[INTERVIEW] 'K-pop labels will hire more foreigners to manage stars' - Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] 'K-pop labels will hire more foreigners to manage stars'

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Lee Sang-hwan, co-founder and CEO of Conexus Lab, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at his company's headquarters in Dongdaemun District in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min
Lee Sang-hwan, co-founder and CEO of Conexus Lab, speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times at his company's headquarters in Dongdaemun District in Seoul. Korea Times photo by Kim Kang-min

By Dong Sun-hwa

K-pop is not all about singers ― there are countless unsung heroes working behind the scenes to produce and promote albums who dedicate their sweat and tears. And with K-pop sweeping the world off its feet, more people are craving to carry out such a mission at K-pop record labels that incubate and manage stars.

There is good news for them: music powerhouses here have ramped up hiring as they balloon in size. In the case of HYBE, home to phenomenal boy group BTS, the company currently has more than 60 job openings. In fact, the total number of its employees is 456 this year ― a leap from 73 in 2017.

With many companies expanding their businesses overseas, an increasing number of opportunities are now open to foreigners, says Lee Sang-hwan, co-founder and CEO of Conexus Lab, which was founded in 2019 to provide educational resources for those seeking jobs in the lucrative K-pop industry. Prior to establishing Conexus Lab with his partner Kim Sung-kuk, Lee worked in human resources in many companies ― including HYBE, CJ ENM and JTBC ― for more than a decade.

"The number of foreign employees in K-pop labels is growing these days and is likely to keep rising," Lee said in a recent interview with The Korea Times at his company's headquarters in Dongdaemun District in Seoul. "JYP Entertainment, which houses megastars like TWICE and Stray Kids, recently posted job openings exclusively in Japan to hire workers for its Japanese subsidiary. SM Entertainment, a label behind hotshots like EXO and NCT, said in its latest job opening announcement that foreigners are also eligible to apply for the positions. In the coming years, I think the companies might even consider writing the job advertisements only for foreigners."

According to Lee, many foreign employees are currently in charge of star management, marketing or overseas business at their labels, as they have a good command of different languages including Korean, as well as an in-depth understanding of various cultures.

"But the applicants from abroad need to go head-to-head with Koreans," he noted. "They have to write their resumes and cover letters in Korean and meet the basic qualifications specified in job descriptions. If they are applying for a marketing position, for instance, they should know how to use Google Analytics and have some photoshop skills, just like other Korean jobseekers."

To give them a helping hand, Conexus Lab launched a new service, Oct. 5, offering educational materials for non-Korean speakers wishing to work at K-pop powerhouses. Until recently, all of its online lectures ― delivered by seasoned music industry insiders ― were only available in Korean, but Lee added English, Japanese and Vietnamese subtitles, among others, to reach more people around the world. All the lecturers, including Lee, have multiple years of experience in the K-pop scene and are current or former employees at top-tier companies like JYP.

Through these lectures, foreign job hunters will not only be able to keep abreast of the latest news about the K-pop industry and major record labels, but also get special tips on how to join big companies. The lectures also touch on the issues related to visas and everyday life in Korea. But the content about different positions ― such as A&R (artists and repertoire) and public relations representatives ― will be released only if there is sufficient demand.

"Once Korea turns the corner on the protracted COVID-19 pandemic, we will run the 'Study Abroad Program' in cooperation with some universities here, inviting foreigners to visit Korea and get employment education," Lee said.

"I believe there will be good demand for our service, given that we already have around 390,000 followers on our social media accounts, where we provide K-pop news for foreigners. It seems people in Vietnam, Thailand and Japan have the greatest interest. I think the demand will gradually grow, because more K-pop labels are launching their groups in countries other than Korea, as evidenced by the case of JYP's all-Japanese girl group NiziU."

To date, some 300 Koreans have landed jobs at K-pop labels, thanks to his advice. Lee, who used to give lectures for them on diverse platforms, decided to found his own company and work more systemically after realizing the K-pop industry was facing some hurdles.

"K-pop companies are mostly veiled in secrecy, because being confidential is often the key to their management," he pointed out. "So far, they have not actively devised strategies for recruitment marketing due to their culture of secrecy, hindering job hunters from obtaining necessary information and finding out whether they are a good fit for the company. To me, it looked like the K-pop industry was not mature enough in terms of human resource management, despite the roaring K-pop boom. So I decided to establish Conexus Lab to help people overcome information asymmetry with reasonably-priced content," he said.

In addition, Lee has inked deals with more than 20 K-pop labels to make educational content for their current employees, who aim to take a further leap with their careers.

"We will continue to expand ourselves and create educational content for people in the fields of culture," he added.

Wrapping up the interview, Lee gave a words of advice for those looking for a job in the K-pop industry, which is not all glitz and glamour.

"Working at K-pop labels mean you do not have a 9-to-6 work schedule," he said. "Employees are extremely hectic when singers gear up for their new albums; they often have to stay overnight to complete their projects. But this is something inevitable. On top of that, their initial salaries may not be high compared to those offered in other industries, but once they prove their abilities and earn recognition, they will soon see a big salary increase."

He continued, "It is also interesting to note that some companies prefer hiring their stars' fans for obvious reasons, while other do not."

Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr

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