Why do they do that? Korean culture and the K-pop industry

Why do K-pop entertainment companies work the way they do? Why are trainees given such long contracts? Why do they start so young? Usually when reading articles discussing these issues, I see writers focussing on the economic reasons why the K-pop industry is the way that it is. What I rarely see is a look into the cultural influences that have helped create this system.

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Some of YG Entertainment’s current trainees

Let’s face it: from a purely economic point of view, the idol system does not make sense. It doesn’t make sense to accept the huge financial burden of taking on dozens of trainees from a young age with no guarantees that they will have the qualities, talents or looks necessary to make it 5 or 10 years later. It definitely doesn’t make sense to take on the responsibility of teaching and looking after so many young people, knowing full well that the vast majority will never make the final cut and therefore will never give the company a return on their massive investment.

So why does this system exist?

Well, it’s complicated but an important thing to consider is this: business may be about money BUT business is not run by money, business is run by people. All people are part of a society and are influenced by a culture and therefore business decisions are usually as much affected by personal and cultural influences and factors as by what makes most financial sense.

Korean society is incredibly group-oriented in a way that can be difficult for us in the West to fully understand. As proof of this, South Korea scores just 18 in the Hofstede Individualism index, the second lowest developed economy after Taiwan and completely opposite to the US’s 91 and the UK’s 90. For hundreds and hundreds of years, Neo-Confucianism was, and still is, in a less obvious way, the dominant ideology. Neo-Confucianism is complicated so I won’t try to explain it here but if you don’t know about it, two things you should be aware of are that it places all people within a strict set of hierarchical relationships (father to son, senior to junior, ruler to subject, husband to wife etc.) and that education is valued as the most important way of bettering oneself, the ultimate goal of a good Confucian. There is also a lot of emphasis put on the importance of loyalty, selflessness, responsibility and hard work, all of which can still be seen reflected in modern Korean culture.

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From a site for Korean employees of Samsung. The pillow says ‘Person Love’.

As a result, Korean businesses have always been run considerably differently to a lot of their Western counterparts. Most companies are much more rigidly structured with a clearer separation between each level of management and Korean bosses have a tendency to play much more of an active role in their employees’ personal lives. For example, buying them birthday presents, organising regular social gatherings and sometimes even advising them on their love lives! Confucianism places a lot of value on the role of the father as one of the highest positions in society and it’s no surprise that even in modern Korea, the head of a company often takes on a father-like role towards their employees (remember ‘Papa’ YG?).

But in return for this, loyalty and respect is expected and often this idea of loyalty (within a wider principle called ‘jeong’ which is another complicated, uniquely Korean idea that I won’t be covering today) is at the very centre of how many Korean business decisions are made. Often Korean business leaders will value their inter-personal relationship above what makes the most monetary sense and will reward those who are most loyal. In his book ‘Korea: The Impossible Country’, Daniel Tudor sums it up perfectly, saying, ‘The idea of always making one’s business decisions in the rational, self-interested, reward-maximising way prescribed by classical economics is not truly in accordance with Korean culture’.

Lee Soo Man with SNSD's Tiffany at a conference

Lee Soo Man with SNSD’s Tiffany at a conference

At this point I think the K-pop industry starts to make a little more sense. The top-down junior-senior system with trainees working their way up from the bottom under the supervision of a strong figurehead like Lee Soo-man (SM) or  Park Jin-young (JYP) by working hard and being respectful seems much more sensible within this set of cultural principles. What it still doesn’t fully address though, is why the trainees start so young and are given such long and gruelling contracts and schedules. To get a clearer reasoning behind this I think we have to look at some of the other aspects more particular to modern Korean culture, specifically: education and competition.

Korean culture has always placed huge importance on education and as a result South Korea has the second top ranked education system and some of the highest rates of university graduates in the world. But this has come at considerable cost. Korean students spend a huge amount of time in schools and private tutoring establishments (called ‘hagwons’) compared to their peers in other countries. This has got to the point where the government has had to issue 10pm curfews for these private hagwons so that students have enough time to sleep and don’t damage their health studying.

This could conceivably cause the K-pop industry a problem in terms of finding talent. While young performers in the West might have a lot of spare time after school to develop their skills on their own or go to extra-curricular classes, Korean kids spend so long in educational establishments studying for the all-important college entrance exam they have no time to hone their skills in other areas. By signing these young people up as trainees, K-pop companies offer a second solution: a form of education system which offers the opportunity for a potentially highly-paid and prestigious career at the other end, which is the main reason parents push their children and invest in their education in the first place.

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Students in a typical hagwon

Which bring us to why so many parents are happy to sign such long contracts for their kids in the first place. Modern Korean culture is extremely competitive and there is very little in the way of a safety net for those who fail so the promise of a job, particularly with a successful company like SM, might be attractive even if their child is locked into the contract for 10 years. These contracts have also become quite prestigious in recent years as idol culture has become a more important part of Korean pop culture and as the Hallyu wave has become successful and profitable outside of Korea. Korea is also a very nationalistic country and often being an idol is seen as an opportunity to represent Korea overseas.

All this competition puts a lot of pressure on people to work hard and as a result what might be considered overworking in the West and unacceptable, particularly for young people, is a fairly normal accepted practice in Korea. Koreans value hard work enormously. Without Korea’s incredible collective work ethic there is no way the country could have risen from abject poverty in the 1950s to the huge world-leading economy it is today in such a short space of time. It should be noted though that this culture does come with serious issues including extremely high rates of suicide and very low rates of job satisfaction.

Ultimately, I think the reasons for the K-pop industry functioning the way it does have much less to do with good business practice and much more to do with the culture of which it is part. In Korea’s intensely competitive, hierarchical, group based culture where young people have very little time in which to hone performance skills on their own, it does make sense to have this kind of system. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ethically right or financially effective but it is understandable. I’m not trying to argue this either way, I think it’s great to have a system which encourages performers to be respectful and continuously work on their skills but I also think that it leaves open a lot of possibility for serious and completely unacceptable exploitation, which has been seen in some very serious past scandals.

The K-pop industry may be a business like any other but it is also a Korean business and it’s important to take these cultural differences into account when trying to understand it.

This article is part of  a series about the workings of the K-pop industry. Let us know your thoughts in the comments about how the industry operates!

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  • GagHalfrunt

    It would perhaps be a mistake to consider Korean entertainment companies’ methods solely in terms of Korean culture and values, because they follow the same strategies for training and controlling idols as Japanese talent agencies.

    That said, however, Japanese “talento” get regular salaries from their agencies, which, I think, is not the case in Korea. Being under a long-term contract to a Korean entertainment company then would not guarantee financial stability but would make it difficult to leave the company and find something better.

    • Katieee

      But you must consider that Japan and Korea do come from fairly similar backgrounds. Both Japan and Korea are heavily influenced by their Confucianism (Neo or otherwise) backgrounds, among other things. So it would make sense that their entertainment industries are fairly similar.

      From what I’ve read, the payout is that everyone gets an equal amount split between the group member(s), plus whatever that particular individual happens to earn doing endorsements, variety shows, movies, etc.. But, that is just for those who have debuted.
      I know that JYJ had to pay a large sum of money that was their projected earnings for the rest of their contract duration for backing out of said contract, whether or not they had to pay even with the court rulings, is something I don’t know.

      ALSO, the above is from just what I have read, I’m not fluent in Korean by any means, so my sources are either translations and/or secondary, tertiary resources and references.

  • ANN yoou

    i really like this blog!

    being interested in korean entertainment and culture for so long have got me to kind of understand the values and culture behind all of this, am not saying I think it’s perfect or right, but it’s just how korean culture is… It gets really hard to explain to outsiders why it is that way .. I love how this blog words it out nicely without prejudices .. ^^

  • jajangmyeon

    this is a nicely written article. i just want to add that other than the points you listed in the article, there is fan demographic factor that also plays a huge factor in the k-pop business. Korean entertainment companies, especially SM who started the idol craze, aiming idols to teens (even pre-teens as of now), whose decision is mainly driven by emotion, resulting in i-buy-anything-my-favorites-put-out mentality. The closer age gap of the idols with the fans, the easier fans feel “connected” to their idol, adding explanation as to why these idol kids scouted at a very young age.

    It’s not limited to albums and merchandises but also to products the idols endorsed. Although “star power” effect to endorsement applies broadly to all celebrities, including actors and athletes, the fan demographic also has its effect on why idols are considered as product endorser, You might want to explore this side for your next article about how k-pop industry works.

  • Hollowhispers

    Very smart and sharply written article. You’re an amazing writer. You broke things down so well that everything was very easy to comprehend.