Three members of TVXQ, Xiah, Micky and Hero, stirred the nation when they decided to take legal action against their entertainment agency SM Entertainment. From left, Xiah, Micky, Hero, Max and U-Know.
With Korean pop group TVXQ embroiled in legal action against its agency, SM Entertainment, over an allegedly unfair contract, fans and agencies alike are focusing attention on the validity of so-called "slave contracts." Contracts are dubbed as such for reported disadvantaging the stars and would-be stars who enter into them with management agencies.
These excessively binding contracts came into focus when actress Jang Ja-yeon ended her life earlier this year amid allegations that she was threatened and forced to provide sexual favors by her former agent.
TVXQ brought yet another perspective to ongoing speculations regarding unfair practices carried out by both large- and mid-sized entertainment agencies here.
According to the legal document filed by three members of the group ― Micky, Xiah and Hero ― the agency prohibited their freedom as artists by claiming that the group's and members' activities belonged to the agency, requiring them to follow the agency's demands to appear at certain performances and broadcasts, and requiring them to stay under the agency's wing for 13 years.
Experts say that this type of contract is standard in Korea's entertainment industry. A newcomer's path to stardom depends highly on local agencies' investments, unlike in the United States, where up-and-coming artists often sign deals with agencies after proving their talents at bars and small theaters on their own.
"From top stars like the late actress Choi Jin-shil and singer Uhm Jung-hwa, celebrities were 'made' into stars by their agents and agencies. These young artists need to be 'invested in' for at least 10 years," said Choi Jung-han, a lawyer and former head of the Korea Entertainment Law Society.
The agencies, naturally, extend contracts for more than 10 years to collect investments in the future. Of course, this only applies to successful cases.
Choi explained that although agencies spend their time and money investing in several groups and aspiring talents, only a few of those clients ever taste success. This leads to contracts that trap successful stars into what is now referred to a "slave contract."
"If the case with TVXQ and SM does not settle down in a proper way, the same incidents will continue again and again. We must revise contract terms regarding the contract periods and profit distribution," Kim Won-chan, chairman of the Korea Singers Association, said during a radio interview last week.
Kim pointed out that although SM Entertainment claimed that they offered 11 billion won to the members, the fairness of the payment amount should be questioned, considering the overall profit the agency has received over the past years.
"There must be separate regulations detailing the maximum and minimum amounts in profit distribution," he said.
The Fair Trade Commission posted a recommendation notice regarding the issue last month, setting forth a standard contract for artists and agencies.
"The commission did release the notice as a standard contract, but this does not have any legal effect, which is why many agencies and artists are quarreling about the actual practice of it," culture critic Kim Sung-soo said.
Kim added that the overall atmosphere must change to scrap such "slave contracts" and messy legal disputes.
"This type of discontent appears because Korea focuses on only a number of stars. Agencies have no choice but to rely on those who are popular and successful. In the case of major entertainment agencies, newcomers have no choice to follow their contracts to become famous. We have to change the overall system so that the entertainment business can focus on a larger and longer perspective and nourish various types of artists," he said.
Meanwhile, the group is expected to follow through with their scheduled performances in Japan. Avex, the group's agency in Japan, said last week on its official Web site, "We will support TVXQ's Japan activities to the full. We expect fans to continue to root for TVXQ," according to Yonhap News.
"We have received assurances that both sides don't want the group to disband. This is interpreted as meaning that SM and the three TVXQ members will go ahead with their scheduled performances in Japan," Avex said.
The K-pop group will sing in Tokyo on Aug. 22 and 23 and Osaka on Aug. 29 and 30.
The five-member boy band will also appear on "Music Japan," NHK's music program next month.