Former MADTOWN member H.O, who since MADTOWN’s disbandment turned to BJing on AfreecaTV, shared the reality he faced in the past as a K-Pop idol.
MADTOWN disbanded in November 2017.
So other than the intense training, never-ending schedules, and fierce competition, what is hard in an idol’s life? H.O began by stating, “When idols debut, they start with a huge debt.”
“Agencies charge the debuting group for everything from music production, video production, album production to clothing and dining costs. It costs a minimum 500 million KRW (approx. $500K USD) to produce a group. If there are seven members, each member would owe around $70,000 as soon as they debut. The members will start profiting only after the debt has been paid off.”
H.O added that it is impossible for a K-Pop group to pay off $500,000 at the end of the promotion for its first album, meaning the members can’t make any money for a while even after debut.
“Music programs on TV don’t pay much. That’s only for exposure. Outside performances, concerts, overseas stages, and album sales are what brings in money. But it is very hard to pay off $500K with those. If a group doesn’t become too popular, the members end up sitting on a pile of debt.” — H.O
In an interview, an idol-training entertainment agency director stated, “If a group makes it big, the money rolls in. But in my experience, that is less likely than winning the lottery.”
Another former idol Siwan from group TwiLight, which also disbanded after a year of promotions, explained the same on his YouTube channel.
“Only after the group has paid off all the agency’s investment costs, the agency and the group members can make profit… Even the rookiest groups get paid at least $3,000 to perform somewhere. So to pay off $500K, the group has to endure a lethal schedule.”
It is a known K-Pop culture for agencies to take their investment costs back first before paying the idols. Several K-Pop groups, like EXID, AOA, and INFINITE have mentioned not making any money because of this.
“We haven’t made any money yet because we are still paying off our costs.” — Solji
For some groups, this payment system leads to a lawsuit against the entertainment agency. ZE:A and B.A.P are some of the few who have fought the legal battle for their hard earned money.
Reportedly, not all entertainment agencies work this way. The Big 3 (SM, YG, and JYP Entertainment agencies) do not require the idols to pay back for training. A former SM Entertainment manager Kim Seok Hyun stated in an interview, “SM does not charge training costs.”
“SM idols have to pay off debts as soon as they debut as well, but the agency does not charge all of the training costs. SM thinks of investments as investments and does not require the trainees to pay that back. Girls’ Generation type of groups are able to make profit within the first year of debuting.”
Over 400 idol groups debuted in the past decade. Only a few of them have survived and even less have begun making actual money. Like Variety called it, K-Pop is the real life “Hunger Games”.