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[Uniquely Korean] K-pop trainees’ hard-knock life

March 26, 2014 - 21:03 By Korea Herald
It is certainly no secret in Korea that the training process to debut as a K-pop star is no quick or simple venture. Often referred to as music “boot camp,” K-pop training among some of the nation’s biggest talent agencies is intense, to say the least. And with only a fraction of trainees able to become K-pop stars, the atmosphere among trainees can be fiercely competitive and cutthroat.

Although other nations’ talent agencies play a role in “grooming” acts to make it big in the entertainment industry, Korea companies are known for breeding their own talent and selecting an act’s concept, image and musical vision. This process more often than not encompasses rigorous training for years in order to create the most ideal “idol” stars. The local music scene refers to many popular K-pop stars as idols or idol groups, playing off the notion that they are stars fans should “worship.”

On top of attending school, typical young K-pop trainees live in dormitories provided by the agency and are subjected to daily training from morning until the late hours of the night. This includes vocal, dance and acting lessons as well as physical training and routine weight inspections. Some companies are even known to ban trainees from having any kind of romantic relationships during their training period. And for those international trainees who cannot speak Korean, language courses are also a requirement.

Signing to train with an agency offers zero guarantee of a debut, no matter how many years of dedicated training are completed. Although many aspiring entertainers typically sign contracts for two or more years, agencies reserve the right to drop trainees at any given time and opt out from renewing their contracts.

Many ex-K-pop-trainees have shared their experiences online through various blog postings such as “Confessions of an EX-SM Trainee.” In a more than 2,500-word post, an ex-trainee who chose to remain anonymous revealed his varied experiences after years with the country’s biggest entertainment agency, SM Entertainment. 
Winner. (YG Entertainment)

“I trained for 5 years (sadly) and I never got to debut,” he wrote. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t train.”

He went on to state that although the agency did not control his practice routine, it was a well-known fact among trainees that those who didn’t work hard every day would never get the chance to debut.

A former Korean-American ex-YG trainee also described his two years at YG Entertainment before opting to return to the States after his contract expired.

“We had all begun to work extremely hard. Education turned out to be our last priority and making an impression on the reps, staff and CEO was (the) first priority,” he wrote. “This was a terrible time for me. Friends that I had made were slowly turning to rivals.”

After debuting, many K-pop stars often talk about the hardships and sleepless nights they endured during their training period. Famous idol stars such as Jo-kwon of 2AM revealed that he had trained with JYP Entertainment for seven years before making his debut.

The general public seems to take quite an interest in seeing what some K-pop stars go through in order to make it in the business. Talent agency YG Entertainment gave audiences a taste through its reality TV program showing how its trainees competed for a spot as members in the agency’s boy band Big Bang ― now one of the biggest names in the K-pop industry.

YG aired a similar reality TV survival program late last year on its latest boy band, Winner. The show, “WIN: Who Is Next?” consisted of weekly episodes showing two rival groups going head-to-head in a number of song battles and dance challenges in a winner-takes-all competition. The two groups managed to garner a large following as many viewers grew emotionally attached after witnessing their dedication, determination, sleepless nights, tears and even injuries experienced by the aspiring artists as they struggled to compete for the grand prize ― making their debut.

By Julie Jackson (juliejackson@