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How K-pop Idols have stood the test of time

K-pop group Girls' Generation are making a comeback in August to celebrate their 15th anniversary.  (SM entertainment)

K-pop group Girls’ Generation are making a comeback in August to celebrate their 15th anniversary. (SM entertainment)

A wave of change is slowly descending on the once-rigidly systematic K-pop industry.

Last Tuesday, boy band BTS announced they were ending group activities so the seven bandmates could focus on their individual pursuits, which have been pushed back for the past decade.

While members gave multiple reasons for their group’s hiatus, they openly condemned the K-pop idol industry’s systematic pressures that inherently limit the personal time they should have as individuals.

“The problem with the whole K-pop idol system is that it doesn’t give you time to mature. You have to keep making music, keep doing something,” BTS boss RM said during the announcement video.

As much of an issue as it is still that K-pop idols are being restricted in their freedom and rights as individuals, such statements also point to the less obvious — but brighter — shift in young musicians’ expression thanks to their elevated status. It also points to the extended lifespan of idol groups.

The recent comeback of boy band GOT7 is a big step in the industry in that direction.

GOT7 members hold a press conference ahead of the release of their new album

GOT7 members hold a press conference ahead of the release of their new album “GOT7” on May 23 at a hotel in Seoul. (Warner Music Korea)

On May 23rd, GOT7 released a new album, “GOT7”, and returned to the music scene as a full group in a year and four months. It was also their first release since the seven members left JYP Entertainment. With all of the bandmates moving to new labels and embarking on solo projects, some considered the group disbanded, as is often the case after ending their contracts with their original agencies.

GOT7’s comeback was of greater significance as it allowed members to gain full trademark rights to their group’s name, a rare occurrence in K-pop history. The complicated trademark issue has often resulted in groups abandoning their names, as in the case of Highlight (formerly Beast) and HOT, who were forced to use their full name “High Five of Teenagers” during their 2018 reunion concert, instead of the well-known acronym.

While not as fast and clean as GOT7, more seasoned K-pop groups have been making a comeback in recent years.

Former label mates GOT7, 2PM and 2AM each celebrated a group comeback in five and seven years respectively last year. Their comebacks brought a sigh of relief from many fans after the bandmates completed their mandatory military service — one of the main reasons many K-pop boy bands broke up.

While most groups decide their next move after their seventh year — the maximum legal time a company can sign a deal with artists — some have made up their minds ahead of time, including N. Flying and Seventeen. Both groups announced their renewal a year earlier. A group of 13, the members of Seventeen, said their unanimous renewal was achieved through a grueling nine-month negotiation between the members and the company.

K-pop boy band Seventeen hold a press conference for the act's fourth LP, Face the Sun, on May 27 at the Hotel Conrad Seoul in Yeouido, Seoul.  (Pledi's entertainment)

K-pop boy band Seventeen hold a press conference for the act’s fourth LP ‘Face the Sun’ at Hotel Conrad Seoul in Yeouido, Seoul on May 27. (Pledi’s entertainment)

Not all groups are so lucky, as some are taking the next step with a foreseeable end. In June 2021, Mamamoo member Wheein announced that she was leaving agency RBW, with which her three bandmates had renewed their contracts. She said she will continue to be part of Mamamoo through December 2023. Apink recently celebrated its 11th anniversary, a member shortly after Son Naeun’s departure, while Oh My Girl recently announced that six of the seven members other than Jiho had renewed their contracts with the band’s agency.

Culture critic Kim Zakka said the industry is in the process of overcoming the short shelf life of K-pop idols.

“It used to be a dead end when members ended their contracts with the agency. And in most cases, the relationship between the artists and the company, and also between the bandmates, wouldn’t end cleanly,” Kim said.

Having members more actively involved in the process of making music in the early stages of their careers also contributes to the longevity of K-pop idols, which allows them to take more initiative in making decisions about their careers, Kim noted.

While a fundamental problem of the K-pop industry is that individuals are forced to sacrifice their time and rights in order to become ideal consumer products, Kim points out that such side effects are inherent in the K-pop industry.

“In the music industry, the artists and the business stand on opposite ends of the same horizon, and the K-pop idol industry thrives by taking the business end to the extreme. While artists’ individual talents and efforts are important, at least so far this system has prioritized profits above all other values, which in turn eats away at artists faster the more successful they are.”

K-pop girl groups Apink (left) and Mamamoo (IST Entertainment/RBW)

K-pop girl groups Apink (left) and Mamamoo (IST Entertainment/RBW)

Beyond the glitz and glamor of the K-pop industry, artists are scrambling to find their own ways to find the answer. BTS has officially halted group projects and GOT7 has enabled the fastest return possible, while many others, such as Girls’ Generation, with their comeback in August, are now making a cautious return after a long, indefinite hiatus.

“It’s not going to be easy, almost impossible given the conflicting interests of artists and business, but GOT7 and Girls’ Generation are possibly the best direction the K-pop industry should go,” Kim said.

By Choi Ji-won ([email protected])

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