SM makes idols like Samsung makes phones: K-pop as culture technology

This is the second part in a series on the meaning of K-pop as a genre. Apologies to everyone for the huge delay.

Step 1: Casting

Step 2: Training

Step 3: Producing

Step 4: Marketing

This is the 4-step process founder Lee Soo-man laid out describing how SM Entertainment develops its artists in front of the audience last year at the SM COEX Artium – six floors of retail space converted into a virtual theme park of K-pop consumerism in the massive (and, in this writer’s humble opinion, crushingly soulless) COEX Mall in Gangnam. The label calls this approach “Culture Technology” and it takes the inspiration for its name from Korea’s largest and most influential technological field: Information Technology.

But SM’s conceptualisation of CT is more than just a gimmicky buzzword riding on the coattails of the country’s tech giants like Samsung and LG. It really is how the company approaches its work. Listening to Lee outline his philosophy for the manufacture of idoldom you’d be forgiven for thinking he was unveiling a new smart phone or cutting edge piece of technology. Phrases like “development system”, “differentiated contents” and “optimised system” would seem much more at home at a tech press conference than one held by a music label but it reflects the iterative approach (that is improving a product through careful repetition and improvement of its processes) which SM has borrowed from the computing sector. Trainees go through a rigorous system where they are pitted against each other and challenged in various ways over and over until the most idol-worthy performers are found. Every other element of the process from music production to marketing is put through a similar rigorous testing process.

And this approach continues well past the actual debut of its artists and into various aspects its work. When EXO were first created in 2012 SM were already heavily experimenting with the process by which it introduces its artists to an audience using teaser videos and pre-release singles to an extent never really seen before in K-pop but the experimentation continued several years into their career. With its China-focussed approach, the initial structure of the group was as two halves of one whole with 6 members performing as EXO-K predominantly in Korean in Korea and the other 6 as EXO-M performing in Mandarin in China and only coming together for special performances at concerts and big live broadcasting events.

But it quickly became clear that fans were much more receptive to the group in its more visually impressive full 12-member state as well as the practical reality that it was hard to book as many performances in China. By their next round of singles in 2013, the group were performing as a whole, with the members of their respective sub-units leading in each language. As time has gone on the Korean and Chinese versions of their singles have become less and less distinct from each other. SM has reacted to the nature of their various struggles in the Chinese market from the exodus of 3 of 4 Chinese members to increasing hostility towards Korean entertainment in China by integrating and consolidating EXO as a single coherent brand.

The only visual difference between the two versions of this video is the Chinese one has Chinese subtitles.

Likewise Red Velvet is a very modern K-pop group that illustrates how SM carefully monitors and adapts to changes in public taste. As the general public has grown increasingly tired of idols, with soloists, indie groups and rappers dominating the charts, SM took lessons it learned from both Girls’ Generation and f(x) by maintaining elements of Girls’ Generation’s sonyeosonyeohan girlish appeal while mimicking aspects of f(x)’s quirky aesthetics and more experimental sound to create something which is poppy and accessible while still seen as something a little more sophisticated in an environment where it is increasingly socially unacceptable to be an out-and-out idol fan (at least if you’re an adult).

And SM are not the only ones who do this. What is TWICE if not a Girls’ Generation-style “cheerleader effect” group with Wonder Girls’ hook songs produced in a quirky EDM-influenced style popularised by the likes of f(x) with a new pop culture-referential cosplay aesthetic to appeal to an increasingly idol weary public? And initially presented to that same public through a trendy survival programme, of course. Put altogether TWICE as a whole product is something new but it’s not the revolutionary vision of one pioneer, nor is it a product crafted behind closed doors after hundreds of focus groups. TWICE is a new iteration of the popular trends that came before them and in order to maintain their popularity they will likely become a new iteration of that going forward.

Smaller agencies also play their role in this evolutionary process even if they can’t afford the expense of SM’s sophisticated casting system. In an over saturated market, idol groups without the backing of the biggest labels have to fight to survive and finding a slightly new approach or a gimmick is key. It’s AOA who really popularised that aforementioned cosplay aesthetic. Groups like Block B, BTS and Mamamoo have driven an increasing desire for more seeming authenticity in K-pop – not by doing anything radically new but by enfranchising their artists a little more in their creative process, something the bigger agencies are loath to do, especially with new artists. But for small agencies with vision it’s sometimes worth the risk to attract a more loyal fanbase and can even cut down on expenses in artistic production.

This approach can sound mercenary and inauthentic – and that’s because it often is – but it also has not only commercial but also artistic strengths. The lack of value placed on the concept of authenticity means labels and artists are less tied to maintaining a certain image or sound and can focus on what is right for the market rather than necessarily what feels right for the artist.

Whenever I’ve interviewed composers working for K-pop companies from outside Korea they always say they’re given much more opportunity to take risks and try something new than when working in the US and Europe. Likewise the dance performance focus of K-pop gives composers a chance to write songs with a more complex structure than the simple structures generally favoured in western pop music. It also supports a network of dance professionals who are increasingly able to use their K-pop connection to build their own online presences.

K-pop as cultural technology needs to be understood as its own phenomenon. It’s not simply a modern-day rehashing of the Motown system (although that may be where it has its roots), at least at the top, it’s network of carefully planned experimental systems which exist in a diverse eco-system of global creative talent situated in a mercilessly Darwinian environment.

For a number of years many of us thought Korean idol culture was going to die out. It hasn’t. And it doesn’t look like it will any time soon. Individual groups and projects fail and the expectation of audiences shift over time but so far K-pop companies have shown their abilities to continuously renew and evolve to changing market environments. And that’s the real strength of culture technology.

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  • Lizzie (beyondhallyu)

    Sorry for the huge break everyone. I recently moved to Seoul so I’ve been a bit distracted.

  • Dhdba

    I personally don’t agree with saying kpop cultural technology is its own phenomenon simply because when you look at it all lee soo man has done is take both the jpop idol system western system studied the good and the bad, and done a few tweaks to it to fit korean tastes and given good marketing and hype, but none of it is new or different most of it has been done before.
    Other than that qualm good article.