Apparently, the Kpopalypse has arrived, and (for once) it’s got nothing to do with me. People have actually been trying to trend #kpopalypse on Twitter lately, and a lot of this has got to do with many of k-pop’s biggest groups suddenly starting to fall apart.
Honestly I don’t really care about any of it, but it seems to be an issue for a lot of people, so I thought a blog post about how and why line-up changes happen might be useful to give people who are freaking out about this shit a little bit of context, as well as an appreciation for why oppar doesn’t want to play “ulf nega ulf” anymore.
So firstly, why wouldn’t I give much of a shit about my faves leaving a group? Well:
- I care about songs, and in k-pop the performers generally don’t write the songs, so it won’t affect my appreciation of the music any more or less to have a member leave
- Members who leave are still celebrities in their own right so they’ll get followed around by cameras everywhere and I’ll still get to see them in photos, therefore fap value is unaffected
- Line-up changes in any musical group of any type is a really, really fucking normal thing
I remember back in my “extreme metal” fan days (back when the style mostly sounded good before so many groups started embracing “emotional hardcore” whining and “nu-metal” hip-hop suck) reading my favourite weekly headbanger’s gossip column. Without fail, every single week there would be brand new information about line-up changes. It seems that the global metal scene couldn’t go a week without the guitar player of Anal Cunt leaving to start a new project called Agoraphobic Nosebleed or whatever it was that week (and no I’m not making those titles up, that actually happened). It got to the point where I’d just get used to the idea that anything could happen to my favourite group at any time, and I’d just take it in my stride. So why can’t k-pop fans do the same? It’s a question some of you considered worth asking:
The marketing of k-pop music fosters an emotional attachment to the idols that other less commercially-focused styles don’t really bother with trying to cultivate to the same extent. Indeed, if you’re feeling a bit emotionally attached to someone like Seth Putnam when listening to Anal Cunt, then you’d probably be perceived as a bit strange by other fans, or perhaps even gay (but that’s okay – according to them, everything was gay). Conversely, in k-pop emotional attachment is considered a very normal state of affairs by fans and is actively encouraged, therefore with line-up changes comes a great deal of fandom-sanctioned trauma as people’s imaginary relationships with their idols are shattered. As someone very experienced in “my faves had a line-up change again” I feel very equipped to help out fans who may be suffering. As it can’t be a mentally healthy situation for anybody, let’s now discuss line-up changes, how they happen and why, so you can be more emotionally prepared for your idol to exercise his or her perceived right to earn more than two cents per day.
Line-up changes within groups in the western world tend to fall into three broad categories. Let’s examine each of them in turn to see how relevant they are to k-pop fans and what it could mean for your faves.
1. CREATIVE DIFFERENCES
You’re in a band that plays reggae but you’re bored of it – reggae has lost its appeal since you joined the group and you’d really rather be playing ska (aka reggae at twice the speed). One day at a band meeting you bring up the topic of playing something faster and less reggae-ish, but the rest of the band don’t like it – they shoot your idea down in a puff of green smoke more potent than G-Dragon’s special stash. You’ve got a few choices at this point:
- Put up and shut up, try not to let it bother you too much
- Leave and join another group or start your own project (and then have to deal with whoever you recruit potentially not liking your musical direction)
- Continually try to convince the others and be a thorn in their side until you get your way, or until they get pissed off enough to kick you out
“Creative differences” is politically correct music industry press release code for “I’m trapped in this band because it’s my bread and butter but I think this music sucks fucking dick and if I have to play this crap for the rest of my life I might end up killing someone”, and the decision to stay or leave involves weighing up the factors of personal fulfillment in music vs how much you give a fuck about the money. It’s not always an easy decision for someone to make, because most musicians do aspire to making a living from music, and most of them also do want to play music which doesn’t lick a dead rhino’s ballsack… but you can’t always have it both ways, unfortunately.
How relevant is this to k-pop line-up changes? Not much, because k-pop groups don’t get to decide their musical direction anyway, so they’ve generally already accepted the deal of “sing this song exactly the way we tell you, I don’t care if you hate how it sounds”. There’s nobody to have a “creative difference” with except management, because they’re the ones who are deciding your musical and creative direction, so this isn’t a factor that makes k-pop groups fall apart, but rather one that pits the groups against their managers. Think of the fights between HA:TFELT and JYP as a recent example, and there’s a good chance that Block B had creative control issues with their previous company as well – think about how their sound has changed since leaving. You can rest assured that your bias didn’t leave his or her group for this reason though, if anything it probably solidified them against their company. Let’s move on to:
2. PERSONAL DIFFERENCES
No person on the planet gets along with everybody perfectly, and people with very similar or very different personalities can clash often. Personality clashes that may not bother you with a friend, or even a close friend, are exacerbated greatly by having to work together as a musical unit, because the amount of personal space you get from each other is severely diminished. Months of continuous travel together sharing the same cramped spaces (only absolutely A-list groups travel in anything approaching luxury) can turn someone that you care about into someone who you’ll really rather just get the fuck away from. “Personal differences” is politically correct music industry press release code for “I can’t stand those fucking other cunts”, or “fuck that stupid retarded bitch, let’s kick her out”…. and when you hear about a group splitting because of “creative and personal differences”, then you know that shit really hit the fucking fan one day in the practice room.
How common is this in k-pop? Probably not as much as you might think – remember that the groups experiencing instability lately are ones that have been active solid units for a long time. Any k-pop group that makes it through the typical three-year training process and then onto another three to seven years of an actual k-pop career has probably gotten used to the other members’ picking their toenails at bedtime, masturbating with the toilet roll holder, downloading scat porn onto the studio laptop or whatever other weird quirks the members might have. Also if the unit has been going strong for a number of years with some popularity and nobody has any creative investment that can be ruffled, everybody has a vested interest to keep things smoothly running along no matter how much they might personally dislike each other. This is why ostracisions are common in groups but genuine schoolyard-style bullying is extremely unlikely (and if you think ostracision IS bullying, you’re an idiot – by that definition I’ve been bullied by at least 98% of people I’ve ever met). Any bullying rumour about any group at all you can largely discount straight off the bat, because of the context of how musical groups operate, that’s why I smelled a rat about the T-ara rumours even before they were debunked. At most, Hwayoung probably experienced some talking-down-to (like those Tweets) simply by virtue of her being the youngest (remember Korea’s “respect your elders” culture) and was shunned a bit for complaining about the treatment and generally being an arrogant cunthole. Anything more extreme than that in T-ara or any other group for that matter isn’t likely simply because it’s the music industry which is a job and the stakes (and the debts) are super-high, astronomically high. Nobody wants to fuck it up just because they don’t like someone. I’ve been in plenty of groups where I didn’t like one (or usually more than one) member, I never bullied anyone but I sure did ignore the shit out of some of them, because things would have gotten extreme if I hadn’t, and who wants to rock the boat if it’s sailing correctly? I tolerated the “personal differences” for the good of the unit, and that’s what generally happens in groups that do well but have personality clashes.
Now we move onto the fun one, which is…
3. PROFESSIONAL DIFFERENCES
Whenever “professional differences” is cited as a reason for line-up changes, know that the term is politically correct music industry press release code for “I’m being fucking ripped off here, fuck this shit”. I’ve already written extensively about how contracts for musicians are extremely one-sided across the globe, and it’s even worse in Korea than in many other countries. How likely is this shit a reason for your faves breaking off with each other? Very fucking likely. Your favourite groups mostly make no money, and I mean literally no money. At all. Sit back and imagine that shit for a moment.
Imagine that you’re a member in one of the biggest groups on one of the biggest labels in k-pop. When you pass auditions and start training, you think “wow, it doesn’t get bigger in k-pop than this – if I’m lucky enough to debut here I’m going to be a rich man, this is my big break”. You look forward to this day, as do your parents, so you train extra hard and you do whatever it takes. You go through many years of training, and then finally, you debut. Your first few songs are released and they’re huge hits, but no money yet. A year goes by, and then another. Your fame increases, your fangirls are nuts, your songs consistently chart highly in Korea and you’re making inroads into China and Japan, you’re a recognisable celebrity face across the whole Asian subcontinent, you can’t walk through an airport without a security detail, you’re practically a prisoner in your dorm because you can’t even go out for a coffee without it being on Twitter ten minutes later… but still no decent money. What the fuck?
You start to get disgruntled – “I can’t write my own songs and be creative, but I’m fine with that as long as I get paid….but I’m not getting paid either… I just wanted to make a living from singing and dancing, but why am I bothering with this when I’m in the most advantageous position possible and working non-stop but getting nowhere?”. You have a conversation with the other group members about how unfair the situation is within the group. A couple are kind of feeling it like you are, but not to the same extent, they’re like “we know it’s hard bro, but chin up”. Another member isn’t having any of it, he’s looking at the bigger picture and saying “stop complaining, get into line, you should be grateful. Do you think it’s any better for any of the other groups? Would you rather make a living doing this or working in a factory somewhere?”. You’re livid – “Are you kidding? This IS a factory!” you reply. It’s alright for him to be content – he’s getting endorsement money that has so far eluded you. You continue to bounce the thought back and forth between the members and argue a while longer, but each time you bring up the topic, the debate gets heated and nothing gets resolved. After a while you stop trying to argue the point; feeling exposed and vulnerable, you keep to yourself a little more.
Meanwhile, something else starts happening… every time you go to China, you’re meeting other people in the Chinese entertainment world, and they may not be household names in Korea but they’re still mostly richer than you. They’ve all heard of you, of course, and many of them are fans. You tell them about the details of your contract and how much money you’ve made so far and they’re horrified. “You’re an Asian megastar, but I could make your income working in a restaurant”, they say. One starlet with a crush feels especially sympathetic towards you and in exchange for a night of hotel room shenanigans she agrees to put you in touch with a manager over there who might be able to help you out. The manager says that he’d love to sign you to a contract of his own. He says he’s willing to negotiate very favourable terms with someone who is already a reputable household name and virtually guaranteed to generate income for his label. “Just a pity…” he says “…about that inconvenient contract you’re already signed to. If you ever lose that baggage, come and look me up, I’ll be waiting. I’ve even got lawyers, if you need some help with that. Just saying.” He asks you to consider your options carefully.
You don’t tell him yes or no. The next day you fly back to Korea, to 20 hour work days every day, no days off, strict diet, no freedom… and no money. It seems like a world apart. You start to spend lots of time thinking about your future. The other group members begin to say that you’re becoming cold and distant, but it isn’t true – you’ve just got a lot on your mind. You don’t exactly ever get time alone, so you think during schedules, during gym, during dance routines – it’s all automatic muscle-memory by now anyway, you no longer need to engage your brain for any of your idol work, so it’s good to keep your mind occupied. Then you start to get sick, but your label continues to make you work anyway, and now that really gets you thinking. Surely a new deal could have a clause negotiated where you could break for illness? You feel more and more like the clock is ticking on your days as an idol in the Korean system, now that you’ve seen how it could be different elsewhere. You don’t know when you’ll reach breaking point, but you know it’s not long now.
Someone asked me a while back “why would a member leave a group at their peak?” and the answer is that when your group is peaking, you’re more valuable. Offers like the ones in the hypothetical scenario above may be more likely at that stage, and you’ve got a better chance to sign a deal with favourable terms if you’re already hot in the marketplace as opposed to the newcomer with no bargaining power that you were when you first started training. It’s not uncommon to see the most ambitious members of a group start getting itchy feet especially in the Korean system, because not only are they mostly making fuck all money, they’re all aware that you can’t be an idol group member forever. Eventually your fanbase will mature, someone younger and prettier than you is going to take that “idol” spot, and if you don’t have a backup plan, you might not end up with much. Of course there are no guarantees, but broadening the net is just good business sense, whether it be trying to go solo, getting a degree, getting a fashion label, getting into music production, or even getting into organised crime (or disorganised, as it may be). Dahee from GLAM apparently had a $300,000 debt when she tried that extortion business… and that’s not an unusual sum for someone to be saddled with at all once you factor in the expense of training, housing, feeding etc over multiple years plus those expensive MVs. Every participant in a k-pop group is taking a huge gamble, one that only ever pays off big for a small handful.
Hopefully this post will put some of those line-up changes that have rocked the k-pop world lately into some sort of understandable context for you. Maybe you might even understand how some of them could potentially feel about the tough decisions that they’re making. My point is, when your fave leaves a group, if you really must give enough of a fuck to have any discernable emotions about it at all, be happy. They’re quite possibly finally going to get to do a little bit of what they want for a change. Who knows, if they’re really lucky they may even get paid.