It’s that time of year again! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at many of K-pop’s biggest agencies and offering my thoughts about how their 2019 went. 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.
In a year full of scandals and drama, 2019 felt pretty stable for SM Entertainment. Apart from an unforeseen tragedy last month, it was mostly business as usual, with artists all receiving a comeback or two.
Though I was not a fan of the actual music, EXO’s first foray into solo releases was a big commercial success. Chen has carved a nice niche as a balladeer, while Baekhyun and EXO-SC appealed to trends and sold a ton of albums as a result. As we wait for the group’s next full-length album, hype seems to be as high as ever despite two popular members enlisting earlier in the year.
While it’s becoming clear that NCT will never match the Korean success of EXO, the project has done a good job reaching out into (some) international markets. With the debut of a Chinese unit (WayV), the guys have laid roots in an incredibly lucrative country, and the music’s been better than expected too. I remain leery about NCT’s expansion into the West, but their world tour seemed to be a success (at least if the Vancouver stop is anything to go by!). NCT Dream has proven to be an unexpected powerhouse, selling more than NCT 127 this year despite less promotion.
As SM’s only functioning girl group (more on that later), Red Velvet continue to do well for the agency. Their musical quality has always been consistent, and their double whammy of ReVe Festival releases was a great way to blanket the summer with their brand. Expansion into the Japanese market also seems to be going well.
Though TVXQ didn’t release any Korean material this year, 2019 did see a long-awaited solo debut from Yunho. This mini album was a great way to showcase a classic TVXQ sound, and sold well. Meanwhile, the duo continued to dominate Japan, releasing a landmark album last month and making all sorts of money through touring.
SM’s other veteran group, Super Junior, were finally able to release their first album after all members completed their military service. They’re one of the few K-pop acts to get to this stage in their career, and are still going strong. Their music has been hit-or-miss, but the establishment of their own sub-label four years ago has allowed them to get it out there quite frequently. They’re in the “victory lap” stage of their career, and seem to be enjoying it.
SM’s biggest gamble this year was the launch of super group SuperM. We could debate the level of commercial success that this project garnered for the agency, but I found the resulting music to be quite exciting. I was VERY skeptical when this was announced – especially when we learned that SuperM would be targeting the American market – but I was pleasantly surprised by what SM ended up delivering. Instead of trying to appeal to American trends, the album went as “K-pop” as it could go, acting as an introduction to the SM sound without pulling punches. If the agency sticks to its guns, I think this project has a lot of potential.
Let’s start with the gender imbalance of SM’s current line-up. Rumors have been swirling for years about the debut of a new girl group, and I think that move is long overdue. Apart from soloists, Red Velvet is currently bearing all the weight when it comes to female-led releases. Despite launching as a sub-unit last year, Oh!GG never followed up their debut with anything in 2019. And now that SM has lost f(x), the time is right for a new girl group to compete with the likes of Twice and BLACKPINK.
Speaking of f(x), we can’t ignore the tragic passing of Sulli last month. Mental health seems to be an industry problem that goes beyond SM Entertainment, but this is the second SM artist that has taken their own life in the past few years. I really hope the agency is making inroads to help their artists.
2019 was the year that SM went all-in on American outreach — to mixed results. While SuperM ended up more exciting than expected, too many of the agency’s moves felt like pandering. I am so over English versions of Korean tracks – especially when they’re filled with cliché, sexually-charged lyrics that feel at odds with the song’s overall sound (I’m looking at you, Highway to Heaven). Nothing about SM’s American prospects felt natural. Their attempt at breaking NCT in the States reeked of desperation, and it didn’t need to. I also hated the choice to premiere the otherwise-excellent Superhuman over a month before the actual album dropped, especially on a show as middle-of-the-road as Good Morning America.
I feel like I’m always bringing this up, but I still don’t think that SM is fully capitalizing on the potential of NCT. The project’s unit configuration could result in an unending stream of diverse music. Instead, NCT has seemed to fracture into its permanent units (127, Dream, WayV) that all peddle a similar sound. Where was NCT U this year? With so many performers under the NCT umbrella, it seems like there is missed opportunity for new combinations and collaborations.
I started off this post describing SM’s 2019 as “stable.” But, with stability comes monotony. Though there were high points throughout the year, not much about SM’s releases felt truly exciting. The agency didn’t deliver a public hit on the level of Red Flavor or Bad Boy. Instead, their biggest hits were ballads or subdued r&b. I’m not sure this is entirely their fault, as Korea’s tastes have changed over the years, but it made their year seem less impactful than usual.