SM Entertainment: From the birth of K-Pop until today

by Helen Bosch
2021 Winter SM Town: SMCU Express poster: all artists
2021 Winter SM Town: SMCU Express poster: all artists

K-Pop Blog > Overview > Entertainments

SM Entertainment is a leader of the Hallyu Wave that has significantly shaped the K-pop industry from the beginning and continues to be a pioneer today - especially when it comes to unusual and innovative concepts. The label was founded in 1998 by Lee Soo-Man and is known for popular artists such as Girls Generation, EXO, NCT and Aespa. However, SM has already enjoyed great success in 1996 with the very first K-pop idol group H.O.T! In this article you will learn everything you need to know about the history of one of the biggest entertainments in the South Korean music industry!

K-pop idols, whether groups or solo artists, have been delighting their fans for many years with multi-faceted music that evolves from year to year. Behind the idols we love so much are the entertainments that are responsible for their success in most cases. They decide on the style, music and concept of their artists; promote them and take care of their schedule. In addition, they train the artists, sometimes for years in advance - until they are ready to perform on stage.

And that's by far not all. The genre of K-pop itself was co-founded by the Entertainments. It is thanks to their efforts since the 1990s that the genre has become what we know today!

That's why we don't want to miss introducing you to a few of the giants of the entertainment industry! So in this and following articles, we'll take a look at the history of SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and HYBE Corporation.

SM Entertainment

SM Entertainment (korean label) logo: black on light pink background

There is rarely a K-pop fan who doesn't know NCT, Red Velvet, EXO or Girls Generation. Some of these names may even be known to non-fans nowadays. Therefore, I don't think anyone can deny that each of these groups is an essential part of the K-pop scene. They all belong, how could it be otherwise, to the SM Entertainment family! Their agency colleagues include many more big names like BoA, TVXQ and SHINee.

But where did it all originate? Well, if we want to tell the story from the beginning, there's one person we can't get around:

SM Entertainment's founder Lee Soo-man.

korean label SM Entertainment founder: Lee Soo-Man

Most people know him as a businessman, manager, and producer, but he also used to have a singing career. Lee Soo-man debuted in 1972 in a band called "April and May (4월과 5월)". He later left this for health reasons. However, until the early 80s he was still active as part of the indie band "Sand Pebbles", the trio "Masamtrio" and the band "Lee Soo-Man and the 356 Days (이수만과 365일)". Eventually, he decided to leave the entertainment industry to study computer engineering and went abroad to do so. However, there he was inspired by the rise of stars like Michael Jackson to change the Korean music industry and changed his plans.

He returned to Korea in 1985 and worked as a DJ and emcee for 4 years until he gained enough experience and money to start a company.

In 1989, Lee Soo-Man founded an entertainment company called "SM Studio".

("SM" stands for Lee Soo-Man's initials).

The very first artist that SM Studio signed was singer, dancer and rapper Hyun Jinyoung. He debuted in 1990 and left SM about four years later.

In that time, SM developed a comprehensive in-house system. So from concept to production, control remains "In-House"/within the company. This laid an important foundation.

So today SM Entertainment is a multinational entertainment company operating as a record label, talent agency, music production company, event management company, concert production company and music publishing company!

Finally, in February 1995, SM Studio was officially renamed and has been called SM Entertainment ever since! "Jung Hae Ik" was appointed CEO and replaced several times over the years. Lee Soo-Man is a member of the board of directors and is the largest shareholder of SM Entertainment until today (2022) with a share of 18.72 percent. This means that he owns the management rights.

Things really took off with the debut of the five-member boy group H.O.T in 1996! H.O.T is considered the very first K-pop idol group. They followed the success of the three-member boy band "Seo Taiji and Boys," which debuted in 1992. Seo Taiji and Boys revolutionized Korean music. They mixed Korean pop with elements of American music. Among other things, they incorporated rap into their music and added English lines to their song lyrics. They also combined the new style of music with hip-hop choreography and thus K-pop was born. Seo Taiji and Boys inspired subsequent artists to experiment more with their style and music.

1996 - 2002: H.O.T & the 1st Generation of K-Pop

H.O.T. is considered the first K-pop idol group because it followed the new style of music and, moreover, a "formula" developed by SM Entertainment that idol groups still use today: Choreographed and synchronized dances + coordinated outfits + catchy music (simple, easy-to-remember tunes) + good looks! Check out their debut music video:

So you see why SM Entertainment can be called the co-founder of K-Pop without exaggeration! The Entertainment officially kicked off the "1st Generation of K-Pop" with H.O.T, which lasted from 1996 to 2002. By 2002, SM produced several more idols with great success such as the first K-pop girl group S.E.S. (1997), the six-member boy group Shinhwa (1998), the duo Fly To The Sky (1999) and the solo singer BoA (2000), making it a leader of the first generation until the end.

In 1997, SM was the first entertainment in the industry to expand to foreign music markets such as Japan. The company also introduced the now-famous trainee system, in which talents are selected through auditions and then undergo intensive training for several years.

2003 - 2011: TVXQ is the beginning of the 2nd Generation of K-Pop

five-member K-Pop Boygroup TVXQ: jaejoong, yoochun, yunho, changmin, junsu

With the debut of SM Entertainment's five-member boy group TVXQ in 2003, which became one of the best-selling K-pop acts of its time, it is widely believed that the second K-pop generation began, ending around 2011. That's where opinions differ. Some say it ended as early as 2009, while others cite 2010. Since the beginning and end of a generation are not officially proclaimed, the dates are often vague. So don't be surprised if you see slight shifts in dates in other articles. So SM went ahead again and continued to dominate the scene - along with JYP and YG Entertainment - with successful groups like Super Junior (2005), Girl's Generation (2007), SHINee (2008) and f(x) (2009).

Meanwhile, the entertainment debuted other acts such as Isak N Jiyen (2002), Shinvi (2001), and Black Beat (2002), but most of them disbanded after 5 or less years with little success and are therefore not remembered. The rock band TRAX (2004) and the acapella girl group The Grace (2005) may be more familiar to you if you've been around the K-pop scene for a long time. But even though the two groups have lasted longer, their activities fizzled out bit by bit until they disbanded.

In February 2010, SM Entertainment's founder Lee Soo-man stepped down from the company's board of directors to focus more on SM's business overseas and artist development.

Before the year ended, the label's first project group was formed: SM the Ballad. As the name suggests, it is a ballad group composed of singers from SM Entertainment. Jay from TRAX, Kyuhyun from Super Junior, Jonghyun from SHINee, and a trainee named Jino released an album titled "Miss You" in November 2010. Jino left SM in 2015 and debuted a year later in the boy group "Pentagon" under Cube Entertainment!

2011 - 2020: 3rd Generation of K-Pop.

In March 2012, SM Entertainment showed very clearly that they see their artists as family. Kangta (formerly H.O.T), BoA, and most of the members of Super Junior and Girls Generation each received 680 shares of the company - 690 shares are worth about $27,700! Members of younger groups like SHINee or f(x) received 340 shares each with a value around $13,600. In total, 47 artists of the agency thus became shareholders of SM Entertainment!

sm entertainment korean-chinese boygroup EXO

A month later, in April 2012, the Korean-Chinese boy group EXOdebuted, with which SM targeted not only the Korean market but also the Chinese market from the beginning. Exactly who launched the 3rd generation is not entirely clear, precisely because there are disagreements about exactly what year it started, but there are more than a few who would see EXO as the prelude. Either way, we can say that SM Entertainment didn't slow down and still knew how to excite K-Pop fans worldwide after a good 15 years.

In late 2012, several SM Entertainment artists performed under the name "SM The Performance" at the annual music festival "SBS Gayo Daejeon" on December 29. The project group, consisting of TVXQ's U-Know, Super Junior's Eunhyuk & Donghae, SHINee's Taemin & Minho, and EXO's Kai & Lay performed a cover to the song "Spectrum" by Russian-German music producer Zedd. They had re-recorded the song with vocals from U-Know, Donghae and Taemin. However, the focus was on the choreography; after all, most of the members of the project group are known for their talent for dance. "Spectrum" was the first and last song of the group, which has had no further activities since then.

SM The Ballad, on the other hand, made a comeback in 2014! However, the lineup was changed. SHINee's Jonghyun was the only member of the original quartet to rejoin. This time, he was joined by Changmin (TVXQ), Yesung & Zhou Mi (Super Junior), Taeyeon (Girls Generation), Krystal ( f(x) ), Chen (EXO) and Chinese singer Zhang Liyin. Together, they released the second SM The Ballad album "Breath" in February 2014.

sm entertainment five-member girlgroup red velvet: the red album cover

The massive success of EXO was followed by the debut of Red Velvetin August 2015. Red Velvet was SM's first new girl group since the formation of f(x) in 2009 and quickly gained popularity! By now, SM Entertainment was considered a guarantee of success and fans had high expectations for each new artist from the agency. These were mostly met, so it's no wonder that SM is always mentioned as part of the "Big 3" to this day. The term is used by K-pop fans to refer to SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment and JYP Entertainment, as all three labels continuously produced successful artists. It's unclear exactly when the term came about, but it's still used to this day, thus continuing to show how much influence these three labels have.

On November 6, 2015, exactly 10 years after Super Junior's debut, SM Entertainment announced that from now on the boy group has its own exclusive label! Label SJ was established by SM to create an ideal management system for Super Junior. Label SJ is a subsidiary of SM Entertainment, but operates independently and takes sole responsibility over the management of the boy group and its individual members, as well as the production of their albums. Label SJ was the first label that SM created exclusively for a group or artist.

A few months later, in January 2016, Lee Soo-Man announced a new boy group called NCT (Neo Culture Technology) . What attracted the most attention was the statement that NCT has unlimited members! It started with the debut of the unit NCT U in April 2016, and in that year alone, two more units entered the stage - NCT 127 (July 2016) & NCT Dream (August 2016) - some of which consisted of already well-known members. However, new talents kept joining as well. So in the future, NCT can still grow to infinity with new Units. In 2019, the Chinese unit WayV debuted, which is even managed by its own subsidiary - Label V. Currently (2022), NCT has 23 members, making it the largest K-pop group of all! So SM Entertainment has once again managed to create something new and stand out like this!

sm entertainment boygroup nct: 23 members

Between 2018 and 2020, the 4th Generation of K-Pop started.

The exact year is very controversial. For example, some would count groups like Stray Kids and Ateez, who debuted in 2018, as part of the fourth generation. Others still see them as part of the third generation.

The first group in the fourth generation of SM Entertainment is believed to be SuperM. SuperM is a "supergroup" that released its debut album "SuperM" in October 2019. It is a "supergroup" because it consists of members of SM's existing successful boy groups: Taemin from SHINee, Baekhyun & Kai from EXO and Taeyong, Ten, Lucas & Mark from NCT. So SuperM is kind of a cross-section of SM's history, especially since two different K-pop generations are represented with Taemin from SHINee from the second generation.

If fans had to choose who SM's fourth-generation representative is, however, they would certainly agree on the four-member girl group Aespa , which debuted in November 2020. Through Aespa, SM once again drew attention with an unusual concept.

SMCU (sm culture universe) aespa season 1poster

Namely, the four members each have a virtual counterpart called an "ae." These ae appear in the music videos and album photo books and are part of the "SMCU (SM Culture Universe)".

The SMCU is a fictional storyline that is meant to unite all the artists of SM. The storyline basically states that there are two dimensions: The real world where we humans live and the alternate dimension "Kwangya" where the villain, the "Black Mamba" rules. The members of Aespa tell parts of the story in their songs, such as their debut song "Black Mamba". In addition, SM has uploaded two episodes of the SM Culture Universe on Youtube so far, starring Aespa, their ae and the Black Mamba. Who will join SMCU next, we don't know yet, but we can't wait to see what happens next!

As you can see, SM Entertainment keeps challenging itself and remains a leader in the K-Pop scene with new and unusual concepts now and in the future! Even more so because the label not only celebrates groundbreaking successes with their artists, but also revolutionizes the entertainment industry in general.

In April 2020, for example, SM launched a series of online concerts called "Beyond Live" in collaboration with the online platform "Naver". Beyond Live is the world's first paid concert streaming service! Fans can watch the concerts live online. Beyond Live is not just a replacement for traditional concerts, which was much needed due to the global Corona Pandemic. By using technologies like augmented reality, the events become unique. Namely, the online concerts have elements that traditional concerts cannot offer. It also enables real-time interactions between the stars performing and the fans sitting live in front of the screen. The first "Beyond Live" concert was held by SuperM in front of 75,000 viewers from over 109 different countries!

In August 2020, SM Entertainment teamed up with JYP Entertainment. The two labels formed "Beyond Live Corporation," which was officially released in December 2021. Since then, not only concerts of SM but also JYP's artists have been broadcast live. Meanwhile, other entertainments also produce similar live concerts.

sm entertainment supergroup

After the success of SuperM, SM Entertainment finally announced a female "supergroup" in December 2021! "GOT the beat" has seven members: solo artist BoA, Taeyeon & Hyoyeon of Girls Generation, Seulgi & Wendy of Red Velvet, and Karina & Winter of Aespa!

Even more than SuperM, GOT the beat is a cross-generational group! BoA is from the first K-Pop generation, Girls Generation from the second, Red Velvet from the third and Aespa from the fourth. There is probably no better representation of SM Entertainment's history than this girl group! It debuted in January 2022 with "Step Back".

SM Town & SM Station

All the singers of SM Entertainment together form the music collective "SM Town". Under the name, all the idols of SM have toured the world together several times. Since 1999, 14 SM Town summer and winter albums have also been released! Most recently, the Christmas album "2021 Winter SM Town: SMCU Express" was released. It was the first SM Town album in 10 years!

SM Station is a digital music project that released a digital single every Friday. The goal was mainly to showcase SM artists and producers. They also had the chance to collaborate with artists from other entertainments. So far, there have been two "seasons" of SM Station. The first lasted from February 2016 to February 2017 and includes 52 songs. The second ran from March 2017 to April 2018 and includes 57 songs.

Subsidiaries

As mentioned earlier, SM Entertainment is now much more than just a record label. Of course, it is best known for its idol groups, but SM also has a number of actors, TV personalities, models and even athletes under contract. The actors include big names like Kang Hana, Moon Gayoung and Woo Dohwan, as well as a few idols with acting careers. These are, for example, D.O from EXO, Key from SHINee or Joy from Red Velvet.

But if you do a little research, you will see that Kang Hana, Moon Gayoung and co are represented by the management agency "KeyEast". KeyEast is simply one of the many subsidiaries of SM Entertainment. SM has almost built a small empire over the years!

Other subsidiaries include other entertainment agencies such as SM Japan and SM U.S.A, which take care of SM's artists' activities abroad, among other things. In 2020, "SM Classics" was also established in collaboration with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. SM Classics releases newly arranged orchestral versions of well-known songs by SM Entertainment's artists. For example, there are now orchestral versions of End of a Day (SHINee Jonghyun), Red Flavor (Red Velvet) and Make A Wish (NCT U). The content that SM releases is thus becoming more and more varied!

In addition, the subsidiaries also include a travel company, a wholesale company in the food industry and more! So SM is not just leading the entertainment industry, but combining it with culture and looking to contribute to the growth of the economy.

Of course, the label has also received awards for its efforts.

For example, in addition to general recognition, SM received the Export Award for Cultural Content and Music from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Lee Soo-Man himself was named one of the world's most influential figures in the music industry by Billboard in January 2020!

Throughout the years, SM Entertainment has been involved in multiple scandals and lawsuits.

Probably one of the most famous is the lawsuit filed against the label by three former members of TVXQ. Jaejoong, Yoochun and Junsu filed a lawsuit against the 13-year contract they were forced to sign before their debut. They also claimed to be treated unfairly in terms of payment. As a result of the lawsuit, the Korean Fair Trade Commission issued a new rule in 2009 that contracts could run for a maximum of seven years in the future. Therefore, most idols today have a 7-year contract. The three won the lawsuit, left SM Entertainment and formed the trio JYJ.

Han Geng of Super Junior also sued SM in the same year for the disproportionate contract length and unfair payment.

From 2014 to 2015, three of EXO's Chinese members independently sued for discrimination and unfair payment. Luhan specifically cited SM's preferential treatment of EXO's Korean members in his lawsuit.

former Girls Generation member Jessica Jung

Jessica Jung left Girls Generation and SM Entertainment in 2014 due to conflicts between her business activities and Girls Generation's schedule. Jessica told on social media at the time that she was kicked out without warning, while SM claimed that they had been in talks with Jessica for some time. She had allegedly opened her business without consultation, affecting her group's activities.

In 2015, TRAX's No Minwoo also sued over his contract and left the label. Since then, things have been quiet as far as legal disputes are concerned.

Social Media

In addition to the social media accounts of the individual artists, SM Entertainment generally has its own accounts where news and videos of all the artists of the label can be found:

Youtube // Instagram // Twitter // TikTok

Currently (June 2022) SM Entertainment has the following artists under contract:

Groups: TVXQ, Girls Generation, SHINee, EXO, Red Velvet, NCT & Aespa.
Of course, if Label SJ is still counted, Super Junior is also included.

BoA & kangta selfie: sm entertainment artists first k-pop generation

Solo singers:Kangta (formerly H.O.T), BoA & J-Min

Of course, SM also lists all members of idol groups who have released their own albums as solo singers. This now includes all the members of TVXQ and SHINee and some of Super Junior, Girls Generation, EXO, Red Velvet and NCT.
Three members of Girls Generation - Tiffany, Sooyoung and Seohyun - are still a member of the girl group but have left SM Entertainment. Their group activities are still managed by SM, but their solo careers are handled by their respective new agencies.

As you can see, with Kangta and BoA, even idols from the first K-pop generation are still active. SM Entertainment is a piece of K-Pop history and we're excited to see what the versatile label has in store for us in the future!

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2003 - 2011: TVXQ is the beginning of the 2nd Generation of K-Pop

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