K-Pop is an agency-driven genre, meaning that what gets put into the market is often expertly crafted by a team of individuals and hoisted upon a group/artist who then takes it to the next level with their talent and charisma. This doesn’t necessarily take art out of the equation, but it does create an environment where trends and images are (mostly) in the control of a few powerful groups of producers and marketers. Given this, I thought it would be a good idea to check in with some of the genre’s biggest influencers and evaluate how they’re doing so far in 2016.
After looking at YG’s 2016 output last month, it’s time to take a look at SM Entertainment.
Above all else in 2016, SM Entertainment is testing new ideas. In a genre that thrives on following trends, that in itself should be applauded. Even if the quality of music from their weekly Station platform has been pretty hit or miss, the fact that they’ve actually stuck to releasing a special digital single each week of the year is a testament to how tight of a ship they’re running. This platform in particular has allowed the agency to branch out in sound, show off some of their lesser-known artists, and pair with other companies. It’s also resulted in a few amazing releases that have given the agency more leverage over the digital market, even as they remain strong with physical sales.
Their NCT project is another way SM is positioning themselves at the forefront of k-pop’s future. When I first heard about the concept – a group with unlimited members and units – I thought it would be overly confusing and unwieldy. But by offering free web-based variety shows on video services like vlive and gradually introducing unique units under the NCT brand, it’s actually felt the exact opposite. It’s clear that the agency has a vast stockpile of highly talented male trainees, but they’ve also shown an engaging sense of personality and charisma that makes NCT feel less like a product and more like a familiar group of friends. I expect that in their second year, the guys will begin to experience the explosive popularity and expansion that so often happens with SM acts. The idea itself feels uniquely exciting and potentially limitless in scope.
SM Entertainment’s scheduling has also been a strong factor in their success this year. They’ve long driven the market through the sheer ubiquity of their releases. On average, fans can expect a new album or single by an SM artist every couple of weeks (more if you count Station). This allows the agency to equitably promote their groups. With a few prominent exceptions, 2016 has seen most of their artists get to have at least one comeback, whether solo or as a group. And more often than not, these are mini or full albums. That’s not to say that everything SM releases is perfect, but at least there’s a lot to choose from. If something is not to your taste, there’s bound to be more material coming down the pike.
In addition to being prolific, SM releases are teased only days before they come out. I’ve seen some fans complain that this minimizes the time that SM has to pre-promote important tracks and albums, but the agency has honestly attained such a level of notoriety that they can get away with it. I’ve never been a fan of endless, month-long teasing. A week is about enough time for me, and SM seems to have found the sweet spot.
SM has always relied heavily on foreign composers, and when they find one they like, they tend to saddle more than one of their artists with the same sound. In the past, this actually worked in their favor. Producers like Yoo Young-Jin and Thomas Troelsen have such a unique musical sensibility, and it helped SM as an agency develop their overall sound. But now that that sound has moved even more internationally-minded, many of SM’s tracks sound like European or American songs performed in Korean. This doesn’t mean that they’re inherently bad – just maybe a bit less surprising and avant garde than older material.
Over the past year in particular, SM has shifted heavily into EDM and 90’s dance music as their aural touchstones. It’s gotten to the point where many of their most notable artists have transitioned to this sound, leaving behind what made them unique in the first place. SM has such amazing groups, but they’re strongest when they’re releasing music that is distinctly theirs – not a template that could have been performed by any other group out there. LDN Noise has given SM some absolutely amazing songs, but it’s time to diversify and distinguish between their roster of artists.
Most of SM’s approach to scheduling belongs in the plus column, but this year we’ve started to see some very YG-like delays. Some have been due to injuries, which is understandable, but other releases have been pushed back by a month or two without any clear reason. They’re still an agency that’s remarkably on the ball about these things, but I’d hate to see delays like this become more common as they branch out to even more avenues.
2016 Grade: B+
NEXT: Find out what I have to say about JYP Entertainment!