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.
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.
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!