Take four to five good looking group of either males or females, train them in singing and dancing from a young age till they reach their late teens/early twenties then debut them to awaiting fans and there is the formula to creating the perfect idol group.
The idol industry within South Korea and Japan have been using this formula for many years now, it began during the 1970’s but saw its ‘boom’ during the 80’s which was known as the ‘Golden Age of Idols in Japan’. During the 90’s South Korea saw its ‘boom’ while agencies in Japan began to set up a system of rotating idols which lead to Idols increasing popularity due to the start of the internet in the early 2000’s. ‘Idol’ music is mainly found within the pop genre and is seen as popular culture due to its catchy lyrics and mainstream attention. Depending on the gender, the idol groups have a range of ages and genders that they’re targeted towards; usually the male groups are aimed at females between the ages of 13-20’s and female groups are aimed at teenage girls and controversially older men. The ages of the members in the group range from the ages of 13-24 and many groups have ‘fresh’ looks that give the idols the identity of being innocent and pure.
This ‘cookie-cutter’ formula has lead to companies producing countless groups which has lead to the idols having a strong force throughout Asia and giving the companies who create these groups power through taking over the charts and even gaining attention overseas through the use of technology. For example G-Dragon, who is the leader of idol group Big Bang, has 7.4million followers on Instagram, compared to Zayne Malik of one direction who has 5.8million who is known to have been in one of the most popular boy band in the world at the moment. Even though at the start many did not see Idols as ‘professional’ singers in the music industry, many groups are proving this stereotype to be wrong by gaining attention for their skills in singing and even in some cases rejecting the ‘idol’ identity completely. However, it has been argued that the companies that compose these idol groups create a brand identity with each group rather than ‘authentic’ music and many companies have been accused of making the idols comply to ‘slave contracts’ which has caused much controversy due to their harsh terms, poor treatment and conditions towards the idols; there is even in some extreme cases of idols being forced to do explicit sexual acts by those in power within the companies.
So, what is an idol? An idol is someone who is usually part of an idol group which is formed by a group of females or males, in rare cases both, who are ‘incredibly young, good-looking, and able to carry a melodramatic note’. Idols are both valued and owned by the public, meaning that they have to keep up to their ‘flawless’ identity. The representation of idols can vary depending on what their company decides their groups ‘theme’ to be but the general representation is that they are supposed to be innocent, inexperienced youths that keep to the rules and regulations of the company and Law. Similar to Goffman’s (1956) theory of Dramaturgical Performance, many of the idols create a persona for themselves to use during their time in the public eye and to meet their fan’s expectations of them. As Goffman explains through his theory, many idols live out what can be seen as a performance to maintain the image that is held by their fans whether it is in real life or online; even though this is a cynical version of themselves. One of the rules the companies usually have for their idols is that they are not allowed to date. Due to their image of being innocent and pure, it means they are not to be seen in any relationship or be spotted in any situation that can be conceived as sexual or romantic as it would also breaks their fan’s ‘fantasy’ of the idols only caring and loving the fans.
If the idols do break these rules it can result in a crucial end to their career as an idol; an example of this is idol group AKB48’s member Minami Minegishi (age 20), during 2013 she was caught leaving her boyfriend’s apartment after staying for the night. The media reported the incident and with concrete evidence that she was indeed dating him, it meant the company could not back her up which resulted in her going against the company’s rules of no dating. Minegishi then uploaded a video of her apologising to her fans and shaved her head as a sign of how sincere she was while stating ‘I don’t believe just doing this means I can be forgiven for what I did…If it is possible, I wish from the bottom of my heart to stay in the band. Everything I did is entirely my fault. I am so sorry’. Due to her actions the company demoted her back to a trainee status even though she has been in the band since it was established in 2005, even some fans believed the punishment was too harsh and she didn’t need to go as far as she did for being discovered that she was dating.
The idol industry creates millions in terms of sales and revenue; Japan’s idol industry grown to an impressive 800 million USD market in 2013, giving it a 10% growth rate. The way the Japanese idol industry gains such growth is through how they market their products and the idol themselves. The key to this growth?
CDs. In 2010 japan surpassed America as the most profitable CD package business with $4.1 billion USD in revenue then surpassed them again in 2012 but this time in overall music sales with $4.3 billion USD in revenue. The idol industry uses packaging techniques to raise their sales and has proved effective due to that in 52% of package sales in 2012 came from CD singles and 80% of those sales were from both male and female idol groups.
What many idol CD’s include within their packages is extra merchandise for the fans, creating value which will make them want to buy more of the single album, for example by having photo-books, wallet sized pictures of a single member in each album and even tickets to events such as hand-shaking, performances and photo sessions where the fans get to interact with their favourite idols. Another marketing tactic by the companies to boost CD sales is to have multiple members in one group which is most commonly found within female idol groups. An example of this is the most female idol group in Japan AKB48; the group has over 130 female members who are put into smaller groups. The groups rotate on a regular basis but only a certain girls will have the main attention, the company uses this to gain sales by making fans vote for their favourite members so that at the end of the year the list of popular to least popular is created. How do you vote? By buying the CDs. Each Cd the fan buys equals one vote so when a fan wants their favourite member to be first they continuously buy multiples of the albums just so they can have their favourite member at the top. This method has shown major results with AKB48 raking in over $128 million sales in 2013 and as of December 2015 they have sold over 41 million records which also includes over 36 million singles. However, even though Japan has such a huge market within their country, their international support from western fans is still small compared to South Korea.
South Korea’s idol industry is gaining mass amounts of attention due to their focus on trying to grab the western market, for example K-Pop group Big Bang earned $71 million in 2014 which was only $4 million behind One Direction during the same year. Stromae, a Belgium artist, explained that ‘the English speaking audience is less used to listening to non-English music’ however he argues that language should not matter nor is it important when it comes to music “Nobody understands English music [in Belgium], but everybody listens to English music, so we can understand the feeling, understand the groove, and it’s enough actually to dance on it or to feel.”, Freidman15 (1999) suggests that ‘people are still attached to their culture, their language and a place called home’ which highlights that many English speakers have adapted a mind-set that because their language has power and value throughout the world, they do not need to learn or understand other languages.
Due to westernization many countries like the USA have a hegemonic view that ‘west is best’ compared to any other culture so they force their culture onto others through the use of popular culture, however when other cultures try to emerge through it is not as successful. Yet with the use of technology there has been a rise in other ‘world’ music, Korean Pop music has seen a rise in many countries outside of Asia due to the music being accessible around the world through sites like YouTube, groups such as Big Bang had concerts in the West Coast of America which was attended over 30,000 fans. Scooter Braun suggests that the reason K-Pop is as successful as it is today due to their ‘music videos, with unique and vibrant visuals and even a bit of an exoticness to them’ resulting in attracting international viewers through the aesthetics rather than the lyrics themselves, this is highlighted further by the fact that K-Pop streams are now 90% more streamed outside of Korea and mainly in North America. The rise of K-pop or ‘Hallyu’ can be argued as a sign of other cultures and countries fighting back against the hegemonic view, James Lull (2007) suggests that ‘local cultures stubbornly persist and are often strengthened through their opposition to the influence of Westernisation’. This rise in another culture’s music gaining popularity can be seen as threat to the power of hegemonic, dominating countries such as America who are known to use their popular culture to imply their power and culture in other countries by making them aspire to be like them.
So overall, by creating idol groups in such a controlled manner it allows companies to have a tighter grip on what the idol image should be and can understand what the market wants. This supports the companies in making an endless cycle of idols using the same system but with different faces yet still with the same look. By creating the fantasy of the perfect person that the consumer can look up to and desire, it gives the companies power as it makes the consumer easier to manipulate through marketing tactics such as including chances to have one to one contact with the idols and having multiple members that the fans can have their favourite type in the group which creates multiple sells for the company. Also with the idol industry slowly taking over the Western world which challenges the hegemonic idea of ‘west is best’, there is no reason for the companies to think about changing this system that has been generating millions for years; so maybe the ‘cookie-cutter’ idol is the perfect music product in the consumerist society we live in today.
list of resources used:
Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999
Ervin Goffman, The presentation of self in everyday life, 1956
James Lull, Culture on Demand, 2007
Oricon 2013 Yearly Charts: Artist Total Sales, Tokyohive, December 16, 2013
January 1st 2016 Instagram Usernames – @xxxibgdrgn and @zayn