Members of K-pop groups enjoy their glory days when they are young; but after a group disbands, the stars, still in their 20s or 30s, are left to face the "real world" out of the spotlight.
This is the situation that almost all K-pop stars have to deal with after "careers" lasting just a few years. According to the Fair Trade Commission, seven years is the longest single contract period between a management company and a singer. After that, the two have to renew it to maintain a business relationship, but more often than not, they choose not to.
The reasons vary. The groups may not be profitable enough or one of the members may want to pursue their personal dreams. Even some of the most popular girl groups of their times, such as Sistar, Girls' Day and 2NE1, were not exceptions to the "seven-year curse."
After the groups' disbandment, many stars ― including B.A.P's Youngjae, 4Minute's HyunA, 2NE1's CL and Sistar's Hyolyn ― carry on solo careers or, in some cases, turn to acting as did Sistar's Bora and Wonder Girls' Sohee.
"All singers are different: they have various skill sets and thoughts about what they want to do. But in general, it is safer for them to forge singing or acting careers because they understand the industries," critic Jung Min-jae, who writes for music magazine IZM, told The Korea Times.
Nevertheless, an increasing number of stars explore other options such as opening and operating their own YouTube channels. Some turn themselves into businesspeople.
In recent years, many singers who already have star power have opened YouTube channels, where they try to build their future.
Mir or Bang Cheol-yong of boy band MBLAQ, which de facto disbanded in 2015 after its 2009 debut, is one of them.
In 2017, Mir opened his channel "Mir Bang," in which he share content about his personal life. After his channel became popular with laugh-provoking videos featuring his family members, he renamed the channel as "Bang Family" and has focused on creating such content. Today it boasts more than 640,000 subscribers.
Way, formerly of now-defunct girl group Crayon Pop, has also turned herself into a YouTube star.
Way, who launched her channel in 2017, mostly unfolds the behind-the-scene stories of K-pop girl groups. She has touched on various subjects ranging from the hardships suffered by female K-pop stars to beauty tips. So far, more than 290,000 people have signed up for her channel.
Many other stars including MBLAQ's G.O have also been active on the platform.
"Once K-pop stars are forced to climb down from the top, they lose platforms to communicate with their fans," pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik said. "For them, YouTube is a platform where they can continue to interact with them and remain stars."
But it does not come without risk.
"They are not under any system on YouTube. Without a company's system or management, it can be challenging to maintain the quality of their content. Also, they can run out of ideas or just burn out."
Some singers like Yoobin, the member of disbanded K-pop girl group Wonder Girls, have run their own businesses. Debuted in 2007, the band became a huge success, but broke up in 2017.
After the disbandment, Yoobin set up management company rrr ("real recognize real") Entertainment in February, saying she wanted to challenge herself as a CEO and an artist. Her former colleague Hyerim joined her in March.
Some stars are more "resilient" than others even as they approach their late 30s. K-pop acts TVXQ and Super Junior have 17 and 15 years of singing experience under their belt, respectively, but they still enjoy immense popularity across the world.
Critic Jung offers possible rationales behind their lingering star power.
"K-pop singers today interact with their fans and the public more frequently through social media and various TV channels, than ever before," he said. "They also release albums more frequently ― usually in the form of EPs ― because their management companies want to make the most of them within seven years and keep them in the spotlight.
"On top of that, groups like Super Junior have a solid international fan base, which does not die down easily."
Experts say stars should make long-term plans instead of focusing on "how to make money now."
"I think stars should take a two-track approach," critic Kim said. "They, like everyone else, will go through ups and downs. They need long-term goals and plans.
"Maybe they can try operating music-related business and make a wise use of their talent and experience. I believe management companies, which train aspiring singers from childhood, should be more responsible for educating them and helping them plan their lives after their music careers."
Some say management companies should not be held responsible for what happens to stars after their contracts end. But Jung thinks, at least during the contract period, companies should help their stars grow as musicians so that, if they want, the stars can continue their careers in the industry later on.
"Agencies need to offer musical support to such singers ― after a group's popularity declines, the agencies usually don't give them any good songs or connect them with good songwriters," he said.
source: The Korea Times