Grading the K-Pop Agencies 2023: SM ENTERTAINMENT

Before the end-of-year countdowns next month, I like to take a look at many of K-pop’s biggest agencies and see how their year went. Obviously, 2023 is not over yet so any upcoming changes to an agency’s grade will be reflected next year. We’ve got a lot to pick apart over the coming weeks, so let’s start with SM Entertainment.

As usual, the thoughts below 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. There will be plenty of subjective critique. 

The Good

2023 kicked off with a big moment of transition for SM Entertainment. After the ousting of founder (and longtime creative force) Lee Soo-man, the company announced its transition from “SM 2.0” to “SM 3.0.” Most notably, this change widened the company’s structure to allow for multiple production teams’ input rather than resting solely on Soo-man’s oversight. K-pop juggernaut HYBE also became SM’s second largest shareholder, continuing to solidify their grip on the industry. With such seismic shifts in SM Entertainment’s operation, you might expect their output to sound markedly different from before.

I don’t think this was the case. Many of the shifts felt more structural in nature, with the termination of NCT’s “infinite expansion” and the debut of the company’s first non-NCT boy group in over a decade. However, the music itself felt largely stable in terms of sound and promotion.

Let’s start with that rookie group, because I think Riize was SM’s most exciting venture in 2023. The NCT project still holds a lot of promise, but I’m thrilled to see the company move beyond its confines to explore new territory. Over the past few years, I’ve felt that most of SM’s boy group releases have become interchangeable. I’m not 100% convinced Riize will be any different in the long run, but they’re off to a good start (strangled saxophone loop notwithstanding…) and their strong sales and promising chart success seem to guarantee an enduring career. Don’t mess this up, SM!

As the most sprawling agency in K-pop, SM has a lot of talent to manage. But with few exceptions, they remain quite adept at letting all their artists release content. This includes both group and solo efforts. I may not have enjoyed everything that came from SM this year, but they delivered a ton of new music to choose from. And with a variety of sounds and genres, fans were bound to find at least one SM release that caught their ear.

With the global success of aespa, SM continue to have a powerful rookie on their hands. The group isn’t being promoted as frequently as they should (where’s the full album?), but so far the company has done a nice job catering to fans both at home and abroad.

While NCT’s “infinite expansion” may have concluded, their musical universe continues to churn out song after song. Since last November, every established NCT unit has released something, alongside the debut of new unit DoJaeJung and NCT New Team (to be renamed later…). We had solo and group comebacks spanning multiple languages and genres. I didn’t care for much of this music, but NCT fans are quite spoiled when it comes to content.

SM continued to grow the discographies of its veteran artists as well. SHINee and EXO each had big comebacks this summer (more on that later), while Red Velvet and TVXQ are set to release new albums in the coming weeks. Few agencies are able to retain talent for this long, and it seems to me that most of these acts are given increased creative freedom as their legacy becomes cemented.

The Bad

As mentioned, there’s been a ton of music from a ton of SM artists this year. So… why do I have so few highlights on my playlist? Sometimes I fear the agency is going for a “quantity over quality” approach. I remember when SM Entertainment had a unified vision that resulted in specific eras of sound for their artists. SM releases felt like events. It’s the difference between shopping at a boutique with a few high-end items or a pick-and-mix with a ton of lesser-quality options. Both have their pluses and minuses, but too often it feels like SM is simply chucking out music at an unending pace just to get something out there.

While I was delighted to see long-awaited comebacks from SHINee and EXO this summer, both albums underwhelmed. In line with this “pick and mix” approach, the music lacked the unique vision and high quality control these artists deserve. This is quite subjective, of course, but with so long to prepare for these veteran artists’ return, I can’t help but feel that SM bungled both comebacks to some extent.

Along the same lines, it feels like SM has become more and more fragmented when it comes to the rollout of their artists’ discographies. Perhaps this is due to structural changes inviting more voices/ideas in the room, but SM seems so eager to move onto the next thing that they don’t allow time and space for their natural successes to breathe. Take Riize’s Get A Guitar, for example. The song worked as welcome counterprogramming on the charts and had an unexpected ascent as the weeks went on. Yet rather than capitalize on this, the agency pushed out a follow-up single that shared few musical touchstones with Guitar. It all feels a little haphazard, and I wonder if this is a product of having so much going on at the same time.

Every agency of SM’s size is allowed some flops here and there, and there were a few 2023 projects that never gained steam. I don’t know what’s happening with their Girls On Top project. I initially thought it would become their female answer to SuperM, but infrequent releases and a general lack of buzz have sidelined them for too long. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plan behind this. Similarly, the “NCT Hollywood” project (a bad idea from the start) was canned this year.

Finally, we can’t do a 2023 SM recap without mentioning the artists who have left the agency. There was a substantial exodus this year, with some individuals remaining active with their groups but taking their solo projects elsewhere. Every massive company can expect some level of turnover, but just this year we saw members of Super Junior, Girls’ Generation and EXO all cut ties with the agency. They also lost producer/mastermind Yoo Young-Jin (a massive loss, in my opinion). The future of SM Entertainment is definitely in flux, and 2023 proved to be one of their messier years in recent memory.

2023 Grade: C+

What I’d like to see in 2024:

Riize continuing to distinguish themselves with their own sound/style
A full-length album from aespa (a holdover wish from 2022…)
A new girl group with the lighter, more melodic sound of SNSD
That full-group SHINee epic title track we all deserve

Previous years: 2022 // 2021 // 2020 // 2019 // 2018 // 2017 // 2016

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