BTS’ activities are suspended… The K-pop industry is eating idols

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A video that was suddenly uploaded on the 14th has spread all over the Internet. It was about an hour long video titled ‘Steamed BTS Dinner’ that was uploaded to the official YouTube channel of BTS (hereafter BTS). The content of the video was a continuation of a fairly sharp story to the extent that I wondered whether it was uploaded after being confirmed by BTS’ agency, ‘Hive’ (formerly Big Hit Entertainment). This is because this video, which is conducted with the concept of sharing alcohol with an open mind for a long time, contains fairly straightforward feelings about entering the ninth year of activity after debuting in 2013.

The beginning of the video was similar to a regular drinking party. However, fans who are wondering why they released the anthology album ‘Proof’ with a retrospective character on the 10th on the 10th, and why BTS is not uploading content to events for fans or on YouTube channels in recent years A full-fledged speech began by mentioning whether there were many.

BTS member RM said that songs like ‘Butter’, which have been popular recently, don’t know what kind of team we are now and it is difficult to write lyrics compared to when they made the previous hit ‘Dynamite’. The story that immediately followed was a story with a very strong tone. “The problem is (…) K-pop and (…) the idol system itself doesn’t seem to allow people to mature. I have to keep filming things, I have to keep doing things (…) I don’t have time to grow.”

This was followed by a series of remarks by the other members about how tired and exhausted they were while promoting for a long time. “I think we are going through a difficult time right now. It seems that now is the time to try to find more identity.” “The most difficult thing is to write lyrics. (I have to say something…) I’m not coming. (…) I really have nothing to say. I have to say what I feel and what I want to say, but I’m just squeezing it out.”

▲ BTS (BTS) ‘Steamed Bulletproof Dinner’ video capture.

BTS video with direct comments reveals K-pop situation

After that, it was mentioned that there would be a ‘change in the keynote of activities’ in the 10th year of the group’s activities. Each member will start their own solo career doing the music they want to do, and the group’s activities will be temporarily suspended. However, he also mentioned that he would upload a group video on YouTube at least once a month, making it clear that it was never a ‘disbandment’. In the second half of the video, the party ended like a real drinking party and each left their own thoughts. But the story was not a common tribute. Member Suga left the following comments.

“I have a lot more fun moments while doing this job, but there are also a lot of really painful moments. I just want the members not to suffer. While promoting, how can I just enjoy every moment of every activity, really? It’s not just us, it’s the same for everyone in life, right? But anyway, considering why we started this job and why we chose this job, it’s actually what I want to do, and I started it to be happy, right?”

The aftermath of the video was hot. As mentioned above, it is not a complete collection of new songs, but in less than a week after releasing a new album, there are many stories of how to bring out difficulties while continuing group activities for a long time, temporarily suspending group activities and focusing on solo activities. has spread to In particular, at the end of the video, some members showed tears, and the effect of the video was even greater. In the stock market that reacts sensitively to issues, the stock price of BTS’ agency Hive plunged by 25% in an instant. Hive hastily emphasized that they will carry out the activities of this new album, stating strongly that they are only temporarily stopping group activities, not disbanding. However, public opinion about Hive is still not good, and longtime BTS fans are still not easily out of shock.

Why did a popular idol group, which is gaining popularity not only in Korea but also abroad, announce a temporary cessation of activities shortly after releasing a new album? Some say that it is related to the military enlistment issue that has been raised to BTS for a while, and that this video was planned to create a dramatic effect that makes a temporary suspension of activities in cooperation with the agency and touches the emotions of fans and citizens. However, considering the circumstances of other idol group members enlisting in the military, they dealt with it by asking them to wait for the long period of rest that resulted.

The background that caused a big wave, a video containing fairly direct remarks was uploaded, and announced the suspension of group activities with him is unknown at this time. However, the important thing is that the fatigue contained in this video is not just for BTS, it is a feeling that can only occur quite uncommonly in the situation of Korean popular music, that is, K-pop, which has been reorganized around idols for nearly 10 years. And in order to look at this, we have to follow a certain flow in the K-POP industry.

▲Members talk about the reason for the suspension of activities on BTS' YouTube channel.
▲Members talk about the reason for the suspension of activities on BTS’ YouTube channel.

How K-pop idols are born

For Korean idols, the familiar ‘trainee’ process is now established as a semi-mandatory. Usually in their mid-teens, or at the earliest, when they were in elementary school, teenagers who dreamed of becoming an idol by watching the splendid appearance of idols appearing in the media ask themselves to become trainees by knocking on the door of the agency. If you have natural skills, you can become a trainee right away, but if you don’t, you develop your skills by attending an academy, crew activities, or self-study. Sometimes an agency offers to become a trainee first, but this is not a common case.

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However, a ‘trainee’ is always a ‘trainee’. Just like Yoon Tae-ho’s ‘Misaeng’, which depicts how ‘research students’ who were not able to become professional knights are pushed out into society without preparation, at the beginning, or CJ ENM Mnet’s ‘Produce’, which had a lot of fun as a survival game aimed at trainees debut. As shown in the 101′ series, it is by no means easy for a trainee to officially debut. In the case of large agencies, it is difficult for management to recognize them because there are already countless trainees, and in small and medium-sized agencies, it is easy to delay their debut indefinitely, looking for ‘when they can make the most money’ due to insufficient capital. This is the reason why small and medium-sized agencies desperately challenged the ‘Produce 101’ series or similar programs very actively. Of course, if you have the best skills anyone can recognize, you can debut very quickly, but this is by no means a common situation.

Either he has good skills, the timing is lucky, or he appears in a survival show like ‘Produce 101’ and gets into the debut group by getting his name out, or even if he doesn’t make it to the rankings, he finally succeeds in making his name known through desperate competition and makes his debut. If I did, would the situation be better? However, the aforementioned ‘recognition of the agency’ problem arises here. SM-JYP-YG-FNC and Hive, the agency of BTS, are already well-known agencies, but there are also a lot of little-known agencies like all the unfamiliar names that appeared in the Produce 101 series. People simply do not recognize the song when they release an album at a store and release a new song on a music platform. In order to build awareness, even a little bit, you need to be supported by continuous publicity and appear in various media, including music shows and entertainment shows.

However, it has been a long time since people left in front of TV. The ratings for music shows have already fluctuated 1-2%, and the situation has already settled. They say that you can get a lot of views through YouTube, but instead, you selectively watch only the performances of ‘well-known’ singers, and you do not find the full video that contains all the videos of idols who are not fans and do not know well on purpose. Similarly, BTS may follow the same path as BTS, who boldly chose to focus on YouTube when they do not sing well on music shows, but not all videos on YouTube receive equal attention. It is important to be really good at video planning, but in the end, if ‘luck’ does not follow, it is easy to continue to be left out.

Still, it would be fortunate if we could somehow continue to promote without having to face disbandment. But from now on, it’s time to do ‘business’. Most of the agencies take a significant portion of the investment in the name of ‘investment’ since they were trainees, saying that they ‘settlement’ the investment instead of directly sharing the income generated. Although they are given a minimum amount of pocket money, they are by no means plentiful. Besides, like I said before, just because you release an album doesn’t mean you buy it for yourself, and music shows are really just a minimal ‘proof of activity’ now. Not only does he make up for his urgent income by being recruited for various events, he also creates an ‘(official) fan club’ that has become essential for Korean idols to make fans buy albums and various goods.

▲ A scene from Produce 101 Season 2.
▲ A scene from Produce 101 Season 2.

The ‘fan club’ is especially important. Although the Korean music market has grown superficially due to the emergence of idols, popular enjoyment has not been easily recovered since the IMF, and streaming platforms such as Melon, Genie Music, and YouTube Music have become a major source of music enjoyment, but the revenue generated from this is limited You have to somehow create a ‘fandom’ where you can open your wallet while saving money that your favorite target doesn’t have. Fans are urging, knowingly and unknowingly, to create high results on the Hanteo Chart-Gaon Chart, or the Instiz i Chart, which combines the results of Melon, Genie Music, and music companies. (short for ‘total attack’. Fandoms collectively watch music sources for a certain period of time in order to increase the ranking of their favorite singers as much as possible) to continue to spend money and time. We cannot miss the opportunity of a fan meeting, which is given to us by purchasing an album together. Even when no albums are released, we need to keep releasing goods, even renting small theaters to hold performances to give the opportunity to gather the fandom, and create a ‘place of communication with idols’ like Naver V LIVE to give ‘the feeling of always being by my side’. . Even in a situation where Corona 19 was spreading, a non-face-to-face method was introduced and a ‘1:1 video call fan meeting’ was planned.

If you were lucky enough to get popular popularity right after your debut, or if you built a strong fandom and established a stable foundation, is it now? But the business is not over yet. Whether you release an album, group or individual performances, dramas, musicals, plays, etc., you need to build awareness and earn money to cover various expenses such as recording expenses, costumes, transportation, and personnel expenses. In addition, as mentioned earlier, Korea’s music market is not wide, and therefore the performance market is also not large. I have to go abroad like other idols did early on. In particular, Japan, where the music market ranks in the top 3 in the world, is close, and the fandom consumes more enthusiastically, is preferred. For this, idols must learn other languages ​​such as Japanese and English for future activities in the West. Traveling to and from multiple countries at the cost of long-distance travel between countries has become an essential routine in order to achieve even greater profits.

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Despite this, the fandom should not be neglected. As mentioned in the video of BTS’s temporary suspension of activities, ‘fans question why the content is not being uploaded to the YouTube channel well’, regardless of how popular or small it is, the target of consumption must continue to be sufficiently supplied. This may be YouTube, but it may be the aforementioned V LIVE, fan meeting, and special event, but it will be a SNS for communication between idols and fans or fandoms like Hive’s weverse and NC Soft’s UNIVERSE. may be In particular, these SNS are not easily subscribed for free as they are products. If you pay a small fee and want to receive photos or 1:1 private messages, you will need to pay more. Fans who paid that much money naturally want ‘the price they paid for’, and idols have to create data products using daily dedicated SNS to satisfy that need.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t neglect general-free social media like Twitter and Instagram. Even if you make money on a dedicated SNS, eventually, the propagation power of these SNS is limited, and for the more general public and fans who find it difficult to join the dedicated SNS, the group’s official and each member’s general SNS must be maintained. However, you should not provoke the fandom by posting sensitive or rude stories. This may be a courtesy required at a common-sense level, but it is also influenced by standards that are hardly quantifiable, like Red Velvet’s member Irene, who was attacked by a group for exposing Nam-joo Cho’s novel ‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’ on social media. Of course, it is also not easy to expose the love story to the outside.

In such a situation, it would be better if the relationship between the agency and the idol was strong, but nothing good can happen in human affairs, and sometimes serious contracts or other problems arise. However, there is no specific organization that can solve these problems. Although the Korea Creative Content Agency is receiving complaints in terms of reporting unfair practices, other cultural fields are already showing unsatisfactory responses to the agency’s treatment. Moreover, starting with SM Entertainment’s HOT, it has become a common situation to register idol group names as trademarks. As long as they don’t break up with each other without major trouble, the management company does not allow or transfer their trademark rights to idol groups who leave them easily. This is the reason why the group name was changed to ‘Highlight’ when ‘Beast’, which was once a member of Cube Entertainment, transferred its agency to Around Us Entertainment as a group after the contract expired.

▲ BTS - 'Dynamite' MV.
▲ BTS – ‘Dynamite’ MV.

After a long time, if the relationship with the agency is maintained smoothly, the popularity is fairly stable, and the relationship with the fandom is managed so that the relationship with the fandom is not greatly divided, is there really no big fuss now? However, like idols who dominated the times, the explosive popularity does not remain the same for a long time. No matter how popular it is, there will always be a moment when it gradually escapes the attention of people and the media. Even if the popularity of the idol itself or the fandom seems to be not bad in the eyes of the idol, in terms of the sales index that the agency can confirm, it is inevitable to keep an eye on the downward trend. In order to generate steady income, the agency continuously receives trainees and periodically debuts new idols. In the meantime, idols whose popularity is not as popular as before gradually lengthen the interval between their activities or eventually walk the path of disbandment.

Korea’s idol industry calling for burnout

The idol industry of Korea’s K-pop shows a pattern of commercializing and selling ‘things that can be sold as much as possible’. As young as possible, children and adolescents who are difficult even beyond their twenties are selected as trainees early, and through competition between them or within the industry, only those who are ‘good enough’ are given a chance to receive the media spotlight. However, everything that receives the spotlight is a commodity, and even if the media does not give the spotlight, entertainment agencies create and commercialize their own spotlights, and the developed IT technology can be consumed at a more microscopic level without limiting time and space to the fandom. made to do The trend of the fandom tends to flow in the direction that the idols they invest in want to go their own way, and the agency does not easily go against this to maximize sales. In a situation where everything is a continuation of emotional labor, the appearance of ‘burnout’ that can be seen from this sudden temporary suspension of BTS’s activities is likely to be in the not-too-distant future.

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Of course, the entertainment industry is an industry in which the image that one person has to another is soon commercialized, except that the structure and dimensions of each country are different. It is no different in overseas countries that entertainers are required to make a statement while performing activities such as acting or singing in the style desired by the fandom or the public as much as possible without protruding actions, and it is similar that every move is easy to commercialize.

However, if the situation in Korea is similar to that of other countries, but there is another thing, it is not that there are not many ways other than idols in the music market. Numerous people have already raised the issue repeatedly, but in the Korean music industry, there is virtually no area other than idols. Of course, there are points where they formed their own domains such as hip-hop and trot, but in the end, in hip-hop, CJ ENM Mnet ‘Show Me the Money’ and trot TV Chosun ‘Mr. Trot’ series like the TV Chosun ‘Mr. The focus is on a specific program of the show, not a new song, but a program that requires thorough competition. In a situation where idols have to compete for survival even after debut if their awareness is low, even idols or all activities themselves become survival.

The fact that Jellyfish Entertainment and Woollim Entertainment were originally ballad and hip-hop-rock-centered agencies, respectively, but eventually transformed into idol-centered agencies over the past 10 years is a stark example showing that there are almost no other means of profit in Korea other than idols. Even the entertainment agency P-Nation, established by singer Psy after completing her contract with YG Entertainment, initially started with Psy himself, former solo idols “Hyunah” and “E’Dawn”, and hip-hop singers “Crush” and “Jesse” and “D. Ark’, ‘Penomeco’, ‘Swings’, and ‘Heize’ seemed to focus on black music, but in the end, from 2021, through SBS with JYP, they jointly auditioned for an idol ‘LOUD: Loud’. The fact that the group was formed is not irrelevant in this situation.

Unless the music market already plans idols to make money, and unless they stand out through an audition, those who want to become singers become idols and debut as idols. Announced, no gaps. Of course, there are certainly those who have managed to break through a niche, such as Sunmi, IU, and Hatfeld, and have firmly established their identity as solo artists. However, in the end, they too are not free from the situation where they have to reveal their names by first appearing as idols, and there are never too many cases where they succeeded in disbanding.

Korean pop music, which experienced a serious market collapse in the 2000s, succeeded in making efficient profits by effectively ‘doing nothing’ in the idol industry starting from 2007-2008. He also learned a strategy to maximize profits through the fandom. In this way, they are making their name known not only in Japan, but also in the United States and Europe. Thus, the overall size of the market has grown. However, within the industry, idols, who have to make every part and time of an individual a commodity, are directly or indirectly demanded for consumption, and the fandom that wants to be compensated in some way by the idol as much as they consume is an ecosystem other than idols. How healthy is the policy of the Korean popular music industry that has withered away and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism-Korea Creative Content Agency, which neglected and sympathized with it?

It is no longer possible to completely reject the idol system that has already become the Korean music industry itself. However, it is clearly necessary to shift away from the path of minimal species diversity and efficient sales. In ‘Femidology’ published in February of this year, which was published as a compilation of joint research on idols by several researchers (Ryu Jin-hee, Baek Moon-im Heo Yun planning, Red Salt), Kim Soo-ah is an industry leader in a situation where the fandom is an important actor in the idol system. He said that there is a need to reshape consumption patterns in a way that does not resist or complicate as desired. In the same book, Kang Eun-kyo mentioned the ‘handwritten apology letter of an idol member’, which is common in the idol industry as an example, and mentioned the need to be wary of the modern idol-centered industry that is maintained in a way that exhausts both idols and fandoms.

Long hours of heavy work cause disastrous industrial accidents, and emotional labor in the service industry easily gnaws at the individual’s mind. How healthy can an industry that constantly consumes individuals from the child-adolescent period without time to properly rest? And how sustainable is it? BTS’ announcement of a temporary break is not just a happening or just comforting. The alarm sound, which had already sounded a long time ago, but ignored by many, sounded even louder. If we just ignore this warning, this strong but fragile sand castle will not break easily without anyone’s expectation.

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