[In depth interview]Entertainment powerhouse goes globalA modest four-story building in Cheongdam-dong, Seoul’s high-fashion district, is the headquarters of SM Entertainment. It is the country’s major talent agency, credited with discovering and fostering the careers of most of Korea’s teenage stars.
Considering the agency’s longstanding success, its building is surprisingly nondescript — it’s not marked with any signboards, banners or flags. If not for the teenage fans crowding the entrance or the graffiti on the wall proclaiming, “I love you, Dong Bang Shin Gi!” (a popular boy band also known as TVXQ), one would have no clue what that building houses.
The company says it feels no need to be more visible since it already gets plenty of visitors. Also in the neighborhood are Kimjonghak Productions, one of Korea’s top production companies and Cheongdam High School, where many up-and-coming teenage talents are enrolled.
The office of Lee Soo Man, the founder and CEO of the entertainment juggernaut, is equally ordinary-looking. The only thing that sets it apart is a display of about 300 trophies won by SM artists such as H.O.T, S.E.S, Shinhwa, BoA, TVXQ and Super Junior at music awards, along with their photographs.
Lee seemed pretty excited with news from Japan in a recent interview with the JoongAng Ilbo. BoA’s latest album, “The Face,” had topped Japan’s weekly Oricon music chart for six consecutive weeks. Including non-studio albums, she had clinched the No. 1 spot for seven straight weeks, close behind Japan’s award-winning pop singer Ayumi Hamasaki.
It is a positive sign that the Korean pop princess has the chance for long-term success in Japan. BoA made her Japanese debut in May 2001 with the single “ID; Peace B.” Riding high on BoA’s successful debut, another SM talent called TVXQ, known as Tohoshinki in Japan, also topped the Oricon chart in January with his newest album, “Purple Rain.” It helped solidify “SM power” in the neighboring country.
Despite his status, Lee seems reticent and even defensive, conscious of persistent criticism that SM artists can dance but can’t sing with the possible exception of BoA and TVXQ. Koreans seem to have two opinions of Lee. He is undoubtedly the best at commercializing Korean pop culture at home and abroad. But he is blamed for discrediting the local music industry with teenage dance stars; it doesn’t help his image to also be the biggest beneficiary of a virtual entertainment monopoly.
“Hallyu, the so-called Korean Wave, or Korean pop culture riding a wave of popularity abroad, began in 1997 with H.O.T’s debut in China,” Lee said in an interview. “It’s a pity they had to break up. H.O.T could have lasted for another decade or two. In fact, our first target was Japan, but it is hard for male singers to work in Japan due to visa problems. That is why the female group S.E.S was the first to debut in Japan. At that time, genres such as rock dance, jazz and European techno led J-pop. So we introduced swing R&B dance to the market. BoA debuted with localized strategies, but we maintained the production rights on her album. TVXQ is the male version of BoA. After five years of training, they debuted with our song ‘Hug.’ Their latest album, ‘Purple Line’ ‘ songs, choreography and music videos ‘ was produced by us. Of course we had a partner in Japan, but we want to keep our musical voice.
“Zhang Li Yin, the Chinese talent we discovered, made her China debut last month. In the initial stages, Korean stars were at the forefront of the hallyu movement. But they don’t necessarily have to be Koreans,” Lee said.
“The reason why we keep going abroad is survival. Due to illegal downloads the music industry is contracting, and with revenue sources limited to TV commercials, our only hope is the global market. Our ultimate destination is, of course, China, the new Hollywood. It is our dream that Korean and Japanese pop will meet in the Chinese ‘melting pot,’ find out who’s Asia’s best and finally compete with the top players in the United States and Europe. As for BoA’s debut in the United States, we intend to be cautious ... We will go when we are certain of success.”
Lee started as a singer in the 1970s. Twenty years later, he produced the country’s first hip-hop artist, Hyun Jinyoung. Together with renowned composer Yoo Young-jin, Lee founded SM Entertainment, launching numerous teenage pop stars.
He literally raised them, teaching dance, music and foreign languages to young teenagers with star qualities.
In the case of TVXQ, the training included painstaking dance practice.
SM Entertainment is noted for its “one-source multi-usage” strategy for its stable of talents.
It introduced various kinds of marketing materials featuring its artists. Last year its affiliate, SM Pictures, produced a movie starring Super Junior. Fans who would buy anything involving their favorite stars are the biggest contributor to SM’s success.
Today SM Entertainment is expanding into about 40 businesses, including drama production and karaoke management.
Later this year, it will present its first musical, “Xanadu.” In 2000, it became the first entertainment company to be listed in Kosdaq, Korea’s secondary stock market.
According to a recent survey, Lee was the third biggest holder of Korean stocks in the entertainment business after singer/producer J.Y. Park, the founder of JYP Entertainment, and actor Bae Yong-joon.
“When I was a singer myself, it hurt my pride to see people go crazy over foreign pop stars like Leif Garrett and New Kids on the Block. I wanted people to go crazy over our homegrown stars. I was certain that our entertainment market would grow remarkably once the economy gained momentum.
“I know there are many criticisms about us, such as tainting the music industry with lip-syncing teenage dancers. But I believe the pop culture industry is just like a democracy. Just like you would vote for the politicians you support, you buy the albums of those you like. That is how music survives. In a capitalistic entertainment industry, it’s inevitable that the true star dominates the market and rakes in the money,” Lee said.
“I do not agree when people label our singers as mere teenage idol stars. We are not just an idol agency, but we strive to become a global entertainment company. I don’t see the need to define whether one’s a true musician or a teenage idol star. I think pop culture is all about enjoying what you like.”
By Yang Sung-hee JoongAng Ilbo [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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