Fan clubs grow into forces of nature
It started out like an ordinary business day in February for Lee Sang-min and other members of the public relations team at Orion Confectionery, a local snack maker. But as soon as business hours began, the quiet was shattered by an explosion of phone calls and faxes.
Lee now remembers it as “the day it became official that Park Jae-beom was leaving.”
Park was a member of the boy band 2PM who was forced to quit the group after it was revealed he had posted negative comments about Korea on MySpace years earlier.
The calls and faxes were from Jae-beom fans, demanding Orion terminate its marketing contracts with 2PM as retaliation against the group’s management agency, JYP Entertainment.
“We ended up turning off the fax machine. Ever since then, we’ve been watching 2PM and their moves closely.” After that chaotic day, Lee said the company even received handwritten letters from fans.
Also on 2PM fans’ boycott list: the family restaurant chain Bennigan’s, whose local operation is an affiliate of Orion Confectionery.
Far from the pliable cash machines they once were, fan clubs today can be powerful pressure groups. All three of Korea’s major show biz management agencies: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP - have liaison divisions to work exclusively with fan clubs.
JYP Entertainment tried to calm furious fans by inviting about 90 selected club organizers to a closed meeting with 2PM members, the first time such a meeting had been arranged for anyone but reporters or industry officials.
“The relationship with the fans is pretty important. That’s why we invited them and let them ask 2PM members questions,” said Han Su-jeong, head of the fan club liaison team at JYP.
But that gesture failed to cool tempers. Fans kept up the boycott and even took to the streets to stage demonstrations against JYP. A powerful entity, JYP raked in 10.1 billion won ($9.1 million) in sales in 2009 alone. Although Lee at Orion said the boycott didn’t affect sales, a break like this one between a fan club and an entertainment agency would once have been unheard of.
But today, an growing segment of the fan population is in their 20s, 30s, even 40s and 50s.
Men in their 30s and 40s devoted to teen girl groups like Girls’ Generation have come to be known as samchon (uncle) fans. The female equivalent is yimo, or aunt, fans.
“With Girls’ Generation, I guess people of all ages, even men in their late 30s and 40s, have started to join fan clubs,” said Kim Eun-ah, head of a public relations team at SM Entertainment, which was Korea’s biggest entertainment agency by revenue last year thanks to its popular idol acts including Girls’ Generation, Super Junior and TVXQ.
Kim said fans shape public opinion and move the market. “If you look at the Jae-beom case, you know how important [fan clubs] are.”
Unlike teenage fans, these economically active adults are willing to open - or close - their wallets if they think it’s in the best interest of their beloved stars.
But fans don’t just use their financial independence to protest. Most recently, fans of singer and actor Kim Hyun-joong, who starred in the hit TV drama “Boys Over Flowers” (2009), established a scholarship fund for the disabled in Kim’s name.
Kim Jin-ah at the nonprofit Beautiful Foundation, which runs the fund, said, “They are mostly women in their 20s and 30s. They said they wanted to contribute to society in the name of their favorite star.”
The Kids and Future Foundation even launched a campaign called “Love for Stars, Love for Donation” March last year to persuade fan clubs to donate. Lee Young-mi, on the foundation’s public relations team, said it had been “a great success so far.”
Fans of the boy band TVXQ placed a front-page ad in a local daily newspaper in September 2009 to support members in the midst of a legal feud with their agency SM Entertainment. The ad accused SM of overworking the boys after three of the five members spoke out, calling their 13-year contracts unfair and unethical.
In August last year, some clubs even filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, accusing SM of violating TVXQ members’ human rights.
Followers of singer Seo Tai-ji have participated in public hearings on musical copyright law and have taken legal action against artists who parody Seo’s songs.
When G-Dragon, a member of the idol band Big Bang, released his first solo album in August, fans bought stacks and stacks and visited news agencies and broadcast stations to hand out copies.
Fans of M.C. Mong, singer and host of a hit variety TV program, went further. “When some songs by M.C. Mong were leaked before their official release last year, fans visited every single peer-to-peer Web site and persuaded netizens not to download them,” said Kim Min-jeong, a public relations official for IS Entertainment Group, who has been working with M.C. Mong for the past 10 years.
“We have another singer, Min Kyung-hoon. And thanks to his fans, we are gaining weight every day,” laughed Kim. “His fans even prepared 200 fancy lunches the other day for staff members working at a concert.
“Without them, you can’t even think about getting the attention of the general public. I feel like they are not fans but great supporters or partners,” Kim said.
Wired Korea plays another big role in helping fan clubs integrate the older generation.
“Without the Internet, it’s hard to imagine associating with other fans living in other parts of Korea,” said Roh Kil-sook, 41, who organized the fan club “Great Birth” for singer Cho Yong-pil, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday and is considered the first singer to bring “groupie culture” to Korea.
Roh, who lives in Yangjae, southern Seoul, has been a devoted fan of Cho for 30 years. She confesses managing a fan club with about 15,000 members is almost like having a second job.
“When I get home from work, the first thing I do is turn on the computer because I have lots of things to check and decide. For this reason, I go to bed around 1 or 2 a.m. every day,” she said.”
“For example, we have to arrange passenger buses for fans living outside Seoul when they come to Seoul to see oppa [a term of endearment used for male entertainers], and we also have to decide how to make small banners that will be handed out at concerts when cheering.”
Roh is a working mom, and she’s passed on the fangirl gene to her teenage daughter, who adores the idol group Super Junior.
“We gave rice cakes to officials at broadcasting stations and news agencies, and collected money to place a newspaper ad to congratulate oppa on his birthday. We’ve been so busy.”
The ultimate goal of Great Birth, Roh said, is simple. “Oppa can’t live forever. Our mission is to collect all the data regarding him and donate it when a museum for oppa is opened.”
According to Roh, most Great Birth members are in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
“In the past, fan clubs were considered things for teenagers,” said Hwang Sang-min, a psychology professor at Yonsei University.
“For these uncle fans and aunt fans, however, fan club culture is natural because they grew up listening to popular songs and imitating celebrities back in the ’90s.”
Professor Rando Kim, a professor of computer science at Seoul National University, sees this new strong fan culture as a timely trend.
“With the aid of digital gadgets and a wireless environment, consumers can participate in the production process in every industry these days. In that sense, fans are the ones who participate in producing popular culture,” Kim said.
“It’s ideal that fans are no longer passive, but they try to interact with their stars. When they make their voices heard, [entertainment agencies] will produce cultural products catering to the needs of fans.”
Fan club activities
Protecting stars’ rights
* An association of fan clubs of TVXQ filed a petition in August last year with the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, saying a contract between the band members and their agency SM Entertainment was unfair. According to the contract, band members can’t leave the company for 13 years.
* Fans of singer Seo Tai-ji participated in public hearings organized by the National Assembly to improve music copyright. They also took legal action against a singer who parodied Seo’s songs.
* Fan clubs of singer and actor Kim Hyun-joong established a fund for disabled college students in February.
* Marking Park Jae-beom’s 24th birthday, 2PM fan clubs donated 10 million won ($8,970) to the Kids and Future Foundation in April.
* Fan clubs of singer Min Kyung-hoon prepared about 200 lunch boxes for staff members working at a concert in April.
* Fan clubs of G-Dragon, a member of Big Bang, purchased boxes of his first single and handed out CDs to reporters and broadcasting officials to promote the album last August.
By Sung So-young [email@example.com]