“I fell through the cracks,” said the attractive brunette sitting across from me with her characteristic bluntness.
I first met Isak (real name: Ida Simmons) when I worked at Arirang TV and Radio, an English-language broadcasting station. The daughter of a Caucasian father and a Korean mother, Isak had previously been the member of an unsuccessful SM Entertainment act called Isak N Jiyeon. However, she managed to eventually parlay her bubbly charms into a successful career as both a DJ and VJ at Arirang Radio.
While Isak, who still has three years left on a ten-year contract, applauded SM founder Lee Soo Man’s ability to think outside of the box and accept a biracial Korean-American into his company, she also remembered the more suffocating aspects of being a K-pop entertainer in the earlier part of the decade. For example, when she lived with several other SM trainees in a dormitory-like setting, the girls’ managers devised a clever way to keep tabs on the talent:
“[T]hey were afraid that we would sneak out. They would put in a house phone for us, and we couldn’t call from our cell phones. We had to call from our house phone to our manager as soon as we walk[ed] in the door [to inform them] that we came in.”
Isak also recalled the strict no-dating policy at the time:
“No dating,” she said. “You get caught, you pay consequences.”
I asked her what the consequences were.
“I was threatened that if I didn’t break up with my boyfriend then I would be either cut from SM or not [be] able to debut.”
Ironically, Isak found that the no-dating rule could actually hamper an artist’s performance, especially since many K-pop songs were about the very topic that its singers were forbidden to engage in: love.
“They’re singing about love but they’ve never experienced love,” she complained. “I think that’s a very big error.”
Isak noted, nonetheless, that a lot had changed in the industry. While “just look pretty and dance” may have been the rule when she began her career, current K-pop fans expect a lot more personality from their favorite stars. Now, as Isak noted, “it seem[s] to be becoming a trend for celebrities to be dating in Korea… a lot of people were coming forward and being honest about their relationships.” And it didn’t stop there: entertainers like Lee Hyori would even appear on reality shows, doing things like going to doctor appointments sans makeup, allowing fans to become even closer to their idols.
The trend toward a more naturalistic and approachable depiction of idol stars, according to Isak, is a positive one, and she heaped a great deal of praise on 2NE1, a four-member girl group represented by YG Entertainment:
“I don’t think 2NE1 is the typical Korean pretty girl,” said Isak. “I think they’re the most beautiful girls in the world because they don’t have double eyelids; because they don’t have noses that hit the ceiling; because they don’t have that “entertainer” look that people have grown accustomed to.”
For all the positive changes that have happened in the industry, however, Isak had a warning for those who were dreaming of becoming an idol star: long contracts and hidden fees had not disappeared.
“They [the management companies] promise before you debut, ‘we’re going to house you, we’re going to feed you, we’re going to give you all the lessons you need. Do your best’ and then we think that that’s all free,” remembered Isak. She soon learned, however, that all the expenses that went into her upkeep, including stylists, salon visits, manager fees, food, and clothing, were deducted from her pay.
Young Kim, host of the Arirang Radio program “K-pop Zone” and former rapper for such groups as S#arp and Uptown in the late 1990s, noted just how little money one could make, even as a member of relatively successful groups: “I made about three thousand dollars in the seven months that I was promoting the [S#arp] album.”
Although Kim, Isak, and others I spoke with said that they believed conditions had greatly improved, recent legal battles and contract disputes (such as the one staged by three members of the immensely popular boy band TVXQ against SM Entertainment, their management company) suggest that something may be rotten in the candy factory. As one industry outsider told me with a knowing smile, “They work their kids hard.”
However, Mark Russell, a Korean pop culture expert, recently commented on his blog, the problem is actually not rooted in the management companies, but rather in the Korean music system itself. Having to train, house, and feed future stars whose success will ultimately have to recoup not only the investment in them, but the company’s investment in other trainees who have yet to make it or who simply fell through the cracks…the economic constraints of such a system are considerable, to say the least. Imagine, then, the costs that go into sustaining the thirteen members of Super Junior or the nine young ladies who make up Girls’ Generation.
More revealing was when Russell told me that, “[In] the late 90s, Koreans spent, depending on the exchange rate, somewhere in the neighborhood of four to five hundred million dollars a year on CDs and tapes. Last year, they spent 60 million. We’re talking about an 80% decline.” The steep fall in music sales could explain why over the years, K-pop stars have moved from being only singers to multitasking entertainers – unless you were writing your own music (and many idol stars do not), there just wasn’t that much money to be found in music anymore. Revenue would have to be generated through concerts, commercial shoots, and public television appearances. Meanwhile, selling talent overseas was no longer just a ploy by the bigger management companies to increase profits, but a financial necessity as the Korean music market continued to shrink.
There are big risks at stake for those investing in idol groups. These risks did not go unnoticed by Isak who understood her previous lack of freedom, stating that, “[We] are products. I know it sounds very bad, but we are products, and that’s why our companies…sometimes treat us like products.”
However, for all the financial risks the companies bear, perhaps the biggest gambles are still those taken by the talent in sacrificing their youth to achieve national or even international stardom. As D-Lite (Daesung Kang) of Big Bang put it, sacrificing “common things in life that we liked – walking around the streets, time to hang out with old friends, etc…” was something he knew he’d have to do.
Every idol star has gone into the K-pop game knowing the cost of fame. Behind the bright lights and their big smiles hides another truth, which D-Lite voiced in simple terms: “We all knew that we had to let it [their former lives] go when we decided to [join] Big Bang but, honestly, sometimes it’s tough on me.”
As I pondered the pressures of surviving in a shrinking Korean music market, I could only think, “It’s tough all around, kid.”
SOURCE: MTV IGGY, Seoulbeats