K-Pop Group Under Threat

The South Korean pop group JYJ came onto the country’s fevered music scene in 2004 as three fifths of the then-pop group DBSK. They were soon to become what observers call by far the most successful and best-selling pop group that SM Entertainment has ever fielded, making countless millions of dollars for the management company in just five years.

However, today singers Kim Jaejoong, Park Yuchun and Kim Junsu remain entangled in a legal system that favors the powerful after the trio attempted to break a 13-year contract they had signed as underage teenagers at the start of their career. It was a contract that worked them to near exhaustion, paid them a fraction of monies earned, gave no accounting of royalties and left little room for renegotiation despite its decade-plus tenure. The group sued to be released and the court agreed. The contract has since been declared invalid by the court as being too heavily weighted in SM’s favor. But that wasn’t the end of it.

SM Entertainment is the biggest of South Korea’s big three talent management companies. It has faced widespread criticism that it relies on slave-like contracts that indenture performers to their agencies for at least a decade with no way out. Among others it has produced the groups Girls’ Generation, Kangta, BoA, Super Junior and many others. Observers, however, charge that SM operates almost like a cult.

And, as intensively as the company works to produce pop stars, their critics say that clearly it works equally hard to wreck the careers of those who attempt to escape their contracts. It is acknowledged that JYJ exemplifies that line of attack. The three themselves say they repeatedly asked the management company for royalty statements showing a true accounting of revenues they earned for the company and. after finally realizing fame and success, to simply be paid a more equitable share. Among other points of the now-invalidated contract they signed as teenagers was that they would have to pay the company US$400-480 million if they were to leave before it ended.

The invalidation of the contract doesn’t mean the end of their legal troubles. On Sept. 13, the Seoul District Court postponed indefinitely a reading of its verdict in the final case in favor of mandatory arbitration. South Korea’s broadcasting networks agreed that they would uphold the ban “until a verdict is reached in the lawsuit,” despite the fact that the court said two years previously that SME’s action was illegal and punishable by a fine. But as long as SM continues to stonewall, refusing to budge in negotiations on how much money it actually owes JYJ, there will be no end to the lawsuit. And the banning of JYJ will continue indefinitely.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Jan. 2011 in a story about SM Entertainment’s lollipop group Girls’ Generation, South Korea’s pop scene is like no other in the world. As carefully as Korea, Inc. manufactures cars, televisions, containerships and washing machines, it uses those same techniques to manufacture pop stars. It relies on intensive preparation and slavish attention to detail, a business model referred to as “cultural technology,” which has taken the country’s entertainers far beyond its borders even as the genre is dismissed by music critics of what seems a cookie cutter mold for its pop groups, leaving much to be desired musically and artistically.

When the three decided to strike out on their own despite SM’s threats, they left with little more than their clothes. The company actually owned everything they thought belonged to them, including the recording devices and tapes on which their new, unreleased compositions were written as well as all the gifts fans had given them.

SM, insiders say, draws on a wide range of entertainment industry, broadcast media cronies and other seemingly official organizations to keep young performers in line. For instance, in January 2011 the Korea Entertainment Producers Association petitioned its members to sign a statement saying that “If the verdict is made favoring the side of the trio who filed an injunction as well as a lawsuit, countless celebrities will abuse these results to file lawsuits against their respective entertainment agencies, regardless of the fact that the initial injunction and lawsuit were filed by the trio for the sole purpose of attaining individual financial profits by abusing the erroneous public preconception of slave contracts.”

From the time they filed their lawsuit until the end of 2009, the three say, they fulfilled all contractual agreements arranged for them by SM. The last appearance with their two former group members Jung Yunho, and Shin Changmin, was at a year-end performance in Japan.

Subsequently, all manner of difficulties began to arise. The original soundtrack for the wildly successful Korean drama SungKungKwan Scandal, which co-starred Park Yuchun, was allegedly held up by distributors. Television interviews with the singer-actor were cancelled and even as he accepted the award for Best New Actor at The KBS Drama Awards he mysteriously was never mentioned or shown in any television entertainment programs touting the drama or his achievement, even KBS’s own.

Baek Chang Joo, the president of JYJ’s new management company C-jeS said last year that everything his company tries to do to promote JYJ takes four times as long because everywhere they turn they are hindered, cancelled and barred.

SM vainly asked for an injunction to keep the trio from releasing its new English-language album “The Beginning,” sending a letter to Warner Music telling them not to distribute it. On October 13, 2010 it was reported that the Korean Federation of Pop Culture and Art Industry asked three major broadcasting companies, cable TV stations, record labels, distributors, press and other related organizations to refrain from casting JYJ for TV appearances or to engage in business with them.

When the South Korean media reported that, the federation denied that it was actually an "official document" – a statement which was belied after the letter, bearing the "Official Document sent by KFPCAI,” was later produced and made public. In yet another twist, this alleged official watchdog federation had never been heard of before they sent the document. It had no business address and no contact information.

Yet the document was taken as gospel by all who received it. It was almost as if someone far larger, more influential and powerful was really behind it – someone with a raging grudge against JYJ. And apparently the warning was heeded. The pop group’s appearance at South Korea’s Blue Dragon film awards was cancelled. Appearances were either delayed or cancelled for a variety of television talk shows and all music shows.

Critics say it is an open secret that SM appears to have been behind a long list of attempts to blacklist the group. Visas were unaccountably held up for a trip to the United States to do mini-showcases to promote their album, “The Beginning.” The four showcases were then held for free and were a huge success. Still JYJ worked determinedly and kept moving forward. In the US there were collaborations with Billboard Magazine and MTVKorea.

Once they returned to South Korea, JYJ embarked on a full-scale concert tour. Their first scheduled one was held in Seoul in November at Jamsil Olympic Stadium, over two nights, drawing a combined 70,000 fans, a sizeable number from Japan. These concert dates were followed by concerts in Thailand, Taiwan, China, then North America. They finished up with two more sold-out concert dates in South Korea upon the completion of these legs of the tour.

Thus despite the pressure and blacklisting, JYJ has managed to flourish, producing a major, international hit album “In Heaven” in 2011, starring in multiple successful K-dramas and doing a combined European, US and South American concert tour to wild acclaim. Amid the pressure that SM has brought to bear make a cautionary example of them to the rest of their signed acts, they have proven that they can be successful merely on their own talents and abilities and with the support of their fans.

The trio continue to do charity work and act as their country’s ambassadors for a variety of trade associations. Also beloved in Japan they even did a benefit concert to aid the victims of the Fukushima Earthquake which they were forced to hold in a remote area of Japan because a business associate of SM’s, the Japanese entertainment company AVEX did everything in their power to block it, this time unsuccessfully. The people, the fans and the town fathers wanted JYJ to perform. And they did, to about 80,000 fans over two days.

From the start there have been many ups and downs. But one unwitting parting gift they got from their years at SM was the ability to work as tirelessly as anyone in the music business today, with great enthusiasm and unfailing good humor. Their talent as singers, actors and performers is and always was their own. The three proudly proclaim themselves Korean. Even in the face of being blacklisted, banned and treated with distain by the South Korean media and music industry, they continue to love and represent their country.

(The writer is a U.S. based songwriter and music publisher concerned with the cause of justice for recording artists in S. Korea.)