K-pop is largely a visual medium. It is distinctly different from many other music styles in that it focuses on performance instead of the artists’ vocal or music composition abilities. The genre simply isn’t complete without over-the-top outfits, elaborate stage designs and, the most important element, choreographed dance routines.
Dancers in Korea used to be widely perceived as poor, jobless party people, but that stereotype is slowly fading as the rise of K-pop is recognized more and more.
Choreographer Ryu Jae-jun, 29, otherwise known by his stage name RYU.D, has been exploring how to run a sustainable business through dance. Ryu founded the dance crew Auspicious in 2013 and made it into a corporation in 2018, called Be:Lead Entertainment. Some 30 people work at the agency today.
Be:Lead is proving to be a success, with its revenue this year seeing a 250 percent increase from last year. He says this with a smile today, but it wasn’t always this way.
“Be:Lead came about because there were no other ways to maintain my crew and keep doing what I love,” he told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily on May 2 at a practice room in Gangnam District, southern Seoul.
Auspicious is a dance crew whose members have been denied the chance to debut as K-pop idols and deceived by people within the industry. They came together to form a tight-knit crew, established an agency and then developed the fashion brand, Dauspice, which turned out to be a hit as well.
Below are excerpts from JoongAng Ilbo’s interview with Ryu.
Q. How did you come to start your own business?
A. I started off as a K-pop star trainee at the age of 15. At the time, entertainment agencies were popping up like mushrooms. The agency that I was a part of was relatively new and there were older kids who were getting ready to debut as a group. I was picked to be a trainee because I was good at dancing but there was zero support from the agency. But I still worked hard. One day, they asked me to choreograph moves for the group getting ready to debut. So I choreographed their song and even trained them to do the moves. Then the CEO brought another trainee to me and told me to give that person a lesson. Whenever I would tell the agency that I wanted to debut as well, they would answer that I would with such certainty but it kept getting pushed back. They even told me that I would be able to debut if I recruit trainees to be on my team. I did and we practiced together for a while but after the older group of kids debuted, the agency kicked us out. I felt hopeless and also responsible for bringing in those other trainees just to be kicked out without the chance to debut. So when me and four other trainees were kicked out in 2013, we made our own team. That team was the start of the company Be:Lead.
How did you start your dance career?
One of the first big opportunities in my career was when I was hired to train the boy band NCT at SM Entertainment. Since I had wanted to become an idol so badly, I already had figured out what moves these artists would prefer. So when word got around that my choreography skills reflected the artist’s views and taste, work came flooding in.
You seem busy enough spearheading the dance crew. Why also run a fashion brand at the same time?
I have dancer friends who were part of my dance crew 10 years ago, but as we age, not everyone can continue this job. I would see them worry about how they would make a living in their 30s and 40s. The fashion brand came about to provide these kinds of people with a job after dancing. Today, I have friends who used to be dancers but now work as designers or changed professions to regular desk jobs.
So it wasn’t to make more money?
More than that, it was the responsibility that I felt. It’s why I opened my own company and plan various dance-related content. Dance crews need to constantly work in order for them to make money. By the job’s nature, it is an unstable profession. In order to address that instability, there is no other way than to try other business models as well.
Is your second job as a creative director at another entertainment agency to alleviate that fear?
Partly, yes. But I also had a craving to produce a really great K-pop star. If I was involved in the production of a star that does well, there can also be constant workflow for the dance team. I believe in the synergy that is created when an excellent K-pop act and excellent dancers come together.
It seems like Be:Lead was formed out of those in the industry who had abused their powers.
All sorts of bad things have happened to me. What I can reveal today is only the tip of the iceberg. But those events made me a stronger person. I love dancing and staging, but the reason that I continue to do what I do today is because I want to be a good leader to members of my dance crew. At the very least, I want to make sure that they do not lose money when they leave the company.
Why did you want to be a K-pop idol when you were young?
I fell in love with dancing when I was 13 and just kind of blindly dreamed of becoming a K-pop star since then. I went to an academy to learn, but my parents were financially struggling at the time. The teacher at this academy knew this and she taught me for free for a while. She then suggested that if I want to really debut, I should go into an agency as a trainee because then I wouldn’t have to worry about academy fees. I thought that I would get a chance to learn at an agency so I auditioned and waited.
Has the public’s view of dance changed since “Street Woman Fighter” aired?
The show played a huge part in showing how big a part dance plays in the entertainment industry. That is a huge feat. Even just a few years ago, freelance dancers were thought of as jobless. So the idea of a dance agency is real progress.
What is something in the industry that changed since you began working?
Thanks to older dancers, our payrolls have gone up. If you can work consistently, the pay isn’t bad. It also helps when choreography catches the eye of the public on audition shows like “Queendom,” “Peak Time” and “My Teenage Girl.” Also, in the past, there was a preconception that dancers slack off and party all the time but these days, the public image of dancers has changed into someone who works hard while loving what they do.
You run your own company, work a second job at a different company and do your own work separate from the company. Why work so hard?
I think a lot of it has to do with my anxiety. I’ve thought a lot about how to become an indispensable person. When I was young, every opportunity was valuable. I could never put my phone down because of the thought that I might miss an opportunity to work if I don’t answer a phone call. I go to bed at 5 a.m. and start the day at 10 a.m. Because of the times I spend being so desperate, I think I still live like this, even though things have gotten better. I will probably continue to live like this until I get absolute job security. I still want to grow my company to the size of a large conglomerate.
What needs to be done in order for K-pop dance to move forward?
The current system makes it hard for dancers to talk about the pay they receive from an entertainment agency because it is the agency that gives them the work. There are even instances that dancers don’t get paid because an album got canceled halfway through due to a lack of investments. There is no standard market price for what we do. It is hard to get choreography licensed so when a K-pop act sees financial success, there is no way to share it with other dancers. It is time that we think about how we can create a better and fairer system. There are attempts in the United States to link profits to dancers at the contract stage of an album or a concert, but this is not a general rule. Nevertheless, it is a fact that visual performances contribute to the success of a song. But seeing how composers make hundreds of millions of won while choreographers get only paid once for creating the choreography, I think the system needs improvements.
K-pop is such a competitive field.
It’s true. There is no sure equation for success and there are no rules as to how or how much one succeeds. So it requires an endless amount of time and passion. Passion and work ethic are a given in this industry. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why K-pop saw success.
Are competitions among dance crews also intense?
Dance crews can get more work when they are friendly with other teams. This is because the number of dancers needed for a project can differ each time so there are many instances when we need the help of other crews. Crews can work more and produce better outcomes when they know more about each other. Therefore, collaboration comes before competition.
Who is your role model?
After becoming a trainee, Jay Park has always been my role model. He is still my role model today. I find it inspiring that he debuted twice, made a team then founded a successful label, despite all obstacles. Park is good at doing business but he is also an incredible artist. I recently met him on the set of “Peak Time” and took a selfie with him. He even followed me on my Instagram. As a true fan of his, it was a surreal experience.
BY JEONG YOUNG-SUN [email@example.com]