A tale of three K-pop contract disputes

EXO CBX, Loona, and Omega X's recent contract disputes are a temperature check

I’m a big fan of the musical SIX, a retelling and reevaluation of the six wives of English king Henry VIII, infamous for divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded survived.

To be honest, I would love to write a whole post about the Korean version of the show, which among other great talents featured EXID’s Solji as fifth queen Katherine Howard. But that’s not what today’s Notes on K-pop is about. No, it’s about how when I sat down to write I was listening to the soundtrack while brainstorming, and realized I could very well make my own parody song about the recent news topics I wanted to discuss: “Suspended, won, settled.”

ARTMS twitter header featuring a depiction of the moon's cycle, beginning with a crescent moon and ending in a crescent moon, with the full moon in the middle, respectively growing and waning. Says "We rise together, back to the moon and beyond"
ARTMS’s twitter header, a nod to LOONA

For those not in the know, this corresponds, respectively, to three different recent legal disputes between K-pop stars and their management labels: Omega X’s contract with Spire Entertainment was suspended then terminated after abusive allegations were aired publicly and the members won a lawsuit; LOONA’s members won multiple lawsuits against Blockberry Creative (BBC) after a long drawn out battle by members to leave the company; EXO’s Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin settled with SM Entertainment after the CBX trio came forward with a variety of claims and concerns following contract renewals.

Maybe this is just me wanting to get into the meme game, joining EXO-L and the members of LOONA in their irreverent way of meeting news surrounding contract ordeals. Or maybe it’s just that when something becomes important, the brain takes note, and needs to create new ways to keep track of the details. For me, that means humming showtunes, I guess.

@tamartoksThis week ends with all of the #Loona successfully terminating their contracts with Blockberry Creative after membes gradually won several court cases. The members of the #kpop group celebrated with memes, #kpopbiz #kpopnews #kpopcontracts #stanloona #entertainmentnews

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That is not to say, of course, that anyone involved, myself included, isn’t taking all of these situations seriously. These are contract disputes revolving around abusive behavior (Omega X), illegal contract terms (LOONA), and pay disparity and slave contract allegations (EXO). But I’m a big believer in the idea that things coming in threes means something, so to me it can’t help but feel like these trio of contract disputes are a clear temperature check of where the K-pop industry is today.

Where is that exactly? The land of flux.

I didn’t expect when I began Notes on K-pop that about half of these notes would end up exploring to some degree legal or business disputes. But the fact that I have been writing so frequently about that further emphasizes where K-pop is in 2023, and it’s not a good or bad place, but definitely a whirlwind of one.

We’re operating in a K-pop age when entertainment companies are losing the same sort of sway they once had, and talent is taking a stand for itself. Simultaneously, the bigger companies are getting bigger as in the case of Hybe, or on smaller scale JYP Entertainment, or being incorporated by outside investors and industries, like SM now under Kakao. Creating business beyond fandom is becoming a big player, with intellectual property (IP) turned into a buzzword and popular acts being turned into cartoon characters and superheroes regularly.

None of this is necessarily new, in that the Korean entertainment industry has always been in-development to new stages. But when Bang Si-Hyuk, the founder of Hybe and the man who brought BTS into existence, says K-pop is in crisis, there’s a reason for it. I don’t necessarily agree with some of the perspective that Bang’s shared, that growth of sales is shrinking and so that’s a major problem, in that that is mostly of interest to investors, who have become major powerplayers in K-pop in 2023, while the industry is still seeing major growth in some facets (mostly girl groups rather than boy bands, but that’s another newsletter!) But I do think Bang’s concerns are affirmation of how things are changing so quickly in a way that the norms of the industry in recent years have been scattered to the wind.

Nothing hones in on the up-in-the-air feeling of the moment for K-pop than these trio of contract disputes.

Entertainment companies are, of course, still on top of the industry pyramid. But in recent years the power of talent and their fans have grown, and have resulted in public opinion not just siding with talent, but arguably leading to more positive, swifter resolutions. Gotta love the power of a good, or bad, viral news story.

Take Omega X’s situation. Videos leaked of serious abuses taking place at the hand of management. Fans rallied. It became a major news story. Now the groups is able to continue on, attempting to move on and remain together. For a less prominent group, this was unfathomable a few years ago. In 2018, when claims of management’s abuse of members of group the East Light became known, no outlet I worked with at the time wanted reporting about it; it just wasn’t a big enough story to them. It ultimately was drawn out in several lawsuits and trials, with the group ultimately falling apart amid the abuses and perjury allegations. I saw little English-language coverage from outlets not directly catering to K-pop fans.

Fast forward to 2022-23 amid Omega X’s situation, and public opinion has shifted so immensely that fans and, backed by them, artists essentially saved a career and helped Omega X get out of Spire. There are some hold out issues, and it’s still to be seen how OX’s career moves on from here. The immense speed and intensity of rallying around the group, from both general public and media entities, exemplified how different things are now, with violent abuses within the industry not just becoming a local, Korean entertainment industry issue, but something worthwhile of capturing global attention, thus helping motivate support. This, unfortunately, simultaneously feeds into and is bolstered by the “Dark Side of K-pop” narratives, but while seeking clicks there was a facet of media activism that helped make what could have been seen as “business as usual” into a bigger story that has resonated, whether inadvertently or intentionally.

Screenshot of Soompi's The East Light tag, highlighting how many stories revolved around The East Light's situation.

LOONA’s situation is more interesting, in a way, because it wasn’t necessarily driven by shock factor and safety concerns like Omega X’s. It was borne out of mismanagement and unfair contract clauses, and handled almost entirely in the court not of public opinion but actual courts. The legal battle was rather straightforward, with a series of verdicts determining that Blockberry Creative had overstepped contract terms. It was, like Omega X’s battle, fought very publicly ever since 2021, when member Chuu attempted to get out of her contract. It took until November 2022 for things to really intensify, when BBC removed Chuu from the group with little warning, ahead of an upcoming album, and almost all the other members decided to file contract termination suits as well.

Collective action among a K-pop group of this size is almost unthinkable, and courts siding swiftly with talent is similarly so. This was not a long, drawn out K-pop court case, leading to hiatuses and, if the company is powerful enough, industry bans. As with Omega X, and now EXO’s situation (more in a moment) that era where long, drawn out battles can ruin careers while entertainment companies take talent to court seems to be ending; both OX and Loona are moving forward. Loona’s ARTMS Odd Eye Circle unit is about to release an album in July, and recently announced a European concert tour.

Meanwhile, EXO’s CBX, after a veritable deluge of concerns and accusations, resulted in a rather undramatic settlement between SM Entertainment and the three EXO members. EXO will continue on as normal, ostensibly with some changes to contracts and/or pay to make both sides pleased enough to keep moving forward but no details have been disclosed as of time of writing.

This is groundbreaking.

There have been instances of artists suing for contract termination and failing, so being forced to remain active with their company despite disputes, such as with BAP. There have been instances where some members leave and not others. There have been rumors of disputes that never made it to court or headlines, sorted internally.

But the idea that K-pop talent has enough sway to publicly come forth with rather intense claims of contractual and workplace wrongdoings and come out if not with a win but a settlement, bringing things back to baseline, is immensely important. This is different. SM Entertainment has previously blocked former talent from promoting in South Korean media (BBC reportedly tried to do this to LOONA too, and failed). So the idea of ending things quickly, in what looks like a major compromise to reassess contract terms, appears to be nothing other than recognition that in this day and age, a company like SM cannot lose an act like EXO, and particularly Baekhyun, one of the company’s most lucrative soloists, especially after this year’s earlier shakeups.

This is a rather long way to say that I think these three instances are grander than just the impact on individual companies or groups.

There’s a reason this is all going on around the same time, and it’s arguably because K-pop is more lucrative than ever, with more eyes on the industry than pretty much any other given moment, and fans are more engaged than ever. The power may not be to the people, but it’s not necessarily as one sidedly found in the hands of those on top, as much as it is a push-and-pull between the forward facing talent and the behind-the-scenes executives and management. When even lesser known groups can hope to get support of masses, and collective action by members can make them have a brighter future, no wonder people in the industry are concerned about how things are going to move forward.

I personally am excited to see where things go for each of these groups, and the industry as a whole. In an ideal world, all contracts and companies would be fair, and all artists would have positive work environments. We don’t live in an ideal world, but I try to be an optimist, so hope springs eternal that this trifecta of contract disputes will make some people get fairer contracts and working conditions in the future. For now, I’ll be hoping I can cover some other things than contract disputes for upcoming newsletters.

What I’ve been working on

Happy 10th anniversary, BTS!!!! If you missed it, I wrote a newsletter about some thoughts and memories about BTS and my relationship with them. I also spoke with Arirang News about the upcoming festivities. For fellow history ners, I made a Tiktok about the state of K-pop in 2013, when BTS debuted.

Last week, I launched a new Notes on K-pop series where I rewrite and re-edit stories of mine. The first one, featuring my first SHINee interview, will remain free to all, but in the future I’ll be making this series available only for paid subscribers as I feel there’s an educational aspect to it since I’ll be showcasing my work process. If there’s an interview or story of mine you’d like to see me rework, please leave me a comment or shoot me an email.

What I’ve been reading

I realized I’ve been terrible about sharing newsletters that I like, so I recently started just re-sharing them as Notes on my profile immediately after reading them rather than saving them in a tab and praying I remember to put them into the next newsletter. I really enjoyed ’s recent piece on the revenge of the stans.

On the newsier side of things, there’s a battle brewing between lawmakers and entertainment companies over workers’ rights, particularly calls for minors to work fewer hours. The industry argues this will hurt K-pop’s development. However, the same law will also institute some regulations that may help avoid the disputes I talked about in this newsletter. “The bill, if enacted, would require agencies to disclose details of accounting settlements upon the artist's request and on a yearly basis, even without such requests,” reports the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It would also allow the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to inspect K-pop agencies for unfair conduct.” Considering that the EXO issue stemmed initially allegedly from Baekhyun, Chen, and Xiumin asking for accounting settlements and not receiving them, requiring entertainment companies give accounting to artists seems pretty important.

A few weeks old, but this Teen Vogue story by Yi Ning Chiu about how AAPI choreographers are making a killing in K-pop but not being recognized in the US market is a worthwhile read.

What I’m listening to

Net Gala’s Pride 2023 playlist for Apple Music is great, and I can’t stop listening to LiL SAMS’ remix of Girls’ Generation’s Kissing You and Intoxxy’s take on NewJeans’ Ditto. The whole playlist is pretty great. Thanks to Crystal Leww for sending it my way.

I’ve been enjoying the camaraderie and fiery hot takes of the Not Your Average Fangirls podcast. When I first became a K-pop fan, I did so mostly because I loved the communal feel. As someone covering it, it’s often very lonely, so listening to NYAF’s latest episodes often make me feel right at home, listening in on conversations among friends, agreeing with some takes, disagreeing with many, and laughing along all the while.

Not K-pop, but I really enjoy the aesthetics, both visually and sonically, of Japanese act bala’s Heavenly.

Hybe’s Japanese group &Team’s new EP First Howling: WE is very good,  encapsulating the exuberant, airy upbeat style that in my mind has come to be the prototypical Hybe boy band sound.

I was invited to watch their showcase over the weekend, and it sounds like they’re going to be focus on more international promotions, including Korea and “global”, which is industry speak for the US, so hopefully those of us stateside might get a chance to see them perform this pristine boy band discography sooner rather than later.

NCT Dream’s Broken Melodies pre-release is prototypically an NCT Dream anthemic pop tune for the summer, ebbing and flowing with emotion and playing around with the members’ harmonizing and throwing in references to past releases. Something about it starting slow then raging forward towards the end honestly reminds me of summer weather, when it comes slowly and then finds you in the hottest, brightest time of the year.