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The rise of Kpop stars reveals the dark side of music sweatshops

• They’ve had two number one selling albums in the Billboard Top 200 this year.

• They’re the first pop act to score two Number One albums in a calendar year since One Direction in 2014.

• They were the first Kpop artists to win a Billboard Music Award.

• The group officially holds the world record for most Twitter engagements and, more specifically, the most Twitter engagements for a music group. They amassed an average of 252,200 retweets per tweet on Twitter.

The group is called BTS, a South Korean band of seven young men.

Their success is a milestone for the music industry, once very western-focussed (even US/UK focussed) and now diversifying at a staggering speed as the internet shares few boundaries when compared to the older way of doing the ‘music business’.

Type ‘BTS’ into the internet three years ago and you were more likely to be reading about the development of Bangkok’s BTS Skytrain. Not any more.

BTS are a result of three years of intense, some would say grueling, training in the skills required to sing, dance and perform in the Kpop world. But their formation was ‘outside’ the rigid pop-grooming factory and broke the mould of the mild, pretty, personality-bypass robots. They spoke up about the hassles of being a teenager, depression, rigid social norms (of South Korean society) and gender identity. And they mobilised an ‘ARMY’ of fans through social media and shattered norms about the way music can be popularised beyond mere sales of songs.

Using the term ‘highly produced’ doesn’t even go half way into describing their video clips. They’re psychedelic, visual feasts of colour fused with music styles and genres, sometimes all in the same 3.30 clip.

BTS perform at the 2017 American Music Awards…

Now touring internationally, their concerts often sell out 30 minutes after tickets are announced, in the UK, US, Australia, Asia, anywhere. And the group spoke at the UN last month taking their message to the world in a more sedate forum.

It’s a fascinating sea change for the music industry. When BTS took to the stage in the 2017 American Music Awards there was raucous cheering and excitement in the room that music die-hards say they’ve never seen before with any other artists. Others note that their rise to the top (well, it’s been a long five year climb to the top) to claim their place as chart-toppers and stadium-fillers, could be blown away by whoever the next ‘big thing’ is. It might all be over tomorrow.

Fifty years ago we would trudge into a record store and find the latest song flogged by radio stations, encouraged by hungry record company executives. That world doesn’t exist anymore. Now ‘pop’ music is more than just the song. It’s an entire package of videos, imagery, back-story and grueling performance schedules. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll have been replaced with clean-living, highly-trained, professionals.

But for young aspiring Koreans wanting a share of the new world interest in the Kpop art form, there’s a long queue ahead. The machinery that creates the finely-crafted bands has come under a lot of criticism, not the least from BTS themselves. Just last year a member of long-time Kpop leaders ‘SHINee’, Kim Jong-hyun, left a lengthy suicide note before ending his life.

“I’m broken from the inside,” the note read. “The depression that has slowly eaten away at me has finally consumed me, and I couldn’t beat it.”

Whilst BTS appear to have broken out of the mould and now have the resources to forge their own future, the interest in Kpop, and the death of one of its leading stars last year, is focussing attention on the dark side of the often color-saturated pop genre.

Here’s an article from CNN about the Kpop sweatshops.

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Tim Newton

Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.

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