Late last year, I took a look at the “big three” k-pop agencies and offered my thoughts about how they were doing in 2016. Now that a year has passed, it’s the perfect time for a second evaluation.
As with 2016’s review, this is written from an outsider’s perspective. I’m not privy to any business-related financial information beyond what any other fan would know. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well the big three are serving the general k-pop fan-base.
After looking at YG Entertainment earlier this week, it’s time for SM Entertainment:
One thing I’ve always admired about SM Entertainment is that, no matter what the trend of the moment may be, they continue to churn out songs that cater to their weird, ambitious style. And although 2017 has seen the ubiquitous tropical sound affect their music more than I would like, they’re still one of the few agencies that has delivered a truly diverse set of singles. Compare Rookie with Cherry Bomb or Power with Holiday. Their artists’ material has tackled a wide range of genres, driven more by what the artist can bring than what the marketplace is demanding.
Though I would prefer a stronger focus on their established artists (more on that later…), SM has done a solid job developing their new generation. Not all of the singles have been equally strong, but we’ve had an NCT-related comeback four out of the last nine months. Red Velvet has delivered two back-to-back successes, including Red Flavor, which arguably became the song of the summer. Neither of these acts has yet reached the iconic level of their predecessors, but the idea isn’t completely out of the question.
It’s a marvel how consistently solid SM’s albums have been, especially as they continue to rely most strongly on European and American composers. Their “song camp” production strategy threatens to give discographies a real scattershot level of quality, but I guess being the biggest agency in Korea has its advantages. They truly have some of the best talent at their fingertips. Not every SM song is title track worthy, but they have a knack for picking material that doesn’t just amount to pure filler. All of SM’s albums in 2017 have been worth a listen, while a few (The War, Red Summer) have been absolutely outstanding.
And above all, SM still knows how to create idols. As this summer’s Snowball Project mockumentary series displayed, they have a host of multi-talented artists in their roster — as adept at variety show comedy as they are blisteringly cool stage performances. There’s no reason that a young performer like Mark Lee can’t become the agency’s next global superstar if given the right promotion. SM’s future as the leading agency in Korea seems secure.
One of SM’s biggest strengths is its sense of legacy. Beyond a few of its first generation groups, the agency has managed to retain some huge names. Super Junior, TVXQ, Shinee, BoA and f(x) have been supremely underused this year. The first two are forgivable given their mandatory military service, but the fact that 2017 hasn’t yet resulted in a new album from the rest of these icons is downright criminal. The one legacy artist that has enjoyed a comeback is Girls’ Generation, but their promotion felt truncated and phoned in despite having the material to back up a more robust campaign.
The same could be said about the agency’s producers. The SM sound was built by composers like Yoo Young-Jin and Kenzie, and I hate to see their work minimized as the agency moves toward trendier (ie: less interesting) collaborators. I understand the need to keep up with the times, but a greater balance of the two would be appreciated, especially as it feels like SM are catering more and more towards international listeners. I fear that they could eventually lose what makes their sound uniquely Korean.
SM Entertainment has also seemed to struggle with scheduling this year. March through May saw an almost unforgivable lack of substantial releases, ultimately squandering the entire spring season. This left the summer oddly packed, which would have been fine if it didn’t feel like the agency was trying to make up for lost time. SM is usually on the ball about releasing albums consistently. 2017 has felt more problematic.
Last year, SM’s digital Station platform gave us some exciting tracks and collaborations. This year, it’s been mostly a dud. The promise of unique material and unexpected team-ups seems all but extinguished, leaving behind a host of boring ballads and odd spotlights on foreign artists. If this trend is going to continue, I’d rather they just cancel the whole project and focus more strongly on their full-fledged comebacks.
In 2016’s feature, I positioned NCT as one of SM’s biggest strengths. I still think that’s true, but I don’t think their management has been as strong in 2017. Rather than focus on the NCT concept’s scope of unlimited units and sounds, SM has chosen to divert all its attention to the 127 and Dream units. This has resulted in some fantastic music, but it’s all becoming a bit too predictable. With as many members as they have involved in NCT, it feels like a waste of potential to solely engage in 127’s experimental hip-hop and Dream’s sing-along dance pop. Where is NCT U? Where are the foreign units that have been hinted at? And for that matter, where is NCT’s Growl? They’ve yet to find that one song that breaks them into k-pop’s upper echelon, and time is growing short. As powerful an agency as SM is, they simply must have one more world-conquering, vital pop hit in their back pocket. It needs to be given to NCT (preferably the entire group, all units fused into one) right away.