Why Lee Soo Man’s New Culture Technology is the Smartest and the Scariest Thing to Ever Happen in K-pop

By: Hannah Waitt
moonROK Editor-in-Chief


This week SM Entertainment founder Lee Soo Man pulled a Steve Jobs when he hosted a presentation outlining SM’s strategy for its future products. At the presentation, Mr. SM made two game-changing announcements. The first is that for the remainder of 2016, an artist from the SM roster will release a new single and accompanying music video every week in a series called “Station”. That’s right, a new single and music video once a week, every week, for 52 weeks.

If you’ve been paying attention to K-pop in the past few months, you may have noticed a conspicuous change in the industry; all of a sudden, idols from the “Big Three” (SM, JYP, and YG) are collaborating with R&B and rap artists outside of their rosters. Last year, SHINee member Jonghyun had Zion.T feature on his solo album. This week, out of nowhere, Crush dropped a single featuring Girls’ Generation member Taeyeon. The week before, f(x) member Luna featured on Zico’s new single, “It Was Love”. Earlier this month in an unprecedented move, SM and JYP extended the olive branch when they had EXO member Baekhyun and miss A member Suzy release a duet, and under Mystic Entertainment, no less. Is all of this a coincidence? Absolutely not.

It’s no secret that SM is a behemoth when it comes to physical sales. Year after year, groups like EXO, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and SHINee top the album sales charts. In fact in 2015, SM artists occupied 10 of the top 15 physical album sales spots. Naturally, you would think that the groups pushing this many physical albums would be selling well digitally too. You would be wrong.

EXO is the only SM group to clock in the top 15 digital singles of 2015. For the past few years, SM has been struggling when it comes to digital sales. While their albums fly off the shelves, SM artists’ songs lack staying power on the digital singles charts. Long story short, fans buy up physical albums for their collections, but the general public as a whole isn’t listening to the singles for very long after their release. So who is occupying the top digital spots? You guessed it: R&B and rap artists from other labels (and BIGBANG, but we’ll get to them in a minute).

These new digital single crossover collaborations – Taeyeon and Crush, Luna and Zico, Baekhyun and Suzy, etc. – are an attempt to combine SM’s fandom power with R&B and rap artists’ staying power on the charts, and it’s working. Baekhyun and Suzy’s duet “Dream” has stayed at the top of the weekly digital singles charts since it’s release, and now Crush’s single featuring Taeyeon is competing for that top spot. I have a feeling that SM’s “Station” series of releases is very much a part of the label’s new digital strategy, but the question is, do the pros outweigh the cons with a single-based releases?

Waiting is a huge part of K-pop culture. Every K-pop fan has been there, in front of their computer screens at 3am, waiting, jittery and over-caffeinated, refreshing browsers, all in anticipation for that moment when your favorite group’s new music video drops. And as much as you hate to admit it, isn’t that moment just a little sweeter the longer you have to wait? After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. The perfect example is BIGBANG. The group went on a lengthy three year hiatus before releasing their most recent album, “MADE”, and all of that wait time paid off. The group spent those years meticulously curating an amazing album, and as a result, they took three of the top four spots for highest selling digital singles of 2015, and won pretty much every award there was to win at the year-end award ceremonies.

Every extra month that BIGBANG refrained from dropping an album as a group added to the thirst for a new release, but this once-in-a-blue-moon comeback strategy is not without its hazards. If you stay away from the industry for too long, and you risk irrelevance. Thus, most groups wait about a year between album drops – it’s enough time to make the people miss you, but not enough time for them to forget about you.

So the question becomes, does this “Station” series of weekly releases cheapen the comeback? Will Girls’ Generation fans miss the group enough to float album sales to the top of the yearly charts if Taeyeon is dropping a single in 4 days and another member drops another one in 4 weeks? Is excitement for a yearly group music video diminished when we’re getting weekly music videos from individuals? And will the singles themselves get old fast? Girls’ Generation fans waited 8 years for a solo release from Taeyeon, and when it finally happened, her album was a massive success. Obviously the wait factor wasn’t the only reason for her success on the charts (let’s face it, the girl can sang), but the fact that it took so long to happen certainly raised the standards and heightened the frenzy around the release. Now just 3 months later Taeyeon is releasing a new single, but is the frenzy there?

The answer is probably yes, but to a lesser extent. What SM is banking on is that these collaborations and single releases will quench fan thirst for new material in between group promotions, while still counting on full group releases to have that long-awaited “comeback” factor. The “Station” series is being put into place to keep SM artists on the digital charts in between yearly group releases, all while allowing their artists to work with other artists outside of the roster and explore new genres of music that they may not necessarily get to do in a group setting.

The second earth-shattering announcement Lee Soo Man made was the promotion strategy for SM’s forthcoming boy group, NCT, short for Neo Culture Technology. The group will defy K-pop convention in that it will not have a set number of members. Instead, different teams will be formed with the intention of international localization; in other words, various units will perform the same content all over the world in different languages.

NCT is scary and exciting all at once, because it is EXO 2.0. Lee Soo Man has taken the EXO-K / EXO-M model, and expanded it to include unlimited territories and members. In the next few years, we could see the emergence of NCT-K, NCT-M, NCT-J, NCT-S, NCT-T, NCT-E units that will promote in Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, Thai, English, and who knows what other languages. The possibilities and combinations for this group are truly endless.

In fact I’m hesitant to call NCT a group, because it’s really more of a strategy. For the past few years, SM Entertainment has employed a localized expansion strategy called “Culture Technology”, a name that was so given by Lee Soo Man himself in a speech he made at Stanford University in 2011.  One of the facets of “Culture Technology” (CT for short) was that every performance should be catered to its location. SM Entertainment employees were given a CT manual which designated rules of appropriate behavior in different countries in the Asian region; which eye shadows should be worn by artists when in Thailand, how the artists should greet the audience when performing in Vietnam, which camera angles should be used in a Japanese music video versus in a Korean music video.

This manual ensured that the artists seemed familiar enough to their international audiences to be relatable, but still foreign enough to be interesting. Another part of CT theory was the strategic incorporation of foreign members into groups. A perfect example of this is f(x).  Out of their four (formerly five) members, one is a native Korean, one is Korean-American, one is Taiwanese-American, and one is Chinese. Between the four of them, they speak four different languages, which means that they automatically are more relatable in any country that speaks one of the four.

EXO took Culture Technology Theory to its limits. The idea is that the group would be “perfectly localized”. The two units, EXO-K and EXO-M, would release the exact same material but in two different languages, Korean and Mandarin, respectively. In this way, the Chinese audience would still be consuming Korean popular culture, but they would be consuming it with ease and familiarity because the content is in their own language. The idea of EXO was radical at the time, but it proved to be a huge success, which is exactly why NCT is both thrilling and terrifying.

NCT is quite literally the New CT. Rather than limiting the group to just China and Korea, this New Culture Technology strategy is borderless. This is thrilling because the model has already been proven with EXO. The group quickly became what is now arguably the most popular male pop group in the world. Chinese, Korean, and international fans alike went gaga for the members’ handsome looks, vocal prowess, and airtight choreography, and objectively speaking, their music is very good. EXO has consistently sold more albums than anyone else in K-pop since their debut, and undoubtedly will continue to do so for years to come.

But here’s the terrifying part: not far into their debut the EXO-M members were poached by Chinese entertainment companies who offered them success in the most populous country in the world with the added benefit of not being subjugated to SM’s grueling practice and promotions schedules. It was an offer that most of the EXO-M members could not and did not refuse. If SM really does intend to have NCT form units all over Southeast Asia and Latin America, they will be spreading the NCT members even more thinly across the world than the EXO members were, making them easy targets for poaching by entertainment companies in their home countries.

In many ways these two new strategies defy the laws of K-pop. Should SM succeed, they will indeed affect significant change in the landscapes of both the Korean and the global music industries. SM’s “Station” release strategy has the potential to make the digital singles charts even more volatile than they already are, but it also has the potential to make 2016 SM’s highest selling year in history. And in theory, New Culture Technology is genius. K-pop has proven that it has global appeal as a genre, and if SM can adapt that genre to be even more relatable on a local level, then they just might change the way that the entire world consumes music in the modern era.

Only time will tell if SM will be successful in these two endeavors, but if there’s one thing that I am sure of, it is that Lee Soo Man has a knack for revolutionizing the Korean music industry. Let’s see if he can do it again.


All visual and audio media courtesy of SM Entertainment
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