All is not well in the house of SM Entertainment. To be fair, 2014 thus far has given us a host of scandals across the entertainment companies, but SM has had more than a full plate of controversies, most of which have been handled really, really poorly.

I’m sure the big wigs in the management offices have asked each other the question we’re mulling over now: how can so many things go wrong in a such a short time period?20140729_seoulbeats_sm_kim-youngmin

Over the course of just seven months, SM Entertainment has lost grip of the strict, faithful schedules and procedures by which they have always done their business.

These scandals give the public even more reasons to hold SM accountable for their actions, and if there’s anything that the Great Scandal Season of ’14 has offered, it’s that SM is fundamentally failing at managing their idols. And by managing, I don’t refer to any of their rookie training, comeback designing, or idol polishing practices. SM still manages to be pretty good at this, more or less.

Most of SM’s problems this year stem from the company’s problem with treating their idols as individuals with personal lives that should be respected. This isn’t shocking news by any means, but 2014 has done a spectacular job of making it evident to everyone in a very public and worrisome way.

The concern isn’t just that these “scandals” keep happening – in many cases, fans can be held responsible for transforming what should be normal news, say a celebrity dating, into a cataclysmic event. The concern is also how SM has scrambled to deal with, or not deal with, the fallout from these controversies. And they’ve all been handled with varying degrees of effort that each can only be addressed on a case by case basis.

20140101_seoulbeats_strongheart_snsd_yoona_leeseunggiThe dating scandals of Tiffany, Sooyoung, and Yoona back at the beginning of the year are an interesting case.To have three big-name dating revelations go public in rapid succession on the eve of Girl’s Generation’s comeback was not necessarily promising. SM was placed in the rare circumstance where they actually confirmed that their idols were dating (although in the case of Sooyoung, they had denied it just last year when rumors first surfaced).

Still, the response to this news wasn’t too bad, even leaning on positive for Yoona and Lee Seung-gi. While the “Mr. Mr.” comeback was rife with technical complications, no true controversy stemmed from this dating news. Chalk it up to the girls’ ages or the fact that most of the pairings weren’t surprising, but this triple-whammy of dating news could have gone much worse than it did.20130728_seoulbeats_snsd_hyoyeon

Then we heard of Hyoyeon’s alleged physical altercation with her ex-boyfriend that led to police involvement. The rumors about this incident were irresponsible and harmful, and SM did a decent job of threatening legal action to shut them down. Other than that, they tried to deflect attention from the incident, stating that it was horseplay gone wrong between friends, and quickly moved on.

Whether fans decided to believe SM’s statement, there wasn’t much more that could or should have been done in Hyoyeon’s case. The public really shouldn’t have known about the altercation in the first place and wasn’t entitled to know the full details.

With these four news items, SM continued on its path of being reactionary to media reports, but also seemed to be making a huge internal shift of how they deal with dating rumors. Instead of denying them as they’ve typically done in the past, company representatives chose to confirm them and undermine the attention on them. It also helped that they were backed into a corner by Dispatch and Sports Seoul evidence, but confirmation is confirmation right?

20140103_seoulbeats_snsd_sooyoung_jungkyungho_sportsseoulIt’s not like the company didn’t have bigger issues to attend to, considering 2014 was also the year SM Entertainment was singled out for large-scale tax evasion of over $10 million USD.

While SM was quick to say that the reports were “groundless” and it was a routine check-up into finances, by June this ended up not being the case as the company was ordered to pay approximately $10 million to the Korean government to make up the difference.

For a huge entertainment company, reports of tax evasion are embarrassing and damaging to its corporate reputation, since it suggests not all is well at the highest levels of authority. This controversy is one that has to be handled away from the public eye, but the big reveal that SM actually did skip out on some requisite payments to the government sent some criticism their way.

Management, and perhaps the entire K-pop world, got its biggest shock this year when Kris left EXO during their comeback and just days before EXO’s first solo concert in Seoul, only to file a lawsuit against SM while simultaneously kickstarting a new career path in China20140516_seoulbeats_exom_kris2.

SM seemed to have been blind-sided, and so were the other group members, if the content on EXO members’ social media accounts were anything to go by. However, with all of the hearsay in the wake of Kris’s departure, it began to appear as if SM was encouraging EXO members to reframe the Kris debate with him starring as a traitor. Sound familiar?

It should, because this isn’t a new narrative. Changmin and Yunho were also guilty of sponsoring this narrative against JYJ when DBSK first split. In any situation where an idol chooses to leave, SM’s first priority will be to keep the peace and make sure their name stays out of the mud.

In many ways, Kris seemed to have known what backlash he would be dealing with and took precautions to minimize the impact of a vengeful former employer on his life and career. If he works in China, SM has minimal reach to him: all he has to worry about is the lawsuit, and he’s armed himself with the same law firm that helped Hangeng take that same path, so his prospects remain bright even now.

20120510_seoulbeats_dbskThe Kris incident only added another bullet point to the list of “Reasons Why SM Can’t Seem to Keep a Boy Group Together.” The company’s track record with lawsuits facilitated their quiet response to Kris. If anything, a vitriolic response from their camp would have made SM look worse.

Having the EXO members make emotional appeals directly to fans across various media portals decreased the need for SM’s publicity team to pump out official statements. Someone else was doing the work for them.

Regardless, the idea that Kris left so abruptly with an established plan of how he would do it safely suggested that he really was suffering during his idol life in Korea. Talks about SM’s working conditions came back into the spotlight, which is a never a conversation SM wants the public to have. SM has products and idols to sell, and the Kris controversy made that more complicated, certainly downsizing the potential that “Overdose” could have had.

Yet somehow, the Kris scandal wasn’t the end of SM’s woes. The TaeyeonBaekhyun dating scandal is where SM really failed to extinguish a controversy.

20140623_seoulbeats_taeyeon_baekhyunWhile SM probably does give their idols’ specific protocol on how to manage their public social networking accounts, this seemed to escape Taeyeon and Baekhyun, who disguised flirty messages to each other in posts that fans perceived as idol-fan interaction.

Whether this should be considered irresponsible or not would probably prompt a debate on how sacred the idol-fan relationship should be in light of said idol’s personal life, but for SM Entertainment the answer would likely be as simple as: it’s irresponsible if it’s bad for business.

Idols date in secret because public relationships are bad for business. However, I would argue that leaving an idol on their own to handle the fallout from a revealed public relationship should also be considered bad for business.

Because of the social media controversy, the Taeyeon-Baekhyun revelation did not go as smoothly as its predecessors. SM did confirm that Taeyeon and Baekhyun were dating, but that did not stop the netizens from making a huge fuss online.

This seemed to affected Taeyeon badly, as she scrambled to save herself from the barrage of online criticism by posting apologies on Instragram and even asking fans at the airport140303_seoulbeats_SNSD_taeyeon to relay her regret over the situation.  While delayed in his response, Baekhyun also released an apology a month later.

It’s very uncomfortable to see idols reach this point of desperation over trying to end a scandal. The fans, of course, are guilty for turning this into a controversy, but SM should still be held responsible to advocate for their idols in some form.

Taeyeon and Baekhyun acting as their own public relations representatives during the aftermath of the dating news only suggested that SM had no idea how to solve the problem. Normally the company is used to the “wait it out” method, but this case brought more fiery netizens to their keyboards than normal.

With reports that Baekhyun’s musical Singin’ in the Rain is also losing profits due to the controversy, one has to accept that SM deserves to take the loss for failing to take more action, either by putting a halt to the “irresponsible” social networking between the couple or actually coming to their defense once the accusations went flying.

20120517_seoulbeats_shinee_jonghyun_shinsekyungThis brings to mind the similar fallout after Jonghyun and Shin Se-kyung were reported to be dating back in 2010. SM did confirm it, but they also essentially held Jonghyun to an extended vow of silence during SHINee’s promotional activities.

How SM went from the hands-on approach of silencing an idol during controversy to taking the hands-off approach of leaving them to handle it alone is a curious change, but both tactics don’t seem to be effective.

SM has to be more proactive in these situations so that this type of idol vs. fan fallout doesn’t happen over things as minor as dating news. Slowly but surely, the Taeyeon and Baekhyun drama is starting to die down, but it probably offered one of the most unique dating scandals to ever hit K-pop.

But just when you thought the stormy period was over, there was the curious case of f(x).

It’s clear that SM put a fair amount of effort into the “Red Light” comeback. The visuals were top notch with a high-budget video to boot, and the girls spoke of a long promotional period. Yet two weeks into the comeback, something clearly seemed to be wrong.20140708_seoulbeats_f(x)

Sulli soon disappeared from music shows and f(x)’s schedule vanished along with her. The internet was left confused for a few days until SM revealed that Sulli was taking a hiatus from the entire entertainment industry and all f(x) activities would be cancelled, ending the “Red Light” promotional cycle before it could even plateau.

Justifiably, fans were furious: disappointed that the other members couldn’t continue on with the comeback and even angrier that SM went full speed ahead with upcoming promotions of new girl group Red Velvet.

Sulli has been the victim of many a horrible rumor, and SM has threatened legal action against them in the past, but the alleged Sulli and Choiza controversy hasn’t been handled so well on either side, with SM staying relatively passive and Choiza addressing it everywhere he went.

The strangeness surrounding Sulli’s departure and the abrupt termination of f(x)’s activities have only led people to make even more conspiracy theories about what’s actually going on. This can be attributed the fact that the frequency of scandals has made SM appear even more untrustworthy.

seoulbeats_20131008_sulli_choizaIt’s hard to make a conclusion in this case of what should have been done, but SM should have done everything they could have to keep f(x) promoting, even without Sulli as she steps back from the public eye.

SM has a history of being a terrible advocate for f(x), and they don’t help erase the reputation by making these kinds of moves, or pushing their idols so hard that they have to resort to hiatuses and contract terminations.

In light of this, SM’s latest tactic has been to inundate the public with pending promotions. Upset about f(x) ending their comeback early? Look! A shiny new girl group! Worried Sulli won’t return? Forget about it! Taemin will debut as a solo act next month!

Their recent methods of diversion are transparent and are probably working well enough, but they still won’t appease those that are fed up with SM’s year of mistakes, scandals, and secrets.

We’ve heard Heechul speak more about the drama under SM this year than any official representative has, and this shouldn’t be happening, especially when Heechul seems to take pleasure being the company’s unofficial mouthpiece and doesn’t do much to actually assist his peers.


Most feel sympathetic for the idols that have had trouble this year. Few, however, feel sympathetic for the company itself. It’s honestly a difficult task at this point. SM has made a legacy making some of the biggest names in the industry, but they’ve created a massive empire by sacrificing the talents, energy, and passions of idol after idol. Management swaps between micromanaging aspects of idols’ lives and alienating them so they feel as if they have no support.

20120531_seoulbeats_iamsmtown2So in that regard, is this year supposed to be about a big bad corporation getting their just due for over a decade of bad behavior, or is this just the realities of a fast-paced, unforgiving industry emerging from the shadows?

The only thing we can take away from this year’s events with confidence is that SM Entertainment is a well-oiled machine that seems to care little for the individual cogs that make it all run. This attitude has helped the company succeed against its rivals, but it is also why most of the company’s scandals this year (and in previous years) have involved individuals coming under fire for their behavior or walking away in need of reprieve.

This trend won’t end until some structural pillar in the house of SM either radically changes or falls, and if the events of 2014 don’t prompt this, then it’s possible that nothing will.


(Nate News [1][2][3], Naver News [1][2], The Korea HeraldThe Korea Times, SM Entertainment, YouTube)