It's not easy being god. Wherever South Korea's hottest boy band goes, its members are assailed by heaving, hormonal throngs of teenage girls, all of them aching to rip out a lock of pop idol hair. The house on the outskirts of Seoul shared by the quintet was burgled a year ago the only things missing were socks and underwear purloined from the washing machine. The singers' work schedule is grueling. God (an acronym for Groove OverDose) this month embarked on a 100-concert tour that, counting a break to cut their fifth album, will last at least six months. Meanwhile, there are endless rounds of TV appearances, talk shows, dance routines, silly comedy skits. Grouses Yoon Kye Sang, the band's 22-year-old rapper: "We are only tantara" Korean slang that loosely translates as itinerant lounge lizards.
The band members aren't even allowed to have girlfriends, lest they lose their boy-next-door wholesomeness. But to this list of indignities, add one that could make the others seem genuinely insignificant. South Korea's star-making machinery that, by cranking out high-gloss acts such as god and femme songstress BoA, has become a regional music-marketing powerhouse rivaling Japan's, is getting spattered with grime. Last week, government agents arrested two former television producers for accepting under-the-table payments guaranteeing TV appearances to aspiring singers and musicians. According to Seoul District Prosecutor Kim Kyu Hun, the arrests of Hwang Yong Woo and Kim Jong Jin were just the first in a wide-ranging investigation into systemic corruption in South Korea's music business that threatens to disrupt the careers of some of Asia's best-loved performers.
Earlier this month, agents descended on the offices of four major entertainment production companies SidusHQ, god's management agency; GM Planning; Doremi Music Publishing; and SM Entertainment, the country's leading production house whose founder, Lee Su Man, is widely credited with turning Korea's pop music industry into Big Business. Investigators seized documents and computer discs in search of evidence, carting them away in cardboard boxes. At least eight companies including four not yet named are under suspicion. Kim, the lead prosecutor, says the total amount of bribes being paid by music moguls to executives at major television networks and cable TV stations is "huge." Industry observers say it runs into millions of dollars' worth of freebies, company stock and raw cash in one case, wads of bills delivered in shopping bags. "No other industry has so much blatant in-your-face payola," says a music business insider who spoke on condition of anonymity.
To many, it's no surprise that glamorous K-pop has an unsavory side. The music industries in Japan and the U.S. have periodically been rocked by bribery scandals. Payoffs offer a time-honored competitive edge; a well-placed bribe to a highly rated radio station or TV program can buy your unknown talent the audience face time needed for superstardom. But this head-start program for precocious singers is illegal. "Our focus is to sever the collusive ties between the TV executives and the production companies," says Kim.
Few stars are expected to be caught in the net. Members of god have not been implicated. But at least one Korean singer also not yet named and her manager have been called for questioning by prosecutors. "If there is something bad, I hope the roots get pulled out," says Jang Woo Hyuk, singer for boy band J.T.L. "But I hope the investigation doesn't get overexaggerated."
It's hard to imagine a worse p.r. nightmare for Korea's idolmakers, whose stock-in-trade is bubblegum groups crooning heavily synthesized love ballads to a largely underage audience. The investigation comes at a time when K-pop is on an impressive roll. The $300 million domestic market is the second largest in Asia, topped only by Japan's massive $2.9 billion in album sales last year. K-pop has broken across borders: teenagers from Tokyo to Taipei swoon over performers such as singer Park Ji Yoon and boy band Shinhwa, buying their CDs and posters and even learning Korean so they can sing along at karaoke. BoA this year became the first solo artist in more than two decades to have a debut single and a debut album reach No. 1 in Japan, according to Oricon magazine, Japan's leading music guide. "Korea is like the next epicenter of pop culture in Asia," says Jessica Kam, a vice president for MTV Networks Asia. "It's the next Japan."