Entering the music industry on any level in 2014 is exceptionally difficult, yet there are many people who wish to become pop stars. With the steady rise of k-pop’s profile globally, Korea and k-pop is positioned in the hearts and minds (mainly the hearts) of young people around the world as a desirable field to hopefully break into. How realistic are their dreams? Are k-pop hopefuls being delusional, or do they have a realistic (if slim) chance of realising their goals?
Most importantly of all, if you were someone wishing to make a serious giving-it-100% attempt at breaking into the k-pop industry, what are the really important things that you would need to know? As someone who has spent quite a while in the music business in various capacities, I’m now going to give you the dirt on these important questions, so read on if you dare!
TEN THINGS THAT ASPIRING K-POP STARS NEED TO KNOW
(I hope you all appreciate that I didn’t make this heading the post title for clickbait purposes. I could have easily done this, you know.)
1. Korea’s music market is tiny
I think this is something everybody knows, but are you aware of just how tiny Korea’s music market really is? To put the incredible teensy-tiny smallness of Korea’s music business in perspective, let’s take a look at the global music market share figures from the annual report of the RIAJ (Record Industry Association of Japan), which shows the top 10 countries for music revenue as of 2012 – the year when PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was huge and barnstormed across the world. The revenue displayed in the following graph is a combination of physical and digital sales, plus performance rights revenue (royalties) and synchronisation revenue (licensing for TV shows, movies, computer games etc), all together:
USA and Japan are on top, no surprise there, then we have some other countries, and…. hang on, where’s South Korea? Oh – it looks like the industry there is so small that it didn’t even get on the chart, they’re somewhere in that “rest of world (less than 1% each)” section in bright red. Even with the help of “Gangnam Style”. Oh shit.
Looking at this graph, it should be obvious to anybody why Korean artists and labels are desperately trying to crack the Japanese and American markets – there’s a pot of gold there compared to Korea, those industries are literally dozens of times bigger and even marginal cult-level success in the US or Japan would net more income than a #1 Korean hit. It should make perfect sense why your idols are going overseas and doing stuff all the time. Fans don’t get it of course, they’re all like “oh, Group X flopped in Korea so they have to go somewhere else”, or “why doesn’t Group Y concentrate on Korea, they are messing up by going overseas” – fucking dumbass fans don’t get it. Every time your faves escape Korea, you should be happy – there’s at least a reasonable chance that they might be actually making money for once.
A k-pop hopeful from any random country would be statistically better off moving to The Netherlands and pursuing a career in Europop than trying to break into the k-pop market. Unless of course, they already lived in The Netherlands, or any other of those countries listed in the top 10, in which case if they were going to move to enhance their music career, they should move to a country higher in the top 10. And if they already lived in the US or Japan? Holy shit girl – stay right where you are because you’re already in the best possible place that you can be if you want to pursue a career in music. Nobody from Japan is desperately trying to crack the Korean market, and nobody from the US or any other country in the graph above should be either.
This chart is working on two-year old data – China is likely closing in on the top 10 countries, and Japan has probably now overtaken the US. Nevertheless, in strict money-making terms as far as the musical product goes, assuming all other factors to be equal, it’s pretty clear that South Korea is not at the top of the list of “places you can go to make lots of money in the music business”.
2. You have almost no chance of making decent money
Of course, all other factors are not equal. Any industry that carries with it a certain amount of fame (acting, singing, modelling, professional sports, etc) is considered a “glamour profession” and these occupations always have a far greater supply of people wishing to ascend to a sustainable level than there are positions within the industry to contain them. The result of demand for positions being far greater than supply means that a massive imbalance of power is generated – wages and therefore realistic opportunities are driven downward, because people with their eyes on the prize are desperate for a leg up over their competition, so they will often accept compromise now if they believe it will help them get closer to their long-term goal of career sustainability later. And guess which part of the pop music industry has a lot of competition right now?
The above graph shows the amount of k-pop debuts (not comebacks, just new artists, solo debuts and subunit debuts only) between 2007 and 2013, with a trend line inserted so you can also see which way things have generally been heading. Since 2009 until now there’s been a steady stream of at least one new solo performer, group or subunit entering the k-pop scene each week. Almost all of these people are native Koreans, and therefore they don’t have to deal with any other nasty little hurdles like cultural adjustments, language barriers, racism etc… and if you’re a k-pop hopeful all of these people are competing for the same market share that you will be, assuming you even get far enough to debut.
Looking at the bigger picture, even established, internationally famous western artists struggle to make an income from music these days. This is because the market share is drying up – globally. Here’s another fun graph that I built from the RIAJ report, showing you the total amount of global music sales revenue in billions of dollars across all fields over the last 15 years:
Physical sales are declining fast, and while other income streams such as digital sales are definitely increasing, they’re not increasing at anywhere near the rate needed to cover the gap. So if you’re trying to get into k-pop, you’re:
- Aiming for success in a relatively tiny music market…
- …in an industry that has been in recession for over a decade…
- …with tons of competition from people more qualified than you…
- …that is known for racism against people who are not Korean…
…and this is before we even take into account things like unfair contracts and massive unrepayable trainee debt as well as crappy wages even for the A-list groups.
“Fine, fine…” I hear you say “…if I have to live with no income and a horrible debt, I can handle it. I’m doing it for the love of music and performance! Kpopalypse oppar, please stop trying to talk me out of it, because I’m convinced that I want to do it anyway, and give me some advice that I can actually use!”
Okay then, so you really want to go down this road and maximise your 0.0001% chance at this. Here’s some advice for that.
3. Start as young as possible
Remember when everyone made a fuss over complete k-pop noob Dani being recruited by KKS at only 13 years old? “Gosh, that’s a little young to school someone in the k-pop system, what about her regular schooling”, said all the concern-trolls and general morons. You might think that 13 years old is the minimum age that somebody would make a start in pursuing their k-pop dream… sorry, nope – it’s more like the maximum age. Add another zero between the decimal point and the 1 for each year that you delay working on your k-pop goal beyond the age of 13. If you’re starting training at high-school leaver’s age, your chances of success as an international entry into k-pop have already diminished from 0.0001% to about 0.00000001%, you might as well just fucking forget about it with odds like that. The maximum viable female debut age in an ageist society like Korea is probably about 23 or so years, and someone debuting at 23 has probably been training within the company since they were at most 19 years old and probably been training themselves outside of the company since they were 13 at the oldest. Try to debut any older than that and… well, we all know how well Gang Kiz did. Does anyone who got into k-pop from 2013 onward even know who they are? Males might get a couple more years, at most.
4. Don’t sign any shit without a lawyer present
Not just any old lawyer, either, but specifically a music industry lawyer. The garden-variety lawyer who helped you with your grandmother’s will and helped settle a dispute that one time when your drunk friend mooned a college girl from a limousine that your dad was driving and the girl’s parents sued the limo company who then fired your dad is way out of their depth with your music industry contract. Why? Because there are terms in music contracts that have vastly different meanings and implications from other types of legal documents and a normal lawyer will advise you incorrectly. I’m not going to go into details here, and in any event you don’t need to know the details anyway, just know that you need a fucking lawyer and they have to be music industry specific.
A lawyer to look over contract terms and conditions is so important that in the western music business, major labels have recently taken to the practice of forcing new signees to have a lawyer present to represent their interests at contract negotiations, no matter what, even if the artist doesn’t want them there. If you try to sign a contract with a major label and you don’t have a lawyer, nowadays they won’t even accept it, they’ll say “get yourself a lawyer to look this over, then come back, because we don’t want you claiming in the future that we misled you or that you didn’t understand the contract or that we denied you the right to legal representation or fucked you over in some other way”. In previous years a few isolated artists have managed to get messy contracts terminated simply by claiming to the judge “I didn’t know what I was signing because I was high as shit” so the business wants to put a stop to that so artists can’t just walk away from binding contracts scot-free. As for Korea, I’m not sure how this plays out, I suspect they’re not that far advanced yet and they’ll probably just not give a fuck and make you sign shit on the spot anyway. Don’t do it – don’t sign anything legal that you don’t fully understand without someone qualified there on your side, hired by you to explain to you exactly what it means. The “get away with it by claiming to be high during signing” excuse probably doesn’t work that well in Korea, for obvious reasons…
5. Learn to be ‘morally flexible’ and tolerant
The first time I went electric guitar shopping on my own, I was probably about 14 years old. I went to a local music store that was run by industry types and was attached to teaching rooms and a studio. I was fascinated by the Ibanez guitars with custom paintjobs that they had on display at the front of the store and that my family on our one working class income had no way in hell of being able to afford. I was told by my music teacher at the time that the Squier Stratocaster (the el-cheapo Fender-endorsed Asian-built copy of the iconic USA Fender Stratocaster which looks, plays and sounds about the same but retails at a fifth of the price) was an acceptable quality guitar for my budget, but I couldn’t find any in the store. I only saw the expensive Ibanez guitars plus a bunch of other cheaper stuff that I had never even heard of, so I went up to the front counter for some help.
“Excuse me… do you have a… Squier Stratocaster?” I asked the curly-long-haired guy at the front counter.
The man rolled his eyes with familiarity – this was obviously a common question. “No, we don’t stock any Fender-related stuff at all.”
“Oh… why is that?” I asked.
“Fuck Fender, they’re a pack of wankers.” came the reply. I jumped back a bit – a store attendant, talking like this? I was only used to swearing from adults when my dad was mad at me. Was the store attendant mad at me? His language said yes, but the tone of his voice said no – he was smiling at me and basically had a friendly disposition.
Another store attendant doing string-changes on another counter piped up: “The Fender reps don’t like our discount policy here. We discount everything store-wide, but the Fender guys have set prices that they want us to sell things at. They’re total cunts about it too, they won’t budge. Fuck ’em.”
The guy serving me laughed. “Oh they sure do suck. Pity though, that Fender rep, she’s fuckin’ nice…” – he turned to the other guy, and gave him a slight wink.
“I’d give her a discount.” the string-changer guy replied.
The first guy continued: “Go to [another store in the city] if you want a Squier. Tell ’em I sent you, they’ll do you a good price. Tell ’em Fender are dickheads for me, too – then they’re definitely know for sure that I was the one who sent you!” He laughed, but I could tell from the way he looked at me that he wasn’t joking.
“O-kay… thanks!” I said, and walked on out the door, feeling somewhat awkward.
If I was an uptight prudish sort I suppose I could have made a fuss about this. I think if my parents were in the store with me they probably would have said something, but I let it slide, and it was just as well because he was actually doing me a favour – I went to that other store, passed on the message “that guy doesn’t like Fenders much” (at that time I couldn’t bring myself to say “dickheads” to a store attendant) and received a hefty discount on my first electric guitar with a knowing grin from the staff. That was my first encounter with a strange music industry phenomenon; people in the music business swear and talk dirty – a lot. Some people don’t like my writing because I use words like “fuck”, “cunt” etc. but it’s a music industry habit, and I actually have to converse with people like that from time to time just to get them on-side in professional situations. If someone is in the music business and they don’t swear much, they are generally not trusted by others in the business. Why? Maybe it’s because people will think that they’re an undercover cop, and why would that be a problem? Well…
6. There is a distinct crossover between the music business and the organised crime business
I can’t talk much about this except to say that you should be streetwise at all times. Don’t just blunder around thinking that everybody you see has your best interests at heart – they do not. Pay careful attention to details and what’s going on around you. Say ‘no’ to situations that make you feel uncomfortable. You will probably see drugs around you from time to time, learn to say no to them. You will hear about illegal shit happening around you all the time, learn to not get involved. Especially be aware that organised criminals are directly involved in prostitution and prostitution is everywhere, so you can expect to see it in the music business too, especially in a place like South Korea where prostitution is HUGE, and by extension…
7. The “casting couch” (or variations thereof) is real
Some true music industry stories, with names removed:
Singer B is recording a track for her album, she’s a well-known sex symbol with a “sexy but cute” persona. The studio engineer in the recording session notices that she’s having a little bit of trouble getting into the mood for the part. “I just can’t get the right vulnerable feeling for this particular ballad”, she says. The engineer talks B into removing her clothes in the studio and cutting the vocal part completely naked. “If you want to sound vulnerable, feeling vulnerable and exposed may help you get into the right feeling for the part” he says. B complies and records the song without any clothes on. She certainly feels vulnerable with the engineer looking at her, and indeed records the perfect vocal part, for what becomes a standout song on the album. Later on in a TV interview after the album is released, the host asks about her performance on that track. Noticeably embarrassed, she tells the story of how she recorded it to the host, to the complete astonishment of him and everyone else present – the host laughs and remarks “I’d like to meet that studio engineer, he sounds like a genius!”
Female-fronted Group D are hot in the marketplace and have a significant media buzz going. They are negotiating a record deal with a large label. The manager of the label is K, a male celebrity in his own right and ex-member of a well-known group. Negotiations are going well, until K mentions “there’s just two things; firstly, you have to change your band name, it’s stupid and long-winded, nobody is going to remember it. You need something short and punchy that sticks in people’s heads. Secondly, you [he points to the singer] need to get your tits out more. There’s no use hiding behind all those clothes, we need to see some cleavage, because tits sell records, we need to see them.” Group D are horrified and offended, they unanimously reject both suggestions out of hand. K says “fine – but don’t forget that I’m very powerful in this town – I won’t sign your group and nobody else is going to sign you either, it’s me or it’s nothing”. Group D say “get lost, creep”, leave the negotiating table refusing to sign anything, and quickly discover that he’s right – their media buzz quickly fizzles out, no other labels show interest, and Group D disbands shortly afterward.
Singer J is a young hopeful wishing to make a start in the music business. Lacking much in the way of characteristic attributes but very determined to succeed as a singer in a cutthroat industry, she makes a plan to “date her way to the top”. Fully aware of the “power of the casting couch” before entering the industry, J sleeps with several people who she knows can directly enhance her career, and as each person opens a door for her she walks through it, dumps them and moves onto the next person. She starts firstly with band members who have valuable connections, then switches to DJs and studio producers as she transitions from a member of a group to a successful solo artist making electronic music. J is still active in the music industry today, and doing quite well!
How to avoid running into “casting couch” kind of situations, while also not letting it impact your career negatively? It’s a good question with perhaps no definitive answer, but I will say this – just because someone won’t give you an opportunity if you don’t sleep with them, doesn’t mean that they will give you that opportunity if you do. Some “casting couch” type schemes do represent a genuine opportunity, but most are really just designed to keep stringing you along giving people free blowjobs for as long as possible until you wise up.
8. Don’t be a whiny bitch
On the one hand, you shouldn’t have to put up with any sexual exploitation as part of your career (which doesn’t mean that people won’t try it anyway, especially in Korea). On the other hand, if you start complaining about things which you really shouldn’t be complaining about, you’ll get a reputation as “difficult”, and this can be fatal to a nugu’s prospects. Realise that the music industry operates on a kind of Chinese-whispers system, lots of people know lots of other people, and that anything you say which is negative, even if said innocently or without any true malevolent intent, could have a real impact on your career. The “prima donna” types that you read about in blind articles on other websites who are impossibly rude and get away with it already have a large degree of success. Until you’ve banked your first million, try not to be a cunt. Same goes for any walk of life, really.
9. If you are delusional, nobody will tell you the truth
Everybody reading this post, as soon as you’ve finished reading this post, go immediately to your favourite website for tracking down movies and try to find and watch an obscure and sadly almost-impossible-to-find Australian “mockumentary” film called Bigger Than Tina. The film tells the story of an aspiring solo performer who’s convinced that his career is on the up-and-up and that he’s going to be “bigger than Tina” (referring to moderately-successful Australian singer Tina Arena, not Tina Turner). It’s obvious right from the first few minutes of the film to the viewer that the singer is delusional and has nothing special about himself whatsoever which would translate to a pop audience, and that his chances of vast commercial success are as good as nil, yet he has a steadfast belief in himself which is outright comical. Many critics of the film have commented that the lead character seems hammy and exaggerated, but he definitely is not! Having met several people just like him in my real life, I can confirm that the portrayal is eerily reminiscent of many different people who I’ve met who all believe that they could “make it” in the industry and that their time in the spotlight was just around the corner. It’s a perfect portrait of complete delusion.
Such delusion is exceedingly common but how does it propagate so vastly within the industry? The answer is that it happens because if you’re a musician and you suck flat out, it’s in nobody’s interests to tell you the truth that you have no hope in hell.
- You parents love you and would never tell you that you suck, they’re biased and love everything that you do. In the rare cases where the parents hate you and would tell you you’re crap, you probably hate them back and won’t listen anyway
- You boyfriend isn’t going to say that you’re crap, he doesn’t want to start a fight or be dumped – he knows how much your dreams mean to you, why rain on your parade just for the sake of being right? Also, upset girls don’t give blowjobs quite as often, rest assured you will never get the truth out of your boyfriend or girlfriend or partner of any sort as long as you’re putting out
- Your friends won’t tell you the truth for the same reason, they’d like to remain your friends, at least for now
- If you’re crap your enemies will definitely tell you the truth, but they’re your enemies so it’s only natural that they’d say that you suck just to hurt you – they’re not the best judge, so you’re not gonna listen to those trolls
- Your music teacher’s job is to make you better so she can’t be negative, she has to keep you coming back to lessons so she can improve you, she’s not allowed to say “you’re crap” even if you are because you might get upset and give up
- Anyone you work with in a studio cutting a demo or whatever, you’re paying for the studio time so they’re paid to get the best result possible out of your ability, they’re not going to tell you that you’re shit and make you cry and cancel the session, that would do no good, it’d just be cruel
That’s why when people get on crappy talent shows like X Factor, etc. and the Simon Cowell or whoever the designated “cynical bastard” on the panel is says “hey you’re actually quite fucking shit”, they contestants always look so disbelieving. The girl in the video above isn’t faking that look of astonishment – literally nobody has told her that she sucks before. She’s had her ego propped up and boosted by everybody around her so of course she thinks the judges are just being assholes. It couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with her, after all the people she cares about wouldn’t lie to her. Would they?
You bet they fucking would.
10. Have a backup plan (for fuck’s sake)
In the highly entertaining late 1980s video documentary “The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part 2: The Metal Years”, several complete nugu metalheads in shitty 80s glam rock bands that would shortly be all swept into oblivion thanks to the change in music fashion and the rise of Nirvana and grunge, were asked in separate interviews if they had any backup plan should their music dreams fail. The results are terrifying, and show just how common delusions of “making it” really are.
If you’re an aspiring k-pop star or starlet and you only take one single lesson from this blog, make it this one – don’t be like these people in the above video. Half of them are probably dead in a ditch somewhere by now. While it’s definitely true that perseverance is needed for success, it’s also true that even if everything else in this blog post is wrong, and I’m just a horrible pessimist and you’ve actually got everything in your favour much more than I’m letting on here, your chances of success are still extremely marginal at best, and you need to think about what the fuck you’re gonna do if it doesn’t work out.
One thing that that netizens do that really shits me, apart from all the other mountains upon mountains of things they do that shit me, is that they criticise idols for getting university degrees. Even the most successful idols of all know that nobody is an idol forever, they’re making sure they’ve got some other qualifications so that if something should happen to fuck up and their dream ends tomorrow, they’ve still got something to fall back on and they’re not going to be making their bed under a bridge with rags and cardboard boxes. And don’t give me that “but they never go to uni” crap, there’s a such thing as a correspondence course – any complaints about “they never set foot on campus” are just netizens being bitter that they don’t get bragging rights from meeting their precious celebs in the flesh and taking proof selcas. Can you imagine being an idol and actually consistently turning up at university? You’d get hounded so often by entitled me-generation fuckheads that you just wouldn’t get any work done. Idols are being smart, and so should you – pursue your dream if you must, but have a solid backup plan, just in case you’re completely nuts and you don’t realise it yet.
This concludes this educational post about how much the music industry sucks! Hopefully you aspiring stars can get somewhere meaningful and sustainable without ending up with the inside of your mouth coated in jizz and nothing to show for it! Good luck out there!