South Korea: Members of Boy Band Exo Demand Release from ‘Slave Contract,’ Defying Grueling K-Pop Industry

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 25: Chen, Xiumin and Baekhyun of EXO attend the 2017 SBS Gay
The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images

Three members of the superstar Korean pop (K-pop) boy band Exo announced on Thursday they are seeking to terminate their contracts with their record label, SM Entertainment, immediately, citing “abuse of power” in an industry rife with “slave contracts.”

SM Entertainment is one of South Korea’s most successful and notorious record labels, churning out a constant stream of young stars with manicured images, perfect dance moves, and voices perfected by grueling training. Many of its stars begin their careers as child “trainees” in SM’s “boot camp” training facilities, where they are expected to put in as much as 12 hours a day learning to sing, dance, speak foreign languages, and other music industry skills. The record label has had at least two high-profile artist suicides in the last decade.

Exo is one of SM Entertainment’s flagship bands, currently made up of nine members. The three seeking a release from the record label — Baekhyun, Xiumin, and Chen — have been part of the group since 2012 and said in a public statement through their attorney that part of the reason they want to terminate their contracts is that dubious provisions in the contracts make it possible for SM to keep them tethered to the company for as long as 18 years.

“SM not only required its artists to sign long-term contracts lasting 12 to 13 years but also made them renew their contracts upon expiration, effectively prolonging their contractual obligations for a period of 17 to 18 years,” the attorney, Lee Jae-hak, said, according to the Korean news agency Yonhap. “This constitutes a highly unfair abuse of power by SM toward its artists.”

“Most of the other artists managed by SM are facing a similar situation as far as long-term contracts are concerned,” the attorney alleged.

The South Korean government has traditionally advised record labels not to trap artists with contracts that last longer than seven years, though it has done little to curb the excesses of K-pop record labels for much of the past two decades. The National Assembly addressed labor abuses in the industry only in April, passing a law that protects children in the industry by preventing record labels from keeping them out of school and capping the number of hours artists between the ages of 15 and 19 can work to seven hours a day, not exceeding 35 hours a week. Children aged 12 to 15 can only legally work 30 hours per week, while children under 12 can work up to 25 hours a week.

The Exo members also accused SM Entertainment of hiding critical financial documents that show the band’s revenue and thus should determine their salaries. The attorney said the boy banders requested to see “clear and transparent records” of the finances seven times this year to no avail.

As is tradition in the K-pop world, the Exo members also shared a separate statement apologizing profusely to their fans for the ordeal:

We apologize for causing great concern to fans through this issue, and there is no way to fully express our apology…As we try to speak up with our small voices regarding the unfairness we couldn’t speak of until now, we are actually very frightened and fearful of this moment right now. We hope that you take interest in what we are saying as well as our difficult courage.

SM Entertainment denied the allegations relating to the documents in a statement following the contract termination announcement and dismissed the accusations regarding contract lengths as a scheme by unknown “outside forces” attempting to steal the company’s talent away.

“We have cooperated by allowing access to the settlement data whenever they want,” the SM statement read, according to Yonhap. “We have also provided separate information on expenditure details during each artist’s visit, and there have been no objections raised by the artists regarding the settlement process over the years.”

SM Entertainment accused the “outside forces” of “illegal acts” and promised to retaliate without elaborating.

“We will not sit on the movements of those who pursue the greed of money, and we will take all possible legal measures,” the statement concluded.

On Friday, the Exo members in question rejected the claim that unspecified “outside” individuals were influencing them.

“Baekhyun, Chen and Xiumin have not entered into or attempted any other exclusive contracts besides the existing ones with SM,” a statement from their legal team read. “The artists made requests for financial settlement based on their own decisions and were not influenced by any external forces.”

“Denying document provision is the core issue behind the termination notice, as it violates the artists’ fundamental rights,” it emphasized, reiterating that the excessively long contract time rendered it a “slave contract,” a common term in the K-pop industry. The attorney explained that SM Entertainment sometimes allowed the artists brief peeks at their finances, but not enough to actually analyze the numbers.

“Payment data is supposed to be read through slowly for 30 days, but only allowing artists to glance at it is the agency’s effort to build its justification and say, ‘We showed what we had to,'” the attorney explained, according to the Korea JoongAng Daily. “Knowing SM Entertainment’s intentions, we could not compromise by just ‘reviewing’ the data and not be ‘provided’ it like we asked.”

Exo has already lost three members to contract disputes. Luhan, Tao, and Kris, all three Chinese nationals, successfully sued SM Entertainment in the past decade, two in 2014 and one in 2015.

The legal dispute is the latest black eye for SM Entertainment — called in its heyday “the company that created K-pop” — and a powerful driver of South Korea’s economy. SM has only a handful of legitimate competitors at the scale that it operates in its industry and experienced a stroke of luck when its main competition, YG Entertainment, got caught up in a prostitution scandal in 2019. Dubbed the “Burning Sun” scandal after the Seoul nightclub where the alleged solicitation was occurring, the government of South Korea opened an investigation into then-YG CEO Yang Hyun-suk and one of the agency’s biggest talents, Seungri of the boy band Big Bang, for reportedly offering prostitutes to millionaire VIPs and potential investors at Burning Sun. Some of the women implicated in the scandal claimed to have been raped. Yang was eventually found not guilty but stepped down from running the company. Seungri served 18 months in prison.

While artist abuse and mental health issues are prominent throughout the industry, SM Entertainment has been at the forefront of the K-pop suicide epidemic. In one of the most high-profile losses in the industry, Jonghyun, a member of the boy band SHINee, took his life in 2017 at the age of 27.

“It wasn’t my path to become world-famous,” a suicide note found with Jonghyun reportedly read. “Why did I choose this path? It’s quite funny now that I think about it. It’s a miracle that I endured through it all this time.”

Sulli, a member of the girl band f(x), was found dead with a suicide note in her apartment in 2019. She was 25 and began her career at age 10; she debuted as an artist after her “trainee” stage at age 16.

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