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Kulture Kolumn: The Show Must Go On

While the global entertainment industry has come to a halt and most celebrities have entered quarantine with us, we haven’t seen the same suspension of activities in South Korea–here’s why

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Riddhi Chakraborty Mar 27, 2020

NCT 127 are among the K-pop stars currently performing at shows like 'Music Bank.'

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As we enter our 21-day lockdown here in India to battle the spread of COVID-19, we join the list of countries around the world that have come to a screeching halt. A global pandemic is a pretty frightening thing to see, considering most of the Earth’s current population has never experienced this form of collective crisis before. It was the cancellation of the Summer 2020 Olympics that really put it into perspective for me; the Olympics have only ever been cancelled or postponed because of World Wars I and II, so to understand that we are truly at that level of emergency had me terrified.

Like many K-pop fans around the world, I have turned to the industry to distract myself from truly losing my mind. Watching Korean variety shows featuring my favorite artists and listening to their music on repeat has proved to be the best way of staying sane and cheerful (and ngl, adding American TV show Brooklyn 99 to the mix makes for a great combo.) Of course this led me to notice that while the entertainment industry came to a halt and celebrities in India and elsewhere began entering self-quarantine, I hadn’t quite seen the same suspension of activities from Korean celebs.

Business as usual

While concerts and fan meetings both in Korea and otherwise have been cancelled or rescheduled, most artists within South Korea have been going about their jobs as usual. Comebacks haven’t slowed down, with releases both from the K-pop and K-R&B side dropping as scheduled over the past couple of months. Several major artists including BTS, EXO’s Suho, Jackson Wang, Kang Daniel, ITZY. NCT 127, DPR Live, SIK-K, Code Kunst and more have released new singles or records in February and March–almost like they were reluctant to let their fans lose out on new music despite the rise of COVID-19 cases in the country. The most fascinating part of it all is the continuation of weekly music performance-based television programs like M Countdown, Music Bank, Inkigayo, The Show and more, whose host networks KBS, SBS and Mnet have proceeded with their schedules, albeit without live studio audiences since February when the COVID-19 outbreak bared its teeth in Seoul. While the elimination of an audience cuts down the plenty of possible routes of infection, there are still massive crews of technicians, management and dancers that are on set. Of course then there’s the idols themselves who are massive in number as several artists arrive to perform at each show.

To get a little clarity on how the networks are protecting these artists and their teams, I reached out to South Korean company ZB Label who manages solo rookie pop star AleXa. She is currently in the middle of promoting her latest single “Do Or Die,” and her schedule demands multiple appearances on all these programs. “All of the music shows are enforcing strict rules and high security for these few weeks,” explains ZB Label head Angelina Foss about the measures taken behind the scenes. “There are absolutely no fans and audience allowed, and temperature checks are conducted whenever entering any rooms backstage. There is hand sanitizer everywhere – it’s been very well handled, and we’re very grateful to be able to continue on with work with safety measures in place.” It’s pretty weird not to hear fanchants and excited screams from a live studio audience, but its a small price to pay to ensure the TV shows are still able to deliver content and provide a platform for artists to show fans the hard work that went into preparing for their comebacks.

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Ready for battle

Of course the shows and various other tapings have proceeded because of the faith most of the population have in South Korea’s outstanding battle against COVID-19. Initially the second-most affected country in the world, South Korea took charge and immediately introduced one of the largest and best-organised programs in the world for testing and treating COVID-19. Over 350,000 people have been tested as of March–the most number of COVID-19 tests conducted in the world–all for free. With so many people getting tested, it makes it easier for officials to track COVID-19 cases to their source, isolate any infected people, then trace and quarantine anyone they had been in physical contact with–all without the drastic measure of quarantining entire cities or the country like China and India are facing now.  “The situation in South Korea seems to be under control, and the government and medical teams are working very hard,” says Foss about daily life in Seoul. “The Korean people are taking every helpful and necessary action to keep things under control, and overall, Korea has been very fast and effective with action. The quarantine could last longer, but at this moment, every sector – including entertainment – is on standby for any necessary action recommended by experts.” This trust in the situation makes it easier for most idols to do their jobs and continue to release material for their fans–just as long as they aren’t gathering in huge numbers, washing their hands regularly and wearing gloves and masks. As of 27th March 2020, South Korea has a case fatality rate of 1.49 percent, which is lower than the WHO’s global case fatality rate of 4.53 percent and making it the ninth out of the top 10 worst affected countries.

According to Foss, entertainment companies like ZB Label are taking several measures to keep their artists and employees healthy while also making it possible for them to continue doing their jobs. Everyone is monitored closely as they go about their work, and large gatherings of any kind have been cancelled. “We are actively checking on all staff, and are kept updated on all developments to ensure the safety of the artists and our team,” Foss shares. “Originally, we had been working on presenting fans with a comeback showcase, but in light of the developing situation, we decided to cancel it. We have been following all of the safety measures suggested by the government.”

What we’re missing out on

Concert and fan meeting cancellations started as early as the first week of February. JYP Entertainment postponed GOT7’s concert in Thailand which had previously been scheduled for February 14th and 15th to May 2020 while YG Entertainment cancelled various February and March shows for WINNER and SechsKies, respectively. “Amidst the worldwide effort to prevent coronavirus from further spreading, YG is also closely monitoring the issue, with our artists and fans’ safety as the primary concern,” the company shared in a statement at the time. Other cancellations include Stray Kids and ATEEZ’s massive European tours, while K-pop juggernauts BTS had to deliver the biggest blow: cancelling their four sold-out stadium shows in Seoul. The four concerts were initially set to kick off the group’s Map of the Soul world tour in April and earlier this morning the group announced the postponement of the North American leg as well. We have also observed the cancellation of press conferences and showcases, leading to minimal interactions between the artists and the media.

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Artists also seem to be on edge, upset about the gap quarantine has put between them and their fans. While they’ve been able to perform and create content unlike many other celebrities around the globe, several idols have commented on the strangeness of performing to empty studios without their fans present. In addition to the crushing disappointment of having to prepare and then cancel their tours, it must be a pretty strange thing to deal with emotionally and psychologically. Earlier this week, BTS released a video statement thanking doctors, nurses and all personnel involved in helping contain the coronavirus and encouraging their fans to stay safe. The members lamented the fact that they couldn’t see any of their fans while promoting their new album Map of the Soul: 7 at various music shows and interviews over the last two months. “Standing on a stage facing empty seats, we realize how precious each moment with you was… As citizens of Korea and of the world, BTS will face this challenge together with all of you.”

While there have been no reports of infected idols so far, we have seen a couple of cases of artists possibly being exposed to the virus–solo artist Chungha put herself in quarantine in early March after two of her staff tested positive for the coronavirus following a trip to Italy, although she herself tested negative. Other artists present in Italy with Chungha included BLACPINK’s Lisa, actress and singer IU and actresses Song Hyekyo and Park Minyoung, causing fears that they might have been exposed to the virus as all artists had reportedly stayed at the same hotel but far we haven’t heard word from the artists. They have all been posting on social media as usual, so the assumption is that they are in good health.

Making the best of things

Of course while releases are proceeding as usual, it’s impossible to know when we’ll be able to attend concerts and comeback stages again and interact with our favorite artists in-person. Like most artists worldwide, Korean celebrities have been participating in more livestreams and creating daily vlogs to keep fans updated. All artists and labels have been encouraging their fans to follow good hygiene and safety protocols through messages on social media, understanding that while they are able to follow a somewhat regular schedule, the same isn’t true for many of their fans across the planet. “We are working hard on presenting fans with entertaining and powerful performances for AleXa’s “Do Or Die” stages, and AleXa is on social media as often as she can to communicate with fans and keep the mood up,” says Foss.

BTS performing “Black Swan” without a live studio audience at music show ‘M Countdown.’

As of now, it’s difficult to tell how we will pull through this as a planet, but South Korea (along with Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam)’s swift way of tackling the situation over the past couple of weeks has shown that there is hope. In the meantime the best thing we can do is stay at home, wash our hands and keep our spirits up–perhaps by watching new music videos, comeback shows and other content our beloved K-pop stars are still able to give us.

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