Welcome readers, to another episode of…
This time Kpopalypse is interviewing Sarah Wolfgang, formerly of k-pop girl group Tahiti!
A few months ago, Sarah Wolfgang’s Reddit AmA (“ask me anything”) caught my attention. Sarah, also known as Hanhee, was in the k-pop group Tahiti during their training days, but didn’t stick with the group long enough to debut with them. Sarah’s revelations about her time in Tahiti were refreshingly honest and candid, you can read more about them here, but most of it was stuff that I already either knew for sure from my own industry experiences elsewhere and/or had figured out through casual observation:
- Training in a k-pop group is seriously hard work like you can’t imagine
- Money distribution is awful for the performers
- Almost everyone who is an idol has plastic surgery
- Groups inevitably have internal politics and members who get ostracised
- Idol diets suck the big one (well, maybe the small one – the big one would be too fattening)
I thought to myself “here’s someone not afraid to tell it how it really is, this person would probably make a good interview subject” and I also had quite a few extra questions of my own so I got in touch and spent the next couple of months exchanging emails where I asked her about various aspects of herself, Tahiti, and the k-pop music scene in general. Enjoy!
Hi! How are you? Answer in as much or as little detail as applicable.
I’m doing great. Just moved out to LA, and although life is certainly a lot more difficult, it’s been an experience I could have never achieved else wise.
Great to hear! In what way do you find that living in LA is more difficult than Korea?
Korea is a great place to live if you have a) money or b) something that you do really well (ex. speak English to teach it, underground dance for a living). LA has been pretty hard on me because job hunting has been pretty hard… no degree – limited jobs.
Anyone from LA reading, let’s help Sarah out! Put job referrals in the comments below!
I wanted to ask a bit about the process that led you into being part of a k-pop group. What was the initial drive that made you want to enter that industry?
I never imagined myself entering into the K-pop industry. As a matter of fact, I always dreamt of being an actress. I started acting from a very young age and it has always been my passion. I first auditioned for my company for an acting gig. That later turned into me signing with my company to use K-pop as a mere stepping stone into my acting career.
How did that transformation occur, from wanting to act, to deciding to pursue singing first?
I don’t think the transformation occurred as quickly as it probably should have. I signed with my company to use K-pop as a stepping stone to get into the acting world of Korea. I, of course, set the acting aside to focus on my K-pop career. I don’t think it was until I actually left the company that I realized I had formed a drive to want to pursue music.
How much of a realistic option do you think it is, in retrospect, to use k-pop as a stepping stone to acting in Korea? Did you see it work for others, or do you think is it simply not viable except for those at the very top tiers?
I think it’s quite possible. The Korean entertainment industry never has to do with talent. It has to do with a) whether or not your company can pay to support your fame or b) whether or not you’re in high demand because your company already went through route a.
I mean there is the occasional actor/artist that spends years under the light (usually without a company) that may be very talented… but it’s the actual entertainment agency that helps anyone actually see any light or fame.
I read that you didn’t end up debuting with Tahiti, but you were on a “sitcom style reality TV show” during the training period. Can you describe what that experience was like?
I recorded the first album and left midway through the production. I did, however, stay through the entire recording of the reality show. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience! We went through the whole process of waking up super early, going to the hair and make up artist, and waiting our turns to be filmed.
Can you describe the album recording process that you experienced?
It started off with us hearing an instrumental with a guide (nonsense words) being recorded on top of it. We listened to it many times, over and over again. We then got lyrics a few weeks after. We memorized them and were brought into a recording studio. We each took turns going in and recording for the parts that were given to us. If one didn’t do well, then someone else would be given the part… and so on.
How much of your own vocal part eventually made it onto Tahiti feature tracks such as “Tonight“, or were those parts overdubbed by other girls?
I’m not exactly sure as to how much made it on the actual album as a lot of the voices were altered.
Do you follow or keep track of Tahiti’s group activities since you left the group out of curiosity, nostalgia or any other reasons?
Are you aware of their current musical output?
I see updates once in a while on my twitter feed. I am still twitter friends with a lot of them.
The next set of questions aren’t about yourself, your group or company specifically, but just about things that you may have observed during your experiences. Firstly, what do you think is the biggest misconception about the world of k-pop that someone just entering the industry might have?
A lot of the things happen behind hidden walls… It’s hard to understand anything fully without actually having gone through it. I think the biggest misconception that a lot of people have when entering the industry might be that things will progress smoothly. Although hard work is definitely one of the things everyone expects, it goes beyond what anyone could ever imagine.
There are many stories about artists being very overworked and some of them having only 2 hours sleep per night. Do you believe that this is a common situation that people in groups may experience?
I think it’s different with each company. I can’t say for sure, but some things are usually blown out of proportion to seem appealing on the news. From my experience, I’ve been through only one day where we didn’t even get any hours of sleep (due to the MTV shooting 2 days in a row). But most of the days we’d get 4 plus hours of sleep depending on what our schedule was like.
One thing I’m curious about with idols that is rarely discussed is drug use, and I don’t just mean illegal recreational drugs but also legal and performance-enhancing drugs. I know from personal experience in the western music industry that drugs are absolutely everywhere. I won’t ask about your specific group, but just going on what you may have heard during your time in the business, do you think it’s a different situation in Korea, or more similar to the west than people realise?
All drugs are illegal in Korea. As far as I know, they are really hard to come by. And even if you’re lucky enough.. they’d cost a lot of money. I’ve heard of certain k-pop groups using drugs (strictly through media) but I’ve never encountered it first hand.
When you’re in training, how much possessions do you actually own? Are things like clothes yours or is everything label property?
When I first moved into the dorms, I actually took 2 big suitcases and my laptop. I filled my suitcase with lots of clothes and a few textbooks because I was taking online classes at the time.
If you knew someone just about to enter the k-pop industry, what advice would you give them?
For anyone that wanted to enter to the k-pop industry, I would give them the advice not to. I would tell them that they should take the longer road… First try underground music in Korea (if you really want to get into the Korean industry) and work your way up. This will tell you if a) you really want to do music (because it’s hard being an underground artist) and b) if you’re strong enough to stick with it. The industry is vicious. If you aren’t prepared – it will eat you up.
Looking at media representation of what life is like for idol groups, what are the things that you think that the k-pop media get right? Also, what do you think they most often get horribly wrong?
I think the biggest thing they get wrong is that life as a k-pop artist, or even a trainee, is super glamourous. It really doesn’t get glamorous until you’re about 4 years in… One thing that they do get right is, k-pop artists (even though I don’t enjoy calling them artists) do work very hard to perform.
Obviously k-pop performers aren’t “artists”, I prefer to liken the performer to a “crafter” who is assisting to craft the artistic vision of someone else, or a group of people, behind the scenes. It’s the difference between a bricklayer and an architect.
Do you think this is an accurate perception?
The only thing different would be that when it comes to buildings, the architect takes most of the credit… as where in K-pop, the group takes more of the credit.
Were there any opportunities to get involved in the artistry side of things, that you observed?
None, for me. Most of the lessons I received were those that dealt with dance… and even then, we were given a choreography to which we were supposed to learn step by step… and perform step by step.
Do you think it’s just a matter of which company you get saddled with, or do you think other factors are involved?
I know some companies do offer their trainees the option to learn to produce. I think this is awesome! It gives trainees the opportunity to showcase their artistic ability!
How aware of the opinions and buzz of their own companies’ media are people undergoing training in a k-pop company?
For trainees, most of the time… they’re cut off from the outside world – no phone, no internet.
In your experience, are comments by the general public and/or fans on news articles noticed and/or considered important by the performers, or their companies? How much influence do you think such comments have?
I’m not sure, I think companies take suggestions/comments seriously to improve the group.
Do performers get any kind of education in avoiding controversy or controversial statements/opinions, or “cultural sensitivity” training for dealing with media and fanbases in other countries?
I think it really depends on the company. I never received any training for dealing with media/fanbases in other countries. I do think that with the amount of diversity there is in K-pop now, cultural sensitivity is dealt with within it’s members.
I know you’re not into k-pop, musically. Name some favourite artists that inspire you or that you enjoy the work of – any genre.
I love Jazzhop. My favorite artists include Kero One, Nujabes, Shirosky, Re:Plus, and DJ Okiwari.
I’m aware that k-pop trainees and new groups don’t make a lot of money, plus they get heavily into debt. I’ve heard of people working second jobs just to get by. Did you meet or hear of people who had to take up outside extra-curricular activities to generate income, and if so, what did they do? And how did they find the time?
A lot of time, extra-curricular activities are not permitted. Personally, I have never heard of anyone working second jobs.
“Parental pressure” is often cited as a reason for people leaving idol groups in the early stages, and seemingly for good reason! Do you think the parents of trainees generally are very aware of what life is like for their sons or daughters as a trainee or as a member of a young unknown group, or do you think there’s an element of looking at the situation through rose-coloured glasses?
I believe a lot of trainees and their parents are unaware of what goes on behind the scene. A lot of times, the reason why Korean parents are against their children doing music is usually because they’re against the arts. They know that the odds are slight, and wasting valuable study time isn’t something they’d like to see their child do.
Do you think labels are accepting of people who might want to balance being a trainee with other activities such as outside study, or do you think those people would just not have a chance and get overlooked in favour of someone more committed to only being an idol?
Definitely someone more committed. Training to be an idol is a 24 hour job. Most companies do not want someone that has one foot in training and one foot in studying. As a matter of fact, I had to give up school and opted to get a GED (as many students do).
Why do you think your label emphasized humility so much?
I think we were expected to be humble because so many people in the industry are not. They wanted us to learn how to be humble before we could think we were the shit (excuse my language, but this was the only way to explain myself to the fullest).
Why do you think k-pop labels cut their trainees off from the outside world so much? What function do you think that serves for them?
I think they cut trainees off from the rest of the world because they want to protect their trainees from bad publicity and mishap.
What made you want to do the Reddit AMA?
I wanted to do the Reddit AMA as a means to be honest with myself and the online community. It’s such a hidden subject that little is known, and I was glad to shine some light on it.
Thanks for doing this interview, I really appreciate it!
If there’s anything else that you’d like to say to my readers about your experiences, or the industry, please do!
Although a lot of idols do work hard towards making their performance look great… many songs have really awesome songwriters and choreographers working even harder to put it all together. I honestly think, a true fan should work harder in supporting all aspects of an idol group’s song – rather than just the idol. Also, the industry is beyond glitz and glamour. Don’t be fooled with what you see on TV!
That’s it for this episode of Kpopalypse Interview! Are you or do you know someone doing something relevant to the world of k-pop, who would like to be interviewed? If so, get in touch!