In October, K-pop fans have taken three hits in a row, with the departure of three members from different groups. Hwall, from The Boyz, left the band claiming health reasons. The teenager had already been left out from the group’s latest album, released in August.
Less than a week later, Woojin, from Stray Kids left the group over personal reasons. He did not leave any letters in his goodbye, but fans have claimed he left a message in a fan-exclusive group in a Korean social network. The leader of the group, Bang Chan, posted a letter for the fans apologizing for not having been able to keep the group as a nine-member formation.
Three days later, it was reported that Wonho, from Monsta X, had also left the group after controversy under his name. The member was accused of owing money to an actress, and rumors claimed he had been arrested as a teen. In a heavy-toned letter, he apologized to the members and fans for the controversies and for his departure.
K-pop had never before seen so many sudden departures so close to each other. Usually, artists refuse to renew their exclusivity contracts when it is time for their renegotiation and leave the companies. In other cases, the companies terminate the contracts if the members do not meet any pre-established agreements.
End of exclusivity contract
In all three cases, the members have closed their exclusivity contracts with the companies and are no longer part of the set of artists under their care. In Wonho’s case, the singer’s profile page was still available in the Japanese website for Starship, the company responsible for Monsta X, but it was deleted two weeks later.
After the announcements, fans have trended hashtags on Twitter thanking each member for their contributions to the groups, but monbebes, how Monsta X fans are called, remain fighting daily through tags that require the member to return, assuring they will not back down until the company overturns the decision to let Wonho go.
For Jeff Benjamin, Billboard’s K-pop specialist, the current moment is a testing phase to see if fan commotion can or cannot make the companies revert their decisions.
“If you were talking about this two years ago, there wouldn’t be any hope [for the members to return]”, he says. “South Korea is the home base and it’s where these companies operate out of, but I think the biggest indication, test… international implications and international fans have a lot more saying then we realize”.
Commotion from fans outside of Korea has already caused some changes in decisions previously taken by the companies.
Last year, when HyunA and E’Dawn, now known simply as Dawn, announced their years-long relationship, CUBE Entertainment, the company responsible for the artists, revealed they had both been expelled. After the protests of fans, mainly those outside of South Korea, they changed their statement to claim they were having negotiations with both artists.
The departure of a member can negatively affect the image and the popularity of a group. While fans may stop supporting and following the band if their favorite member leaves, other companies may also refuse to close deals with the remaining members.
“There’s sorta like an awkward space missing, especially because lots of times, with K-pop groups, they’re kinda crafted, so that you’ll be a fan of the group, but everyone has their biases”, explains Benjamin. “that will definitely affect the group and their popularity, what they represent”.
In K-pop, groups build their performances and videos with the goal of highlighting each member. In concerts, the place in which a certain member should be can be empty or give the fans a feeling of incompleteness.
As for business, sponsors may drop a certain group due to controversies, new partnerships may fall through and brands may not want to have their images associated with them for a while.
“Korea is the home base, and if things like sponsors and people in the industry or related to them don’t want to work with a group while they are in this place because of a member, that is not good for business, ultimately. For better or worse, the K-pop industry is a business and they have to consider a large scheme of things”, says Benjamin.
In other cases, the departure has a different effect on fans, which may increase streams in songs of the groups and boost sales, such as what happened with Monsta X. As for Stray Kids, the fans joined forces after Woojin’s departure to vote in South Korean award shows, ensuring the group would take the lead.
‘They are people’
Even with letters from the members and statements from the companies, fans want to understand what led to the departure and the negotiations between singers and companies and to find answers, although that is unlikely.
“The K-pop scene doesn’t really allow for artists to show what’s going on internally, I think lots of times they’re expected to put on a happy face, focus on the work and stay very professional and don’t speak out on anything that’s happening”, states Benjamin.
But even with such caution and control over how those narratives are told, fans can see changes in the groups. “We can see what is happening with the artists. Obviously, they’re humans, obviously they’re people, they have emotions”, says Benjamin.
What can fans do?
In all letters, both members and companies ask the fans to continue supporting the groups. And, in Benjamin’s opinion, that is exactly what fans can do.
“It is worth remembering that this is a business. If you want your group to feel supported, quite literally, be supported, keep supporting the group. If you want them to continue the way they are, support the group, buy the albums, watch the videos, send messages on social media”, he analyzes.
Fans can also keep a positive memory of members who left, without letting them or their brand and legacy be forgotten.
“Fans can make sure the good memories are kept, the cute images, the happy videos, making sure a member departure wasn’t in vain or isn’t necessarily ruining this person’s life”, he concludes.
Translated by Giovanna Castro
Você pode ler essa reportagem em português no Portal R7.