a beginner’s guide to k-pop

What are subunits? Is dating against the rules? Do groups write their own songs? Here’s everything you need to know about your new fave music industry!

New to K-pop? It might seem like a whole new world and, in many respects, it is. It’s reflective of Korean culture, after all, and there’s a lot to learn and understand – from cultural norms to the language. But in other ways, K-pop isn’t that different to the western pop acts that’ve been a huge part of our playlists over the years. For the uninitiated to the merely curious, these are the big questions you need to know the answers to if you’re planning to climb aboard the wild ride that is Korean pop music.


How do you define K-pop?
K-pop isn’t a genre. It’s an industry that’s primarily associated with boy bands and girl groups (although there are a number of soloists, too) where you’ll find all kinds of music being produced; from lush ballads to hip-hop tracks. K-pop has also long been known for blending varying genres into one song, giving it an intricate, chameleon-like appeal and an experimental nature that’s attracted many foreign songwriters to pen for it, particularly the Swedes.

What’s an idol?
An idol is a performer who has been trained by a K-pop agency and debuted as a member of a group (or a soloist). They’re expected to be role models, so you won’t see them stumbling out of clubs at 6am. Because of this strict training and squeaky clean image, there's a misconception that idols are manufactured puppets with little artistic merit.

Why are there so many members in some idol groups?
The more members there are, the more chance someone will find a member appealing and join the fandom. The average for a group is 7 or 8 members, but big groups include LOONA (12), Seventeen (13), EXO (12, but currently 9), IZ*ONE (12), WJSN (12), The Boyz (12). NCT have 21 members who split are across several subunits.

What even is a subunit?
A subunit is a unit within a group and usually consists of 2-5 of the members. Sometimes subunits are official side projects (VIXX LR, EXO-CBX, Girls’ Generation-OH!GG). Others are set up as permanent fixtures within the group’s activities and simply named after the skill involved i.e. a rap unit, a vocal unit, a dance/performance unit. On group albums, these permanent subunits can have a track each that showcases their style. NCT, which stands for Neo Culture Technology, is the umbrella name for a number of subunits – NCT Dream, NCT U, NCT 127 and WayV (their China-focused unit operating separately to NCT) – which are fully fledged groups with a specific style and sound. Basically, it’s a complicated set up and explaining it tends to look like this, and I don’t have enough space to lay it all out. Wikipedia is your friend.


How do these members become part of a group?
Kids audition in their thousands for agencies who act as management and record labels. Pass the auditions and you become a trainee, but with no guarantee of debuting. Trainees vary in age – some are in primary school, others in high school. If a trainee isn’t happy at their agency or aren’t picked to debut, they can leave and audition for another agency.

Why are they trainees for different lengths of time?
Some trainees are naturally gifted and don’t need long periods of training. Most will have a single talent that not only needs intensive work but they also need to learn to be all-rounders. Dancers need to learn to hold a tune. Singers learn how to dance. Some trainees are scouted purely for their looks as every idol group has a “visual” – the member with the most aesthetically pleasing or popular face – and they’ll have to train especially hard if they only have basic performance abilities.

What does their training look like?
Because of their young ages, they have to attend school. While their schoolmates head home or to extra tuition, trainees head to voice and dance lessons. They’ll also learn a second or third language (Chinese, Japanese and English are the main choices). There are plenty of stories of trainees spending up to 20 hours a day practising; after their trainers depart, they’ll keep practising or studying through the night.


Do groups ever just form themselves?
Idol groups are carefully handpicked by agency executives. A rare exception is Stray Kids, the 12 member boy group under JYP Entertainment, whose leader, Bang Chan, was given the opportunity to pick his members.

Why do members leave and get replaced?
There can be a range of reasons for leaving – contract disputes, illness or injury are common. Sometimes a member is forced to leave, usually due to a scandal, such as Seungri of Big Bang, who was involved in the Burning Sun club crackdown that saw him faced with charges of embezzlement and prostitution procurement. Or Kangin of Super Junior, who’d had so many run-ins with the law that the group’s own fandom (known as ELF) demanded he leave. However, the more popular or long-established the group, the less likely a leaving member will be replaced.

How are scandals dealt with?
Scandals range from small to major incidents. Drugs cause huge outrage, since even weed is illegal in Korea. Relationships land idols in hot water with their fandoms. Avoiding military service will tarnish your reputation irreparably. Sometimes the ‘scandal’ can seem overblown to westerners – an idol standing on an awards stage with their hands in their pockets (accusations of bad manners/arrogance) or Irene of Red Velvet sharing that she’d read the feminist novel, Kim Ji Young, Born 1982, which caused her male fans to start burning her photocards. Looking at them contextually, however, provides insight into South Korea’s social structures.


Are idols allowed to date?
Many idols are given dating bans for around two years as they build a following, which results in very strong bonds between idol and fan. This can spill over into possessive territory – the fan believing the idol owes them everything or that the idol could be their boyfriend or girlfriend – which is encouraged by the agencies to establish loyalty. It forces idols to keep their relationships secret, but when they’re revealed, usually by a tabloid, it can potentially lead to a fandom meltdown and affect the idol’s career.

How come even K-pop stars have to do military service?
Military service is compulsory for all Korea-born men. They must enlist by age 28 and serve for two years, although this is being reduced to 18 months. Groups can stagger their members enlistment or all go together, but those not serving tend to release work or branch into other areas, such as acting.

Fans can be pretty obsessive, right?
Yes. Known as ‘sasaengs’, obsessive fans can go as far as trailing idols 24/7 and breaking into hotel rooms and idol’s homes. JYJ’s Jaejoong has woken to find them in his bedroom, watching him sleep. They bribe telephone and airline companies (or have relatives working there) for numbers and flight details. There are also anti-fans, whose actions range from starting harmful rumours on social media to the case of TVXQ’s Yunho, who was poisoned by an anti-fan with a super glue-laced drink.


Who are netizens?
They are ‘citizens of the internet’. Netizens are outspoken keyboard warriors and/or those who spend a lot of time in forums, comments sections and chatrooms.

How long do most K-pop careers last for?
Most groups sign seven year contracts, and while there are success stories who continue performing beyond that timeframe, the bulk of groups don’t make it that far. They either fail to rise or they have a smaller fandom that sputters out. They stay contracted although their activities decline and are no longer heard of until news of their official disbandment. The worst case scenario is groups who have one or two singles before their (oft small and struggling) company decides they’re a money pit and quietly disband them.

Who are the Big 3 record labels in K-pop?
The Big 3 is a term given to SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment, who turned their small agencies into multinational corporations over the past 20+ years. JYP is valued at US$787.79 million, SM at US$1.36 billion and YG at US$491.95 million. Big Hit Entertainment, who created BTS, has been valued at over US$1.6 billion, which, depending on who you speak to, should either kick YG out of the Big 3 or create a new term, the Big 4.

Why do groups releasing albums in multiple languages?
K-pop was created to be exported. South Korea is a small market and K-pop relies on international fans to drive the level of aforementioned profit. Japan and China have been lucrative markets for decades and most groups re-record albums in Japanese, although not as many record in Chinese unless the group has Chinese members. English-language records have rocketed in popularity as K-pop looks to follow BTS through the door into the USA. Latin-America is another fast-growing market and there’s been a rise in groups collaborating with Latin artists/producers.


Do K-pop groups write their own songs?
Some do, some do not, but the number of self-producing idols is rapidly increasing. Earlier generation idol songwriters are G-Dragon (Big Bang), LE (EXID), Jonghyun (SHINee), Miryo (Brown Eyed Girls), Zico (Block B) and Jinyoung (B1A4). The newer generation include BTS, Woozi (Seventeen), 3RACHA (Chan, Jisung and Changbin of Stray Kids), Hui (Pentagon), Soyeon ((G)I-DLE), and B.I (iKON).

Who or what is a maknae?
The maknae is the group’s youngest member.

What qualities make someone a group leader?
The role of leader usually falls to one of the older members. The most simple explanation is that they’re tasked with representing them publicly (red carpets, press junkets, award shows, etc.), but each leader works differently. Some are the creative lynchpin or emotional glue, others are parental figures, some are demanding and others are gentle. But once you’ve seen a good leader in action, you understand the importance of their role in keeping all those different people and personalities functioning as a tight-knit, well-oiled group.

What is skinship?
The intimate interactions that idol groups display in public at fan signs, concerts, TV performances. It’s mostly affectionate and non-sexual (cheek kisses, hugs, holding hands, playing with another member’s hair and clothing), but can swing towards suggestive and sexual. Some idols seem to enjoy it, others openly dislike it, particularly the popular games played on variety shows, such as passing thin sheets of paper mouth to mouth.

Who comes up with fandom names?
There’s no rule here. Agency, group or fandom can come up with the name.

Is there much concern about mental health in the K-pop industry?
When an idol is in a promotion period (lasting from a couple of weeks to a couple of months), their schedules easily run to 18 hours a day. Add the stress of a hugely competitive industry, and people can struggle. While K-pop previously ignored the mental health of their idols (South Korea has a terrible track record in dealing with mental illness generally), there has been a sea-change of sorts, but there’s a huge amount of work still to be done. Idols are now more inclined to openly discuss their struggles or announce a hiatus due to stress, panic or anxiety. Agencies are, at least publicly, supporting their artists, while Park Jin Young, founder of JYP, announced last year that he had psychiatrists on the payroll to ensure the health of staff and artists.

Is there life after K-pop?
Being an idol is a gateway to acting for many – mostly in the historical and romantic TV and web dramas that Koreans absolutely love. Some work behind the scenes or become presenters, judges or guests on the variety/reality TV circuit. Others take their earnings (if they’ve made any after paying back all the debuting debt accrued, like how western labels recoup advances) and invest in property or buy a coffee shop or restaurant. They get married, have families, and lead lives out of the spotlight. Fame is fickle, no matter where you are, and K-pop, one of the fastest moving music industries in the world, is a precarious stage to stand upon.