K-pop agency system comes under fire in wake of Jonghyun's death

PHOTO: AFP

Late singer Jonghyun's will showed that the main vocalist of SHINee had suffered severe depression.

Following the initial shock, calls to revamp the competitive, controlled and stressful ecosystem of idol singers are resonating in the K-pop scene.

"Once (our agency) took our phone, so we used a prepaid phone. We also snuck out of our living quarters when we weren't supposed to. We made the shape of a person on the bed. But we had nowhere else to go, so we just talked for hours at a cafe in Gangnam Station," Hyonmin of T-ara said in a recent interview with Korea media.

The question had been "Have you ever stepped out of line during your nine years as an idol singer?" In response, the K-pop star of nine years -- which is significant in a society where seniority holds great value -- described stepping out of her room without permission as a misdeed.

It is conventional in the Korean music scene for agencies to keep their stars on a tight leash -- so to speak -- to the extent of making the members of a group live together.

It is not uncommon for the companies to confiscate singers' phones, a trend that Lee Hong-gi of F.T. Island jokingly said started with his group.

Earlier this month, BTS' agency reportedly moved the boy band to new living quarters. Members of the K-pop sensation still live in what is essentially a dormitory, albeit set in the most expensive apartment in the country.

The close monitoring of idol singers derives from K-pop's unique ecosystem: stars are rarely discovered, they are made.

The K-pop scene revolves around talent agencies, with the three biggest being YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and S.M. Entertainment, the agency for SHINee.

Talent scouts scour high school singing contests, auditions for reality TV and every other perceivable corner to find talent. Trainees are honed by professionals for years under contracts, and only a handful out of thousands are picked as potential star material.

Even then, the competition is not over. "Being a Girl Group in Korea," a book by journalist Lee Hak-jun, depicts the long, winding path idol wannabes have to go through. Lee spent months with the members of Nine Muses before its official debut, during which he found that the young women faced immense mental and physical pressure.

Star Empire Entertainment even brought in a backup member just weeks before the debut for them to practice with, just to remind the members that any one of them could be replaced at any time.

The high school student quit shortly after, crumbling under the pressure and animosity of her older peers. However, one member was eventually replaced by another trainee. It was her alleged romantic relationship with a staff member that crushed her dreams.

A black and white memorial for SHINee's Jonghyun by Singaporean fans at Hong Lim Park

  • Thousands of Singaporean fans of South Korean pop group SHINee turned up in a sea of black and white at Hong Lim Park on Wednesday (Dec 20) night to pay their respects to the band's lead singer Kim Jong Hyun .
  • A young female fan who looked to be in her early teens sobbed and repeatedly said: "I just cannot believe it."
  • The mood was sombre as many fans were spotted hugging and crying.
  • Some took balloons to the event, others offered flowers and stuffed toys.
  • Post-it notes were also passed around for fans to write on as they left behind heartfelt farewell messages for their beloved idol.
  • At one point, the fans waved their light sticks and smartphones in the air as they sang the SHINee song Replay.
  • Despite the large crowd at the event, the fans, made up mostly of young teenage girls, were quiet and orderly. They queued up patiently to get into the park despite the detailed identity checks against pre-registration forms.
  • According to a list of rules posted on @majidarou's Twitter feed, only 1,000 fans could be within the park compound at any one time, which meant that fans could only enter in batches.
  • The memorial service here was organised by a group of local SHINee fans led by a Twitter user who goes by the handle @majidarou.
  • Six of K-pop's biggest stars carried the coffin of fellow singer Kim Jong-Hyun to a hearse .
  • Despite harsh winter weather, weeping fans in jackets, hats, scarves and masks waited outside for the vehicle to leave. They cried even harder as the hearse passed them by.
  • Hundreds of fans from across the country were present while the casket of Jonghyun -- whose real name is Kim Jong-hyun -- was carried out.
  • Onew, Key, Taemin and members of Super Junior were pallbearers, while Minho and Jonghyun’s sister walked ahead of the procession holding his photo.
  • Members of SHINee and Super Junior carry Jonghyun’s coffin at Seoul Asan Hospital on Thursday.
  • The celebrities bowed their heads and prayed while waiting for the hearse, a black Lincoln limousine, to leave the building, as people at the back sang Christian hymns.
  • Super Junior's donghae
  • The private funeral started around 8 a.m. It was attended by Jonghyun’s family, as well as officials and artists of S.M. Entertainment, including Girls’ Generation and EXO.
  • Members of Girls Generation at the funeral
  • A top K-pop star bemoaned feeling "broken from inside" and "engulfed" by depression in a suicide note, it emerged Tuesday, as his death sent shockwaves among fans worldwide.
  • Kim Jong-Hyun, a 27-year-old lead singer of the massively popular K-pop boyband SHINee, was found in a Seoul hotel room on Monday in what police said was suicide.
  • Kim's close friend, musician Nain9, released a suicide note on Tuesday on her Instagram account, saying he had asked her to publish the message in the event of his death.
  • “I am broken from inside. The depression that gnawed on me slowly has finally engulfed me entirely," it said, adding he "couldn't defeat it anymore".
  • Five-member SHINee debuted in 2008 and went on to lead the "Korean Wave" that saw South Korean pop culture develop followings across Asia and beyond.
  • The band's agents SM Entertainment – which dominates K-pop and has several other top acts under its wings – said Kim's funeral would be held on Thursday.
  • "Other members of SHINee as well as other artists at our company are all mourning his death amid deep sorrow and shock," it said in a statement.
  • Many other K-pop stars at the firm cancelled public appearances to visit the mourning altar at a Seoul hospital where his body lies, with hundreds of tearful fans also in attendance.
  • "It looks certain that it was a suicide," police told a briefing. "So we plan to close the case without autopsy as requested by the family."

"If you become a star while doing whatever you want, sleeping as much as you want, then the world would be really unfair. If you are unsure, you better quit now, for other people's sake," staff of the agency were quoted as saying in the book. "When you make it big, your words would be law. But right now we know better than you about this business, so swallow your pride,"

As such, the trainees are required to forgo their personal lives -- dating, friendship, and hobbies -- and to keep perfecting dance choreography, which the public might never even see.

"In short, it is a system that collects a number of youngsters with potential and beats them into shape, transforming them into the star that the public wants," Lee wrote in his book. "This system devised by a handful of geniuses is cruel by nature. ... Success and failure is determined in mere seconds. Billions of won in investment can go up in smoke, or yield much larger profit, so the system has to be cruel."

The loss from "failed" singers falls on the shoulders of agencies, which try to milk every last penny out of the successful ones instead.

In March, the Fair Trade Commission ordered major agencies to revise clauses that forced singers to sign exclusive contracts with them.

Among other revisions was the clause that forced singers to pay pack two to three times the agencies' investment if the singers choose to terminate their contracts.

Even after debuting, most idol singers are left under the micromanagement of agencies. Regulations by agencies make it nearly impossible for singers to have personal lives. Furthermore, publicly revealed relationships like that of Taeyang and Min Hyo-rin -- who recently announced that they will tie the knot in February -- are extremely rare for K-pop stars.

In Lee's book, he asked the dance teacher of Nine Muses -- who once aspired to be a K-pop star -- if he wanted to be a star in his next life.

"No, I don't," he answered. "I've seen how stars live their lives. I don't want that life. I just want to dance."