The Role of Fans and Idols in the Thriving Ecosystem of K-pop: Where Do They Fit In?
From fan culture to sustainability concerns, let’s explore the challenges and dynamics of the K-pop ecosystem.
While there is much controversy and criticism of the K-pop idol trainee system, efforts towards one’s own dreams should not be easily criticized.
Rookie girl group FIFTY FIFTY is making new history, topping the Billboard Main Chart for six consecutive weeks with their song “Cupid” and reaching No. 41 on the Hot 100 Chart. Especially, FIFTY FIFTY member Sio is revealed to have persevered through her trainee days by contemplating passages from Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
The image of an idol with versatility, talent, and outstanding character can evoke emotions that go beyond simple criticism of commercialism. BIGBANG’s Taeyang, who appeared on tvN’s “You Quiz On The Block” on April 26th, also stated that his sincerity is what made him an idol in the first place.
Social evaluations of idols have not always been generous. In 1994, when Park Jin Young was criticized by the director of MBC for his outfit, he responded by making his second album’s title “Tantara,” a term used to derogatorily refer to lower-class circus performers, to make fun of the director’s comment.
The appearance of idols was once a shock to the conservative popular music industry, but they established a new image and changed public perception with their solid fan base. Lee Soo Man introduced the concept of an “entertainer” in response to criticism from the media in 1999. Since then, idols have been known as all-round entertainers who have proven their talent and charisma beyond just singing.
In the 2010s, the growth of overseas fandoms has led to criticism from Western media. The idol system, which motivates trainees, encourages talent development, emphasizes brand and star image, and strictly controls the private lives of idols to promote efficient operation, can lead to excessive commercialization of idols and uniformity of musical genres.
One of the typical criticisms of idols is the perception that they lack artistic and creative qualities. However, with the emergence of unique and artistically strong idols such as BIGBANG and BTS since the 2010s, this criticism has somewhat diminished.
Past idols were often forced to follow their companies’ top-down branding strategy, regardless of their opinions or individuality. Recently, however, companies have shifted towards branding strategies that focus on individual authenticity and identity.
For example, during BTS’s debut process and trainee days, their producer Pdogg and Bang Si Hyuk, the CEO of Big Hit Entertainment at the time, worked to enhance each member’s autonomy and creativity, allowing them to develop their artistic identity.
The fact that (G)I-DLE’s leader Soyeon came up with the concept of the group’s album herself, SEVENTEEN’s Woozi is credited as the main songwriter and composer for almost every song of the group, Stray Kids’ production team 3RACHA participated in writing and composing the entire album is a testament to the artistic creativity of contemporary idols.
However, the recent changes in the industry, highlighted by the SM acquisition, raise concerns. SM 3.0’s core strategy, IP diversification, involves a shift from the artist-centered 1st IP business model (album, music, performance, appearance) to the 2nd IP business model (MD, IP licensing, video, fan platform), which focuses on merchandise and licensing.
Merchandising has been a long-standing revenue strategy in the entertainment industry, but SM’s new strategy for improving artists’ IP management is vague. Idol scouting, debuting, and management as IP rely heavily on shareholder-centric decision-making based on profitability, which often discourages strong individuality for product diversification.
In a structure where the artist and the distributor have separate contracts, the company needs to obtain the artist’s overall permission for IP diversification and extend copyright through new contracts while paying the associated costs.
However, due to the nature of exclusive and 360-degree contracts, idols have little negotiation power. If the agency transitions and concentrates on the 2nd IP business model based on IP diversification and revenue strategy, it is evident that the revenue will increase.
Nonetheless, IP diversification can only strengthen the company’s control and domination over its idols. The partnership between HYBE and SM’s platforms is expected to have a significant impact on the industry.
Recently, SM artists entered Weverse, and HYBE announced that they would add a private chat function to Weverse, called Weverse DM.
Strategic partnerships between HYBE and SM are expected to result in quantitative increases in domination through functional platform integration or equity exchange. Fandoms may enjoy various forms of convenience and enjoyment, but the platform-centered fandom communication may ultimately lead to social function limitations of K-pop fandoms.
Despite the global music market’s transformation into a subscription-based streaming service, the K-pop industry, which has successfully transitioned from a music-centered to an artist-centered market structure, has been able to maintain the value of physical albums as a purchase item.
Buying goods to support favorite artists or to participate in events provides K-pop fans a new purchasing experience. However, there are also side effects, such as overt marketing that encourages excessive purchases or pricing goods that do not match their quality.
There is ongoing discussion about the sustainability of the K-pop industry. However, what sustainable management means is often overlooked.
It’s necessary to consider how we perceive idols as artists and how we perceive fans. The K-pop industry must consider a more inclusive and sustainable ecosystem for idols by recognizing and resolving strategic risks of shareholder-centered capitalism, identity issues for idols, and the role of fandom.
Brand and image management for idols are shifting toward shareholder value, which cannot be viewed solely in a positive light.
The platformized community of entertainment companies makes it even more difficult for fans to enter and exit, forcing both artists and fans to remain in passive roles.
While it may be too idealistic, true sustainable growth for K-pop can be achieved through decentralization into a domestic-based small and medium-sized ecosystem and the deconstruction based on self-sustaining communities of fandom.