In the world of manufactured pop, where image is everything, management companies seek to have as much control over their artists as possible. You can’t help but feel a bit sorry for the Biebers of the world, who can’t go for a drag race without getting flak from their record companies about how it will affect their image.
For a manufactured pop star, everything from their lyrics to the way they part their hair is carefully calculated and controlled. And why wouldn’t management companies want this kind of control? Manufactured pop stars are just as much investments as any other business venture. Nowhere is this truer than in Japanese and Korean pop idol culture.
Korean pop (K-pop) and Japanese pop (J-pop) idols aren’t so much discovered as made at the expense of the talent agencies that sign them.
Children as young as ten are scouted and, in some cases, run through a simulator that predicts what they will look like and sound like in three to seven years.
Those who pass the initial screening are enlisted in multi-year pop idol training programs to prepare them for their debuts. Whether the young recruits can sing or not is beside the point – many can’t – what matters most to the talent agencies is that the pop idols in the making are willing to give up their autonomy and provide a return on investment.
Many K-pop and – to a lesser extent – J-pop talent agencies ensure their control with so-called “slave contracts” that are harsh enough to make Christian Grey raise an eyebrow.
Slave contracts came to light in 2008, when three members of the K-pop group TVXQ (Tohoshinki) brought a lawsuit against their management company, SM entertainment. The dispute was over their 13-year contract, which they claimed limited their freedoms as artists and cheated them of profits. The court came down in favor of TVXQ. Since then, Korea’s Fair Trade Commission (FTC) has introduced standardized contracts, which are limited to a duration of seven years. Still, the regulations have done nothing to address issues of unfair profit sharing and restrictions on the pop stars’ personal lives, such as rules against dating. Several management companies have ignored the new standardized contracts completely. Due to confidentiality agreements, it is unknown how many slave contracts are signed each year.
So what does a slave contract look like? What might be included in the fine print? Here is an example of an imaginary Factorialist Records contract:
Factorialist Records Pop Idol Contract:
Note: This is a fictional contract based on the very real expectations of J-pop and K-pop idols.
1.00 – Purpose
By signing this contract, the applicant (hereinafter called “Artist”) agrees to give all control of her prime years of youth to Factorialist Records (hereinafter called “Agency”) for the sake of profit and creating a fantasy world for consumers (hereinafter called “Fans”).
2.00 – Pop Idol Duties
- Be cute at all times.
Fact: In Japan, the concept of cuteness is known as “kawaii”.
- Be young. If the Artist ages past 25, she will be forced to quit (hereinafter called “retire”).
- Be sexy, yet virginal, but not so virginal that it is unsexy.
- The Artist should be willing to have her image and/or likeness used in manga, video games, and virtual baby generators.
Fact:Fans of the 140-member J-pop girl band AKB48 can create virtual babies with their favorite band members, using the online simulator AKBaby. The simulator was marketed with the tagline, “Won’t you make a baby with me?”
Fact: It is a rite of passage for J-pop idols to appear in their very own photobook. Think Victoria Secret catalogue, if the Victoria Secret catalogue only had one underage model. Idols usually appear in a bikini or less, with a few quotes scattered throughout the book about the idols’ hobbies and life views. Photobooks sell out quickly; they are so popular that they have their own ranking charts.
Fact: In 2011, AKB48 introduced a new band member named Aimi Eguchi. Only later did fans find out that she was not a real person, but a computer generated hybrid created using the “best features” of six real AKB48 band members.
- Attend regular handshake events with crazed male fans.
Fact: AKB48 members are branded as “idols you can meet” and hold regular handshaking events with their fans, who tend to be nerdy males in their late twenties and early thirties. Tickets to the events can only be obtained by purchasing the latest AKB48 single. Not every CD comes with a ticket, so fans buy multiple copies of the same single to increase their chances of winning. Think Willy Wonka’s golden ticket scheme…
The purpose of the handshake events is to make the members of AKB48 seem accessible. While their accessible image may be good for sales, it also can put the idols in vulnerable situations. At a 2014 handshake event in Takizawa City, one crazed AKB48 fan managed to get past security and attack two of the band members with a 20-inch saw. The girls survived, but sustained cuts on their arms and heads.
3.00 – What is Provided to the Pop Idol?
3.01 – Training
- The Artist will receive fourteen-plus hours a day of singing, dancing, foreign-language, acting, rapping, and choreography lessons.
- In the event that the Artist becomes injured during the course of training, she will be expected to work through the pain.
Fact: A trainee of the K-pop management company Alpha Entertainment was reportedly told to push through training after she pulled an inner thigh muscle during dance class.
3.02 – Plastic Surgery
The Artist must agree to undergo any plastic surgeries recommended by the Agency. Plastic surgery costs will be paid upfront by the Agency. However, the Artist must eventually pay back all surgery costs, whether they want the surgery or not.
Fact: One in five South Korean women has had cosmetic surgery, compared to one in twenty in the U.S. It has been speculated that the high rate of plastic surgery among K-pop idols, predominately double eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty, may have inspired a countrywide rise in cosmetic procedures.
Cosmetic surgery procedures the Artist may be expected to undergo include:
- Double Eyelid
A surgery whereby a crease is added to the eyelid to create a more “western” look
Fact: Double eyelid surgery is the most popular procedure in South Korea.
To add a higher bridge to the nose
- V-Line Surgery
A painful surgery that involves breaking and shaving the jawline to create a slimmer face shape
4.00 – Behavior during Pop Idol Training
Note: The following is based on actual training rules from K-pop management company Alpha Entertainment.
- No mobile phones at any time; this includes for personal use. Do not even think about sending that Snapchat.
- Sunglasses must be worn at all times when in public, including when indoors. The Agency does not wish for the public to see how tired the Artist looks from 14-plus hours of training per day.
- No unsupervised trips anywhere, including on days off. A guard must accompany the Artist at all times.
- This means no privacy in the bathroom. A guard will wait for the Artist outside her stall.
- The Artist may not respond to her real name, only to her stage name.
- The Agency should be considered family. Male staff members should be called “Papa” and female staff members should be called “Mama”.
- On rest days, Artists are expected to spend bonding time with their cult Agency family.
- No eating or drinking after 7 pm (this includes water). Say goodbye to late night pizza.
- Adhere to Agency’s dieting guidelines and attend regular weigh-ins.
5.00 – Chastity Clause
The Artist is prohibited from having romantic relationships of any kind.
Fact: J-pop girl group AKB48’s actual contract states, “Unrequited love is permissible, but you cannot return the affection.” In 2013, AKB48 member Minami Minegishi was caught by paparazzi leaving her boyfriend’s house. As punishment, she was demoted to a trainee team. She was so ashamed of the incident that she shaved her head and made a tear-filled apology video to her fans on YouTube.
Why is there a chastity clause? K-pop and J-pop idols do not just sell music and entertainment to their fans – they sell fantasies. One of those fantasies is that pop idols are attainable as boyfriends or girlfriends.
6.00 – Punishment
If the Artist fails to adhere to the above rules once, she will be issued a warning. If she breaks the rules a second time, she will be forced to retire early.
7.00 – Duration of Contract
8.00 – Compensation and Distribution of Profits
- No compensation will be given to the Artist during training, though housing, food, and pocket money will be provided.
- After the Artist debuts, the Agency will take 50% of the profits, and the Artist will take the other 50%.
- Out of the Artist’s 50%, the Artist will pay for all overseas promotions, stylists, dancers, plastic surgeries, staff salaries, and their training expenses.
- If the Artist sells 500,000 copies, the Artist will receive no compensation.
- The Agency does not need to be transparent with the Artist about how much debt is owed.
Fact:For many K-pop and J-pop stars, all financial decisions are made by the agency. These financial decisions include where the Artist tours, what they wear, which plastic surgeon they go to, etc. While all expenses are covered by the Agency upfront, the Agency expects to be reimbursed by the Artist following her debut.
9.00 – Termination/Early Retirement
- If the Artist terminates her contract early, she will be fined $20,000 USD.
- If the Artist decides to retire early, she will be required to pay the Agency a sum calculated from the average profits made from performances and music sales.
10.00 – Conditions
The Artist is not allowed to say anything about this contract to anyone, ever, or else…
Slave Artist Signature ______________________________________ Date __________________
Artist’s Legal Guardian Signature ______________________________________ Date __________________
Agency Signature ______________________________________ Date ________________
Sounds Like a Deal
There is no denying that the expenses it takes to turn an average Susie from the street into the next K-pop or J-pop idol superstar are high. From the hours of vocal coaching, to the dance lessons, to the room and board, to the plastic surgery, to the salaries for their stylists and bodyguards, creating an idol is not a budget-friendly endeavor.
Understandably, management companies want to protect their investments and make a profit. The grey area is that those investments are human. How much control should management companies really have? And what is the artist really agreeing to when she signs on the dotted line?