Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2018: SM ENTERTAINMENT

In what has become an annual tradition, it’s time to take a look at K-pop’s biggest agencies and offer my 2018 verdict. First up is SM Entertainment.

As usual, the thoughts are my own and aren’t privy to any insider information. I’m not taking into account things like profits and stock value. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well K-pop agencies are serving their artists and fans.

The Good

Though far from being a watershed year for SM Entertainment, 2018 has seen some notable gains for the agency’s youngest artists. Red Velvet have solidified their success, going from one hit to another. Even though this summer’s Power Up didn’t have the iconic power of last year’s Red Flavor, the charts absolutely loved it. NCT are also on the verge of breaking through — if they haven’t already. After all, the concept of “breaking through” has changed a lot since EXO dropped Growl back in 2013, and SM’s heavy investment in NCT seems to be paying off slowly but surely.

Few of this year’s K-pop projects were quite as exciting as NCT 2018. The album finally brought all of the NCT units together, while giving each a moment to shine. The months-long volley of high budget music videos felt as ambitious as the NCT concept is meant to be, and resulted in one of the year’s most consistent albums.

Last year, I criticized the agency for neglecting its legacy artists. And although f(x) remains to be seen, 2018 has resulted in multiple comebacks from BoA and Super Junior, as well as the return of TVXQ (more on them later). The quality of their material has been hit and miss, but it’s a joy to see these older artists being given their due.

SM (and K-pop as a whole) entered the year awash in tragedy as everyone struggled to come to turns with the passing of SHINee’s Jonghyun. Back in January, it was hard to imagine what SHINee’s activities could look like in 2018. But, the group’s Story of Light was the perfect celebration of their tenth anniversary. SHINee had an entire month to themselves, allowing for the full-fledged campaign they deserved. Add to that upcoming solo work from members Key and Onew and the group has been surprisingly active this year.

“Active” is a good word for SM as a whole. They’ve always been a prolific agency, and this year has been no different. Both Korean and Japanese comebacks have been frequent, with most acts receiving more than one this year. I love that the agency is bringing in the legendary Yoo Young-Jin to assist with more of their tracks. He and NCT seem to be a match made in heaven, and I hope he will move into an even more active role next year.

In short, SM seems well-positioned for the future, but they haven’t forgotten the acts that brought them to success in the first place.

The Bad

Scheduling continues to be an issue for SM. At times, 2018 has felt very unbalanced. The agency bypassed the important month of July altogether, while lumping comeback after comeback together during months like November. This has blunted some album campaigns, making them feel less special than they should. Some artists haven’t promoted their tracks at all. I would’ve loved some Oh!GG performances.

Coming into the year, the comeback I was most excited for was TVXQ. They’d been away for over two years, and deserved the kind of majestic, throw-down-the-gauntlet return befitting their stature. While their 2018 music was okay, I think SM dropped the ball by giving them a more subdued sound. The Chance of Love felt like their most underwhelming title track in years, when it should have been a huge moment.

This brings to light a criticism I have with SM’s approach to music. Their discography remains consistently strong, but I fear that their “song camp” style of composing is starting to show cracks. Sometimes, it feels like there are too many cooks in the kitchen. Collaboration is great, but when there are five or six composers on a single track, you start to lose a bit of individuality. Most of the agency’s classic tracks were composed by a very small group of talent. This may explain why so many of NCT’s titles are following a similar hip-hop template, no matter which unit is performing. SM’s music remains weird, but I fear that the consensus-building that comes along with group collaboration may only water down the final product and end up kowtowing to current trends. In other words, let Yoo Young-Jin compose a song by himself! We know he can do it. And while we’re at it, bring back the light funk-pop as a counter to all the moody hip-hop.

Speaking of trends, I fear that SM is becoming too eager to follow a BTS-style route to American success. Their positioning of NCT 127’s latest album felt overly calculated, releasing and promoting an English-language version of their title track and courting U.S. media. I may be in the minority here, but more often than not American success tends to come at the expense of the aspects I love most about K-pop. I get that NCT is meant to go global, but let international fans do the exciting work of discovering their Korean discography. We don’t need English versions. And come to think of it, I don’t think we need “Super Junior does Latin” either — at least not on a permanent basis.

Finally, it’s hard not to talk about SM’s 2018 without mentioning their most successful group, EXO. As military enlistment looms for certain members, EXO is at a turning point. I think it was a mistake to wait until November before releasing anything from the group, even though solos and sub-units kept us busy the rest of the year. It remains to be seen how the rest of their repackage/tour/etc campaign plays out, but I hope they are given the focus they deserve before members begin to go on hiatus.

2018 Grade: B


12 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2018: SM ENTERTAINMENT

  1. Thank you for your 2018 review of SM Entertainment, Nick. I appreciate your insight. It pretty much follows my love/hate feelings toward SME. Please keep up the good work. I hope you do a review of PlanA.


  2. As an avid EXO fan.. I have spent too many tears over them this year already…my grievances aren’t just about my disbelief at the incompetence of the company but at the greed for money and the glaring apathy for the artists and us, their consumers.

    All that aside:

    I sometimes don’t understand what goes in SM’s minds .. Whoever is taking all these decisions about promoting and scheduling or setting goals for different groups either has a very weak grasp of the current kpop scene and market trends… Or is just ….shameless.

    I too feel that SM is losing its identity among foreign producers and also…the Uniqueness? in constantly churning out music like a factory. The biggest problem right now is SM has too many active groups and all of them have begun to sound and look the same… Besides 2/3 prominent acts, every other comeback looks like a mediocre budgeted cash grab kf a show to ensure their older artists keep bringing money from new tours.
    There is no soul in kpop music.. I know.. But SM music has become so synthetic sounding ever since they started fully depending on writing camps.

    Their scheduling is terrible. Their promotion strategies are getting lazier… They need to revv it up.


  3. Strongly argued analysis, perfect (as always) in its takeouts and key learnings.
    I am (I was?) a big fan of SM. SM Town is one of my absolute musts everytime I go to Seoul, but this year I felt like they didn’t learn any previous lesson at all, from Jonghyun’s passing to roadmap schedule.
    Of course, if we simply look at sales, charts and views we can’t say they were right and did well.
    But I guess the massive comebacks of their main acts could cause a boomerang effect on both their health and their interest on a long tale scenario.
    Not to mention how badly this got reflected on the average quality of productions, each of them composed/arranged/choreographed/filmed/edited in no more than fifteen minutes, judging by the lack of creativity and relevance in music and videos (SHINee’s and EXO’s title tracks had probably the cheapest MVs of any other top seed KPop group all year long).
    Some stuff wasn’t actually that bad, but having clustered artists in specific music genres (Super Junior = latin, SHINee = tropical, EXO = midtempo, EXO CBX = funky, NCT = hip hop and Red Velvet = bubblegum) is an unexplainable strategic move compared to the brilliant versatility that all of them highlighted throughout their careers (including NCT, although they’re the youngest in the line-up).

    I hope in 2019 SM – and its artists – can stop for a while, take a deep breath and escape the loop. Otherwise, the risk is to become a merchandising store instead of an entertainment agency.


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  5. “SM is becoming too eager to follow a BTS-style route to American success.” only they’re not following bts style as bts never originally promoted with an english song they were basically imported by the fans and this is what every agency should do, they’re just copyig bighit’s tactics with friday releases, sns content etc but a lot more calculated so it doesn’t feel genuine…..i think SM out of all companies is the most visionary one, they always have the best concepts and most…interesting music but what i hate is that the tracks they produce are not unique to their artists, like you can hear an exo song and think this was definitely for nct or shinee or even red velvet…i think if they fixed that, they’d be the best idol company


  6. I enjoyed the article, good points made throughout. I will say SM isn’t the only label copying BigHit style. That labels one group up-ended the Korean music entertainment model for the past 3 years, and they scared everyone with their global dominance… probably SM, JYP, YG, etc always thought they would reign supreme because of the larger than life budgets…so, now their in a desperate race to pump out music and videos and merch all over the globe to counter what BTS did in such a short span of time ..which wasn’t short at all.
    As soon as labels like SM start allowing there artist more genuine creativity, which I haven’t seen instead of that do as I say format they, will be better off…I just watched EXO do a Vlive similar presentation called Mugi-box, which appeared to be a copy of BTS Anniversary Vlives…and I couldn’t even get through 10 minutes of it, because it felt forced…which is easy to pick up, when Suho starts talking…and looking nervous and panicked when the scripted material is not read right or Baekhyun strts to feel relaxed and is not sitting up properly, or Kai is rocking back and forth like his ADHD is getting the better of him, or Xiumin looking less than excited to participate in any of these things or D.O and then you’re missing 2 members….it was a hard 10 minutes…at some point I’ll go back and finish it.

    I’ve never been into the female artist… something about them is to bubblegum and fake to me…overly scripted concepts and the choreography, outfits…blah, blah, blah….no originality.

    Anyways, you were generous with your grade …I would have give a C+.


    • Wow… Mugi-box has been around for a while, and shouldn’t be considered a copy of whatever show BTS put out. It’s not original, exciting, or genuine but that’s just SM’s usual take on self-produced variety shows. It seems your whole comment centered on what you think SM did as an aftereffect of what BTS did? Sounds more self-assuring overall than analytical to me. Your last paragraph does no justice whatsoever to Red Velvet and all of SM’s line-up of female artists; it makes me think you barely care for SM acts. Red Velvet’s “The Perfect Red Velvet” is the antithesis to your “bubblegum and fake” opinion, and your “no originality” is an unexplained, flat-out dismissive conclusion that has little evidential substance in my mind. Please tell me what made you think that low of “the female artist”.


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