K-Pop ‘Slave Contracts’ – A Closer Look
South Korea’s music business is thriving and is worth more than $3 billion a year. A huge part of that $3 billion comes from the K-Pop industry which has fans all over the world. Although $3 billion is the monetary outcome, a lot of money is put into these groups prior to, during and after their debuts. In order to try to help protect their investments, companies have the individuals of groups sign contracts, binding them to the company for a number of years.
There has been a lot of coverage over the past few years regarding these contracts, especially those dubbed as so-called ‘slave contracts’ – where the star is signed to the company for a number of years – some reaching as high as 13 like Yoona from Girls’ Generation. But is the situation, and are the circumstances, as black and white as the physical contracts themselves? Or has there been extreme attention to one side or the other? K-Pop fans are known to get quite aggressive with their opinions when it comes to their K-Pop allegiances, so has this helped to blow a situation out of proportion – or is their uproar justified?
In order to try to get to the bottom of this there are a few things that have to be understood. The first is that very few of us are personally involved in this situation – we are spectators in this debate. The second this is that we all know relatively nothing about this. For all of the reports and all of the hype we still only know what has been reported and are basing our decisions from that. An example of this is the famous Dong Bang Shin Ki law suit, wherein they took their management to court over a 13 year contract and claims that they weren’t getting enough of the profits. They won their case, and the ruling prompted the Fair Trade Commission to bring into play a “model contract” to attempt to improve the deals that idols got from their management companies. The news industry (of any genre) tends to focus on the bad circumstances and report them rather than the good, so of course the stories about ‘slave contracts’ go further than just the ones that have been proven to be so in a court of law. I am not saying that there is no truth in the ‘slave contracts’ – far from it actually, but I am trying to see both sides of the same coin.
One understandable and quite sensible reason for the contracts is to recoup costs from the training periods of all current idols as well as those who didn’t make it. The cost of training idols is effectively a loan that the future idols have to pay back. The cost of manufacturing a group is huge. Vocal coaches, choreographers, stylists, make-up artists, accommodation, living expenses and staff payments are but a few items on the bill. The money from the success of the idol or group goes to paying off all of the staff ‘behind-the-scenes’ after what has been proven to have been seven years of hard work in the past (like 2AM’s Jokwon from JYP Entertainment). After the company recoups its costs, there is sometimes very little left for the artists.
Another stipulation of the ‘slave contracts’ has been reported to have been long and intense hours. These contracts start at training, and whilst it might seem severe, it can be seen as the best way to prepare future idols. The experience is tough, and only the motivated and those who really want the lifestyle will make it through it. Those who are too weak, mentally or physically, will fall to the wayside and not become idols. This may seem harsh, but the companies are protecting their investments as well as (even if vicariously) protecting the prospective idols from breakdowns in the future. The idols and groups spend a lot of time touring, as it is one of the key ways that money is brought in; singles and albums don’t sell as well. Fans pay a lot of money to see their idols live, so the performances have to be good, therefore copious hours of training must be undertaken.
Training is difficult and extremely demanding, but it does seem a necessary evil in helping the stars who really want it and who appreciate the opportunity to prepare for fame. The effortless look of slick, in-time dance moves, pitch perfect vocals and stunning wardrobes don’t just cost money, they cost time, blood, sweat and tears, and for most, it’s worth it – an example of this is seen in the stills of members of 2NE1 from 2NE1 TV (click to enlarge to see the text).
For many of the idols and groups, the pros of these contracts outweigh the cons. For most of them they are living their dream; they have earned and achieved their goals and the sheer hard work and determination that it took for them to get there has paid off. Whilst it may be true that they do not earn as much money as most fans would believe that they do, they have almost everything supplied for them. Food, wardrobe, stylists and sometimes even accommodation are provided for them; they often have no need to spend money on the cost of living. The money they do earn whilst they are idols can go somewhat untouched.
However, sometimes the sacrifice these men and women make can go beyond hard work, little sleep and low pay. Success in any field, writing, acting, art or anything else, requires some form of sacrifice, but sometimes in K-Pop, things can get too extreme. In the video clip below (which is a little out of date with regards to band members, but the point is still made), Joy from RaNia spoke of not being allowed a phone, or being able to hang out with friends or have romantic relationships prior to debuting with her label.
At times these contracts can be quite demanding and seem unrealistic but a contract has to be signed in order for these artists to be legally bound. Several of these artists are very young when they are signed to training, but they still have parents who could read and (if the prospective idols are under a certain age) are obliged to sign aswell, therefore there is an understanding of what will be asked of the would-be stars. I can’t help but think; if the situation is really that bad for the majority of K-Pop stars, wouldn’t there be a lot more controversies and lawsuits?
Like I said earlier, I am not saying that there is no truth to these ‘slave contracts’, I firmly believe that they exist. What I am saying is that perhaps they only seem unreasonable to the few who have spoken out against them. Perhaps to some, the end result is worth the conditions featured in the contracts and they are willing to sign their names on the dotted line. It also seems to only be SM Entertainment that have 13 year contracts, others like YG are signing off on 7 years.
Are those who break their contracts or fight against them ungrateful for their position, for the dream thousands want, or are they standing ground, and trying to pave the way for a fairer and more relaxed path to success? Are those who stay under the ‘control’ of the contracts being oppressed by money hungry companies, or are they accepting and understanding of what is being asked of them in order to live out their dream? These are the questions which can only truly be answered by the idols themselves.
This article is part of a series we will be posting over the next few weeks about the workings of the K-pop industry. Let us know your thoughts in the comments about ‘slave contracts’ and anything else about how the industry operates!
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