Why I Hate Music Shows, Part 1: Meaningless Competition

During the promotion cycle, Kpop idols perform almost every day as part of a series of music shows. Inkigayo, Music Bank, Show! Music Core, M! Countdown, Show Champion, and The Show all purport to be a barometer of success in the Korean music industry. The idols perform as much as six times a week to screaming fans, hundreds of them live and millions over broadcast TV. The fans go wild. They vote. Idols win. They thank us. They cry. The only problem? All of it is meaningless.

Look, I’m no grouch. I’m no anti-fan and I can’t stand netizens. But I’ve got a major bone to pick with Kpop music shows, and I’m going to spell out my gripes in a multi-part series. Why? Because someone’s got to do it. More seriously, though, music shows have earned their importance in the sphere of Kpop through our rabid and unthinking attention. If there’s even the smallest, tiniest chance that turning a critical lens on these music shows could force them to change for the better, then I believe we’ve got to try.

In parts one and two of the series, I’ll explore how music shows fail to satisfy the three basic requirements of a meaningful contest: positive reward structure, even competition, and publicly disclosed and quantifiable methods of judgment.

No Positive Reward Structure

One of the first tenets of a meaningful contest is that there be the promise of a real reward for the winner. Even among friends, the first question after a challenge is suggested will inevitably be, “what will I win?” The promise of a reward ensures that there is ample motivation among all competitors. This reward can take many forms, the most common of which is either a monetary prize or some kind of exclusive recognition. Often it is both. For example, the winner of the Pacquiao / Mayweather, Jr. fight won the title of welterweight champion, a snazzy emerald-studded belt, and a percentage of revenue estimated to rise to a cool $700 million. That kind of money is an extreme case, yes, but even the winner of the Dota 2 Championships in Seattle this past month was competing for a prize of about $18 million. Money, as most of us can attest, is a real motivator.

Monetary prizes from Kpop music shows, on the other hand, are organized under the category of “talent fees.” In other words, a group or artist might get paid to appear on the show, but that fee has nothing to do with winning or losing. More problematically, the fee is low enough that smaller entertainment agencies have repeatedly complained that the fees do not even cover the cost of preparations for appearing.

But money isn’t everything, right? Increasingly, in the modern era, the monetary prize has become secondary as part of the reward structure. Yes, there is a monetary prize for winning the Champions League in European soccer (about $60 million goes to the club), but for the majority of players, the money they earn through advertising deals or expanded contracts is worth far more than victory in that particular competition. These tangential earnings make monetary rewards much less important in many modern competitions. But tangential earnings, not being directly tied to the competition itself, cannot be treated as a factor in meaningful competition. Lebron James and Steph Curry did not face off in the NBA finals for the chance to represent Nike in TV ads. Instead, for many contests, recognition is the main reward.

Consider the Olympics, a competition which offers an amusingly small amount of cash to victors (Americans earn $25,000 for gold). However, the recognition which these athletes receive is great enough that a significant reward structure is still in place. Positive recognition in competition is based on earning the exclusive right of some superlative moniker (e.g. “gold medalist,” “champion,” “world’s greatest,” etc.) for a specific period of time. And that period of time must be sufficiently long that the victor is able to benefit from such a title, typically at least one year (this is where those tangential earnings come into play).

Compare that to the recognition earned by winners of Kpop music shows. Champion for one week is not a sufficiently powerful motivator. And when you consider the number of music shows every week, and how the cast of competitors hardly changes from day to day, for many groups, it’s more likely they will be considered champions for a day. A single day. To put this in perspective, every fan of American football could tell you who the most recent Super Bowl champions are. I doubt any Kpop fan could reliably tell you the winner of Show! Music Core for any specific week in the last year.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether a single victory in a music show would have any bearing on potential earnings through advertisement or sponsorship deals. While a victory does represent some measure of success, it is hardly a recognition that offers any kind of exclusivity when there will be upwards of three-hundred victors in a single year. There are much better measures of success in the music industry, including album sales, streaming numbers, concert tickets, and size of fandom. Even tangential rewards are an unlikely result from music shows.

Unfortunately, the only real reward structure for Kpop music shows is a brief validation and fleeting “good feelings” for the victor. Those are not un-powerful things. We’ve all seen the videos of idols breaking down into tears after their first victory. But those feelings must be extremely short-lived when the idols are expected to perform in an almost identical competition the very next day. Is it any wonder that we talk about burnout and the need for idols to rest after the promotion cycle? The only reward seems to be that they were allowed to compete in the first place, a dubious reward to be sure.

Lack of Even competition

Okay, so the motivation to win might be lacking in music shows, but at least we still get to witness our idols duking it out in a fair competition. Right? Um, sure, if your idea of a fair fight is to pit Exo against a nugu in a popularity contest. Anyone familiar with Kpop music shows will be aware of one very simple fact: the biggest groups almost always win.

Let’s get one thing perfectly straight here. There is no judgment of music, talent, or performance on any of the Kpop music shows. The victor is determined purely based on purchases, views, and votes, none of which is an inherent indicator of the quality of the release. These three factors are, however, indicators of popularity and of fan engagement.

The Kpop groups with larger fandoms have an obvious advantage in music shows. And if you don’t think about it too hard, that makes sense. If you have more fans, you must have earned them through your music, so it’s an earned advantage, right? Completely fair.

Yes and no. In an even contest, there must be rules and mitigating factors in place that level the playing field. Just because the New York Yankees have more money and more fans, it doesn’t mean they start the game with more runs. It doesn’t mean that if their fans buy enough commemorative bobble-head dolls and ice-creams in plastic replica caps that their team stands a greater chance of winning on that day. But in music shows, purchases, views, and votes are all easily manipulated by fandoms, and the group with the most fans will almost always win.

Engagement matters too. As we’ll see in part two, many of the factors that influence outcomes are spammable. Five million YouTube views does not mean five million unique views, and twenty thousand album sales does not mean twenty thousand unique sales. A well-organized fandom can challenge a larger fandom and win. The only problem here is that the largest fandoms in Kpop (e.g. SONEs, EXO-L, ELFs, VIP, Shawols, etc.) are also the most organized.

What I’m really getting at here is that the performance of the idols on these music shows is in no way related to the results of the contests. A popular group could give the worst performance of their lives and still come out on top. That’s because almost all of the “points” awarded in music shows are based on factors that happen outside of the competition. The music shows are a facade, a veil. They masquerade as competition, but are nothing of the sort.

But what, then, are music shows? Are they a weekly tally of the most popular group? Well, no, because the popular groups tend to avoid one another to ensure no embarrassment is meted out. The music show, to give one definition, is a weekly affirmation of the established groups over their subordinates. It is a repeated reinforcement of the status quo and the current power structure that exists in Kpop. It is a constant reminder of the Kpop hierarchy and of our place within that system (very, very low - we are the mob, granted only the right to be entertained). But expecting even competition? Not a chance.

Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which we’ll tackle the system of judgment!

Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.


  1. This is amazing work. I really just have to share this. This puts so much on my mind. I got into Kpop before these music shows started taking over back in 2003. There were only TWO major music shows. Back then, they didn't matter as much. Now, it's like everyone is begging and praying for an "all-kill". I miss the days before music shows mattered.

  2. I also want to add...What up Chi-town!!!

  3. I also want to add...What up Chi-town!!!

  4. This is amazing work. I really just have to share this. This puts so much on my mind. I got into Kpop before these music shows started taking over back in 2003. There were only TWO major music shows. Back then, they didn't matter as much. Now, it's like everyone is begging and praying for an "all-kill". I miss the days before music shows mattered.

  5. Okay, first question, how much do K-Pop idols make annually? I don't mean soloists, I mean the big groups; how much does each member from the big groups make?
    If you win, you win by popularity of what exactly? Visuals and images. It's all about looking great, wearing the right thing, and avoiding scandals of any sort. In K-Pop, even if you meet the criteria, it stills depends on competition for the winner to emerge. Over time if the group or soloist keeps winning, their popularity grows and it's more likely that they will win the music shows.
    BUT think about the number of rookie groups debuted every year. And it's not that many groups who can stay on the top forever. Most companies end up losing money, and many groups are starting to disband.
    The popularity you gain from it is astounding, but the idols have to deal with sasaeng fans and stalkers, if you would even call them fans. For their image, boys and girls, at young ages, must start going on diets to lose weight as preparation for their new comeback. On top of that, they must do everything their company tells them to do, even if they don't get enough money. They have to, because they're under contracts nearly like slave contracts. During their pre-debut training, trainees get reprimanded pretty harshly. In Korea, punishments can get physical, and there isn't much room for mistakes, if any. (My parents are Korean, so I do know a "bit" about it...) Idols get rewarded nearly never, and it's truly only the fans that keep them going, NOT the sasaeng fans, just to clarify.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Share This Page

Listen to the Podcast