Music ‘made by Korea’

By Korea Herald

Production power is driver of K-pop success, says SM Entertainment

  • Published : Jan 21, 2014 - 19:36
  • Updated : Jan 21, 2014 - 19:36
(from top) Girls’ Generation beat the likes of Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga to win the top music video award at the 2013 YouTube Music Awards., 
EXO, a Korean-Chinese boy band produced by SM Entertainment, is one of Billboard’s 14 artists to watch in 2014. (SM Entertainment)

SM Entertainment, the largest record company in Korea, is at the forefront of K-pop’s worldwide popularity, churning out the hottest groups such as Girls’ Generation and EXO.

Although it has received lots of praise for earning precious dollars, there is also growing criticism over the supposed lack of “Korean-ness” in its music, due to widespread employment of foreign professionals, including songwriters and even singers, during the production process.

A typical example is EXO. The Korean-Chinese boy band, formed in 2011, is split into two subgroups based on nationality ― EXO-K and EXO-M. EXO-M is the Chinese subgroup and promotes songs ― many of them written by western songwriters ― in China in Mandarin, while their Korean counterpart performs in Korea in the Korean language.

So is EXO’s music K-pop?

Chris Lee, who leads SM’s production department, says that it is music “made by Korea” and should be seen as an export of Korea’s music industry.

To explain the concept of music made by Korea, Lee used the iPhone as an example.

“Numerous parts and technologies are used to make an iPhone. Many of them are not American ― some are from Samsung, Apple’s archrival, and some from Taiwan. But people don’t question whether or not the iPhone is an American product,” he said during a forum on the Korean Wave in Seoul on Monday. 

Chris Lee, general manager of SM Entertainment’s production department, speaks at a forum on Korean Wave in Seoul on Monday. (World Association for Hallyu Studies)
SM makes music to sell, he went on.

“This is, for us, a life-or-death battle. We can’t do things that are going to fail. We make music to sell, not to promote Korea. We make music that people in our target market would like to listen to.”

Great music takes much more than a few phone calls to famous songwriters, Lee said. It involves a long, tedious process that he describes as “production technology.”

SM has a unique production system and that drives the success of its artists, he said.

“When a song is great, we don’t stop at ‘Wow, that song is great.’ We analyze why it is so good,” he said “Without these production skills, a label can have one hit song. But continued success is not possible,” he said.

At SM’s studio in Cheongdam, downtown Seoul, U.S. producer and songwriter Teddy Riley is currently participating in a songwriting camp, where artists from Korea and elsewhere collaborate to create new sounds and beats.

SM has a network of over 500 songwriters around the world, Lee said.

The company started looking for European and American songwriters because it couldn’t find enough good songwriters in Korea and because it is targeting a foreign audience.

“Wouldn’t it be better to choose the best from a pool of 100 or 1000, rather than choosing from just 10?” Lee said.

“To fight globally, we have limited time and money. Even with a great song, it’s hard to succeed. What we can do is to find the best artists from all over the world and get them to collaborate to create something that’s even better,” he added.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heralcorp.com)