A common misperception among Western fans is that famous Kpop idols must make loads of money. A hit song or two and you should be set for a long time, right? However, this is the furthest thing from reality.
See, the Kpop world has a concept called “trainee debt” that is not present in the Western industry. Entertainment agencies in the industry have perfected a process to manufacture idols and turn them into stars. Scouts often recruit idols when they’re only 8-12 (mainly through auditions, sometimes off the street, like f(x)’s Krystal, or sometimes through watching performance videos, like SEVENTEEN’s Seungkwan), and they’re then put into the company’s trainee system, a system that is probably as unique as any other in the world. Trainees are tightly supervised through dance and singing classes at night as they attend school in the morning. A lot of them are also taught foreign languages, most notably Japanese, Chinese, and English to prepare them to work in those markets if they do debut. The trainee system is extremely harsh, and it weeds out all those who aren’t tough enough mentally or physically to make it. Trainees train for hours upon hours, many of them breaking down in the process, as they hope and pray for that chance to debut. Trainees are also strictly regulated over meals and exercises, with mandatory weigh-ins to check the future stars’ bodies followed by instructions to lose weight being a source of nightmare for many years after they have become stars. For example, Twice’s Momo was told she had to lose 15 lbs (7kg) in a week if she wanted to be on Sixteen (the reality show that chose the eventual 9 members for Twice). She ended up eating nothing but a single ice cube for the week while practically living in the gym, and often went to bed at night crying because she didn’t know if she was going to wake up the next day. This nightmare doesn’t end with debuting either, for example, Infinite has revealed before they often have to be fed their “nutrition” through IV drips during comebacks as they have to starve themselves.
After trainee period, the company handpicked the trainees they want to fill out the roles (visual, vocalist, dance, variety, etc.) and the concept of the group they want to debut. Debuting is a dream for many, but even debuting doesn’t guarantee any sort of success. As an illustration, the following is a list of all the notable girl group debuts from 2007-2016, with the number of debuts in that year in parantheses:
2007 (10): Wonder Girls, KARA, SNSD
2008 (5): Davichi
2009 (21): After School, 2NE1, 4minute, T_ara, f(x), SECRET
2010: (15): SISTAR, miss A, Girl’s Day, Nine Muses
2011 (33): Dal Shabet, A Pink, Stellar
2012 (38): EXID, Crayon Pop, AOA, 15&
2013 (24): Ladies Code
2014 (31): Mamamoo, Red Velvet, Lovelyz
2015 (28): Girlfriend, Oh My Girl, DIA, Twice
2016 (15): Cosmic Girls, IOI, Gugudan, Black Pink
So basically, there were a total of 210 girl group debuts between 2007-2016, but only 33 (if you count Davichi as an idol group which they aren’t really) out of these became even significant enough to be at least somewhat known (a ~15.7% rate), and out of these 33 groups, only 15-16 or so (less than 8%) was big enough at one point or another to be in the conversation of top 4-5 girl groups in South Korea. So even, after a group debut, they still have to fight tooth and nails and need lots of luck to ever become one of those top groups everyone looks up to.
However, even if a group pumps out a hit song or two, there’s no guarantee its members will even make good money, much less become rich. Why? Because of the aforementioned “trainee debt” and the contracts that can be very disadvantageous for idols. A “trainee debt” is the money that idols “owe” their companies for dance and singing classes, housing, foods, promotions, upport staff, etc. To the company, it’s basically investing in the idol. Thus, when and if a group starts making money, all that money has to first be funneled towards paying the group’s “debt”. Only the big 3 companies (YG, SM, and JYP) start profit splitting straight from debut, even if the group haven’t reached the break-even point; for all the other companies, a group has to finish paying its debt to the companies before the company will split profits with the group. This process can take a while. For example, AOA took until mid-2016 to pay off all their debt to their company, even though their success had already started all the way back in 2014 with the chains of hits in “Miniskirt”, “Like A Cat”, and later “Heart Attack”.
Even if a group is done paying off debt and is finally starting to make money, most likely that money will not be close to as much as what Western fans would think for a group of that status. Companies regularly take at least a 50% split of all types of incomes (with very few exceptions), from albums sales to tickets sales, with some taking up to 90% of the cut for some categories. Below is the profit distribution percentage of a select groups of entertainment companies:
Whatever profit is left after splitting with the company has to be then split with all the group members, resulting in a member taking home not that much money after everything. This is why album sales and digital sales usually don’t earn idols a lot of money, especially female idols who only holds the singing rights to their songs (as their songs are almost always written by someone else), since the profits have to first be applied to paying for the promotions and all types of costs, then split for the composer, lyricist, and company before the income can even be split amongst the group itself. Thus, the majority of money earned by famous idols usually come from endorsements in the forms of CFs (commercial films, basically just long commercials), and tours, as the initial income is larger (especially for famous idols as their fees for endorsements can be colossal), there are less people that needs to be given share of the income, and a more advantageous profit distribution percentage between idols and companies for those types of incomes. Therefore, the road of a Kpop idol is long, hard, and very unforgiving where only a select few with talent and luck can make it.