K-Pop Audition Shows Produce Big Results, But Cause Concerns Over Industry's Future

Wanna One, 2017
Courtesy of Lippin Group

Wanna One performs onstage at KCON 2017 Concert at Staples Center on Aug. 20, 2017 in Los Angeles.

First I.O.I dominated as the rookie K-pop group to watch in 2016, and now their successors Wanna One have been doing much of the same. Both temporary acts formed by the Korean reality show Produce 101, the pair is not only a symbol of success and popularity in the fast-paced K-pop world, but also a nod at a directional shift that is shaking up the Korean music industry. 

With three current on-air shows -- The Unit, which seeks to revive the careers of “failed” K-pop stars; Mix Nine, an audition show produced by YG Entertainment (BIGBANG, Blackpink) featuring K-pop idols from other companies; Stray Kids, a show featuring JYP Entertainment (TWICE, GOT7) focusing on that labels’ trainees -- coming on the heels of the immensely successful two seasons of Produce 101 to produce their own idol groups, there has never been more interest in Korean star search programs from Korean audiences, who get to play a role in crafting what they hope will be the next big K-pop group, and overseas K-pop fans, who get to cheer on from afar.

But even though many K-pop-star hopefuls are joining the shows with the aim of getting their name out there and make it big, the influx of TV programs are causing discontent in the industry as television networks move into the playing field to act as content producers just as much as purveyors.

While Mix Nine and Stray Kids are co-productions with entertainment companies, Mnet’s Produce 101 and KBS’ The Unit are causing upset to Korea’s music scene with industry trade groups joining together to protest this rise in audition programs, which they say may lead to monopolies. Last Sunday (Nov. 5), Yonhap’s Chang Dong-woo reported that a joint statement from the Korea Management Federation, the Korea Music Content Industry Association, and the Korea Entertainment Producer’s Association expressed concern that television networks continuing to produce shows like this could “lead to the withering of the music industry” due to monopoly-like control of new talent, leaving little room for music labels and agencies.

Singing competitions are nothing new in South Korea, but what has changed and spurred the response is the way profits are being divided. In the past, shows typically resulted in stars getting a contract with a specific label, shining light on talent but not becoming talent producers. Now, with the likes of Produce 101 and The Unit, television networks are shifting their business model to become co-producers and raking in profit that typically trickled down to artists.

“Even in 2017, network television is arguably still the single greatest driving force in South Korean pop culture -- so it's almost surprising that it took this long for the big TV stations to realize they could concoct top K-pop groups themselves,” Seoul-based music critic Jakob Dorof told Billboard. “Shows like Superstar K and K-Pop Star [two other popular Korean audition programs] have been minting successful careers for years, but those kinds of shows typically discover singer-songwriter types that a TV network wouldn't know how to develop. With aspiring pop idols, it's a lot simpler: their agencies have already invested all the cost and effort of training them.”

The difference, according to Dorof, is that singer-songwriters need to mature following their discovery on the former shows and so are typically signed to a label upon being declared winner, while the idol-based shows feature contestants who have typically already been prepped for their careers by entertainment companies and are ready to debut on the spot.

“The TV network effectively takes control of the most popular idols for a large chunk of their commercial prime. So it makes a lot of sense that some of those talent agencies are beginning to feel like that's maybe not such a great deal,” Dorof says.

According to Yonhap, the last season of Produce 101 saw CJ E&M, which owns and operates Mnet, get 25 percent of profits from the activities surrounding the winning team Wanna One, with YMC Entertainment, the company that manages the band’s activities until their contract ends at the end of next year, getting another 25 percent. The remainder is split among the 11 band members of Wanna One and their individual management companies, which, when evenly split, means just a little over 4.5 percent of profits to each man and his label.

But with over 10 million votes tallied during the finale of this year’s Produce 101 -- the equivalent to one-fifth of South Korea’s population partaking in voting -- it’s hard to deny that Korean audiences are more than happy to watch these sort of shows, while international K-pop fans are also showing support to them: Wanna One’s response at their first stateside appearance at KCON 2017 LA had event organizers on the brink of shutting down events featuring the band due to security concerns from fervent fans attempting to get close to the boy band. They’re also impressive regarding album sales: their first EP, 1X1=1 (To Be One), which debuted on the World Album Chart at No. 3, sold over 762,000 copies. It was the first time since the ‘90s any K-pop boy band achieved that sort of sales with a debut album.

“Another factor here, I think, is bitterness,” says Dorof, referring to the music industry’s growing dissent. ”It takes any one agency years of training and tons of financial investment to debut a group and even stand a chance of ever making a profit. Meanwhile, it takes a TV station a couple of months -- during which they're not investing, but in fact making a fortune in advertising -- to assemble a group like Wanna One. No matter how great the exposure is for the individual members, their parent agencies are probably going to have second thoughts about whether that's an industry trend they want to enable.”

These sort of television shows aren’t just impacting the careers and companies behind the winners; Produce breathed new life into K-pop as a whole by enabling many new faces to build recognition and followings simultaneously. The second season of Produce 101 saw Nu’Est’s career get a second wind, while both seasons of the show saw solo and groups acts emerge featuring popular contestants. The other shows currently airing will likely see similar successes.

As a quick, financially sound way for television networks to produce new acts and launch the careers of K-pop idols, all the while bringing in millions of viewers and advertising revenue, the audition show trend has reached new heights in 2017 and will likely continue into 2018, with another season of Produce 101 already in the works. What the extended ramifications are on the Korean music industry remain to be seen, but it’s unlikely that the audition competition show trend will disappear anytime soon.