradictions resulting from more than twenty years of aggressive neoliberal economic reforms in South Korea. Testament to the country’s structural inequalities, K-pop has increasingly become a tool of South Korea’s soft power on the world stage. Ignoring the political dimension of K-pop allows its corporations to pinkwash their international reputation on the back of politically active fans.

K-Pop Fans, From BLM to Anti-Trumpism

While K-pop has been a growing presence in the US and global entertainment scene for more than a decade, it had yet to reach the consciousness of the average American when protests broke out after the murder of George Floyd. But three episodes brought K-pop and its fans to the attention of conservative and far-right forces.

As protests for racial justice spread in June, K-pop fans weaponized their social media savviness to repeatedly crash facial recognition apps used by police to identify protesters. The Dallas Police Department’s “iWatch Dallas” app was among the notable casualties of an organized group strategy of flooding the app’s system with junk footage, mostly “fancams” (edits of K-pop live performance recordings). This approach had been widely practiced by Hong Kong protesters to counter police attempts to identify and punish protesters.

K-pop fans then used the same strategy to engage in a virtual battle against white supremacists on Twitter by hijacking anti-BLM hashtags. And, finally, K-pop fans, along with users of Chinese social media app TikTok, are widely credited for the flopping of Trump’s Tulsa rally on June 20. They did so by allegedly hoarding hundreds of booked tickets they did not intend to use.

This last stunt earned the scorn of right-wing media such as Fox News, as well as far-right Florida congressional candidate KW Miller, who accused K-pop fans of conspiring with congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to undermine the president, dubbing global K-pop sensation BTS “Big Time Socialists.” On the other side of the aisle, K-pop fans received Ocasio-Cortez’s acknowledgment for their efforts, as well as capturing the imaginary of much of mainstream media.

Soon enough, record-breaking boy band BTS released a statement in support of the BLM movement. BTS’s music label, Big Hit Entertainment, also announced to the press that the band had donated $1 million to BLM. Soon after, K-pop fans matched their idols’ $1 million donation, according to One In An ARMY (OIAA), a group that runs donation campaigns in the name of the BTS fan base.

Yet BTS’s outspokenness has not been matched by other K-pop giants. This could be because BTS’s record label is not part of the old establishment of K-pop — for instance, SM Town’s EXO, who are equally well known within and outside Korea, and who are managed by one of the big trees of the K-pop establishment, have remained tight-lipped on the subject. So far, most K-pop record labels seem to be content with passively enjoying media coverage of K-pop fans’ activism while staying away from “controversial” topics.

An Apolitical Facade

K-pop’s widespread popularity can be attributed to the perfectly crafted brand of escapism it sells to consumers. K-pop music videos and live performances are mesmerizing: they offer the viewer a glamorous, youthful spectacle that is carefully calibrated to maximize its product’s potential marketing appeal. The recent success of top acts like BTS, EXO, Blackpink, and TWICE suggests that K-pop as a genre is likely to become even more popular — a phenomenon not to be ignored.

K-pop, and folk music in South Korea before it, have a complicated relationship with the country’s politics. Most commentators situate the birth of modern K-pop in 1992 with the television debut of visionary boy band Seo Taiji and Boys. The introduction and adaptation of catchy R&B tunes to the country’s musical landscape changed the course of Korean musical history.

But the genesis of K-pop was possible in the first place only because of monumental political shifts that happened in South Korea during the late 1980s. These include the 1987 democratic transition out of more than forty years of US-backed military dictatorship, and, crucially, the 1988 lifting of government restrictions on South Koreans taking foreign holidays. The decisive steps the country’s leaders took in the 1990s and early 2000s to “modernize” and integrate into the global economy — according to neoliberal dogmas — shaped South Korean society and culture into what we see today.

While K-pop is widely known for its apolitical lyrics, Korean pop and folk music before the 1990s was intensely political. During the brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, folk songs, known as changga, were banned, as their lyrics often denounced Korea’s colonial oppressors. Similarly, folk singers like Han Dae-soo, who began performing John Lennon and Bob Dylan–inspired music in his native Busan in 1968, contributed to a culture of resistance against Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian military government. But in the last twenty-five years, what has instead prevailed is “idol making,” a golden formula pioneered by three media conglomerates: SM Entertainment (or SM Town), YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment.

Politics hasn’t just disappeared from Korea’s cultural and musical scene. In fact, K-pop has become the emblem of an ambitious political project aimed at refashioning South Korea’s image domestically and on the global stage. After the fall of the military government, South Korea fully devoted itself to achieving competitiveness in the global market.

The 1997 and 2008 financial crises left a deep mark on the social fabric of the country, heightening extreme competitiveness in every aspect of South Koreans’ lives, from job-hunting to love. The sudden and violent rupture of old social structures during the accelerated modernization of South Korea meant that a new model was needed.

K-pop is part of the collective top-down refashioning of South Korean’s national identity. It serves three purposes: it reflects and magnifies real trends in South Koreans’ lives, it presents a sanitized and idealized version of the new lifestyle South Koreans can aspire to, and it projects an attractive, fresh image of South Korea on the international stage.

The Golden Formula: Training, Management, and Marketing

Behind K-pop’s success, a carefully calibrated machine is at work. Indeed, the preparations start young: typically, K-pop idols are recruited between the age of ten and thirteen. Recently, South Korean agencies have strategically expanded their recruiting polls to Southeast Asian countries and China to appeal to the international market. Blackpink’s Lisa was reportedly the only child to be signed after YG Thailand’s auditions nine years ago; eyewitness reports from Vietnam tell stories of endless lines of children queuing up to audition for a K-pop trainee contract.

Trainees are entered into a highly regimented system and undergo between five and ten years of training before their debut. They are encouraged to shed weight through dangerous fad diets and fasting. Reports have circulated of weekly public weighing of trainees by management. These practices have long-lasting repercussions for the idols’ health, as many of them develop eating disorders under the crushing pressure to achieve or maintain a certain figure. Few idols have spoken publicly about the issue, but there are many videos of idols fainting on stage, as well as articles detailing the extreme diets they subject themselves to.

Many agencies contractually oblige prospective idols to undergo invasive plastic surgeries to attain a desirable look. This practice should be understood in the context of widespread social acceptance of plastic surgery as a way to improve your odds in the job market and in your public life in Korea — various reports place the number of South Korean women who have undergone plastic surgery at between 25 and 50 percent. Nevertheless, there is clearly an extortionary element in the contractual imposition to get permanent surgical alterations in order to secure a job.

Besides imposing stringent physical specifications, the years of training prepare idols for the maintenance of an immaculate public persona in the face of unrelenting media pressure. Idols are often obliged to give up on dating during their career and have every aspect of their private and public life monitored and approved by managers, from their wardrobe to the style of their performance. This, coupled with the extreme social isolation caused by years of almost ascetic training conditions, has led to numerous cases of suicide precipitated by relentless cyberbullying.

In interviews, idols often define their professional goals as “wanting to please the fans.” One extreme effect of a culture that portrays idols as emotionally and sexually available to their fans is the emergence of so-called private fans, sasaeng. These fans, usually young women, dedicate their lives to stalking idols, even to the point of breaking into their houses. There are also anti-fans, who obsess over ruining the reputation of idols whom they consider to be rivals of their favorite performers; in two reported cases, anti-fans have attempted to poison idols. A great part of the responsibility for these extreme manifestations of K-pop culture falls on record companies and managers, accused by pop-culture critic Kim Sung Soo of having a laissez-faire attitude toward harassment in return for greater publicity and dedicated followers for their idols.

A common practice in the K-pop industry — as in most entertainment industries — is the exchange of sexual favors for job opportunities or media exposure, known in South Korea as sponsorship. One report claims that six out of ten female entertainers are subjected to this practice. The young age of most trainees and the power management holds over their lives often results in abuse. In one recent scandal, police uncovered a prostitution ring affiliated with one of the most popular male idols of the last decade. Given the extremely low rate of success for trainees (some training academies report that only 5 to 10 percent of their students win a contract) and the high turnover in the idol scene, the possibility remains that many children may be being funneled into the lucrative hostess and sex work industry in South Korea.

“Slave Contracts”: New Models of Age-Old Exploitation

The most defining capitalist feature of the K-pop industry is its contract model — also known as slave contracts, or noye gyeyak. These are unfair business practices in which idols are made to sign extremely long contracts (an average of seven years, but up to thirteen years) with stringent clauses regarding their behavior. Moreover, these contracts usually divide profits unfairly, with idols receiving only 10 to 20 percent of their earnings and the rest being split between management and record labels. Considering that most idols perform in bands comprising four to ten members, the cut that each individual performer receives is insignificant.

Many idols find themselves with crippling debt in their early twenties if their act does not turn out to be a commercial success. “Slave contracts” dictate that the agency fronts living, training, and performing costs for their idols — these costs are assumed to be absorbed by the idols’ future sales. If profits are too low to repay the costs of their years of training and their current lifestyles, idols are forced to pay back the difference by other financial means.

In spite of these exploitative practices, the vision of “aspiration” sold by the K-pop industry still looks like an attractive occupation for many young South Koreans — especially if they do not come from a wealthy and well-connected family. The prospect of becoming an idol is preferable to the chronic unemployment that plagues about 10 percent of young people. What goes on behind closed curtains to produce K-pop’s glazed image is a consequence of the economic and social turmoil that South Korea has undergone in the last decades through its abrupt conversion into a neoliberal capitalist economy.

K-pop’s treatment of idols is eerily similar to the unfettered business practices of European fashion houses in the early 2000s: the treatment of catwalk models and K-pop idols as mere mannequins for product display; the encouragement of fasting and the glamorization of eating disorders; and the economic and physical exploitation of children for profits. Beyond the cultural specificity of South Korea, K-pop is powered by the dual processes of objectification and exploitation that are at the core of capitalism in the twenty-first century. K-pop is a product of capitalism on steroids: deliciously enticing for the consumers, and deeply dehumanizing for the workers.