The History of Kpop, Chapter 4: How Lee Soo Man’s First Big Fail Resulted in Korea’s Modern Pop Star System

Excerpts from
The History, Development, and Future of Kpop and the Korean Music Industry
By: Hannah Waitt


Last week in our “The History of Kpop” series, Seo Taiji and the Boys revolutionized modern Korean music by creating a new musical genre that fused the sounds of modern pop music from the West with South Korea’s contemporary social issues. Not only did Seo Taiji and the Boys change the style, image, and message of Korean music, but the entire industry itself.

With the popularization of Seo Taiji’s music and his ability to subvert the television station’s star system, the networks’ influence on what the public would hear, like, and consume was greatly weakened. Seeing this, record companies and talent agencies began expanding their own roles within the music industry, innovating new means by which to turn singers into stars. Furthermore, after observing the absolute fan mania surrounding Seo Taiji and the Boys, music industry professionals saw great opportunity for profit. However, the broadcast network system being now broken, a new system for creating superstars would need to be invented, and one man, Lee Soo Man, did just this.


First, it is necessary to examine Lee’s personal history in order to understand how he created what is today Korea’s most lucrative and successful entertainment company. Lee grew up in a musical family, and when he entered college, he achieved a decent amount of fame playing in a folk duet alongside a classmate. After leaving the group, he became a regular DJ at a radio station and hosted TV shows on occasion as well, two positions that would be critical to his knowledge and understanding of the then-practiced network star system, which in the coming few years he would help to turn upside-down. After graduating from Seoul National University in 1979, Lee traveled to America, where he was taken by the glamor and popularity of American dance music, as well as the fashion and culture associated with it.

Coming back to Korea having experienced firsthand the MTV revolution and Michael Jackson era, Lee returned with a vision of what the Korean music industry could be. When he arrived back in Seoul, he jumped right back into the industry and resumed his DJ and TV host positions, knowing that he would need to resuscitate his old connections in the entertainment world if he were to successfully open his own studio. Finally, in 1989, after years of saving money and gaining experience in the entertainment industry, Lee Soo Man established SM Studio in a shabby three-story buliding in the Apgujeong neighborhood of Seoul.

It was not until Lee experienced his first big failure that he realized the importance of systematizing the creation of pop stars. His first find (and the big failure to which I presently refer), was Hyun Jinyoung, a tall, good-looking backup dancer in his teens. Hyun’s first album was a flop, so Lee tweaked his image and his sound, dressing him in baggy clothes and adding a rap element into his music. Fortunately for Lee and Hyun, the second album was released right on the heels of Seo Taiji and Boys’ debut, and thus was well-received in light of the hip-hop craze that was taking over Seoul.

Hyun Jinyoung performs his popular single, “현진영GO”


Hyun’s third album also did well, but shortly after its release, Hyun fell from stardom and into prison after being arrested for marijuana charges. Not only did Hyun now have a criminal record (marijuana was and still his highly illegal in Korea), but he also lost most of his fans due to the public’s unanimous disapproval of his actions.

Having invested a great amount of time and most of his new company’s resources into creating, producing, and promoting Hyun Jinyoung, Lee Soo Man realized that a systemization of the pop star business was necessary to ensure that his investments were protected and that risk was minimized. Thus, Lee decided that character and personality were just as important as singing and dancing ability, and he created a system for ensuring that all of these necessary attributes were combined to create the perfect pop star.

Lee had also lost a great amount of money when the album distribution company he had hired for Hyun Jinyoung’s releases went bankrupt. He therefore developed what is now referred to as the “in-house” system. No longer would SM only produce their artists, they would control every aspect of the artists’ career, as seen in the company objectives, “to plan, make and circulate discs; to control music publishing, licensing, and advertising; to provide agents and managers; to organize events; and to operate a star-making academy.”

Everything was now housed under the roof of that shabby white building in Apgujeong. In the SM building every position was staffed: lyricists, songwriters and arrangers, recording engineers, managers, agents, choreographers, design coordinators, image consultants, dance, vocal and acting instructors, marketing executives, and of course, the CEO and founder himself, Lee Soo Man.

Now, SM controlled every process and part that went into the manufacturing of Kpop idols and their hits, allowing maximum revenue for the company by internally providing every service necessary to manufacture both the stars and their content. It is in this way that Lee Soo Man morphed his venture into what we know today not as SM Studio, but as the all-encompassing (and seemingly all-powerful) SM Entertainment.


Because his first artist failed, Lee Soo Man was able to build an empire far greater and far more effective than he could have ever imagined. SM Entertainment set the new standard for the Korean music industry by creating the in-house Kpop training system that is now used in every major Korean entertainment agency in existence.

In next week’s column, we will continue to discuss the systemization of pop culture using H.O.T as an example, and see how the digitalization of music nearly destroyed the entire Korean music industry, so stay tuned to “The History of Kpop” to learn more!



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  1. Julia 8 years ago
    Wanted to let you know I posted the first chapter over at Omonatheydidn’t with links the other chapters! I hope you’ll keep writing the series. I’m really looking forward to Chapter 5!!
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  5. Fafa 2 years ago

    Hallo, first i wanna say tahnkyou for your written and you arrange it very well! Its easy to understand, simple and not boring^^, if you dont mind can i know the resources you use ? Bcs i have an assignment and choose mr lee for my topic but its hard to looking for his personal life. I hope i can add more information from that. Thankyou so much !

  6. Damon 2 years ago

    Lee Soo-man’s work with Hyun JinYoung’s initial album could be considered an “experiment” to gauge acceptance of new music. Raw talent and experience requires refinement.

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