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.
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.
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.