Feature

Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: SM ENTERTAINMENT

It’s not quite December yet, but I’m going to kick off this annual feature a little early this year! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at many of K-pop’s biggest agencies and offering my thoughts about how their 2021 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

SM Entertainment was a mixed bag in 2021, but a few of its artists had an incredible year. The agency gave veteran group SHINee their due, releasing an incredible album that reminded fans just how great their sound can be. I would’ve loved to see more promotion for Don’t Call Me and Atlantis, but the music itself was perfectly selected. Members’ solo efforts also stood out as highlights, and I’m happy to see the agency continue to cater toward its older acts (and fans!).

Another high point this year was aespa. I don’t think anyone doubted the group’s impending popularity (they’re from SM, after all), but I didn’t expect them to blow up so quickly. Next Level was an unexpected smash, supported by viral marketing. And rather than throw aespa on every show available, their limited music show appearances gave them an air of exclusivity. This was a smart play by SM. The group has quickly established a brand that feels durable as they embark on their second full year post-debut.

Although I’ll touch on them more later, I’d be remiss not to mention NCT’s incredible sales this year. For better or worse, they’ve positioned themselves as the act every other boy group wants to mimic. Right now, they seem to be omnipresent — even when they’re not actively promoting.

In an era of digital consumption, I’ve got to give SM credit for churning out creative physical albums. They’re not always practical, but acts like Key and Red Velvet released some really cool merchandise this year, drawing on nostalgia to turn their physical albums into real keepsakes. No other agency consistently displays this level of imagination, and 2021’s art direction was especially on-point.

Another ancillary area SM excelled at was its online concerts. They’ve become a staple of our covid times, and the agency seems to pour a lot of attention into them. I’ve only watched a couple, but from what I can tell the overall experience is of higher quality than other agencies.

Finally, I want to credit SM for continuing to honor their own history. This is such an important aspect of a big agency (just ask Japan’s Johnny’s Entertainment), and I’m glad to see SM support their older acts. Members of Super Junior and TVXQ made comebacks this year, and the agency has now begun remastering old music videos all the way back to the 90’s. With K-pop being so trend-focused, I appreciate the nod to SM’s roots. It helps build a real sense of agency identity.


The Bad

I haven’t written much about actual music yet. I believe that SM’s strongest eras are those that harness one overarching sound and vision. Whether it’s the catchy hook songs of the early 2010’s, the brassy funk pop of the mid-10’s or the deep house/90’s dance that followed, my favorite eras see one or two producers take a central role in defining the agency’s sound for a year or two. Then we cycle on to the next vision, keeping things fresh and exciting.

With SM, I feel like we’ve been stuck in this nebulous, NCT-driven sound for a few years now. I understand why the agency wants to push this group (ie: they’re incredibly popular), but at the moment it doesn’t feel like SM has one central vision. Instead, it can feel like they’re simply being eccentric for eccentric’s sake. Their albums are often filled with many gems, only to have the most polarizing song chosen as title track.

There’s nothing wrong with “polarizing,” but I miss the days when SM reliably delivered industry-shaking hits. Some would call these old songs “public-friendly,” which sounds a bit patronizing. But, they sought to cater to a wide audience with the feel of an “event single” rather than a niche experiment. There’s still plenty of room for the weird stuff on albums, and I’d hate to see them lose their sense of experimentalism. But, Next Level showed us what SM could do with a mega-hit, and I’d love more of this going forward – especially from NCT. Why not settle on one or two main producers with a strong vision that would push the music forward? Right now, it feels like we’re hearing the same songs over and over. Few of them feel like big, industry-shaking moments.

Alongside this criticism, I’d hope that SM would give its artists more creative control. This worked wonders for SHINee’s Key, but from all reports I’ve read it sounds like it was a real battle for him to see his vision realized by the agency. SM’s senior artists have more than earned the right to take the reigns of their own career.

Speaking of artists, SM generally does a good job balancing its extensive roster. Still, groups like Red Velvet and EXO seemed to get the shaft this year, and that long-rumored SNSD reunion failed to materialize. It’s natural that older acts would begin to phase out in favor of trendier ones, but I hope this doesn’t portend any disbandments in the future.

My final point is a small one: I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of 2021’s repackage tracks were stronger than the main title. Repackages usually get far less promo, so it was a bit disappointing to see songs like Atlantis come and go without much fanfare. Lead with your strongest material, SM!

2021 Grade: B-

Previous years: 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017 // 2016

41 thoughts on “Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2021: SM ENTERTAINMENT

  1. i fully agree with this! also i wonder what you’re gonna grade yg… like i honestly don’t remember anything that happened in that company except for the blackpink solos…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m worried about treasure’s music to be honest. They haven’t released a Korean album since January I believe? And YG doesn’t seem to be in the mood to release one anytime soon either.
      And it’s not like whatever they’ve put out up to this point is very strong and lasting or something that can be called ‘Treasure’s style’.
      Did you know, they’re releasing a Web Drama later this month?

      Like

  2. Huh, B- is a lot lower than i expected given that this review was mostly positive? At least that’s what it seems.
    Now to roast the heck outta YG *rubs hands evilly*

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think the biggest problem for the NCT brand is obviously the failure to expand according to plan, and sticking to their originally planned sound. The original plan imploded at around 2016-2017 or sth? And the Jason Derulorize of the entire NCT including even SuperM happened at 2019 after a colossal failure to repurpose 127 to US. (127 was supposed to be the Seoul team, remember?) What we see now is just the fallout of the whole thing. The worst part of all this is that somehow, pivoting to Neo Derulo Technology worked and the brand stabilized.

    Then it comes to supporting infrastructure, from composition to vocal coaching to choreo. Recently I think a lot about Jaewon’s role now as the new dancing school they are starting, which means now he is less directly involved in the performance training of the junior artists and I think so far it creates confusion and decline in quality. In performance arts, sometimes you really have to do it yourself. I understand people have to advance in their own careers so I just don’t see much of a way out of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Neo Derulo Technology” is hilarious. But i do agree here. Somewhere along the way, the original idea for NCT feels like it got abandoned. We’re 5 years in and we STILL haven’t gotten a Japan or SEA unit and the only “non-korean” unit is WayV, who haven’t made a big impression in China and will likely lose their most popular member.
      On top of that, I feel like the current units don’t feel as distinct as in their earlier years. In like 2016-2017, Dream and 127 sounded nothing alike. Different groups with different identities. Nowadays in feels like there’s this overarching “NCT Sound” and each unit just makes slight variations to it.

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      • WayV maintained its own identity basically because they basically dedicated Moonshine as their exclusive title track composer and apparently Jason Derulo never used Moonshine before so there’s that. Had they do their homework and have a more “culturally Shanghai ish” sound WayV may do well as the intended “team shanghai” but oh well

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  4. This time of the year already!! Now I’m excited. I agree that older groups of SM could use more promotion (although there are rumors of RV potentially having another comeback).
    I’m also wondering if they are still going strong with the NCT Hollywood group idea. I’d rather see a new boy group outside of NCT than more branches. I want to see a concept/song from them that doesn’t sound like a NCT track. At least at first to build their identity.

    Like

    • I have been wondering about this for a while now. Are we really never going to see a new boy group outside of NCT from SM now? Because all NCT units at this point release songs of the same style more or less, with the exception of NCT Dream that *sometimes* releases different tracks like Hello Future.

      I’d love to see a completely new group outside this NCT umbrella that has it’s own sound, concept, some different Kwangya background nonsense and new personalities. Because any new person that joins NCT now will certainly be overshadowed by the established personas of members who’ve been around for 5-6 years now.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The repackage point is definitely something I’ve been realizing. Tracks like Hot Sauce, Sticker, even Don’t Call Me got SLAMMED upon release but when they repackage with stronger songs, there was far less attention on them.

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    • More contentious works get people talking. As a shinee fan, I really don’t think atlantis would have done as well, even with lots of fanfare. I think shinee was right in choosing dcm, it was fun with its campy ott irritability. There’s no making sense of sticker though. Not even the hullabaloo about how weird it was gave the song or its follow-up any success or hype that went beyond album sales. So what next?

      I do wish the entire concept of “repack” wouldn’t exist though. The songs always just get lost and forgotten and the only point of them is padding out sales with repack numbers counting towards the overall album sales.

      Like

      • In hindsight, it was definitely smart choices on SM’s part. It’s interesting seeing how international and SK taste diverge in that way. As controversial as they were Dont Call Me, Sticker, and Hot Sauce were some of their respective groups modt popular songs (for SHINee it was their most popular since View I believe) within SK.

        As far as repackages, I do enjoy them just for some extra tracks on albums I like but I do think it’s became excessive considering I’ve just started to expect every major album to have a repackage somewhere down the line. I feel like if it is gonna be done, there should be a bigger purpose than just more songs and another version of an album to buy.

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  6. Oh I wasn’t expecting this feature to arrive so early, but of course I’m not upset at that at all :))

    I think your summary of SM this year is basically what I feel. I just realized that NCT is probably one of the few big groups which I haven’t had any personal interest in at all, at any point. I don’t know what it is, and it’s nothing against them at all, but I just haven’t cared about them much, even though I see the appeal. I do have to wonder what SM will continue doing with NCT – are they ever going to debut a new boy group separate from the NCT brand, or just continue to add members and units? I agree with the other commenters that the original concept for NCT has kinda fallen apart, what with all the units somewhat merging together and not really having their own identities anymore. Having rotating member lineups and coming together for full group comebacks is interesting, but I think all the mix and matching has just made all the units feel one and the same. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t ever get into them 😂 23 members all split across several different groups, with some members in multiple and more members getting added each year…it gets confusing fast haha

    Anyways I’m excited for your other agency reviews, definitely interested on what you have to say for quite a few of them.

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          • I think I will make two lists – my list, and the list that the little lady who sits in the back seat subjects me to at oh dark 30 in the morning, though there is some overlap. I don’t mind (much) hearing Purple Kiss’s Zombay bay bay bay as long as the volume is appropriate for the time of day.

            My problem is that I don’t stan any of the current hot groups in whatever gen we are in kpop right now. It just doesn’t appeal to me, aesthetically, so my list will be more eccentric.

            For the record, my preference is
            Forestella > Forte Di Quattro >>> La Poem
            Forte Di Quattro has my equally hot honey bass Son Tae Jin who just released a duet with Wendy (of Red Velvet) last week. His voice is so caramel smooth, you can hardly tell how lowwww it is.

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        • I think this year has actually been a big improvement from 2020, and my list will reflect that.

          With that said, these past few weeks have definitely tried my K-pop enthusiasm. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt this disinterested in comebacks, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’m hoping that ONEUS and Twice will start to turn the trend around.

          Liked by 2 people

  7. I don’t think you give enough bonus points to SM for having TVXQ and SuJu, the two oldest idol groups still reliably promoting and earing money, selling out stadiums (in non covid times), and selling a couple hundred thousand physical albums every time.

    Add in another bonus point for Shinee as mid-2nd gen too. The rest of the 2nd gen list still promoting is really thin – I mean, the 2PM comeback was noticed by Hottest and the ELF but few others, and where the hell are Big Bang?

    Sure, we ELF and Cassiopeia’s can’t bother to stream, I’ll give you that.

    As far as the NCT concept is concerned, I am not sure how fully baked it was at the get go. It seems to have an amount of success in the marketplace anyway, despite itself. But here we are some 5 years on from NCT127 debut and to be honest I only can pick out maybe 5 of them of the greater NCT-Wayv group in a lineup out of the two dozen members or so. I know another 2 or 3 by tone and name but not sight.

    At this point of course, right about now or soon enough is the time to debut the next boy group anyway, so lets hope it is a more manageable, more cohesive size and style. Maybe I’ll learn their names too.

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  8. A very thoughtful breakdown of SM Entertainments performance this year!

    I’m kind of whipped for SM groups, and though I didn’t like everything they put out several of my top songs of the year are from SM.

    And I really enjoyed the virtual SHINee concert. It was the second live K-pop concert I’ve attended.

    I think one thing you didn’t touch on that they’re doing well is the extra content they churn out for fans:
    -Behind the scenes videos in recording booths, dance practice rooms, and on set,
    – Artists reacting to their completed MVs,
    – Collaborations with YouTube channels and other artists
    – NCT with a constant flow of backstage videos, vlogs, and skits and games based on the themes of their title tracks (Cowboy games, vampire skits, etc.)

    SM provides endless opportunities to see more of the K-pop process and strengthen the fans parasocial love for their idols. I find it impressive.

    Like

    • I was going to mention the extra content, but decided to leave it out because I haven’t consumed much of it myself. I guess I don’t feel the same attachment to most SM artists as I do other groups from smaller agencies. But, I definitely appreciate the wealth of content!

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’m sure you’re busy enough listening to (seemingly) every K-pop release (+ some J-pop) and writing reviews about them. I certainly can’t keep up with it a lot of the time!

        If you check out anything I’d recommend the recording booth videos. It’s interesting to see them retrying phrases: they play with their delivery, tweak it, talk with the producer, and eventually get the perfect take. And it’s always fun to watch the vocal powerhouses let loose.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This post has been a reflection about 2021’s biggest flaw. I am not only talking about SM’s artists but really K-pop as a whole.
    One thing which 2021 has shown us is how this current generation of idol groups lack consistency. They only have gotten random songs being chucked in their way. There is a lack of a “signature sound”, or a lack of defining traits which showcase their specialty and strength as a group.

    Like the curious weirdo I am, I went through Nick’s posts and found an alarming rate of artists who’ve released top-tier material only to shove themselves back into the 7’s or vice versa. Basically saying, there has been a lot of *disappointments* and a lot of *surprises* this year.

    MIRAE: Killa to Splash
    The Boyz: Kingdom Come & Drink It to Thrill Ride & Maverick
    Jessi: What Type of X to Cold Blooded
    MCND: Crush to Movin (grower..but still)
    TO1: Son of A Beast to No More X
    Monsta X: Gambler to those two forgettable songs…
    Aespa: Next Level to Savage
    Golden Child: Burn It & Breathe to…Ra Pam Pam & Ddara

    There are plenty of other examples which I can’t name..but you get the point?

    Now for the surprises:
    Everglow: First to Promise
    Lucy: Hero to I Got U
    ONEUS: No Diggity to an incredible year of music…
    ATEEZ: Fireworks to Eternal Sunshine

    etc. etc.

    My Point is…agencies need to focus and play on the group’s strengths. It can really showcase the power of the group and reveal their defining traits..Like:
    ONF
    TXT
    Brave Girls
    SHINee
    GHOST9

    It would be real awesome to see agencies do this.

    Liked by 4 people

    • You hit the nail on the head. Even a few years ago, there were so many groups I could “count on” to deliver hit after hit after hit. They found their lane and developed it. Now, too often it feels like a crap shoot. You don’t know what style or producer you’re going to get, which makes it hard to invest in individual groups. Good or bad songs can come from anywhere and everywhere, with little consistency across discographies. It all feels very interchangeable.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I looked it up reading your commen and I am sad to learn of ONF’s enlistment…BUT…not having their hiatus prolonged by staggered enlistment is a really good look. (b1a4, the other WM bg still has a member in the service although I don’t know if they’ll ever fully comeback) Fingers crossed it just means a future of more, matured ONF! I’m sure U will be a bit bored but maybe he’ll surprise us with solo material.

          Like

    • To be fair to the past, there is a lot of post hoc filtering of 2nd gen and 3rd gen discographies both in memory and in the ipod to just skip over the lesser songs.

      Sure, a group like SHINee or Infinite has a remarkably strong back catalog. But then there are the mid to smaller groups, the Teen Tops F.Cuz’s Cross Genes History B1A4’s etc of kpop for which it was hit or miss for me then and now.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. SM Entertainment is probably the only agency that connects to me as a whole. Despite small disappointments like the red velvet and exo, I liked most of their output this year. NCT seem to be in a muddle over their core sound and losing cohesiveness but that can be fixed. Otherwise, it was a great year and sm still continues to harness the past and the future so commendably, that it’s great.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “My final point is a small one: I couldn’t help but notice that almost all of 2021’s repackage tracks were stronger than the main title. Repackages usually get far less promo, so it was a bit disappointing to see songs like Atlantis come and go without much fanfare. Lead with your strongest material, SM!”

    The first time I wrote something like that here was about EXO’s Love Shot vs Tempo back in 2018. Thanks for having realized I wasn’t that wrong.

    Like

  12. I just hope that SM stops making empty and un-called-for promises and moves regarding them and their other groups in the future. NCT hollywood? Aespa’s virtual members? Forcing themselves into the Western Market?

    They could spend time honing in on what already makes their groups stand out but instead I feel they misdirect their energy. As far as I can tell, all the groups who have best penetrated into the Western world did so naturally without the need for a direct attempt.

    These are 3AM thoughts so they are probably incoherent but I worry for the groups under SM if the company can’t start to reel themselves in and focus on whats immediately important.

    Also, NCT, regardless of what you think of their music, has started to carry SM’s sales on their shoulders. Their journey to success took longer than expected but I’m glad to see them blow up so much. I hope the NCT 2021 project lives up to the grandiosity of what NCT is because it could become a foothold for true success in the west.

    Thanks to anyone who read that

    Liked by 1 person

  13. As someone fairly new to k-pop, SM is the only one of the big four that doesn’t have any artists I’ve become especially fond of. NCT are great when they’re great, but I’ve found some of their releases straight up unlistenable (this coming from maybe the biggest “VAMOS” fan in these parts). SHINee is a bit of an exception, as their variety content is a fun contrast to what the younger groups put out, and I’ve quite liked their group and solo work this year. They’re kind of a hard group to be a casual fan of, though, and I don’t love their back catalogue enough to take the plunge,

    Like

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