Sad reality of K-pop traineesCHUN YOUNG-SUN
The author is head of the K-entertainment team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
“The team almost fell apart because it didn’t have the money for feed,” an insider who claims to have been in the K-pop scene for more than 30 years said, explaining the debut process of an idol group.
I didn’t understand it at first. Once I realized that he was talking about the meal costs for trainees by animal “feed,” I was quite surprised. Of course, the treatment and perception of trainees have changed since this person was active. As the conversation continued, his choice of words was not particularly malicious. I felt frightened because of the “intuitive” nature contained in this term.
The biggest characteristic of the K-pop industry value chain is recruiting immature talents as trainees and nurturing them through intensive training. Becoming a trainee is not easy, but in order to get through the narrow pathway to debut, an army of trainees fiercely compete against one another. K-pop agencies with a large pool are seeking ways to cut costs and increase the possibility of success. They require trainees to practice long hours and intervene in their privacy.
As you all know well, debut is not the end. Actually, that’s where the real war begins. Each year, more than 50 teams debut as idols, and they need to constantly prove their presence. Idols — the assets, products and artists in the K-pop industry — are born in this structure.
An uproar was caused when BTS announced a hiatus on their group activities. Koreans and foreigners are analyzing the move as K-pop influence expands. Foreigners are especially critical of the trainee system that made K-pop successful. The question is whether it is really okay to force trainees to put everything at stake at such a young age and focus on commercial success. It is understandable that foreigners are terrified of trainee rules such as practicing 10 hours a day for six days a week and banning dating and the use of cell phones.
But there is something they don’t quite understand. In Korean society, people barely get a chance to start a career when they get through a similarly suffocating competition. The competitions of non-idols start just as early. You cannot feel safe even when you invest 10 hours a day, six days a week studying for college admissions. Once you get into college and find a job, the competition doesn’t end. It is about time to ask whether K-pop and Korean society have no other choice but to live like this.