Sunday, October 7, 2012

The cultural technology of K-pop

Three music agencies dominate the K-pop industry. ...

The agencies recruit twelve-to-nineteen-year-olds from around the world, through both open auditions and a network of scouts. ... (Native English- or Chinese-speaking boys and girls, usually of Korean origin, are highly prized.) ...

In Seoul, both Tiffany and Jessica attended an international school by day; after school, they reported to S.M., where they trained until ten, and then they had to do homework. Jessica’s training lasted for seven years.

In addition to singing and dancing, the idols study acting and foreign languages—Japanese, Chinese, and English. They also receive media coaching and are readied for the intense scrutiny they will receive on the Internet from the “netizens” of Korea, the most wired country on earth. ... On average, only one in ten trainees makes it all the way to a début. ...

The charts change rapidly, and, because youth and novelty are at such a premium, established groups usually don’t last long: five years is the average shelf life of an idol. (Some idols extend their careers by acting in K-dramas.) New groups appear regularly; in 2011, about sixty groups made débuts, an unprecedented number. Only a fraction are likely to last; most will fade away after a couple of songs. ...

Lee Soo-man, S.M.’s founder—people in the company refer to him as Chairman Lee—is K-pop’s master architect. ...

Lee called his system “cultural technology.” ...

Lee and his colleagues produced a manual of cultural technology—it’s known around S.M. as C.T.—that catalogued the steps necessary to popularize K-pop artists in different Asian countries. The manual, which all S.M. employees are instructed to learn, explains when to bring in foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in what country; the precise color of eyeshadow a performer should wear in a particular country; the exact hand gestures he or she should make; and the camera angles to be used in the videos (a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree group shot to open the video, followed by a montage of individual closeups). ...

In February, 2011, three members of kara, a hugely popular girl group with D.S.P., one of the smaller agencies, filed a lawsuit claiming that, even though the group earned the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars, each member was paid only a hundred and forty dollars a month. The agency disputed that figure, and eventually the two sides settled. The onerous restrictions that some agencies place on idols have been widely publicized in Korea. Another small agency, Alpha Entertainment, forbids its female trainees to have boyfriends and bars any food or water after 7 p.m., according to the Straits Times, Singapore’s English-language newspaper. They are not allowed to go anywhere without supervision.
--John Seabrook, New Yorker, on the factory behind the pop