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Thursday, November 30, 2023

Artists, staff and fans on edge as uncertainty surrounds SM Entertainment

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Girl group aespa’s album was canceled and SHINee’s Key can’t hold solo concerts: The ongoing kerfuffle surrounding SM Entertainment may be a source of unease to shareholders, but for the artists, staff and fans alike, the agony is more than just an ache.
The conflict between HYBE, SM Entertainment’s founder Lee Soo-man and co-CEO Lee Sung-su worsens with each new revelation of what’s turning out to be one of Korea’s messiest cases of tax evasion by the founder, casting a shadow on the future of what once used to be the country’s largest K-pop company.
Artists are agitated, the staff are enraged and fans are desperate.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” said entertainer Park Myung-soo while hosting a radio program on Friday. “It’s complicated. But I just hope the artists don’t get hurt and will get to perform on stage. I’m worried about the younger artists. I just wish everything would settle down.”

Singer Key described the atmosphere at the agency as “unsettled.”

“I want to hold a performance more than anyone,” he said with a sigh during a live session with fans on Feb. 13 after releasing his solo album “Killer.” “But who can I ask to get an encore concert? I have no idea. The company is so unsettled right now.”

SM Entertainment was founded in 1995 as one of the first pop music agencies of the time, when music from the genre was considered to be shallow or just low quality. Its founder Lee, born in 1952, was himself a singer who was active in the 1970s and ’80s and is considered a key figure in the birth of K-pop.

Many firsts were awarded to SM Entertainment and its artists, such as when BoA became the first K-pop artist to succeed in the Japanese market, TVXQ the first boy band to solidify the meaning of fandom in K-pop, girl group aespa the first K-pop band to debut with both human and virtual members and the agency itself becoming the first-ever K-pop company to go public on the Korea Exchange in 2000.

Titles aside, the influence SM artists had on the entertainment scene was strong enough to build a legacy like none other in the industry, so much so that the artists and staff at SM Entertainment refer to themselves as “Pink Blood,” for having the same color as the company’s logo in their veins.

HYBE, the company founded by Bang Si-hyuk in 2005 as Big Hit Entertainment, is a relative latecomer to the scene as its presence went largely unnoticed until BTS had its massive breakthrough on the U.S. Billboard music chart in 2017.

There had been rumors of Bang wishing to buy SM Entertainment to grow HYBE for years, but founder Lee had dismissed the option until this month when SM’s board decided to partner up with Kakao and remove Lee’s influence over SM Entertainment for good.

A subtitle reads ″Pink Blood is Running″ on SM Entertainment's YouTube entertainment show titled ″Pink Blood Quiz Show″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]
A subtitle reads ″Pink Blood is Running″ on SM Entertainment’s YouTube entertainment show titled ″Pink Blood Quiz Show″ [SCREEN CAPTURE]

“I’d been filled with pride while working here, but now that’s crumbled down in the blink of an eye,” read a comment from an SM Entertainment employee posted on Blind, an anonymous online forum where users must verify their occupation with their company email address.

Other comments posted on Blind concurred: “I feel like SM’s tradition and history is being denied,” “I’m scared that people might stop seeing us as an independent entertainment company” and “If HYBE buys us, then we become just another HYBE label,” they read.

A total of 208 SM Entertainment employees — a sizeable chunk of the 559 total employees as of last September — came together under a coalition on Friday and released a statement opposing HYBE’s purchase of the company’s shares.

“Former chief producer Lee Soo-man has sold his shares to a competitor that he has been belittling and ran away as his illegal tax evasion came to light,” the statement read. “We will protect the cultural diversity of K-pop and the unique identity of SM Entertainment. SM Entertainment’s culture cannot be subject to HYBE’s capital.”

“Lee Soo-man has abandoned SM and Pink Blood, but we will stay here at [the company’s headquarters in] Seoul Forest and protect SM and Pink Blood,” the statement closed.

A statement released by a coalition of 208 SM Entertainment employees opposing the ″hostile takeover″ by HYBE [SCREEN CAPTURE]
A statement released by a coalition of 208 SM Entertainment employees opposing the ″hostile takeover″ by HYBE [SCREEN CAPTURE]

According to co-CEO Lee Sung-su, Lee Soo-man’s personal greed has led to the deterioration of not only the company’s bottom line but also their artists’ music. Girl group aespa was scheduled to release a new album on Feb. 20, but it was canceled due to Lee Soo-man’s “greed and stubbornness” ruining the concept, according to the CEO.

“Since last year, Lee Soo-man has been pitching a K-pop festival headed by the idea of planting trees,” the co-CEO said in a YouTube video uploaded last Thursday. “He suddenly started rooting for sustainability […] And he ordered aespa, whose concept is so well laid-out and clear, to sing a song with the idea of planting trees.”

“The lyrics contained words such as ‘just sustainability, bringing down the temperature, co-habitation, greenism,’ which made aespa members so sad that they welled up with tears,” he continued. “We co-CEOs could not stand by the content that no one agreed with and decided to cancel it for aespa’s sake.”

Some fans chose to poke fun at the news with jokes, parodying aespa’s hit 2021 remake “Next Level” (2021) to posts reading “I’m on the next shovel.” Pictures of the girls photoshopped onto tree-planting images also circulated online.

However, it’s more than a joke for other fans.

Girl group aespa [SM ENTERTAINMENT]
Girl group aespa [SM ENTERTAINMENT]

“It’s sad to think that all the weird themes SM’s artists had to carry out were because of Lee Soo-man’s old-man greed,” said 23-year-old Yu, who has been a longtime supporter of the artists at SM Entertainment. “Kakao has so many different businesses, so that’s worrying. But if HYBE takes over, then Lee Soo-man may still have an influence on the company, which is also worrying.”

“I don’t care who takes over, so long as Lee Soo-man is out of the picture,” said another fan who wished to remain anonymous.

Fans of HYBE artists aren’t happy either.

“Can you please focus on the artists that you already have?” “Do you seriously think that artists at HYBE and SM are going to mix?” and “HYBE won’t stop until there’s no other agency left but HYBE in Korea,” some posts online read.

HYBE promised to guarantee SM Entertainment would keep its own colors to the fullest. The company’s list of candidates for the new board focused on financial and policy experts, staying true to HYBE’s professed intentions to ensure a maximum level of independence to SM Entertainment.

“We respect SM’s legacy,” HYBE CEO Park Ji-won said in a meeting with employees on Feb. 14. “We will ensure SM’s independence. HYBE has already proved [the efficacy] of the multi-label system.”

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]