This feature has gradually shifted from a December to a November tradition, leaving more space for next month’s sprawling end-of-year countdowns. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking at many of K-pop’s biggest agencies and offering my thoughts about how their 2022 went. First up is SM Entertainment.
As usual, the thoughts are my own and aren’t privy to any insider information. The purpose of these articles is to determine how well K-pop agencies are serving their artists and fans. Because of the timing of this post, I’ll be including the last few weeks of 2021 as part of my analysis.
With popular acts like NCT and aespa, SM Entertainment continues to be a leader in the K-pop industry. Even as behind-the-scenes shifts have altered the framework of the agency, their sales and influence remain top-tier. They may not have the direct western infiltration of groups like BTS or BLACKPINK, but they’ve made huge inroads internationally and done so largely on their own terms.
When it comes to certain acts, it feels like SM has found their winning formula and learned to stick with it. Though I’m no longer a huge fan of the NCT sound, there’s no denying that its consistency has built a large and loyal fanbase that shows up to buy millions of copies of their albums each time they make a comeback. Even with just three big NCT projects this year (Universe in December, Dream in the spring and 127 in the fall), the brand has dominated many sales charts. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Speaking of things that aren’t broken, aespa have quickly emerged as the agency’s brightest star. They may not have had a Next Level–type viral hit this year, but their mini album sold incredibly well and they remain a huge influence on the industry. They also feel well-positioned for sustained international fame.
One of the aspects I’ve always loved about SM Entertainment is how they honor the legacy of their older artists. The agency did especially well by these classic acts in 2022, crafting great albums for Girls’ Generation and Key and giving opportunities for soloists like Taeyeon, Changmin, Onew, Suho, Seulgi and Xiumin to shine. No other major agency leverages the strength of their soloists this well. The reliably-great Super Junior and Red Velvet also had opportunities to make comebacks within the agency’s busy schedule.
Finally, I’ve been loving the agency’s YouTube uploads of remastered music videos from its legacy artists. I’m still waiting for Rising Sun, but I’m sure we’ll get there eventually!
While SM continues to sell tons of physical albums, I fear they’re not as competitive digitally. Girls’ Generation’s Forever 1 and Red Velvet’s Feel My Rhythm did well, but the impact of aespa’s Girls paled in comparison to last year’s Next Level and the boy groups can’t seem to get a streaming/digital hit. This approach tends to be par for the course, as groups like NCT focus more on their existing fanbase instead of ushering in new, casual listeners. But compared to the most hyped acts of 2022, SM’s roster felt slightly less dominant than in years past. Fans are always talking about “public friendly” songs, and I think the agency would do well to produce a more equal mix of “experimental” and populist.
Absent of a newly-debuted group, SM Entertainment introduced a few new projects this year. But, they mostly fizzled. Their “Girls on Top” supergroup came and went without much fanfare, releasing one project single and never returning. I’m not sure if this project is still ongoing, but it’s fair to say it’s lost all momentum at this point. Similarly, the NCT Lab series (think SM Station for NCT members) seems to stop and start without any real vision. None of the songs did much to stand out, making this feel more like a vanity project than an exciting look into the diversity of the NCT universe.
Speaking of NCT, I’m one of those people who wishes they’d bring more variety to their musical style. I’ve been complaining about this for years, but in 2022 the whole NCT project really lost me. As someone who’s been a huge fan (and consumer) of SM’s boy group releases for over a decade now, it feels like there’s little left for me within the agency that isn’t tied to the NCT brand. Without a new boy group outside the NCT universe, SM is staking all their fortunes on this one narrow sound. And with this specific template being copied by many imitators within the K-pop industry, I worry about sustainability.
While aespa remain a bright spot within the agency, I can’t help but feel they’re being underutilized. One mini album a year seems slight for a rookie group, no matter how popular they are. I’d hate to see them become another BLACKPINK, reliant on their aura and influence rather than a robust discography. It may make financial sense, but it’s not very fun for fans.
Though we haven’t yet seen the fallout from Lee Sooman‘s exit from the agency (his position as chief producer concludes at the end of 2022), I’m concerned that SM has lost its original visionary. This may turn out for the best and usher in a new vision for the agency. But, it’s a huge loss either way.
Lastly, I wish SM would increase their musical ambition. I remember a time when their material felt out-of-this-world, literally shifting the K-pop market on its axis. Too often, their current output feels tame – especially when it comes to soloists. I’m not sure if they need to reshuffle their A&R team or expand their stable of producers/composers, but I miss the bombastic SMP style the agency made their name on. Their 2022 release slate had too many dull, subdued and trend-chasing title tracks for my taste.
2022 Grade: C
What I’d like to see in 2023:
- The debut of a new boy group, outside the NCT universe
- A full-length album from aespa
- TVXQ Korean comeback
- A new sound (or unit?) for NCT
Previous years: 2021 // 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017 // 2016
i still cannot process the fact that red velvet hasn’t gotten a proper full album since 2018! i hate that i love sm’s music because they really cannot manage their groups.
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And so it begins…
On a side note, I’m glad you decided to add a section of your expectations on the agency for next year. I’m curious to see what will be your next year’s expectations for HYBE.
I loved SM this year primarily for the following reasons :
– Changmin, Taeyon & Key’s incredible solos!! ❤ Honestly these are enough for me lol.
– Changmin & Yunho’s Epitaph ❤❤
– Aespa’s Girls!! Unlike the rest of the world probably, this is my second fave song after Black Mamba and if I’m being honest I never want to hear a Next Level again and I would love for them to continue with the Girls sound! But alas I know that will never happen with how “poorly” Girls did and so I’ll have to continue to watch Aespa from a distance 😂
– The SNSD reunion was pretty nice!
– NCT and Red Velvet flew a bit more under the radar this time for me but I remember their presence very well so there’s that! 😀
SM’s plans for next year seem to be ambitious from one of the articles I saw on it. Anyhow I’m excited – they are probably overall not the company with my most fave releases this year but some of their releases are absolute bops!
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You and me against the world on aespa – I like Girls quite a lot (and the entire EP), not as much as Black Mamba, and I might put Dreams Come True higher as well, but I don’t even have Next Level in my library.
there’s allegedly a new NCT unit next year, probably Japan. I HOPE SM goes full-on J-Pop with their sound, because the 127 and 127-lite songs are getting tiring now
there’s NCT 2023 too, I loved Beautiful and I hope yet again that they go for that sound or at least the superior version of it (Without You)
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we will get an exile tribe-like sound inshallah 😤✊
No way. We’ll get reheated INI/JO1 at best … “Chain” at worst 😅
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I really do feel like SM dropped with NCT lab. I was pretty excited for the potential of it especially after Mark’s “Child” and i thought we’d see it be a monthly thing similar to SM Station or the OOO Underground idol series from this year but instead it’s just been rather sporadic and not very present at all. Almost like SM remembers it exists every 3 months and they snag up a member and put something out.
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The one thing I really did appreciate from SM this year was their solo work tho. They’ve always been good at supplying their idols with decent material but this year I feel like they did a better job than usual. Albums from Onew, Changmin, Key, and Suho are some of the year’s best for me. Plus we finally got Seulo
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Also the NCT dream project was really good. My favorite NCT related project since WayV “Awaken the World” back in 2020
Done spamming now
As a Red Velvet, f(x) and Girls’ Generation fan I have this tendency to love and hate SM. Musically saying they are always doing it for me, the albums are good, there is always a b-side for me to love and complain about the poor choice of not promoting it enough, however SM mess up with their own groups, schedules and everything else.
SM is a bit unique in kpop world as it has a stable of established artists with substantial ongoing fan support. (HYBE has in recent years bought their way into more stability, but I will save that commentary for HYBE review day.) I feel like SM has been resting on its laurels for a few years now. Sure, they are not going to go broke as they have the classic cash cow quadrant of business. But with that great power comes great responsibility!
At this point, right now, I can’t name what is driving kpop musically other than western-sounding streaming-friendly commercial interests. What makes kpop sound like kpop? The little agencies are recycling worn out trends. The big agencies are having huge success with safer sounds. The SM sound which used to drive kpop trends is mostly sitting it out on the sideline for a year too many.
Red Velvet is in the same situation as f(x) in the mid-10’s: the occasional release, sometimes good, sometimes great, but may or may not make it to renew their contracts.
NCT became the sound to imitate for boy bands for five or six years now. Still is pushing boundaries, but in strange and divisive ways. Sticker. Hot Sauce skippy dip day. Also the mega-sub-group experiment never launched well and is still is a bit of a puzzlement, and feels played out.
What’s left? Aespa. Aespa is doing alright.
SM really needs to get back with their former debut cycle of girl group one year – boy group next year, and debut a new boy group asap.
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I had the same thought regarding the absence of the SM sound a lot of us grew to love!
It’s times like these that I wished SuperM wasn’t on “hiatus”. Their music is a perfect representation of that sound that makes SM stand out among other industries.
At least the soloists are killing it this year.
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I agree with almost everything you pointed out here, though I personally wouldn’t grade it C. I’d give it a B or B+ if I have to, mostly because as you said it yourself, “no other major agency leverages the strength of their soloists this well.” I feel like I still can count on SM’s older groups and solos to deliver enjoyable melodies while establishing and solidifying their individual sound.
Another thing, though EXO’s solo projects have been one great album after another, their group projects have been quite subpar (for their own standard) in recent years.
The last thing, I wish they make it clear about f(x)’s group status since Luna said they never disbanded and the group is still listed in SM’s official website. Though the probability is really low, I still cross my fingers for f(x)’s 15th anniversary reunion.
I’d give them a B or B+ as well. For me the bonus points come from longevity, 27 years in the business, still turning out a tidy consistent profit in the entertainment business which is not the easiest business to survive in for that long. And that longevity comes from developing and retaining most of their talent over time.
One example: TVXQ, the gift that keeps on giving. They do about a 10-stop tour in Asia every year, gross some $100m give or take, each year since 2003 debut, and call it good. Go home and relax, get married, have a baby, make an album or not.
There are running jokes gif memes in the ELF communities about SuJu as old men, and how we Elves also growing older happily stan the Old Men of Kpop.
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Ah…that time of the year where we reflect, rant and introspect (in no particular order).
I wasn’t around during first/second or even beginning of third gen of K-pop. But I had heard of how the Big3 (SM/YG/JYP) molded K-pop and are instrumental to its history and sound. Just for that, these agencies already sit on such clout/talent that their stability or strength in K-Pop ought to be secured (yes, even YG though many scandals have dented it surely). They scout talent thoroughly and have an established practice which shows since I haven’t yet seen a group emerge from these agencies that isn’t brimming with talent. With that said, the industry has changed in recent years and instead of changing and appearing as leaders of this momentum, these agencies have somewhat fallen through the cracks (musically). I had a thought about the way HYBE does things which I don’t like and will discuss more when that post comes up but with the westernization of K-Pop, I expected these agencies to pick up the slack, not fall into it.
For me, YG and SM are actually doing the worst amongst most agencies. Yes, they sell albums but wth is happening to the music? I will try and stick to SM for now for this particular rant.
Apart from their established artists such as Girl’s generation, I wasn’t a fan of a single output from their 3rd/4th gen groups. I detest the NCT sound now. No more Hot Sauce please. PLEASE. NCT is a hot mess and needs an overhaul. Where Aespa is concerned, apart from Black Mamba and a few other songs, I haven’t connected to their songs or performance. I may be in the minority when I say (write) this but…. I get bored seeing their performances!! I haven’t seen them live but through the screen, its a dull fest. Even the reliable RV’s comeback was….okay….nothing to write home about…
SM has so much talent but where did the vision go?
My grade: C
Yep, I fall pretty close to this line of thinking. My ‘C’ is heavily influenced by the musical output of 2022, which – other than one or two big highlights – has felt oddly flat and even regressive at times.
Yeah… I am not even sure if there is a positive change in sight for 2023 but fingers crossed!!
Well, for the 2023 wishlist, I would had a mini from Taemin and Baekhyn, because that would make SM life a lot better! Otherwise, I agree with everything. Please, please SM, don’t let Next Level be a one-hit wonder…
Am I the only one who think the last NCT Dream’s album is one of their best?
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It is! I have a hard time picking a favorite between this one and last year’s Hot Sauce/Hello Future album.
I also feel like there’s finally some scope for commentary on their discography because 4 mini albums, albeit amazing, just wasn’t enough music. Maybe it’ll get better over the next couple of years with 2 more album+repackages.
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My big hopes for SM for 2023 are more Red Velvet, some semblance of an EXO group comeback, a new Taemin album ASAP, and a WayV comeback–WayV’s albums are so, so solid and I need more from them.
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SM’s main flaw is that they’re looking more like NCT and Friends than an agency with a well-established, varied, and current roster, particularly with the lack of fresh sounds and new debuts. But they have definitely done well with their solo artists–I really enjoyed Suho & Key’s work this year.
When it comes to SM, I wonder if they are trying to do too much at one time. Over the last few years, SM seems to swing from having times where nothing happens to periods where multiple acts seem to overlap with their album releases. As a result, it can be difficult as a fan to keep up because the company is already on to the next thing.
NCT is an extremely interesting group/musical vehicle at the moment. What do 127 promotions start to look like as members get closer to enlistment? Will we get the new unit with Shotaro, Sungchan and the new SM rookies? What is going on with WayV? And, is that NCT Hollywood tv show/project ever going to happen?
I’m also with you Nick on the super groups. Girls on Top had so much hype, but the ladies only performed the song a handful of times and nothing else has been said about the group. Also, is SuperM still a thing? SM and Capitol Records invested so much time and resources into that project, and I don’t believe either company has really mentioned them since Taemin and Baekhyun enlisted.
I would love to see:
– Full length Red Velvet Album and World Tour
– A D.O solo release (especially with R&B sounds)
– Shotaro/Sungchan/SM Rookies debut
– More Aespa
– Solo NCT member albums. The NCT Lab just isn’t bringing the same amount of energy and promotion from SM that solo albums do, which I think is a waste considering how popular and talented the NCT members are.
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Music-wise I liked SM the most of the Big 4 (NCT 127 + Dream, aespa, Seulgi, SNSD were all good).
My biggest gripe is that I wish SM would do better with NCT (debut NCT Japan already, let’s chill with the NCT Lab and have some actual solo debuts, and maybe give 127 a public friendly title track). Also, please debut a new boy group that isn’t NCT. Because while I do love them, the big project of limitless members doesn’t appeal to everyone and it’s a fact that SM doesn’t have a 4th gen boy group leader.
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SM had a load of hits with their gg releases, however, their boy group release this year was either underwhelming, bland, cringe, or forgettable. It’s like someone inside decided that boy groups from there needed to flop so they decided to release tracks like Glitch Mode and Callin’.
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Yeah, definitely a C for me – or lower. The highlights: Red Velvet, Seulgi, Girls’ Generation, Key. BUT… while I enjoyed all of them, none of them released anything close to their best work. It was more a give-the-fans-what-they-want. But if I were to list my 10 favorites by ReVe, and my 10 faves by GG, those lists wouldn’t consist of any of their songs from this year. Nothing from NCT this year grabbed me at all, and aespa at this point seems like a one-hit wonder to me.
I think Red Velvet has something new coming soon? I’m really looking forward to it, but ever so slightly fairly worried. They had such a great run for many years, where every single they released was iconic. But I’m not sure their last couple of minis are at that level, at least for me… Has their imperial phase ended?… 😦
I do not get the desperate want for a new SM boy group. Doesn’t SM already have enough trouble managing their existent groups ?
Sorry if this sounds harsh but people are naive to believe a new SM teenage boy group will bring a fresh new sound tailored to the gp and become an instant hit ala New Jeans. 4th gen boy groups are not clicking with the general audience at all and I don’t see why this would be different for this hypothetical group. They could make the best music ever (and I doubt this would be the case hearing the disjointed sound SM is going for lately) and the gp still wouldn’t check for them. The only way SM can keep relevancy with the gp is through heavy promotion of their popular soloists, their public friendly boy groups (Shinee and Exo) and their girl groups.
For now, it’s thanks to big dedicated fandoms that 4th gen boy groups are succeeding and I’m guessing SM doesn’t feel the need to debut another boy group if their existing ones are bringing in a lot of money this way.
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Speaking of a new NCT unit, I recall you once mentioned an idea for a new NCT unit: NCTrot, I still hate you for that because this is a dream I didn’t have before, and I know it will never come true.
Hey, remember back in the second week of January when Max Changmin dropped Maniac and Devil back to back, kicking off an amazing year in k-pop that oh yeah wait… >.<
Anyhow, yeah, I'm off the NCT train and on the SM soloist train. I adore SUHO's Grey Suit and keep forgetting it came out this year. SEULGI's 28 Reasons played it safe but I'm happy with safe when it's this good. I'm hoping YUQI and WENDY are next up for releases, and full EPs please!
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