K-Pop idol groups have only been around for a few decades, but in that short time, so much has changed. In an episode of YouTube‘s new documentary series, K-Pop Evolution, one of South Korea’s first-ever idols—H.O.T.‘s Tony An—revealed what the scouting and training systems were like back then in the 90s.
Debuting in 1996, H.O.T. is widely considered to be the first-ever K-Pop idol group. SM Entertainment‘s founder Lee Soo Man created the group after polling high school students to find out what their ideal band would look like. Tony An was the last member to be recruited into the group, but the way he first entered the company was a little different to how idols are cast today.
These days, most aspiring stars are cast in one of two ways: they’re either scouted in public by recruiters, or they’re chosen through auditions publicized online. Tony An was also an auditionee, but he found out about the audition in a truly old-school way: a newspaper.
Raised in the U.S.A, Tony An had recently graduated high school at the time. In K-Pop Evolution, he revealed that he wanted to be a singer, but admitted, “It was almost impossible for a Korean in America.” Eventually, he began debating going to college or getting a job. But, his luck turned around when he was looking through job postings in the newspaper and came across an advertisement for an audition.
That audition, held in Los Angeles, was for Lee Soo Man’s new group. Tony An divulged that he didn’t think he sang well at the audition because of nerves, but that didn’t seem to matter. While aspiring idols these days often go through several rounds of auditions and have to wait for callbacks before they’re cast, Lee Soo Many called Tony An the same day to offer him a contract.
I don’t know why, but Lee Soo Man called me that same day and told me he wanted to sign me.
— Tony An
Back then, Lee Soo Man had already produced a singer and rapper—Hyun Jin Young—under the label SM Studio. However, this was to be his first group. These days, SM Entertainment is known as one of the biggest and most popular music companies in South Korea, but things weren’t always that way.
When I first met Lee Soo Man, I was a big fan of his. When he produced Hyun Jin Young, he introduced Black music to Korea.
— Tony An
Recalling his past in the documentary, Tony An explained that SM Entertainment “wasn’t a big agency back then.” In fact, in his opinion, the system was quite disorganized. On top of that, there was no such thing as vocal training, so the members didn’t receive the rigorous singing lessons SM Entertainment is known for today.
It left much to be desired.
— Tony An
Ultimately, Tony An says that the idea of an idol group didn’t even exist back then. Fellow H.O.T. member Kangta, who also appeared on K-Pop Evolution, agreed, stating, “We were the first case where a bunch of young members debuted as a group.” If it weren’t for H.O.T., fans might not have so many of the groups they know and love today.
Lee Soo-Man showed us the direction we should go. He tends to challenge some things that other people think are too risky.
— Tony An