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 2020 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.
SM Entertainment’s 2020 can best be summed up by three letters: N, C and T.
Though they were already gaining popularity, NCT – and all of its units – saw explosive commercial growth this year. We can argue about the quality of their music (and we will further on down the page), but there’s no disputing their sudden rise in status. It took NCT longer than EXO to capture this mantle, and I think much of that is due to the changing K-pop market. NCT haven’t yet found their representative song that the general listening public all knows and loves, but that’s no longer a requirement for breakout success when it comes to idol groups.
The agency’s SuperM project was also a bright spot this year. While they’re supposed to be directed at international audiences, I’d argue that the group instead fills a niche among older K-pop fans who long for the styles and sounds that first made SM Entertainment a juggernaut within the industry.
Though the quality of their releases varied, SM’s soloists had a pretty solid year. The agency has done a good job cementing the careers of solo performers like Taeyeon, Taemin and Baekhyun, which should help foster career longevity even if their own group releases become less frequent. Upcoming comebacks from EXO’s Kai and K-pop legend BoA seem set to secure 2020 as a strong year for SM solo acts.
Meanwhile, Super Junior and all its iterations remain a reliable presence. They continue to churn out material quite regularly, even if the group feels like they’re operating in their own corner of the SM universe. They play to a different audience than many of the younger acts on the agency’s roster, and have done a nice job balancing nostalgia and trends.
It’s too early to tell what will become of newly-debuted girl group aespa, but anytime an agency of SM’s caliber debuts a new group it’s worth celebrating. Given a downright shocking dearth of female groups within the agency, aespa’s arrival couldn’t have come soon enough. I’m pulling for them, even if I have some concerns about their concept and musical style.
Across all the years that I’ve run this feature, I feel like SM Entertainment has been the steadiest of the big K-pop agencies. Given their history of taking risks and breaking boundaries, the agency has kind of settled into a routine over the past few years. It’s a routine that generally works for them, but that doesn’t mean they should always maintain the status quo.
Despite a new debut and a gathering of the NCT units, 2020 too often felt a little boring for SM. It was an extremely unbalanced year, with some groups (Red Velvet, TVXQ) virtually ignored, while others (NCT, SuperM) blitzed the landscape with so many releases that they began to cancel each other out.
SM has always had difficulty scheduling comebacks, which is understandable given their large roster. And in the middle of a global pandemic, they can certainly be forgiven in this regard. Yet, if you were to cut the year in half, the second half simply dwarfs the first when it comes to releases. It’s not even comparable. And while I’m not complaining about the sudden windfall of releases, back-to-back scheduling doesn’t give anyone time to shine. Complicate that even further by having some of your highest profile artists active in more than one group at a time, and you’ve created a recipe for burnout.
As the years go on, I’m getting more and more concerned that SM Entertainment will never debut a new boy group outside of the NCT umbrella. This would be fine if NCT itself felt like it was constantly evolving or making room for units of wildly varying styles and tones. But as of now, no one unit has their own individual character.
There are exceptions, of course, but the core U/127/Dream trio feels almost interchangeable when it comes to music. It just depends on what kind of song they happen to be given at the moment. I miss the days where you had a group like SHINee, who delivered a signature style that stood on its own two feet. SM is doing the best they can to keep NCT interesting, but I can’t help but feel that the whole project took a creative dip this year. They’ve somehow become predictable, which seems to go against the very core of their concept!
I’ve mentioned this in comments before, but I feel like SM’s music is at its best when the agency finds one or two main composers who have their own unique vision. Yoo Young-Jin, Thomas Troelsen, LDN Noise. But sadly, SM has firmly moved into the “song camp” approach to songwriting, with armies of composers attached to each track. The agency’s 2020 output was at its best when it came from the smallest groups of collaborators. Too many of these “song camp” comebacks feel generic and trendy. That’s not the SM I used to know and love, and I’m concerned that this approach is here to stay.
There was also a shocking gender imbalance within SM’s roster this year. Taking soloists out of the equation, the ratio of Korean comebacks by male and female groups/units stands at roughly 20:3. That’s absolutely crazy, and just shows how much Red Velvet propped up the female side of the agency in previous years. As I said earlier, aespa’s debut couldn’t come quickly enough.
Finally, as a fan, I’m a little upset about the lack of new TVXQ material this year. SM’s 2020 Japanese output was incredibly slim as is, but what I really want is a new Korean TVXQ comeback – or at the very least that long-promised U-Know solo.