K-pop fans left biting their nails in anticipation of the 'seven-year curse'
Many K-pop fans are having sleepless nights, as it is soon time for idol groups that debuted in 2015 to renew their contracts with their agencies.
Outcomes can vary from groups losing members or even disbanding altogether. It is predicted to be a nail-biting year for many fans who fear the "seven-year curse," which highlights the unique nature of how K-pop acts are formed and operate.
On May 9, WM Entertainment announced that six of the seven Oh My Girl members renewed their contracts and Jiho, who did not, was leaving the agency and girl group. Oh My Girl fans, while supportive of her decision, were devastated. The same day, Monsta X’s agency Starship Entertainment announced that three of the boy band's six members renewed their contracts while the other three are still in negotiations, leaving fans in a state of limbo.
The term “seven-year curse” is frequently used in the K-pop industry, as many bands see members come and go or disband around seven years after debuting. The curse has a not-so-superstitious explanation: The Korea Fair Trade Commission stipulated in 2009 that a celebrity and agency’s exclusive contract is limited to a maximum of seven years in order to prevent excessively long contracts.
Members must decide whether to stay, depart for another agency or go independent. While some move to other agencies but still remain in the groups, seeing the group as a whole again is often unlikely when members are under different management.
The rush of contract renewals feels especially dramatic this year because 2015 saw a very large number of debuts. Approximately 50 boy bands and girl groups were introduced to the public that year alone, when the formation of third-generation K-pop idols was at its peak. Most of them disappeared amid steep competition, but many established themselves as popular acts. Third-generation idols’ contract renewals are bound to receive more international attention as well, since they were the driving force behind K-pop’s rise to global popularity and many have built large fandoms around the world. The potential disbanding of iconic acts behind the international rise of K-pop is seen as a tragedy for domestic and international fans alike.
Some of these notable acts include Twice, iKON, CLC, DAY6, UP10TION and DIA. Boy bands Seventeen and N.Flying renewed their contracts early on last year, much to the relief of fans. DIA announced its disbandment on May 11, but as for the others, information is scarce. Fans are speculating who they think will re-sign and who will not, or whether the members will retire or turn to acting.
The fact that each member re-signing or parting ways with their agency impacts the group’s future as a whole comes as reminder of how K-pop idol acts are formed.
“K-pop groups are not formed based on the members’ personal friendships or musical tastes,” said Lee Gyu-tag, a professor of pop music and media studies at George Mason University Korea. “[In the Western pop music industry] groups are usually formed by people who want to do the same music or are friends who start a band in a garage. K-pop groups, on the other hand, are put together as a group by the management, regardless of their music tastes or personal friendships. It makes more sense that it is a strictly business relationship. Although members often do end up close to each other, many just go their separate ways after the contract is over.”
Often times, disbandment happens against the members’ wills. The agency can also decide not to renew their contracts, usually due to financial reasons or to launch a new group.
“Disbandment, simply because the agency decides so, isn’t common in the West,” Lee continued. “Most Western groups disband because the members had a falling out or lost popularity. In K-pop, even if the members want to continue and the fans send unchanging support, if the agency decides not to offer renewals, the group disbands overnight. That’s a bit of an Achilles’ heel for K-pop.”
However, the same unique traits seen in K-pop often help acts last even after losing a few members.
“Individual members contribute a lot to the group’s success of course, but at its core, K-pop operates based on the management’s ability,” said music critic Kim Young-dae. “For most Western bands, certain members like the lead vocalist leaving the group means that the group is practically over. K-pop groups have more room for the management to step in and adjust when some members leave, by changing their music style and concept or adding in new members. The management’s ability can minimize the impact and make the group go on.”
Another helpful factor is that K-pop fans are actually already used to seeing certain members missing.
“K-pop idols are very active as subunits,” Kim said. “So when a few members leave, fans can accept the now-smaller group as a form of another subunit. That can lessen the shock."
“Especially regarding male idol groups, fans are used to not seeing certain members for a while because of mandatory military service,” Prof. Lee said. “So it doesn’t look too unnatural when a few members are missing.”
Nonetheless, fans lament that the permanent lack of even a single member means that the group will never be the same. The team itself may go on with the majority of members remaining, but the departure of one or two members can still be a great loss in current K-pop fan culture which puts emphasis on the relationship and chemistry between members.
“Although I’m confident it won’t happen any time soon, I can’t imagine [my favorite group] without any of the members,” said an 18-year-old fan of boy band NCT Dream who wished to identify herself as Yoo.
“The unique relationship and interactions between certain members excite fans a lot, when it’s seen on television or the group’s own YouTube shows,” Yoo said. “Every group has fan favorite ‘chemistry’ pairings based on that. If one of them leaves, that whole chemistry is gone. For K-pop, I don’t think a member leaving is as simple as a matter of losing an important dancer or feeling like the song is missing someone’s voice.”
“In the early stage after debuting, it can be relatively easier for groups to change members and rearrange themselves,” critic Kim said. “But after the group’s image is established to some degree, changes in members are bound to impact a group’s career. It inevitably affects their identity as a group and their fandoms, especially if the leaving member has a significant following of their own. It’s rare for a group to lose members and become more successful than they were, but it does heavily depend on each case.”
Prof. Lee is optimistic, whatever the results of this year’s contract renewals are.
“The seven-year curse itself is an indicator of success, since the group lasted seven years in the first place,” he said. “At that point, the group has already proved itself and secured a sizeable fandom. Even if some don’t re-sign and end up leaving, as long as the group doesn’t disband altogether, it will go on just fine. We’ve already seen groups go on for over 10 years like that.”
Boy bands TVXQ, Super Junior, Exo and girl groups Girls’ Generation, T-ara and Apink are notable examples of groups that have been popular for a decade or more despite losing members. Even if every member each moves to different agencies, it doesn’t always have to mean disbandment as long as enough fan support persists. Boy band GOT7 is a recent example. The seven members’ contracts with JYP Entertainment ended last year and they went their separate ways, but they emphasized that GOT7 itself was still intact as a team. True to its word, GOT7 is scheduled to release a new EP on May 23 as a complete team of seven, thanks to each agency’s cooperation.
“Second and especially third-generation idols have come a long way,” Lee added, “compared to first-generation idols who barely lasted five years. Now there are many alternative ways for groups to have longer life spans.”
BY HALEY YANG [email@example.com]