by Sara Conway ’21 A&E Co-Editor
A Big Three entertainment company of South Korea, SM Entertainment constantly strives to globalize K-pop and to be one step ahead of the rest, as it has done since its creation in 1995. Chris Lee, a member of SM’s Board of Directors and head of Artist & Repertoire (A&R), delivered an inside look at the company’s business model in his TED talk-style lecture, “The True Value of K-Pop.” Held at Lincoln Center in New York City on June 19, Lee’s lecture was followed by a Q&A session moderated by the Asia Society’s Executive Vice President Tom Nagorski.
“The True Value of K-Pop” preceded K-Factor: An Orchestral Exploration of K-Pop, a 50-piece orchestral performance of songs notable to K-pop history featuring music by BTS, EXO, BLACKPINK, and Red Velvet hosted by Lincoln Center.
As Lee stressed in his talk, SM innovates through the “culture first, economy next” model: the founder of SM, Soo-Man Lee, realized the marketability of the Korean culture when he saw the Korean flag on a H.O.T. fan’s bag for the group’s Beijing concert in 2000. The fandom symbol of SM’s first K-pop idol group, created in 1996, had become the Korean flag.
Since then, the true value of K-pop for SM is “Culture Technology.” Created in the late ‘90s by Soo-Man Lee, the phrase gives value to K-pop in the eyes of the company—they create value through culture. In order to do so, SM follows three stages: creation, expansion, and exportation of culture.
SM’s latest project, the new group SuperM, pushes exportation of culture to the next level. On Aug. 7 during the 2019 Capitol Congress Event, SM and Capitol Music Group announced their partnership for SuperM, which has been branded as the “Avengers of K-pop,” according to Forbes. In their continuous drive to innovate and redefine K-pop, SM narrowed in on the American market with the creation of SuperM and their partnership with Capitol Records. With the slogan of “We Are The Future,” SuperM and its concept sums up SM’s central idea of “Culture Technology.”
The members of SuperM are not comprised of rookies taken from SM trainees, but rather idols who had already debuted in other SM boy groups. The seven of SuperM, however, remain members in their old groups and also preserve the schedules related to their solo careers, if they have one.
SuperM is truly a supergroup: SM knew exactly what they were doing when they chose the seven members. Although he mainly focused on his solo career before SuperM, Taemin debuted as a member of SHINee in 2008. Baekhyun, the eldest and chosen leader of SuperM, and Kai are members of one of SM’s highest profile groups, EXO, since the group’s debut in 2012. The younger members were taken from NCT—Taeyong, the leader of the 21-member group, and Mark came from NCT 127, and Ten and Lucas were recruited from WayV, the subunit of NCT that focuses on their audience in China.
This mix of idols were bound to turn heads, particularly those who are fans of all the groups the members are also a part of. SM knew their target market when they combined some of the most popular members of their most successful groups. As Taemin mentioned in a Billboard interview, SuperM is comprised of the “aces of aces.”
Although their first mini album, SuperM, was officially released on Oct. 4, the seven-member group appeared on Billboard’s Social 50 at No. 2, the Artist 100 at No. 93, and as No. 6 on the Emerging Artist chart before any music had dropped.
With a creation of a group like SuperM, SM pulled out all the stops. Again, ahead of the album release, SM announced SuperM’s first arena tour in the United States. A 10-date tour, the first concert will occur two months after the group’s debut, and they will perform in venues like New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Consciously aiming for an untraditional route, SuperM kicked off their promotions for their new album not in Korea, which is the norm for K-pop debuts and comebacks, but in the U.S., more specifically Los Angeles, where Capitol Records’ headquarters is located. Although a press conference was also held in South Korea, the members of SuperM held their official premiere event conference in L.A. with their American audience before the global release of SuperM and their title song, “Jopping.”
The label “Avengers of K-pop” comes through immediately in the “Jopping” music video, which also demonstrates the extensive budget SM possesses to create the short film. SM leans into the futuristic aspect of the group and the intense anticipation surrounding SuperM through an opening of dramatic trumpets and a technologically reconstructed Colosseum in the middle of a desert scene.
SM—and the K-pop world—has mounted pressure on the newly formed SuperM. As shown in the “Jopping” music video, SM hopes their supergroup will fill stadiums and become a global phenomenon. The company, with their partnership with Capitol Records, increased their presence in the U.S. through the various press events and promotional activities. For SM and SuperM, the main focus of “exportation” in their business model is the U.S. market with the larger goal of dominating the global market.