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K-pop groups hamstrung by contracts

2011/01/20 | 832 views | Permalink | Source

By Park Si-soo

The revolt against their management agency by three members of the popular K-pop girl group Kara laid bare once again the vulnerability of idol groups tied by what have been known as "slave-like contracts" to their agencies, analysts and industry officials said.

The latest dispute also underscores the lack of guidelines governing contracts in the Korean showbiz industry although the government has unveiled a series of steps to improve what they called unfair contracts.

The three members - Han Seung-yeon, Nicole Jung and Kang Ji-young - terminated their contract with their agency on Wednesday, claiming that their mutual trust with the agency, DSP Entertainment, had been broken for what they called the amateurish and coercive management of the agency.

Some insiders saw it as a tug-of-war the estranged members initiated to amend contract terms to get a bigger portion of the agency's profit with the band's popularity soaring in Japan.

Music critic Lim Jin-mo saw the latest disputes as growing pains the Korean music industry must sustain to see better market conditions.

"With teenage bands dominating the pop market, such a dispute is unavoidable", Lim told The Korea Times, Thursday. "The Korean music industry is still young in managing entertainers".

The dispute involving three Kara members shows little sign of letting up. A lawyer representing the three said they had been deeply distressed by the agency's abuse of power to have them engaged in unwanted performances at home and abroad to make money.

The lawyer also claimed the agency forced them to sign a separate contract written in Japanese without explanation to widen their activities in Japan.

DSP denied the allegations against it and said it would settle the problem through dialogue. It's still unclear what led them to turn their backs on the agency, which has stood behind them for years to make their debut in Korea in 2007 and Japan last year.

Negative spin on 'hallyu'

No matter what the reason may be, critics believe, the latest dispute will put a negative spin on the growing influence of Korean songs, films and other cultural products in Asians countries, including Japan and China - a trend called the Korean Wave or "hallyu".

Some Korean pop bands have disbanded at the height of their stardom due to controversial hiring terms - mostly regarding profit sharing and contract period.

The five-member boy band TVXQ split into two groups after three of them - Park Yoo-chun, Xiah and Kim Jae-joong - rose up against their agency, SM Entertainment, citing what they called a life-long slave contract and murky profit sharing.

They filed a suit against SM to invalidate the term that puts them under the agency's control for as long as 13 years. With the litigation underway, the three recently formed another band, named JYJ, and began to perform.

Another band hit by an unfair contract is Super Junior. In December 2009, a Chinese member of the 13-member boy band filed a suit against its management agency, SM, demanding his exclusive contract with the agency for 13 years be terminated. The Chinese member, Hankyung, won the lawsuit and now performs as a singer in China.

In August last year, the Supreme Court set a legal binding guideline on long-term contracts between entertainers and their agencies.
The court ruled a contract putting an entertainer under control for more than 10 years is invalid, terminating the 10-year contract of Woo Sung-hyun, a member of popular boy band U-Kiss.

A series of disputes of this kind led to the country's fair trade watchdog drawing up guidelines for entertainer-agency contracts, which set the maximum contract period at seven years. The watchdog also bans excessive intervention into private lives of employees.

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