On Mad Men’s Loss, Infinite’s Next Steps, and the Perpetual Problem of Labor Freedom in Idol Pop

27 April 2021 ☼ Q-popK-popArtist: InfiniteArtist: Mad MenCommentary

(So this is the blog post I wrote early last week and sat on, as I referred to on Friday when I talked about members of Mad Men and their company CEO being arrested on synthetic drug manufacturing and distribution charges. Some of my speculation may look more naïve in retrospect—assuming that the charges are valid, which we still don’t know—but I think the larger points stand. )

If your day has been too pleasant and cheerful for your liking, then I recommend you watch the following video (courtesy of Qpop Translations), as it is quite possibly the saddest idol-pop media I’ve ever seen that doesn’t involve an actual death.

If, however, your day will not be improved by footage of hard-working people looking deeply discouraged, let me sum it up for you: two members of the Kazakhstani idol group Mad Men, Young (who was relatively new to the group) and Rem (who wasn’t), have chosen to leave.

I’ve argued before, and will continue to argue, that fans who get angry at idols for leaving groups are at risk of missing the larger context: if you actually care about the person, rather than the narrative of OTwhat-have-you, you ought to be in favor of their being able to change work environments as they see fit. But there’s a difference between being angry at the idols leaving and upset at the situation, and MadWaves (Mad Men fans) have a right to be upset at the situation; in fact the situation appears worrying for just about everyone who cares about Q-pop.

Because Mad Men are (were?) the closest thing to a rival for Ninety One: the longest-lasting, the most successful, the most prolific, the most able to compete in the wider idol-pop sphere. Here’s my favorite song of theirs, Alma,” from November 2019:

(Rem is first to sing, with the yellow ponytail; Young is last to sing, sitting on the couch. In between are Khay, red hair and glasses; Moora, wandering around an art museum; and Aron, the one telling you Sau bol.)

They have released one single since Alma,” which even came with a dance performance filmed in fairly high-quality video, but something clearly deteriorated between November 2019 and March 2021, and my first guess is the something” was MM Entertainment’s income statements. During this same time period, fellow MM group Crystalz, which had just acquired three new members and come back with a promising reboot, dissolved entirely, with one of the founding members finally apparently chucking all hope of an idol career and going off to study abroad.

And here’s the problem that Q-pop has that its counterparts in richer countries don’t: if Rem or Crystalz’s Ari had wanted to stay in idol pop but not MM Entertainment, what were their options? With the possible exception of Juz Entertainment—possible, because judging from the Qiyalman” music video, Samsung is still writing sponsorship checks to Ninety One, but I really don’t know how large those checks are, and what Juz’s expenses look like—nearly every company in Q-pop seems to be struggling. Sevenlight ran out of money. Black Dial imploded, and Iceblue, YB Entertainment’s female idol group, has released one single in two years. EQ, the rap duo whose flight led to Black Dial’s implosion, has since dissolved. Newton disbanded before the pandemic even started. Moonlight is hanging in there, thank goodness, but gives absolutely no one the impression of being flush with cash. (And even Juz couldn’t keep Juzim alive, though I’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether the cause of death was lack of funds or mismanagement.) That’s not the entirety of the industry: I’m hearing rumors that a female group called Qiyal is about to debut, Ziruza is still making things happen, and as we’ve seen, sometimes getting out from under a group gives a Q-pop solo artist more flexibility to get an actual discography going. Nonetheless, this is a bleak landscape. When Rem says, I don’t see a future in Q-pop,” it’s hard to argue with him.

The personal irony is that I found out about Rem and Young leaving Mad Men by checking into a Q-pop Discord server I’ve joined, and I was checking in intending to ask fellow Discorders (many of whom, not surprisingly, have strong opinions about K-pop as well) to celebrate with me, since word had just come that two members of my original favorite group had just left their company, but the context was vastly different.

Screenshot of a Tweet saying, “Wow, my whole tl is celebrating dongyeol’s exit from woollim, it kinda feels like the ewok dance party at the end of Return of the Jedi”

For my part, I saw the Soompi headline while walking my dog, and threw my fists into the air, prompting my dog to go all OH GOSH MAMA PARTY TIME JUMP AROUND YES.

Now, I’m not as fully convinced that Woollim mistreated Infinite as a lot of the other Inspirits throwing their fists in the air, mainly because I don’t claim to know the difficulties involved in assembling both more group comebacks and the individual opportunities for the gentlemen to work. But once Sunggyu chose to leave, the idea of Sungyeol and Dongwoo following him became immensely more appealing. Whether they all sign with other agencies, as Myungsoo did, or end up starting something themselves (as looks more and more possible the longer they go without announcing signing with a new agency), we Inspirits could be happy for them knowing they now have options. There’s an actual existing infrastructure there for them to take advantage of. There’s precedent for idols changing agencies and being able to continue their careers.

Now, there’s a downside to the existence of that infrastructure, which is that K-pop remains a labor-unfriendly, largely unaccountable closed shop. The industry is established enough that it can take care of a portion of its own—but to get into that portion you have to play by a byzantine set of rules (following many of which will be actively harmful to your physical and mental health) for years on end, and luck out besides. (This is why I’m ambivalent about the Brave Girls phenomenon: yeah, they’re a feel-good story now, but we need to wait and see if the success now makes up for the years of stress in the past, and I don’t know what this means for the many, many women presently in groups that will never be saved by unexpected virality.) The overarching question is whether you can build the necessary stable infrastructure without imposing so many unhealthy rules and restricting labor movement as severely as K-pop does, with its masses of teenagers signing seven-year contracts.

From my limited vantage point, Q-pop has seemed healthier in its freedom of labor movement. Young’s departure from Mad Men is a case in point: it’s a good thing, that the man can choose to leave rather than stay in a job he increasingly regards as antithetical to his practice of Islam. Along similar lines, as disappointingly as the Crystalz story ended, it would have been far worse had MM Entertainment been able and willing to keep Ari from taking the opportunity to study abroad. But if you can’t do the thing you want to do because no one can afford to pay you to do it, that’s not freedom.

If you read academic entrepreneurship literature (which I did for my dissertation), you’ll learn about the distinction between pushed” and pulled” entrepreneurs. If you start a small business because you genuinely like the idea or more generally see a better future for yourself than you would have a salaried employee, you’ve been pulled into entrepreneurship; if you do it because you’ve lost your job or otherwise don’t see many other options, you’ve been pushed. Generally pushed entrepreneurship is said to increase in worse economic environments, and I think that’s smiliar to what’s going on in Q-pop right now. If I could wave a magic idol-labor-focused wand, I’d wish for the Korean idols to have more freedom to be pulled, and for their Kazakhstani counterparts to face less risk of being pushed.