K-Pop Starter Kit: A Beginner’s Guide (Part Two)

First of all, I’m sorry this took me so long to post! I’ve literally been working on it every day for the last two weeks, but I kept thinking of things to add and it just turned out way longer than I anticipated. (SIGH) Ultimately, I just decided to split the introduction into three parts instead of the two I had initially planned. So Part One (which I already wrote) is more focused on K-pop as music and performances, and Part Two (this post) covers different aspects and norms of the K-pop industry. And soon I’ll add Part Three – which kind of also talks about the K-pop industry, but more in relation to fandoms and the Korean general public. I apologize again for not staying on schedule, but at least we can get a bonus post out of it!

(If you’re reading my blog for the first time, hello and thanks for visiting! I’m an Asian-American who’s been a K-pop fan for 5+ years, and I also happen to work as a teacher in South Korea. I created this series as a beginner’s guide for people who just discovered K-pop and want to learn more, but any and all are of course welcome! This first month of my column is a basic introduction, and then I’ll start focusing on a specific topic for every month afterwards. Since I’m American, this post will mostly compare K-pop to Western pop because I don’t have any other personal context. And I’m not an expert, either! I’m just really interested in pop culture because I used to want to work in entertainment – former musical theater kid/dancer/drama major/film school student – and these are based observations I’ve made over time. So please feel free to share your own experiences and knowledge in the comments, because I’d love to hear from you and get some other perspectives! If you want to know more details about my plans for the K-Pop Starter Kit, you can read my announcement post here. And you can read Part One of my Introduction to K-pop here.)

Things That Might Surprise K-pop Newcomers (Part 2)

Not all idols are Korean, but nearly all of them are Asian.

While many K-pop groups have all-Korean members, there are also a good number with people from other Asian countries like China, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. Idols who are Korean but were born and raised in other countries like the United States and Canada are usually considered foreign, as well. Though there are a handful of K-pop groups with non-Asian members out there, they’re generally not too well-known compared to the big names of the industry. However, it looks like this might change in the very near future because of K-pop’s growing global popularity. Major companies like SM Entertainment and HYBE are planning to debut K-pop groups in the United States through audition shows, while CJ E&M will be doing the same in South America. It’s worth noting that there’s been some debate over whether non-Asians should become K-pop idols for a while, especially in the international fan community, so it will be interesting to see how this all plays out in coming years.

Hailing from Thailand, BLACKPINK’s Lisa is one of the most famous foreign idols in K-pop right now. She has a massive amount of fans from all over the world, and she’s so beloved that she’s currently the most-followed K-pop star on Instagram!

Groups are way more common in K-pop than they are in the West.

There aren’t that many pure pop groups in Western music; there have certainly been some incredibly popular ones over the years, but it’s definitely more common to be a solo artist. In K-pop, there are literally dozens of groups out there – and the number grows higher with every passing year. There weren’t so many in the beginning, but the industry experienced what’s called the “Hallyu Wave” around 2009. Basically, this was the point when K-pop and K-dramas became popular in other Asian countries and slowly started spreading to other parts of the world. Tons of agencies were established and started debuting their own K-pop groups, and today some bigger companies even count four or more groups on their rosters.

Why do agencies seem to prefer producing groups? If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it’s because K-pop artists typically rely heavily on their fandoms for income (more on this in the next post). So, it’s much easier to attract a large number of fans if you have a group of talented and attractive people with a diverse range of skills, looks, and personalities. Most groups have around 6-8 members, but it’s not uncommon for there to be more – sometimes it goes up to 12 or 13! But it seems like large numbers aren’t necessarily as trendy these days, because some more well-known companies have been debuting smaller groups of 4 or 5.

SM Entertainment’s boy group NCT (pictured left) debuted in 2016 and currently has 23 members – definitely the most out of any K-pop group out there! To be fair, they spend most of their time releasing music in sub-units of 7-9 people – however, they all come together for large-scale projects every so often. In contrast, SM’s newest girl group aespa (pictured right) debuted in late 2020 with 4 members.

Soloists are rarer than groups, but can be more famous in South Korea.

Just to be clear, I’m talking about K-pop soloists specifically – not ones who are R&B, hip hop, indie, ballad, trot, etc. K-pop acts often need large fandoms for financial success, so soloists can be at a disadvantage because they can’t match a group of 4+ people’s wide variety of appealing charms and talents. (Like I said in my last post, K-pop generally isn’t just about the music and whether one likes it or not.) Many popular K-pop soloists actually still belong to a group, and just started an additional solo career when their companies felt they had a large enough fanbase for their releases to do well. But while soloists might have a harder time starting out, they have an advantage over groups in that their music often sounds closer to what the Korean general public likes. If a soloist has a song that becomes a hit and gets played everywhere, they can get both support from their fandom and good digital chart results. So, being a solo artist can pay off in the long run.

Some Popular Soloists:
IU (pictured left): While the music IU releases isn’t always *technically* K-pop – I’d personally say she’s more “K-pop adjacent” – she’s by far one of the most popular soloists in South Korea, if not the most popular. Pretty much every Korean person I’ve talked to loves her (truly not an exaggeration), and all her songs consistently dominate the charts for weeks or even months.
Baekhyun (pictured center): One of the main vocalists of famous boy group EXO, Baekhyun started out his solo career with support from a large fanbase of EXO-Ls. However, his success grew when his music proved popular with the general public as well. He’s the first Korean soloist in about 20 years to sell over 1 million physical albums – something only a handful of K-pop groups accomplish – and he’s done it twice!
Chungha (pictured right): Chungha got her start as a member of I.O.I, the temporary project group formed from popular survival show Produce 101. So she already had a sizable following when she started her solo career in 2017, but her 2019 single “Gotta Go” propelled her to a whole other level of stardom when the general public loved it too.

Seniority is very important in K-pop, both in age and experience.

This is not actually unique to K-pop itself, but is more an important part of Korean culture that’s reflected in the industry. When you watch idols on television or radio shows, you might start to notice how they speak differently depending on whom they’re with. This is because South Korea is a hierarchical society, and there’s a very heavy emphasis on respecting one’s elders and seniors. How you address others, talk to others, and even behave around others depends on the ages of everyone involved. I’m simplifying this a lot because there are a ton of nuances, but the basic rule is that you must use more polite verb endings and some kind of honorific when talking to someone older than you. If that person is significantly older or has a much higher status – like they’re your boss or work superior – the speech gets even more formal. Then when you’re with someone who is the same age as you or younger, you can generally speak more casually.

For K-pop specifically, idols have to consider each other’s industry experience as well. When rookies are talking about groups or idols who debuted before them, you’ll notice they always use a specific honorific to refer to those people as their seniors. It’s also common practice for younger groups to do things like approach their seniors at music show broadcasts and gift them with signed copies of their albums. So in one sense, popularity and success don’t necessarily affect how groups treat each other: even the most famous ones will still be respectful to those who debuted first. However, determining the exact level of formality between two idols can be tricky because both age and seniority play a factor. The youngest member of an experienced group could easily be the same age as the leader of one that just started out. So again, there are lots of different possible situations. Here’s an example below:

Shownu (from Monsta X) and JR (from NU’EST) were guests on the same talk show together in 2020, and they didn’t know each other that well. Shownu is older than JR, but JR is his industry senior because he debuted first. So there’s a fair amount of awkwardness in this clip as they try to figure out their exact standing with each other.

Idols must sign with an agency and train with them before they can debut.

In the West, record labels seem to focus on discovering skilled musicians and introducing them to the public. If you want to be a professional singer, you’re expected to already be good at it and (hopefully) have prior experience and training. While K-pop does value people who are gifted in areas like singing and dancing, there’s also a strong belief that anyone can become an idol if they really work at it. Talent isn’t necessarily an innate quality that only some people have; it can be learned and developed over time. So in K-pop, aspiring idols don’t sign with an agency and suddenly become a star. If they pass the auditions, they usually join the company as a trainee and take specialized lessons core idol skills. And while some debut quickly, most spend a couple of years as trainees before getting selected to join a group. TWICE’s Jihyo is an extreme example: she joined JYP Entertainment as a child and trained for a decade, debuting when she was around eighteen.

It’s important to note that trainee life has a rather infamous reputation, and not everyone makes it to debut. The idea that one can become a skilled idol through hard work and dedication is a nice sentiment, but this unfortunately gets taken to the extreme all too often. The schedules are absolutely grueling, and trainees are expected to devote the majority of their time to practicing even outside of lessons. Many trainers and executives also feel the “tough love” approach is the best way to prepare for life as a celebrity constantly in the spotlight, but their blunt and direct words can come off as excessively critical and harsh to fans (especially Western ones). In short, being a trainee is incredibly hard – particularly because they’re usually in their teens or early twenties at most. I won’t go more specifics because everyone’s experience is different, but it’s very easy to find videos and interviews where idols and former trainees talk about it.

These two videos are from a recent YouTube documentary series called K-Pop Evolution. I recommend watching the whole series, because it teaches a lot about K-pop and it features commentary from some pretty well-known and famous idols – plus it highlights some of the more negative parts of the industry in an honest way without being overly dramatic. These two episodes in particular talk about trainee life and some of the pressures of being an idol, and they also show rookie group STAYC when they were trainees preparing for their debut.

Agencies (aka record labels) are the real power players of the industry.

I’m not sure about other countries, but I’d say that record labels in the U.S. typically aren’t in the spotlight as much as the artists they make music with. While American media focuses on pop stars a lot, the general public isn’t usually that curious or knowledgable about the companies behind them. I know the names of some of the really big ones, but I normally couldn’t tell you who’s signed to them unless there was some well-known drama or a big news story about it. In K-pop, it’s extremely different. Idols are very closely tied to their labels, and those companies can have as much as a reputation as the artists they produce.

In the West, the big pop stars usually have a lot of say in their own music and artistry – maybe not from the very beginning, but definitely once they’re famous. So when we hear their new songs or see their music videos and performances , we assume they’re the driving force behind most of the creative choices (or at the very least, they gave things their stamp of approval). In K-pop, the record labels are the ones who decide everything about a group: music, overall image, concept, and more. Idols are able to have more creative control and give more input with time and experience, but it’s definitely not on the same level as Western pop stars. It’s rare for even the most senior artists to be completely free to do whatever they want musically or stylistically.

A K-pop company’s influence over idols isn’t just limited to music, either. They’re many things rolled into one: record label, entertainment business, management agency, PR, teaching and training, etc. Because of that, they’re involved in many aspects of their artists’ lives… and that’s not always necessarily a good thing. That being said, not all K-pop companies are bad. (Though of course there are some truly terrible ones out there.) Most of them certainly do things that draw criticism from fans, but each one comes with its positive points as well. And while a fair amount of idols choose to leave their agencies after their contracts are up, there are also plenty who stay. Every situation is a little different.

You might hear a lot about “The Big 3,” which refers to three famous agencies: SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment. They were initially given this nickname because the idol groups they produced were a major part of the Hallyu Wave in the late 2000s/early 2010s. Though they’re not necessarily the biggest or wealthiest companies in K-pop right now, they still continue to produce some of the industry’s most popular and well-liked groups.

It’s possible that your favorite groups might lose a member or disband.

K-pop groups usually stay together longer than most of their Western counterparts, but nothing lasts forever. The unfortunate reality is that many don’t make it past seven years. (That’s the usual length of an idol’s exclusive contract with their agency, which is why people also call this the “seven year curse.”) It might not happen to your favorite group, because there are plenty who renew their contracts for at least a few years. However, they usually undergo some kind of major change like the departure of one or more members. Currently, there are very few active groups who have a) been together longer than seven years, b) have all the members they started with, AND c) have everyone at their original agency. I can count the number of groups who meet all three of those conditions on one hand.

When I first got into K-pop five years ago, many popular second-generation groups were approaching their contract renewals. Usually, one of two things would happen: the majority of the group would renew but lose a member who wanted to strike out on their own, or the group would disband with some members continuing with the company and others leaving for a new start. (2016 and 2017 brought a lot of heartbreak to second generation K-pop fans.) Recently, it’s become more common for idols to leave their original agency but say they’re still part of the group and will return for comebacks. Or, all of the members will leave but say they’re still a group and they’ll still make music. It’s worth noting that at this point in time, no group in either of these situations has actually *had* a comeback, so we don’t have much evidence to prove that this method is all that feasible yet. BUT it looks like this might change soon, so here’s hoping.

2021 has already seen major changes for some popular 3rd generation K-pop groups. In January, all the members of GOT7 (pictured left) chose to leave JYP Entertainment. They’ve made it very clear that they’re staying together as a group, but things have obviously changed since they’re all signed to different labels now… so fans probably won’t be getting comebacks twice a year anymore. GFriend (pictured right) also recently announced they would all leave Source Music and pursue their own individual paths. Unfortunately, it appears they’re not going the same route as GOT7 and have opted to disband entirely.

NOTE: The featured image is a custom design I requested from my friend specifically for this blog and this column. Please do not alter it, repost it, or re-upload it without my permission. If you want to see the artist’s work, you can go to to her Instagram account here and/or her website here.

IMAGE CREDITS: allkpop (compiled image of the Big 3 agencies’ logos – original article here), BVLGARI (BLACKPINK’s Lisa), Edam Entertainment (IU), JYP Entertainment (GOT7), M&H Entertainment (Chungha),Source Music (GFriend), SM Entertainment (Baekhyun / NCT / aespa), YG Entertainment

VIDEO CREDITS: YouTube, YouTube Originals (K-Pop Evolution Episodes 5 and 6), KBS (Problem Child in the House clip)

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