Exposed: The Terms Of K-Pop Trainee Contracts—Privacy, Depression, & More
To establish a fair and just relationship between agencies and artists, the South Korean government’s Ministry of Culture and Fairtrade Commission recently developed standardized contract terms for all K-Pop trainees. Now, Korean-American rapper, songwriter, former trainee, and YouTube creator Grazy Grace has exposed some of the most pertinent trainee contract clauses—from privacy agreements to approaching depression.
Some trainees spend up to a decade preparing to debut, while others have spent just weeks or months training. But how long is a company allowed to keep a trainee for? According to the standard contract terms, training contracts cannot be more than three years long. After the initial period expires, trainees are free to renew for another term if they choose to do so.
Grazy Grace pointed out that a restriction in training contracts is very important when it comes to protecting minors. TWICE‘s Jihyo and BIGBANG‘s G-Dragon, for example, first started training at the shocking age of just 8 years old. Many of these child trainees are too young to understand the implications of signing their lives away, which is why Grace thinks a maximum limit of three years is a great thing.
Major K-Pop agencies like SM Entertainment and JYP Entertainment provide all training costs free of charge. According to former trainees, some even supply idols-to-be with a personal allowance. However, many smaller companies actually charge trainees for training and living costs.
Unfortunately for trainees at small companies, this is completely legal according to the standard contract. However, the terms state that the amount of money they ask for must not be “unfair” when it comes to the value of the services provided.
When Grazy Grace was a K-Pop trainee herself in the early 2010s, she recalled how the company’s managers would constantly check trainees’ phone chats to see if they were dating or ask them personal questions about how they spent their time. But are companies really allowed to do that?
In the new standard trainee contracts (which were implemented long after Grazy Grace stopped training), one clause states that a company “cannot infringe on the privacy or personal rights of a trainee” other than for “training” reasons. While it’s not clear what constitutes a valid reason to check a trainee’s phone, it seems like companies may have a harder time interfering with trainees’ private affairs these days.
That said, companies are allowed to be involved in trainees’ personal lives when they’re committing criminal acts. According to the contract terms, no trainee can be involved in any criminal activity. This clause is likely included to protect the company’s reputation and ensure they can terminate the contract of any trainee who is involved in drugs, underage drinking, scamming, harassment, and similar crimes.
From Suzy to Super Junior’s Heechul, many of today’s K-Pop stars have opened up about their struggles with depression. So, it stands to reason that many trainees must have similar issues, particularly as they don’t have the support of fans to help them through hard times.
Fans often criticize companies for neglecting artists’ mental health, but according to the standard trainee contract, it’s a company’s duty to “help with treatment” for any trainee who develops depression. Sadly, when Grazy Grace was a trainee, she wasn’t able to receive any company help with treatments for depression or insomnia.
K-Pop fans often complain that companies fail to fulfil their duties to their artists in terms of organizing and promoting comebacks and activities. This same poor management also sometimes extends to trainees. Some artists from smaller companies, for example, have revealed they didn’t receive any training classes at all.
Thankfully, the standard training contract allows trainees to “discuss the proper fulfillment of the company’s duties” at any time. Grazy Grace noted how important this is in an industry where hierarchy is everything. Without express contractual permission, many trainees may not feel comfortable asking for better treatment or financial information.
For the most part, standardized contracts were implemented to protect trainees’ rights. However, they do include some contractual obligations those trainees need to meet. In particular, while companies must provide training in singing, dance, rap, acting, or other relevant skills, trainees must also do their best to improve.
The contract terms state that “the talent should do their best to upgrade their qualities” and “must follow their best in the training system provided“. Companies can also “ask the trainee to faithfully fulfil their duty“. This likely means that trainees who aren’t showing any improvement in their skills can have their contracts terminated before the agreed period ends.