Sayon begins off his blogging career with the beginning of a new series: what Sayon looks into this week. For his debut, he explores the K-pop training system. Check it out!
19th July 2021
History of the K-pop training system
In 1989 Lee Soo Man, founder of SM Entertainment (home to groups such as EXO, Red Velvet and NCT), implemented the modern-day K-pop trainee system. His goal was to ensure his idols stood out amongst the rest. In 1996 the ‘first K-pop group’ H.O.T debuted. Now, let’s look into the phases involved in creating an idol.
Firstly, before we even enter the practice room, we need to find people with the potential to become an idol. One way of doing this is street casting. This involves scouts being sent out to major cities in South Korea to find attractive children. Yes, children. Nowadays the age of a scouted trainee is usually around 11-13. But, in 2000, while on a family trip to Korea, f(x)’s Krystal was street-cast at just age 6.
So after being street-cast, if the person finds the opportunity to enter the K-pop industry appealing, they will enter the auditioning phase. Those who were not street-cast most likely dreamed of becoming an idol from a very young age and therefore spent much of their early years improving their vocals and dancing skills to ensure they were in the best condition possible for their auditions.
Starting from a young age is beneficial. You are conditioning your body for the trainee process, which is useful. Also, post-debut your time as an idol will normally be no shorter than 7 years, so having prior training will always be an advantage.
The aim of the auditioning phase is to get a training contract. The auditioning phase is the first filtering stage where one’s individual talents are pointed out. This stage will usually indicate how their training will be structured. Say, for example, you are heavily complimented for your rapping ability.
Some candidates are extremely unlucky and will sometimes spend years in this phase. For example, TWICE’s Jihyo started auditioning at age 8 and was not picked up by a company until 10 years later. This is where street-cast candidates somewhat have an upper hand as they are usually selected around the time a company is trying to form a new group. Thus, they are brought in to fill a specific role as their face fits the concept of the group the company is trying to form.
Sidenote: Roles within a K-pop group
- Leader – usually the eldest member, or whoever spent the longest time as a trainee, a good leader is someone who is able to take care of their members and be a mature representative of the group
- Vocalist – if you showed potential in your singing ability you were trained to be a vocalist
- Rapper – usually when you cannot sing, you are made to rap
- Dancer – when you cannot sing or rap, you dance
- Visual – definitely a controversial role, as it essentially means you were not good at singing, rapping, or dancing so you are simply there to look pretty
- Center – refers to one’s position during promotions such as photoshoots; this is generally the most attractive and/or popular member
- Maknae – a term given to describe the youngest member of the group
Survival shows are a public form of auditioning. However, instead of aiming to receive a training contract, winners of these shows are immediately debuted. This is after the number of candidates is reached after some are eliminated. Groups that you may have heard of that are a product of such shows include Monsta X (formed by No Mercy), iKON (formed by Mix & Match), and BIGBANG (formed by BIGBANG Documentary).
After successfully passing the audition phase, candidates sign a contract with the company that chose them. However, this contract has a few issues. For one, trainees must pay for the training they are about to receive. This can range from $500 (~£360) to $2000 (~£1440) a month. These costs will go towards vocal coaches, choreographers, stylists, make-up artists, accommodation, living expenses, and staff salaries. So, as you can imagine, the kill fee is rather large.
Another issue with these expensive training costs is that in the trainee contract that is signed after the audition phase, it states that the company cannot tell the trainee when they will likely debut. Hence why some people stay in this phase for years. On average a person will spend 4 years as a trainee. Let’s say you pay a grand a month for training, they’re looking at about $48,000 (~£35,000) of debt to their company.
To ensure they stay in the training system and/or company, some talented trainees will have their fees waived until they debut. Now, this may sound like a great deal, but not every idol debuts and grows to become a millionaire like the members of BTS. An extreme case would be the girl group Lovelyz, who for most of their time as idols, were not paid a single penny of profits. Anything they earned simply went back to the company as a means of paying off their debt to them.
Debt as a result of training costs is usually the reason why some idols have a second job as well. This is even worse if you’re still in full-time education as you will need to balance school, a part-time job and being an idol.
Life as a K-pop Trainee
As I previously mentioned most people are around 11-13 when they become a trainee. So, they will spend their mornings and afternoons at school. But, the rest of their evening will be dedicated to training and practicing usually until midnight. Trainees who have graduated or made the decision to drop out of school however will practice between 16-18 hours a day. They start from around 9/10 am and practice until 2/3 am the next morning. Due to this tightly packed schedule, many trainees have come out and said that they generally do not receive the recommended amount of sleep. On average they get at about 4 hours a night.
The K-pop industry is home to some of the harshest fans. So, it is unsurprising that during the training process individuals are encouraged to undergo surgeries such as blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery) and rhinoplasty (a nose job) to meet Korean beauty standards. These standards, to use an understatement, are high. However, plastic surgery is an interesting topic in the K-pop industry. Although the surgeries help idols meet the standards, I have seen some online users criticise idols for not maintaining their “natural beauty”.
Even though most trainees are going through puberty, unhealthy relationships with food and body management are common. They are forced to maintain a certain standard so as not to be criticised by the public. A common diet among girl K-pop groups before a comeback (release of a new album/single) is one where their calorie allowance is set to 1500. Now, as a short-term diet, this is alright especially if your daily life consists of mostly sitting down. However, for teens practicing 16-18 hours a day with little to no sleep, 1500 calories is appalling. They practically burn all the calories they consume and more.
Yeah I know, the sub-heading is weird. You seem not only are the physical appearance standards high, but the standard of behaviour expected from idols is debatably even higher. There is an argument to be made here that this is why companies scout for trainees during their formative years, as this will give them more time to edit and extract all their imperfections in time for them to fit the mold for the company’s next group. This ‘personality training’ will transfer over to events such as fan signings and meetings. This is where idols are meant to give off happy vibes only, if not, they risk being slandered online for being ‘unfriendly’ or ‘rude’.
Speaking of online usage, cancel culture is much much stronger in the K-pop industry. As I am sure you are aware of K-pop stans’ activity on platforms such as Twitter. They have no chill. A famous example would be Jay Park’s removal from the group 2PM. This was after online users found messages attacking Korea on his personal Myspace page. They were posted 4 years prior.
Probably the most iconic part of the modern-day trainee system is the monthly, sometimes weekly evaluations. During these evaluations, all the trainees are ranked in each of the skills they are developing. As a result, one of three things can happen.
- If the company is in the process of forming its next group, scoring high enough will increase your chances of debuting in it.
- Scoring low enough can get your contract terminated. As the industry has become more and more saturated, companies will be incentivised to cycle in more talent whilst side-lining or scrapping those who do not show potential immediately.
- Trainees are sometimes swapped around companies.
Unfortunately, life after a debut does not get any easier. The skeletal structure of trainee life remains the same but now as idols schedules are packed with promoting your new albums/singles. This is through filming commercials, attending photoshoots, and appearing on variety shows such as Weekly Idol and Knowing Brothers. However, I have rambled on long enough. So, to tease my future plans, I will leave the struggles of being a K-pop idol for another day.