Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2019: SM ENTERTAINMENT

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

2019 Grade: B-


22 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2019: SM ENTERTAINMENT

  1. SM Girl Group concepts for 2020:

    – f(X)²:
    Attitude: Quirky, laid back, confident
    Style: Slightly androgynous, down-to-earth fashion (e.g., denim, t-shirts, sneakers).
    Music Direction: Dance/EDM fusion

    – SNSDeux:
    Attitude: Regal, diva, stately
    Style: Pageantry, posh, glamour
    Music Direction: Lush orchestral textures

    Blue Suede:
    Attitude: Rebel, other side of the tracks
    Style: Updo’s, long skirts, leather jackets
    Music Direction: Rockabilly/Doowop


  2. Another unwanted big loss and overdue EXO’s comeback. C+ for me.
    Hey i need another collab like tri-angle before another EXO member enlist next year lol


  3. Long-time reader, first time commenting (hopefully? not the last).

    First of all, I’d like to say that I appreciate the time and effort you put into your reviews and analysis. And I appreciate your critique always being measured – even when I don’t agree I always enjoy reading it!

    And I do agree with the majority of what you wrote in this post, but I also have a few quibbles, mostly regarding your comment about being “so over English version of Korean tracks”.

    I personally find the objection to English versions quite baffling, considering that translating title tracks has been such a common practice in Kpop, especially when it comes to Japanese versions (some groups don’t even bother releasing original material when promoting in Japan). I’m not much of a fan of these versions myself, but they’re very easy to ignore so I don’t understand why it’s made to be such a big issue when in comparison to the Japanese case it’s not even so widespread?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but there have only been 2 English versions – Highway to Heaven and Love Talk – released under SM this year which might be 2 more than any other label, but it is still a minuscule number out of the entire company’s output this year.

    I wouldn’t argue about the English version of Highway to Heaven being cliché but to my adult ear, the lyrics sound incredibly PG. Perhaps I’m in the wrong here because I have seen others refer to the lyrics as sexual, but all I hear is just run of the mill lyrics that are barely even literally or figuratively “sexually- charged”.

    (My Grammarly Tone Detector says my tone is like a 1000% formal, so this is just to say that I’m really a friendly commentator, promise 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

    • I mean. Highway to Heaven is not even subtle, I don’t know what to say. I really dislike how random and cliché the entire perspective is, while the Korean version is almost poetic and really matches well with the song’s atmosphere.

      On English versions, SM’s been ramping up with English version since last year with Regular, Bad Boy, RBB, and not one of them have been worth listening to. The bigger picture, in my opinion, is that SM seems more than willing to dilute their unique musical panache with dull Western trends just for the sake of more commercial success Stateside, and that seems really desperate.

      Like Nick said, NCT’s relative unpopularity domestically seems to stem from SM’s scattered efforts more than anything. A lot of fans are really hoping for more of the laser-focused, experimental-but-polished SM sound that’s been missing in the past few years.


    • ok, I suppose technically the wonder that is “Regular” (English version) is 2018, featuring such gems as:
      I like shining, you be lyin’
      I be grindin’, you waste time
      Know you wanna roll with me
      ‘Cause you know I put it down
      I be walkin’ with the cheese, that’s that queso (Queso, queso)
      Diamonds drippin’, better bring your raincoat (Splash)

      But since “Jopping” is all 2019, I still flunk them for English lyrics such as
      Step on the floor (start a riot)
      Where the competition man, it’s looking one-sided
      Up like a seven forty seven, we the flyest
      A lifestyle you should try it

      Cause when we jumping and popping, we jopping.

      Really, SM is just trying waaaay too hard to be what ever the cool kids are calling “cool” these days.


      • Two verses from SPICA, “I Did It” (2014)

        Driving in a car
        With the windows rolled down, just ridin’ with my crew
        Gonna take us far
        Turn it up all night, no we don’t need us no dudes

        Spica, spica, we blowin’ up your speaker
        We run the town like the boys need some
        You watch my legs, you watch my rear
        Whatcha lookin’ at? My eyes are up here!

        Yep.. ..misfiring on all cylinders.


    • Thank you, ACUTEKAZOO. And welcome!

      I’m a real stickler for English lyrics, probably more so than the average pop listener. I blame it on years of doing detailed line edits for novels. Language really sticks out for me and it’s hard to ignore. Now that I listen almost exclusively to music from East Asia, my pet peeves have gotten worse!

      I just prefer not to understand what they’re saying most of the time and focus on the music itself. Too often English is a distraction from that, and that’s why I dislike when K-pop acts shoehorn it into entire tracks (though I do appreciate a bit of awkward English here and there within a mostly-Korean song. It can be fun when used sparingly).

      Looking forward to more comments from you!


  4. I almost entirely agree with you, as I’ve often stated in my previous comments involving SM’s productions.
    To me, the most relevant fact is that they’ve completely lost consistence in their artistic management and marketing strategy since BTS started having that huge success in USA. From that moment on, it’s clear they only focused on randomly screaming and shouting to make US people aware about them too, and this collapses in the unfair way they made SuperM enter Billboard Top200 at #1.

    Moreover, shall we talk about LAY?! What’s exactly his role so far?! His solo productions are embarassing, and he seems not to be part of next EXO comeback even if 2 of them are enlisted.

    To me, apart from Highway To Heaven and Superhuman, anything else they made this year moves from “Meh” to “Embarassing”. But as long as they sell (no matter how), they’re righter than me for sure.


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