Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How the Kpop Industry Actually Works

When people first get into Kpop, they generally make one of two assumptions: one) that Kpop bands are formed just like Western bands, or two) that Kpop band members are snatched from their cradles and put through a lifetime of vigorous slave-like training while their family members are held hostage. (I wish I was kidding about that second part, but I'm not.)

So to put these misconceptions to rest, I'm here to give you the rundown on how the Korean pop industry actually works!

Unlike western bands, Korean pop bands aren't formed in a garage, and they don't begin by opening for larger bands until a label picks them up. Instead, Korean bands are formed by labels. For instance the Kpop boyband Big Bang is made of five members formed under the label YG. Big Bang consists of five members: leader GDragon, rapper T.O.P., vocal Taeyang, vocal Daesung, and vocal Seungri.
Big Bang. L-R: Seungri, GDragon, Taeyang, T.O.P., Daesung (source)
The process of forming a Kpop band is an intensive one. Singers are scouted various ways - sometimes they're from failed bands under smaller labels, sometimes the label holds auditions for new talent, sometimes buskers are scouted off the street. However the talent is discovered, it still isn't ready. Through a process of elimination, possible members for a band are whittled from the hundreds to ten or twenty. (Some Kpop bands are huge with as many as fifteen members.) Usually the label knows how many members it wants in a bad - before Big Bang was formed, there were six trainee members. One member, Hyunseung, was cut - but he was soon picked up by Cube Entertainment and placed in their boy band B2ST. (He recently left B2ST after six years with the band.)

Also, Kpop cds have the coolest packaging in the world.
Once the trainees are chosen, they do what their name implies - they train, and they train hard. They receive vocal training, and they learn how to dance like pros. A Kpop artist isn't just someone who can carry a tune - the Korean music industry holds its artists to the very highest standard, and their artists have a variety of talents including singing, dancing, rapping, and acting. In fact, you'll find Korean dramas populated with actors and actresses who are also famous singers or rappers (or both).

The reason for this intensely high standard is because South Korea is a very small, but very competitive, country; and their music industry makes a huge amount of money. There is a downside to this factor, though - like with any industry, the quality will fluctuate depending on the current demand (last year saw the debut of some fairly 'low-quality' bands as the industry tried to keep up with the sudden demand from western countries).

Once the band is officially formed, they will first debut onstage during various music shows to increase the hype. The reaction will be weighed and the necessary changes made before the band 'officially' debuts with a song and music video.

MAMAMOO, my favorite girl band. (source)
Unlike western bands, who usually have a concept they stick with throughout the whole of their career, Kpop bands change their concept with each comeback. A group may debut with a bombastic tough-guy rap vibe, but their comeback might see them singing gentle ballads while wearing sweaters and smelling flowers. Sometimes this can be annoying - for example, the boy band B.A.P. is one of my favorites and they had one of the strongest debuts I've ever seen with their single 'Warrior.' They did, however, have a few comebacks that saw songs and music videos like 'Coffee Shop' - with soft ballad themes that just didn't suit their aggressive, bombastic vibe. (Fortunately they've found their groove and continue to produce some of my favorite Korean music with hits like 'Young, Wild & Free' or their most recent, 'Skydive.')

Also unlike Western bands, these concepts are generally chosen by the label, not the band itself. While bands do have a say in their concepts, they do not have the final say. In the Kpop industry, the label chooses everything - the concepts, the songs, the fashions, the music videos, the venues, the fanmeets. It's very much the reverse of the Western music industry. While artists often do write their own lyrics - and some artists, like Xiah Junsu, tend to control their own concepts - in the end, the label has the say-so.

A screencap from EXO's music video, 'Monster'
It's worth noting that 'subunits' are often formed - for example EXO, an extremely successful boy band under SM Entertainment, has a newly-formed subunit called 'EXO CBX', made up of three members: Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin. Other examples are TaeTiSeo, a subunit of Girl's Generation/SNSD, or Infinite H, a subunit of boy band INFINITE.

While the South Korean music industry gives us incredible music from extremely talented, hardworking artists, it does have downsides; and I'll be discussing those downsides two weeks from now. Stay tuned!

Do you have any questions about the Kpop industry? Let me know in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them!


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