Remember when Andrew Lloyd Webber wouldn't stop trying to find new people for his musicals? It was torture on a grand scale. The kind of reason you refuse to pay for a licence fee.

Well, this little thinkpiece has nothing to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber, but it does have something to do with grotesque reality shows. Let's take a little trip to South Korea.

The Korean peninsula is known for a number of things. The constant threat of nuclear war, a family of despots, questionable military regimes (in North and South over the years), and two dichotomous economies. South Korea has also made a name for itself as a 'soft power'. A huge part of this is due to its now vast entertainment industry.

K-pop (love or loathe) is big part of our understanding of South Korea. Reality TV has only recently made its mark on the industry, and it's already reached a whole new level with the show Produce 101 which finished on 1st April. The magnitude of this show is exemplified by the contestants 'first single', 'Pick Me'.




The concept of the show was to take 101 'trainees' from 42 different agencies. It's worth noting that pop is very different in South Korea. Labels we know - the Sonys, EMIs and Universals of this world - have no foothold here, even as distributors. Instead, there are a myriad of agencies all competing to create the next big thing. The 'big three' entertainment companies, SM, YG, and JYP, host some of the names you may be familiar with - Girls' Generation, Big Bang, 2NE1, and Wonder Girls. Each agency signs up aspiring young talent - and by young, I mean very young. Many trainees are signed with an agency from the age of 6 or 7. Once you've debuted and made it, you're an 'idol'

So let's think about this for a minute. There are 101 trainees on this show, many of them will have been signed for getting close to a decade of their lives. They will have been working on their dancing, singing, rapping (etc) for hours a day, whilst also attending school. Their fates rest on 11 episodes of a TV show and the way in which producers want to portray them. They've all signed contracts saying they won't sue if they're portrayed negatively in the show.

This kind of treatment goes to the heart of so much wrong with K-pop. Slave contracts, limited to no artistic freedom, bullying, forced prostitution, suicides and fatal car accidents to name just a few of the things to mar the industry. Idols will often have parts of their contract that say they won't make any money until they've 'repaid' their agency for the investment they've made in them - this includes everything from singing and dancing lessons, to plastic surgery procedures. Many of the trainees on Produce 101 will be signed to similar contracts.

The contestants went through the normal rigours of a talent show. Weekly tasks to test their skills, producing songs together, and the inevitable public votes. Throughout the show, six songs were released by various contestants - from all 101 to various smaller sub-groups. None of them will see a penny from the near one million sales the songs garnered. The final girl group, I.O.I. has been created, there are 11 members (in itself a mammoth number to western audiences), and their pre-debut song 'Crush' has already been released, with a formal debut in May.




What does this mean for I.O.I? Relentless hours of performing, interviews, commercial deals, time away from loved ones. They're also likely to be a huge success. The reality format is still relatively 'new' in South Korea and is responsible for some of the brightest emerging talent. Lee Hi, Winner, iKon, Akdong Musician, and TWICE are all household names because of their respective talent shows. Akdong Musician were listed on Billboard's 21 artists to watch under 21 in 2014 - they've only produced one album, but have already been featured on the same list as Justin Bieber, Lorde, and this year's Best New Artist at the Grammys, Meghan Trainor. TWICE, similarly, have already secured 10 commercial deals, worth 1.8 billion won (£1million). How many songs have they released? One. That one song also happens to be the most watched debut by a girl group on YouTube.




It's looking good for I.O.I. As for the 90 failed contestants, they'll return to their labels, continue working and training, and hope they aren't dropped. The future isn't so bright for these unlucky 90. But hey, they can always try out on K-Pop Star 6.