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On Average, I Sleep For 2 Hours [laughs]
Disturbing interview with Qri, of T-ara — the clip seeming to lack any knowledge that it is disturbing. "Tiara Cutie and Pretty," says the screen.

[EDIT: YouTube deleted the copy with Eng Sub, and this was the only other I could find.]

From what I've read, I wouldn't be surprised if Ashlee, Lindsay, et al. subjected themselves to the same thing over here. But I believe they had far more power and far more choice, could have chosen to work less, and to walk away, if need be. Whereas in Korea — again, I don't know this for sure, have only seen some Wikip writeups and a few other reports about court cases — if you want out but to stay in music, you've got to sue. Only a few performers — JYJ, KARA, Han Geng — really thought they had the muscle to pull that off. Of those three, the latter two have settled under undisclosed terms. JYJ, meanwhile, is still blackballed from Korean TV performance shows.

(I think the key is, once you hit in Japan, you've got more leverage to renegotiate, since the Korean conglomerates have less sway there. And I'll reiterate, this opinion is based on casual second-hand reading, not on knowledge.)

There's an exposé by Al Jazeera that I haven't had the chance to look at yet. The intro text:

But punishing schedules and contracts, plus links to prostitution and corruption have revealed a dark side to the industry.

Meanwhile critics claim K-Pop is too manufactured to create mega-international stars or to sustain its future.

I wish Al Jazeera had stayed away from the "manufactured pop" subject, since by including it they make the smug class prejudice displayed in the second paragraph seem aligned with the necessary muckraking promised in the first. How the liberal-left shoots itself in the foot, time and time again. (Not that I know if the reporters are liberal-left. And since I haven't looked at it yet, of course I don't know if the actual report contains the smug attitudes that that sentence signals.)

[EDIT: Of course, I don't know how widespread these conditions are, what the workload is for different performers and different labels.]

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The Hand That Fed Me

Speaking of prostitution, here's a nice allegation about the crew that used to send me remuneration.*

Nicholas Kristof, "How Pimps Use The Web to Sell Girls," New York Times, January 25, 2012.

*Not having researched this either, I don't know if before New Times took it over the Voice had owned backpage.com, or if backpage.com is a New Times baby. If the latter, then I was only getting checks from these guys from late '05 through mid '06.

Re: The Hand That Fed Me

Kristof today* links the New York Times story back in October 2005 that reported the Voice–New Times merger, which created the current version of Village Voice Media. The report says that Backpage.com came in by way of New Times. So I was only getting money from this lot for the pieces I did between the time the merger went into effect (Kristof says 2006, but my memory is saying late 2005, December or so) and when they cut the cord with me in September '06.** That's 11 or so pieces, paying between $50 and $390 each depending on the size of the review. Not a lot of bread.

I do think if you want to pressure these people, it's more important to withhold money you would normally send them, rather than not take money from them. Perhaps in a few instances, they would be embarrassed by writers deciding to walk, but the Village Voice has been jettisoning good writers anyway. Maybe if the whole music section up and left... But I doubt the owners would even be influenced by that. Not that I know a hell of a lot about Lacey and friends. That they hired Maura as music editor after her sniping at the Voice and running the Jackin Pop counter poll during her Idolator days would be a sign that the New Times fellows aren't particularly vindictive — unless it's a sign they're not attentive.

*In tomorrow's paper, but the column's online already.
**I was freelance, never on staff.

Edited at 2012-04-01 12:36 am (UTC)

It's important to acknowledge how differently some of these business are run. T-ara's agency, CCM, is so widely known to have a ruthless bastard as the CEO you could pick up any teenage k-pop fan from the street and he or she would be able to give you anecdotes.

This man came strongly out against KARA when they sued DSP and said they should be shunned by the industry for what they did (before things were settled). Others openly supported them, like the Young Producers' Association where Pledis (After School) are among the agencies: http://www.allkpop.com/2011/01/ypa-speaks-out-against-dsp-media-in-support-of-kara

In return our CCM CEO, who has ties to Mnet, suggested that digital music services should remove content from labels who spoke in favor of KARA.

All that was dropped as DSP and KARA settled, but we've got a pretty clear view of a man who's desperate to avoid artists breaking out of the 'old system'. He probably wants to keep things just as they are and not give his own roster any ideas.

Most of the info comes from the artists themselves, though, especially their big cash cow T-ara. (Most popular artist otherwise: Duo Davichi, who are not idols per se). They don't seem to be restricted in voicing their complaints, anyway. I watched a talk show just the other day where Soyeon said they'd better get a holiday soon.. and when another guest inquired as to whether them saying it like that would create stories, she answered "Our boss thinks any hot issue is good PR".

I do think CCM are the worst of big ones. Mostly when you hear bad stories (especially really bad ones, although links to prostitution have never come up in literature I've read - though there were some stories about rookie actresses being lured) it's from rookie groups that disbanded, or artists signed with newer ventures. Overworking is a problem in the country and industry in general of course, but you do see and hear about pretty big changes from 6-7 years ago to today. Some by law- contracts are shorter, more rights have been given to underage performers.

Many fans make up truths based on intuition, bias and tidbits we get here and there - like how YG is much better at treating their artists well, give them a say in their career, pamper them, etc, though by all accounts Mr YG is a pretty goal-oriented businessman himself. JYP also has a good reputation - their artists are seldom run through these back-to-back promotional periods going on forever like T-ara are. SM, who knows, they have a bad reputation because of the feud with JYJ and, being the biggest, forcing the media to dance to their pipe. No one can deny dirty tricks there, but the break-up itself is more messy. JYJ did break contract and have gone on to be very successful and make a lot of money on their own, despite being a no-show on music shows. They have sell-out records and tours every year. I just hope the court gets on with the final rounds soon.

SM is difficult to read - Lee Soo-Man is no longer CEO but still chairman, and he seems very friendly with some of the artists indeed. Of course BoA is a significant shareholder and others have different reasons to know him. SNSD's Sunny is his niece, which was a cause of some controversy when they debuted.

Ok I'm rambling at this point. There are huge differences between big companies, small ones, between the leadership styles of this man or that man - and between a newer breed of agencies who run their business less like the old guard - I think the establishment of the Young Producers' Association, who are vocal about their less conservative attitudes, means something.

New comedy/drama Dream High 2, starting today, tackles the issue: http://www.soompi.com/news/taras-jiyeon-sistars-hyorin-and-2ams-jinwoon-argue-over-underage-working-hours

One of the things that's most unfortunate about all this (I think it's pretty clear that it sounds like T-ara are overworked, and that's definitely the obvious headline) is how difficult it is to talk about these issues with the requisite perspective. For one, many people who don't really care about K-pop at all (and who couldn't care less if it disappeared) will just look at this and say, "See, this is why I don't like K-pop/pop music/etc." The way I feel about this is somewhat like how I feel when people isolate incidents relating to hip hop in order to paint the genre negatively with broad strokes. I think most serious hip hop fans truly do feel like it's a culture, and therefore, it's hard to tolerate outsiders taking a brief look inside only to tell you what they think should change. I mean, no matter what problems my family had, I wouldn't want people butting in and pretending like they know what all the answers are.

Also, it sort of feels like the discourse around K-pop is reliant on this narrative of victimization in a way that we wouldn't talk about American pop stars. I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already invoked a "sweat shop labor" comparison here. Of course, lots of shady stuff goes on in the American entertainment industry, right? But it's almost expected there, so people never really talk about it seriously, and if they do, they're seen as lamenting something that will never change. I just think it's an unfair double standard. It's one thing to say, look, T-ara need some rest and no pop stars should be treated like this, but some people will always want to jump to conclusions and comparisons that really only succeed if you isolate everything from its context.

Also, I don't think it's anything like an excuse, but I do generally believe that there's such a thing as an "Asian work ethic" that differs from American/Western standards. Again, that's not an excuse, but I think we should first understand that, say, in less extreme cases than this one, there might be some cultural aspect that accounts for how the industry functions. For example, if you look at 2NE1 TV, those girls certainly do work a lot and are always practicing, not to mention constantly watching what they are eating. I'm sure many Americans would look down upon that, but I don't know: when I watch the show, I'm somewhat envious that they have an opportunity to put so much effort and hard work into something that obviously makes them really happy and proud.

Haven't seen the Al Jazeera doc yet, but the lines you quote do make me cringe somewhat. And I definitely agree with your point about "manufactured pop." Goes along with what I was saying about "sweat shop labor." It's complex, and I wish they wouldn't take such a potentially lurid approach, especially when this is some of the first times when Asian pop music is being described to the West. I almost feel that some people are too eager to swat down K-pop's potential, perhaps having some ulterior motives. It's the same thing that annoys me with how we talk about China.

This is an excellent comment and I hope to get back to it soon. One thing I'll say, though, is that the narrative of victimization is exactly how journalists and commentators like to talk about American pop stars, at least American teenpop stars, the performers conceived of as puppets and the audiences as dupes and both as victimized by the greedy corporations. The issue may not exactly be work hours, but the assumption is exploitation and victimization. Of course, my own attitude, which is that these performers and these audiences often know things and can do things that I wish I knew and could do, is complicated by the fact that performers often are mistreated and audiences can indeed be vulnerable and gullible. But then, blues performers were often exploited, and the social attitudes they displayed and conveyed not always admirable, but journalists and scholars don't use this as an excuse to dismiss the blues and to deride the intelligence of its audience. But then, I'm willing to see the audience for Al Jazeera as potentially gullible too, and the readers of the New York Times and the audience for Kanye and the audience for the White Stripes, and the audience for me, etc.

In any event, social analysts, especially in journalism but also in academia, often enough come in with an attitude of concern for children and with the desire to protect supposedly vulnerable audiences and vulnerable young performers; and, while the concern may be genuine, the analyses end up as simpleminded, hamfisted expressions of the writers' social and class prejudices, the writers not even knowing that these are prejudices.

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