Korean idol is a term used for South Korean musical artists who acquire devoted fans from being signed under a mainstream entertainment agency. They often undergo training to become a part of a K-pop musical group.
Hundreds of candidates each day attend the global auditions held by Korean entertainment agencies to perform for the chance of becoming a trainee. Auditions include public auditions and closed auditions. Others are street-cast or scouted without auditioning, based on looks or potential talent. Those who successfully pass this audition stage are offered long-term contracts with the entertainment company. There are no age limits to becoming a trainee; thus is not uncommon for trainees, and even debuted idols, to be very young.
The trainee process lasts for an indefinite period of time, ranging from months to years, and usually involves vocal, dance, and language classes while living together with other trainees, sometimes attending school at the same time, although some trainees drop out of school to focus on a career as an idol. This whole process may includes "scouting, auditioning, training, styling, producing, and managing" which first created H.O.T, a boyband of S.M. Entertainment in late 1990s. Among trainees in the same company, the elimination mechanism decides who earns the chance of settling in "the company-owned dormitories" and continue fighting for the ultimate goal to debut in new idol groups, while those who cannot show their company the potential to become an eligible idol artist will no longer be able to stay in the company. Once a trainee enters the system, they are supposed to be regulated in multiple aspects ranging from personal life (for example, dating) to body conditions and visual appearances, etc.. The whole point of trainee system is to survive this process of training and regulation of companies, which somehow one's talent does not play a relatively important role in the production of Korean idols.
The investment on a potential trainee could be expensive. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that the cost of training one member of Girls' Generation under S.M. Entertainment was US$3 million.
The K-pop trainee system was popularised by Lee Soo-man, the founder of S.M. Entertainment, as part of a concept labelled cultural technology. As a unique process, the Korean idol trainee system has been criticised by Western media outlets. There are also negative connotations of idols within independent and underground Korean music scenes.
When trainees are finally chosen to debut in new groups, they will face a new setting of personalities created by the company to cater the entertainment market. Each member of an idol group has his or her own character to play and therefore an important part of their job duties is to maintain that temperament in any kind of exposure they may get. One way to build personal image of idol groups is through social media services with contents taken care by the company to make sure the consistency of these personal characteristics.
The relationship between Korean idols and their fans can be characterized as "parasocial kin", which means to rather than simply admire or perfect Korean idols, fans more often at the same time create a familial connection with their idols, in some cases even between fans themselves. The one who facilitate this kind of relationship could be production companies or community of fans through various ways such as social networks services, fan sites, offline meetings in occasions like concerts or fan meetings etc.. The nature of this "parasocial kin" relationship can be seen in the proactive participation of Korean idol fans in production of idol groups. Fans have their own unique ways to show their attitude and opinion on issues concerning "unfair" actions of management companies, and under this situation they more often appear to be protecting idols from exploitation of companies due to the familial connection built between both sides.
Several Korean idol groups and solo artists have resented the contracts issued to them by their management companies, claiming that the decade-long contracts are "too long, too restrictive, and gave them almost none of the profits from their success". A director of South Korean entertainment agency DSP Media stated that the company does share profit with the performers, but often little is left over after paying costs. Korean entertainment companies such as S.M Entertainment have been called "factories" for their unique method of mass-producing stars. Members of groups are frequently retired and replaced with fresh trainees when their age or musical inclinations begin to pose a problem.Dong Bang Shin Gi charged S.M. Entertainment for unreasonable terms in their contracts with the company in 2009.
Entertainment companies in Korea use a boot-camp system in grooming their idols. In the case of S.M. Entertainment, the company receives 300,000 applicants in nine countries every year. They possess training facilities in the Gangnam district of Seoul, where recruits then train for years in anticipation of their debut. SM was called the first company to market "bands as brands", and commodify not just the artists' product, but the artist(s) themselves. Such techniques have resulted in mass recognition abroad and helped to spark the Korean Wave, which benefits entertainment companies by broadening their audience. As domestic fandom is not generally enough to produce the profits that these corporations and their players require, branding and marketing of the artist/group has become central to industry profits and thus a defining feature of the genre today.
According to the South Korean National Tax Service, the average annual earnings for a Korean idol in 2013 were KR?46.74 million (USD$42,000). This was more than double the 2010 figure of KR?26.97 million (USD$25,275), a rise attributable to the global spread of Hallyu in recent years.
Some of the highest-earning Korean idols, for example G-Dragon, receive multimillion-dollar annual incomes in album and concert sales. On June 25, 2015, SBS's "Midnight TV Entertainment" revealed that G-Dragon earned an annual KR?790 million (USD$710,000) from songwriting royalties alone. Idols can also earn revenues from endorsements, merchandise, corporate sponsorship deals and commercials. According to The Korea Herald, once a K-pop music video attracts more than a million views, it will "generate a meaningful revenue big enough to dole out profits to members of a K-pop group."
Some idols have experienced extreme invasions of privacy from obsessive "fans" as a result of their career in the public eye. Alleged invasions of idols' private lives include stalking, hidden cameras in idols' dorms, fans attending personal events such as relatives' weddings, and physical assault.
There have been criticisms on the sexual objectification of female and male idols across the industry. The problem is exacerbated due to the higher rigidity of gender norms in contemporary Korean society. For example, according to an MIT thesis entitled 'How K-pop Mirrors Gender Roles', "the image of a passive and submissive woman is celebrated in the Korean society like no other, when actual Korean women are not so passive nor so submissive by nature". Korean idols are frequently depicted in music videos wearing revealing clothes and dancing provocatively, as part of the companies' effort to market idols in multiple ways.
It is especially common in K-pop music videos to have women of non-Korean ethnicity more overtly sexualized than Korean women, on the part of the company so as not to offend the traditional thought of Korean women as being 'pure'. Research on Korean straight male pornography viewing habits shows that on average, porn with women of non-Korean descent is watched more often than porn containing Korean women. This is because pornography is viewed as degrading, and to associate Korean women with that would pollute their carefully constructed image.
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