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Article. Lee Yejin
Photo Credit. HYBE LABLES YouTube
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After a three-month journey, The Debut: Dream Academy project to debut a new girl group under HYBE and Universal Music Group subsidiary Geffen Records came to its grand conclusion in the live finale broadcast on November 18 on Weverse and the HYBELABELS+ YouTube channel. Among all those who auditioned, the final lineup of girls set to debut as members of the group KATSEYE have been selected: Sophia, Lara, Yoonchae, Megan, Daniela, and Manon. The very idea of having 20 candidates from around the world try out for a K-pop group that will be based in the United States was already a unique angle. “I’ve dreamt of providing an opportunity to talented young people from all around the world to be members of a fabulous band based on K-pop methodology,” Bang Si-hyuk, HYBE’s chairman, has said, and indeed, Dream Academy was both an experiment and proof that, beyond the global popularity of K-pop artists, the K-pop system can likewise be adopted worldwide. Hopefuls of all different nationalities and backgrounds learned routines by K-pop girl groups like BLACKPINK and LE SSERAFIM, and even performed three songs specially written for Dream Academy: “Girls Don’t Like,” “Dirty Water,” and “All the Same.” It was a new experience for audiences and participants alike, but also for HYBE, who headed up training and development (T&D).

 

It’s common in the US pop music field for labels to recruit and manage artists with proven talent so that they can make their debut right away, so the Korean concept of T&D—where labels discover and foster a range of talents over a long period time to train individuals into becoming artists—is relatively unheard of there. Therefore, Jay Ihn, Head of Creative Production, who was tasked with strategizing for every step of the project, had to establish a system for this international division piece by piece based on the A-to-Zs of the T&D system laid out by the Korean HYBE T&D team. “I had to start by making sure the local T&D team understood the details of HYBE’s T&D system,” Ihn explains. “We put our system in place by holding regular meetings with the T&D team in Korea and swapping specific ideas about the road map and challenges. As a result, our current system shares the same core values as HYBE’s original. The only difference was our approach.” Hints of what they were aiming for can be seen by the criteria they used to select the candidates when scouting and through global auditions. For example, while appearance remained a key factor in finding future idols as has always been the case in the K-pop field, the judges did not limit their selections to any specific criteria. When it came to vocals, however, the judges had clear expectations, evaluating candidates on how well they could sing upbeat pop songs. This, Ihn says, came from the label’s determination to select talented individuals who fit the overall direction they had envisioned for the girl group—one that has “music that’s in line with the pop music local listeners widely prefer, and the overall performance that’s in line with K-pop.” In order to assess whether a candidate had the potential to dance at the level demanded by K-pop, they had those hopefuls who didn’t have any experience dancing follow a simple tutorial so that the judges could check their intrinsic feel for dance. All this is done in an effort to measure the potential that K-pop scouters look for in future artists—a process that Ihn sums up as “a custom version of the HYBE system.”

Dream Academy consisted of three missions—SHOWCASE, TEAM, and ARTISTRY—through which candidates were assessed. The missions allowed the producers to showcase the show’s carefully curated costume and makeup, set design, and camerawork. “We had to try and win viewers over with quality visual appeal after watching just one performance,” Ihn says. “Most importantly, we wanted each performance to show an improvement in quality with each passing mission, ultimately reaching the quality level of a stand-alone production,” meaning that even those candidates who had no dance experience when they came in to audition were expected to reach the desired level through intensive training. According to Missy Paramo, senior T&D program manager for Dream Academy, “at first, the contestants struggled with the synchronization, details, charm, and energy control that is needed to execute intricate K-pop movements,” so they “put in countless hours of training and research.” The training system was individualized to each candidate to focus on where their skills needed brushing up, and as a result, they showed rapid improvement. Shin Seon Jeong, the head of the HYBE T&D department who was in charge of converting HYBE’s original T&D system for use in the Dream Academy project, says that it was “important for the candidates to put aside each of their individual styles for a while to cultivate basic skills necessary for accurate expression of rhythm, beat, and dance until reaching a certain level.” Per Shin’s explanation, in the case of group choreography, everyone has to understand the details down to the exact angle and other nuances, even for something as simple as outstretching the arms. Precision in dance moves, however, is not the ultimate goal of training. “My thinking was, even if they eventually put on some performances that allow some autonomy to each member rather than doing a group dance where they’re all in unison, they still need to be able to control their movements with high accuracy and dance smoothly if they’re going to effectively show how original the group and each of the individuals in it are,” Ihn says. “We train the candidates that way so that their potential can be unlocked. That’s why we provide the groundwork.” Meanwhile, HxG (HYBE and Geffen) drew on their local network to connect candidates with vocal producers and trainers, allowing them to focus on developing vocals that will appeal to American pop listeners.

In order for training to be successful, there must be a focus on the mind in addition to technique. To tailor the systematic educational and management approach within the training program toward people with different cultural backgrounds and musical experience, they had to take a different approach from typical K-pop training. According to Paramo, good mental health is essential for the candidates “to best perform throughout long hours on set and more,” and it “helps ensure they’re performing at their highest capacity.” They also aimed to “prioritize the contestants’ mental and physical health while pushing them to their limits to prepare them for a life and career on the road and in the public eye as a global superstar.” The candidates were assigned specialists with backgrounds in education, life coaching, and counseling who help guide the girls in developing real-world skills. The team reinforced the importance that the existing HYBE T&D system places on counseling for trainees in line with US culture, where particular emphasis is placed on mental health, especially as the candidates were mainly minors.

Thanks to all this planning, the girls didn’t have any great difficulty despite being thrown into an unfamiliar process of rigorous practicing under a tight schedule. Paramo notes that many of them had “a background in a different discipline such as karate, dance, or competitive sports,” which let them understand “that T&D was really preparing them for a career in the entertainment industry. They also helped raise the level of professionalism, standards, and expectations in the program.” The diversity of the candidates, too, helped them adapt to and thrive under the new training system. Differences in cultural background, experiences, and personalities all add to a foundation that contributes to a richer expression of the music, as with candidates who have acting experience and are most used to expressing themselves in front of a camera, for example. Producer Ihn says the straightforward, open attitude that the girls had when talking during their interviews extended to their singing and dancing as well. “The candidates expressed themselves freely, and it was clear they express their individuality through the music, too,” she explains. “We wanted to develop our training methods in such a way that would encourage them to express themselves freely while also allowing them to fully integrate into the group.” Ihn had a number of concerns at the project’s outset about how candidates from such a diverse array of cultural backgrounds would handle K-pop-style T&D, which up until then had been largely restricted to Asian cultures. Now, however, she’s leaning toward the conclusion that “the system can work in this part of the world, too,” adding, “we’ll get a better idea as time passes, but not much has changed so far” since bringing Korean T&D to America. As for the HxG philosophy that was established over time throughout Dream Academy, Paramo reiterates that their “T&D philosophy is to never force the contestants to be someone they are not. We are there to help shape, guide, and develop them, but it should derive from the desire and goal the contestant has for themself.” She adds that “it’s never been the label versus the contestants. We have always worked in tandem under one goal: making the greatest global girl group.” No longer is the notoriously arduous T&D trajectory governing K-pop, as Ihn would put it—a new K-pop system has been born.

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