Over the past year or so, the conversation around underage idols has been heating up. While it’s never been unheard of for idols to debut at young ages (take BoA, for example, who debuted at just 13 years old in the year 2000), it does seem like today’s rookie stars are particularly young.
Alongside raising concerns over mental health, physical health, and exploitation risks, this gradual decrease in ages has also left fans scratching their heads. Just why is the K-Pop industry shifting towards such young debuts despite other advances? The answer isn’t straightforward, but there is one big, often overlooked reason behind the move.
In the older days of K-Pop, more often than not, idols were discovered through street castings and open auditions. Some stars were recruited outside their school or at concerts simply on the strength of visuals alone. Others had raw abilities that got them through auditions, but rarely did they have any real education in singing or dancing.
Back then, trainee periods were often long and intensive crash courses in idol performance, sometimes taking trainees from no prior singing or dancing experience to polished, awe-inspiring stars. Nowadays, that’s not always the case, and it’s all down to “academies.”
Take YG Entertainment’s girl groups, for example. BLACKPINK‘s Rosé made it into YG Entertainment at 15 years old, and before then, she’d never danced a day in her life. With hard work and relentless training for over four years, she was eventually able to debut as BLACKPINK’s sensational lead dancer.
The only member of the group who had any significant past experience was Lisa, who started dance classes in Thailand at the age of four. Even then, however, she didn’t begin learning dance with the dream of becoming a K-Pop idol.
Now, times have changed, and K-Pop has entered the era of training academies. As Hallyu gets bigger, more and more singing and dancing academies are emerging across South Korea (and around the world). Young children who aspire to be like the idols they see on television don’t need a training contract with a big company to get started. Instead, for a fee, they can join an academy and start rigorous vocal and dance training long before they get to the audition stage.
Enter the era of the training academies. As the K-Pop phenomenon continues to sweep the globe, more and more singing and dancing academies have emerged, ready to groom aspiring idols. These institutions offer rigorous vocal and dance training to budding stars, who often enrol as children. Fast forward a few years, these students are ready to rock their auditions with a level of skill and professionalism that would’ve taken many years to acquire in traditional training systems.
To see the effects, you only need to look at YG Entertainment’s up-and-coming girl group, BABYMONSTER. Unlike their sunbaenims, all the members of BABYMONSTER had prior training or experience in the entertainment industry even before they joined the company. Ruka, aged 21, already had a decade’s worth of dance training under her belt.
Chiquita, the youngest at 14, had been part of dance teams for at least seven years.
And then there’s Rora, who first made her debut in the children’s girl group U.SSO Girl at the tender age of nine — alongside NewJeans‘ Hyein.
These aren’t isolated incidents, either. LE SSERAFIM‘s Eunchae, for example, debuted at age 15. She’d only been training at Source Music for just over a year at the time, but before that, she spent two years honing her craft at the well-known Def Dance Skool in Seoul.
The same academy also helped grow stars like TREASURE‘s Doyoung, who was 16 when he debuted.
Given how expensive it is for companies to train young stars, it’s no surprise they’re jumping at the chance to debut idols younger than ever. Big Hit Music, for example, once revealed they spend almost $100,000 USD per trainee per year. Recruiting hopefuls who already have extensive training and debuting them as soon as possible can save millions of won per group. Of course, while companies may benefit, that doesn’t change fans’ worries about the difficulties of growing up in such a high-pressured environment.