This article is nowhere near the full picture but it by some means generalizes the big differences between K-pop and C-pop idol industries. It’s as well a simple guide for K-pop fans to get to know C-pop and vice versa.
Idol Management and Training System
K-pop has a professional manufactured idol system that produces young and relatively skilled entertainers while the C-pop idol industry is still immature.
The South Korean idol industry has been around for a long time, now that the industry has established a highly professional manufactured star system. Almost every South Korean idol has to spend at least several years under their companies’ basements to practice hard as trainees before enjoying the stage lights.
They’re professionally and extensively trained not only in vocal, rapping, and dancing skills, but also in stage presence, acting, posing, fans’ services, maintaining public images, and even… how to be interesting in variety shows.
Moreover, the competitions they have to go through to seize the scarce debut opportunities could be just as fierce as survival battles.
The Chinese idol industry has never started to take off until K-pop acts have been prohibited in Mainland China since 2016. However, the immature industry is still looking for its own color and standards.
There are more and more Chinese artist management agencies, and a few prominent ones that could be named are Yuehua, Time Fengjun, and Wajijiwa. Many companies are not comparable to mid-tier South Korean companies in terms of idol training and management, let alone the Big 3 like SM, YG, and JYP.
Yuehua Entertainment manages to apply K-pop practices to its operations as the company is actively learning through partnerships with South Korean companies like Starship, YG, SM, etc. The Chinese company has its trainees cooperatively train under the partnerships showing that there is a shortage of a complete internal training system in Chinese companies.
In recent years, many Chinese versions of the idol survival show “Produce 101” have become hot issues when they made hundreds of no-names rise to stardom in such a short time. Many trainees are still able to make it despite lacking decent singing or dancing skills as long as they know how to make controversial content work for them.
Idols’ Promotional Activities
K-pop provides various resources for systematic promotional activities while C-pop idols seek resources in many other fields since there is not enough space to develop in the idol industry.
Since idol is apparently not a long-term career as fans always crave for younger and fresher idols, K-pop artists usually promote fully as idols in 7-10 years which is an average contract length before retiring (if they had earned enough during their idol time) or developing their long-term career as actors, variety show characters, businessmen, etc.
K-pop idols’ promotion is systematic which comprises many comebacks. A K-pop comeback basically means a new release – a single, an EP (mini-album) or an album.
More than just a release, a typical comeback entails a whole standardized promotional cycle, starting with a stream of concept teaser photos, teaser videos, a tracklist, a highlight video, etc. On the official date, the comeback will be kicked off with a showcase or press conference followed by a digital release together with an MV. Idols will perform their new music for several weeks on various weekly music shows like Music Core, Inkigayo, M Countdown, Show Champion, etc., and join popular variety shows such as Weekly Idol, After School Club, Running Man, etc to promote their release.
They can also get music show wins if their songs do well enough on physical album sales, digital charts (MelOn, Genie, Bug, etc.), Youtube MV views and fans vote. Before a comeback being wrapped up after 2-4 weeks with goodbye stages, there could be a lot of related materials released – dance practices, behind the scenes videos, fancams, etc.
The Chinese music industry has been through downtime with the lack of investment in professional music stages and music production as well as the scarce of prominent young singers. Chinese idols don’t have weekly music shows and many unpopular idols can’t get themselves to big music events.
Nowadays, it’s much easier for celebrities to earn money from film gigs or variety shows than from music due to copyright infringement and the shortage of music stages. Therefore, many idols tend to focus on acting or variety show careers right after getting popular. Idols will be all busy with filming movies and dramas, taking part in advertising or magazine photoshoots, recording variety shows, and attending events instead of concentrating on their music.
The process of releasing new music is quite simple for Chinese idols. There will be several teaser photos or videos ahead of the date. Then the digital single, EP, or album will be released on multiple Chinese music streaming platforms such as QQ Music, NetEase, Kugou, Kuwo, etc. on the release date and on international platforms like Spotify 1, 2 weeks later.
The Chinese platforms are easily dominated by songs released by the biggest liuliangs in the first few days, but that doesn’t necessarily show the popularity of the songs among the general public. Apart from those internationally active, most mainland singers release songs on international platforms to serve their existing international fans without the aim to invest or promote on these platforms.
There might be an MV, if fans are lucky enough, but it probably won’t be uploaded on Youtube officially unless the idols pay attention to the international market, since Youtube is still banned in China. Similarly, there might or might not be a physical album. On top of that, some fans might never be able to listen to the live version of the released songs, simply because their idols don’t have any stage to perform them.
Strong group fandom and multi-fandom are common things in K-pop, while C-pop’s specialty is its aggressive solo stan culture.
What makes K-pop a heaven for idol groups is the strength of whole-group fans. A group of members with different personalities will attract a diverse range of fans. K-pop fans might have their own biases (their most favorite members) but they like all the members and put the benefit of the whole group at the highest priority.
Their solidarity and dedication to the group create a diverse yet powerful force to boost the group’s popularity. For international K-pop fans, it’s also common to belong to multiple fandoms aka a person could like and support multiple groups or idols at the same time.
However, it doesn’t mean solo stans don’t exist in K-pop. When the number of solo stans of an outstanding member heavily exceeds that of her/his group’s fans, the balance of the group will probably be broken and it’ll most likely come to disbandment.
Different from K-pop, C-pop’s solo stans culture is aggressively strong which is directly influenced by the Chinese fandom culture. The solo stans only focus on their idols and ignore the existence of other members.
When solo stans escalated into toxic solo stans (duwei – 毒唯), they do not hesitate to show their loathings to other members or anyone that potentially put their idols at a disadvantage. The abhorrence could lead to real actions like comparing achievements, mocking, or defaming other artists.
Although the solo stans culture might not affect the idols’ relationship, it has a negative impact on the group’s development as a whole. The division and competition lead to the fact that the individual’s reputation surpasses that of the group.
Despite being in a group, an idol might have his/her own staff team and individual opportunities such as variety show appearances, film appearances, solo songs or album releases, etc. to further grow his/her own solo career.
The developed K-pop industry does have its drawbacks, too. Most K-pop idols are too good at maintaining carefully cultivated public images resulting from the almost inhumane idol manufacture. Many suffer from mental health issues due to the general public and fans’ incredibly high expectations of a strict moral code. Series of suicides highlight the pressures on young K-pop idols.
It’s not entirely correct that C-pop idols don’t endure pressure but the loose standards of the industry and the higher tolerance of the general public and fans towards scandals make mental health issues among Chinese idols are not as alarming.
C-pop is growing rapidly following the K-pop model but if its peak would resemble the highly structured and manufactured K-pop is still a question. The great differences in cultures and entertainment landscapes could lead unpredictable scenes in the future.