QRIMOLE Episode 1: idol income, success and idol personalities

So it’s no secret that I get a fuckton of questions on my ask.fm about all sorts of shit.  Questions that I receive tend to fall into the following categories:

  1. Shit that isn’t really a question but more of an FYI, I sometimes answer these but usually store for “later use” instead
  2. Shit that I don’t want to answer, usually because it might spoiler upcoming content I’m working on/planning
  3. Basic questions that I can answer easily in less than 30 seconds, I’ll answer it or delete it if the question is too boring
  4. Tricky interesting questions that would make a good blog post, I usually make note of the question and use it for blog material later

However, sometimes I get questions that fall into a fifth “this is a great question and I can’t answer this really quickly or easily, but I don’t think I could stretch out the answer to fill up an entire blog either” category.  I do definitely want to encourage these better, higher-quality questions, so I think they deserve their own special series!  Enter the new Kpopalypse series, QRIMOLE!


Read on as Kpopalypse answers some ask.fm questions that don’t completely suck!

The following questions all came from the same asker.  You know who you are, cheers for inspiring this new series!

If the music industry is a dead horse that is not profitable, why are record companies still investing in making groups/soloists, releasing music and holding concerts?

Whether it’s as a performer or behind the scenes, people generally get into the music business because they’re really passionate about music.  I know that was certainly the case for me – a strong feeling of “well, I really like music and I really don’t know what the fuck else to do with my life”.  While it’s true that it’s extremely hard to make ends meet for the vast majority (especially these days what with all you kids stealing everything or paying 0.1% of a cent on Spotify), people still consider it a worthwhile pursuit because they’re passionate about it, and it’s every musician’s dream to be able to make a living just from music-related stuff and not have to work in the “straight world”.  How much compromise musicians are willing to accept to achieve their goal and under what terms varies with the individual, but ask anyone in a band “would you like to do nothing except rock out for a living if you could” and the answer is always “yes”.

Over the last decade the music business in Korea has also gotten better at riding the coat-tails of other, more profitable businesses, positioning its products as a one-size-fits-all “business card” that can be used to market other commercial ventures.  Through this capacity, the star-making potential of the music business is able to still turn a chunky profit for agencies that know how to pick their idols, music and image correctly.   In this sense, the music industry is still viable in Korea, but to be honest in k-pop it’s not the “music” industry anymore, it’s the “music idol” industry, where the music itself is secondary to the creating and marketing of idols – a commodity with a much higher resale value than the songs themselves.

If being a pop star (idol in particular) is economically akin to slavery why are there idols/stars who are actually financially independent, own several buildings, various cars, designer goods etc. and generally display more than above average level of wealth?

Firstly, how much wealth an idol displays isn’t always a true indicator of how much wealth an idol actually has.  Not every idol who owns flashy cars is financially in the black – some are overspending.  In Korea’s “ohmigosh I care so much what everyone else thinks of me” culture, you can bet that there’s quite a few idols who have gone into debt taking out irresponsible loans and buying expensive items so they can give an appearance of wealth that matches their agency’s glossy $500k music videos.  If you’ve ever wondered why pop stars with mansions and sports cars routinely declare bankruptcy, now you know one of the main reasons.

Of course, a tiny handful of k-pop stars are genuinely rich (at least by Korean standards).  These are the ones who have made the aforementioned transition from “music idol” to “business card”.  The contracts that idols have to sign with agencies are universally terrible, and even if they have a few hit songs the label will still fuck them in the ass to the point where they’re very unlikely to see any real money.  However once they make that transition to a product, then they can be sold all over the place, and a idol with no hit songs out but who is doing a few endorsements a month is making way more than someone with a number one single.

What do you think is the actual ratio of stars who are economically shafted by their labels vs those that earn money?

Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.  You can earn a ton of money and still be shafted by your label through contracts and agreements that guarantee that you see nothing of what you earn.  Plenty of k-pop stars earn a lot of money but see none of it because it all goes into keeping the company afloat and they get the scraps left over.  However if this question is really “What do you think is the actual ratio of stars who are economically shafted by their labels vs those that earn money and get to keep a substantial portion of it?” then the answer is “almost none”.

One of the interesting quirks of a lot of k-pop contracts is that the artists get paid a lot more for overseas work than work at home, I know that this is true of SM as well as MBK but I’m not sure why, so I’m going to assume it might be similar for other labels?  I don’t really know though, and of course not every k-pop agency has the ability to send their artists overseas.  Japan used to be quite lucrative for k-pop artists until recently when being an ultra-nationalist dickhead became trendier (in both Korea and Japan) and that pool of income dried up somewhat.

If you want to know who is earning good income in k-pop, here are the things to look for:

  • Commercial film work for high-profile well-known brands
  • Music videos with extremely obvious product placement
  • Endorsement deals
  • Buying real estate that isn’t extravagant (i.e a sensible financial decision was made, rather than showing off with a flashy mansion and about to go bankrupt from stupidity)

These things make some income, but not anywhere near as much as you might think:

  • K-drama appearances
  • Sold-out live concerts
  • Lots of YouTube traffic

And here’s the things which can safely be disregarded when factoring in how rich/poor your idol is:

  • Winning award shows
  • #1 on the charts
  • Variety show appearances
  • Makestar, crowdfunding, etc

Are those stars/idols that decide to work in the industry aware of the possibility of getting paid poorly? If so, why become a star/idol at all? Is it for the ego boost they get from the from the mindless obsessive adulation of strangers? Or is it the access to copious amounts of sex they’d get from strangers in exchange for money and/or bragging rights? Or is it some other reason?

Well, it’s not the sex, at least not for k-pop idols – most idols barely have time to have sex, and when they do, they don’t tend to do it with strangers but generally others within the industry.  When you’re famous or even semi-famous, it becomes very difficult to trust random strangers, and singers who fuck their fans (while they do exist) are actually much rarer than you would think (sorry folks).

The music industry is a “glamour industry”, just like acting, modelling, photography, TV presenting, professional athlete, pro gaming, etc. –  what this means is it’s a profession that has a high amount of people wanting to be in it because they like the idea of the job’s (apparent) lifestyle.  On the other hand, people who want to be doctors or accountants aren’t dreaming of the long hours examining warts on your mum’s labia or counting numbers in a spreadsheet, they don’t care about the lifestyle of the job and may even sometimes despise it, but are pursuing that career because they know that once they are established it delivers a consistent reliable income.  Glamour industries always have far more people wanting to be involved in them than there are positions to fill, and no tertiary education in a glamour industry guarantees a steady job once you’ve attained the qualification.  However the 1% at the very top of the tree in any glamour industry is always a very attractive place to be (or at least seems like this to an outsider), so people who find the idea of a regular reliable job to be soul-crushingly suicide-inducing would often rather roll the dice on the slim odds of success in their “dream”.  Ego boosting is also a factor to some folks – you’d be amazed how many well-known rock singers are introverts – but you can also get ego-boosted just by applying makeup correctly and leaving your house, so it’s not the wisest reason to get involved.  People who pursue glamour industries for the ego trip tend to crash and burn the heaviest, when they either don’t succeed, or do gain some success and then experience firsthand how much hatred and envy fame creates instead of the adulation that they wished for.

If becoming successful in the music industry has nothing to do with talent, what are the formulas that make some groups successful as opposed to others?

In k-pop the agency’s weight to give what they’re doing the right marketing push obviously has a lot to do with it – for instance it’s pretty safe to say that anything coming out of SM and YG is going to do pretty well at least within Korea, they’ve obviously hit on a consistent formula that works for that particular market and they just need to keep repeating it with minor variations.  However that same formula doesn’t work so well for other markets, witness SM and YG’s consistent failed attempts to make any sort of dent overseas, the only time that they got it right (Psy) it was just blind luck rather than by design or good management.

I don’t think anyone knows the true answer to this question though, it can’t be that simple or we’d all be overnight rock stars, right?  Even if there is a specific “formula that works”, if everybody starts doing that same formula, well, they can’t all be successful because there’s just not enough room in the marketplace for 2000 k-pop groups to all be on the A-list, so there has to be some kind of differentiating factor but it’s impossible to really know what that should be as it would change depending on context and what else is going on at that moment.  For instance, nobody picked Nirvana to become successful when they did, however if a new band that sounded exactly like Nirvana started today, nobody would care.  People who become successful within music owe a lot to luck, circumstance and just being in the right place making the right music at the right time, to fill an unknown demand for a particular type of musical statement.  That’s why it’s so hard to just “make a hit group”, unless you already have a huge advantage (like a big agency that can push you).

You mentioned that most personalities of idols are taught/not truly their own, and that it is obvious if you know where to look. Where must one look? Are you perhaps just talented at reading people? I only recall an article where you linked a 9Muses dance tutorial video and commented on the excessive smiling/nodding of the members. I didn’t notice anything amiss. But then I watched their documentary (you recommended it in a different post) and realized that most members did not get along, were thinking of solo careers before even debuting as a group, and one of the members said that after their debut there was nothing humane left between them. In short, please consider a series where you can teach naive simpletons like me how to read in between the lines and see the real behind the bull. With examples and explanations, of course.

I don’t think you need to be overly talented at reading people to be able to spot the bullshit in k-pop.  Just watch the video materials and think to yourself “do people really fucking act like that?” and more often than not you’ll get your answer.

The above video isn’t the one that you’re referring to, but it doesn’t matter – all of these videos are very similar and follow the same principle.  Koreans really seem to love forced, hammy overacting (just watch any k-drama), and this video really pushes it to the limit with lots of scripted dialogue between the members which is very obviously planned and not spontaneous in any way.  Then they’ve even gone to the next level and added stupid captions and sound effects to complete the “oh so zany” vibe they’re going for.

Part of the reason why idol TV appearances are this way is because Koreans actually seem to like this type of bullshit forced dumbed-down humour for some reason.  However there’s another reason that’s more important – agencies can’t really trust their idols to be spontaneous, because the chance that they’ll say or do something that will upset viewers is huge.  Just look at how many controversies arise from the few shows where idols do get a chance to go off-script.  The fantasy of idol life that is pushed by Korean media brings up a huge amount of jealous, envious feelings in the general public (even though being an idol is actually a pretty shit experience for many in reality), and as a result every idol is one innocent mistake away from being ostracised from the country.  It’s a lot safer to give the girls strict instructions than to have the whole thing ride on their actual personalities, the girls simply following instruction is certainly something located more within their comfort zone given that that’s just about all idols ever do once they become trainees.  However once you start bringing the actual thoughts and feelings of the girls into it, you’re dealing with a potential powder-keg situation, because those thoughts often don’t match the smooth positive image that the agencies are going for.  Add on top of that the fact that you’re dealing with often very young people who don’t have a fully-rounded experience of life and culture (mainly due to being cooped up in the practice room and gym for 18 hours a day every day for a few years in a row) and therefore may be prone to saying a lot of dumb immature shit, and you can see why companies just go for the safe scripted formats most of the time.  The only difference between the dumb crap idols get hated on for and the dumb shit that I did when I was their age is that a camera wasn’t watching my every fuckup.

If just one person can come up with half a dozen decent questions in one sitting, what’s wrong with the rest of you?  Head on over to my ask.fm and ask some decent quality questions and you too could be featured in the next episode of QRIMOLE!


9 thoughts on “QRIMOLE Episode 1: idol income, success and idol personalities

  1. Pingback: The KPOPALYPSE article index | KPOPALYPSE

  2. I’ve been thinking of this topic last night haha what a coincidence.

    Becoming an idol/celebrity is based on your likability factor, here’s how the likability ranks up:

    1) Looks
    2) Charms/personality
    3) Talent

    You can start with having only one of those factors and you still can get through because your company/agent is willing to cover the other two factors in an extensive training.

    You don’t have the looks? Make-ups and/or plastic surgery will do.

    You don’t have the natural charms? The company will tell you what to act, you just have to follow what they want you to say in front of the cams.

    You don’t have the talents? Autotunes, lipsynch, simple choreography, fake-raps (rap on someone else lyrics).

    Ah, one of the more interesting things is idol personas. Idols are like anime characters, they’re aren’t real (except 7% of the time they are) so when you like their personalities, you’re just liking their STAGE personalities. Glad to see someone like you explain more on the topic.

    Oh for the third question, which category does music sales (albums, downloads) falls into?

  3. Block B all seem to be earning well. A couple have expensive cars, while the rest bought medium-end hyundais. They all live comfortably like children of upper-middle class families would: same toys and gadgets and spending money (I’m ignoring Zico in this, actually). So my guess is, considering most of their families are not upper-middle class, and are actually just middle or lower-middle class, the Japanese tours really pay off for them.

  4. Perhaps I’m a bit biased with this because I’m Asian, but I am not that mad with the whole ‘I care what other people think’ mindset/culture. It is probably the sole reason why you will almost never see any morbidly obese people (along with those tumblrina fucking insane ‘feminists’) in Asian countries. Seriously, there’s like obese people everywhere here in Perth. I also do think that the whole idea itself is realistic, because people will judge you for everything whether or not you like it.

    That being said, the mindset is really super tight at times, like I literally have to dress up to just go to a mall in Indonesia. One time I was going to help my sis move stuff in a mall (she’s an event organizer for a small bazaar) and I only wore tank top because I’ve been in Perth for a while that I forgot how your appearance really matters. Needless to say I do get alot of people looking and staring at me in the mall, fun times.

      • Well I think that some people in western countries worship the idea of ‘being yourself’ too much (eg. those people who insists on thinking being obese is healthy), so when people are telling them to lose some weight (which happens all the time in my home country at least) they just pretty much tell them to f off and go away. In Asian countries I think they would have this constant pressure to fit into the society that would be the driving force to actually get a better diet.

        But hey, I might be wrong, just one of the stuff I’ve been randomly thinking about the past few weeks for some reason lol.

        • There’s already plenty of pressure on fat people in western society to be thin, all the insipid, annoying “be yourself” stuff on social networking is a *response* to that pressure, which is increasing if anything (so the response also increases). Sure, it’s not good to be a massive fatass, but pressure to be thin just gives people eating disorders, it doesn’t actually fix the problem. Like the League Of Legends loading screen says: “people perform worse if you harrass them after a mistake”.

  5. Is this the reason people are so fond of fancams? Like sure idols are aware that they are being filmed from 548795 angles, but as long as they are not talking much and just interacting with fans, they have more leeway to do whatever they want to without risking ending their careers accidentally. Especially because most fancams are filmed in environments mostly meant for fans, only seen by fans, not for the average public (like concerts), and fans do tend to be “lenient” and “understanding” if an idol is not perfectly perky (which gives a twist to the whole “an idol must be professional” being a supposedly reasonable argument people are entitled to think). Only if that content gets out do they get shit, like the time Hyorin got shit for not smiling perfectly at a fansign, and most fans didn’t give a shit and didn’t have an issue with it but average people were all upset about it, even though well.. it was a freaking fansign, where you could say, only fans were at.

    I mean one has to be pretty stupid if they think idols filming an specific segment of anything (variety or interviews) is not going to be scripted, like the Rainbow example above. But it’s also pretty exaggerated to think they are going to script every single interaction they are going to have in front of a camera.

    Then again, there is people that think they have witnessed something crucial about an idol’s personality in a video. While it might be true that they weren’t faking something, it doesn’t mean one gets to know them. That’s just a speck of one little part of one facet of their entire person.

    Seeing idols being playful or tired in front of a camera, and they are not faking it, does not mean getting to know them they way both fans and non fans claim they do.

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