It is no secret that SM Entertainment has been dwindling in size, rapidly losing several key people from their agency thanks to mismanagement, exploitation, and often, a culture of racism. The most recent news has been Sulli’s supposed departure from f(x) and suspicion around fellow member Victoria’s commitment to the group adding to the long list of contract terminations and possible court cases that SM has racked up.
This recent news brings to mind the many who have recently freed themselves of SM’s shackles, or are trying to, litigation barring. Many of those who have left SM Entertainment have been non-Koreans, notably Luhan and Wu Yifan (formerly known as Kris) from Exo, and Girls Generation’s Jessica. All three have enjoyed success in their home countries, China or America respectively. The case of Luhan and Yifan is particularly interesting to look into, as their careers have absolutely exploded in China. All of this has given SM Entertainment a lot to think about: perhaps SM needs these individuals more than they need SM?
After leaving SM Entertainment, Kris and Luhan have been absolutely inundated with career opportunities. Luhan is one of the trendiest celebrities in China, has become the first male to grace the cover of Elle China and has even scored a minor role in a Hollywood movie. Yifan has also excelled in music, modelling and acting in China, becoming the youngest person to have a wax figure made of him at Madame Tussaud’s in Shanghai, and also making an international splash by appearing on red carpets around the world and modelling with Kendall Jenner for Vogue China.
The success of the two former Exo members is easily quantifiable when looking at their rankings on the 2015 Forbes China list: Luhan was ranked #37, with earnings of 28.5 million yuan (US$4.58 million) and Yifan ranked #42 with 26.5 million yuan (US$4.26 million).
Looking at the above figures and the international success, SM Entertainment must secretly be reeling with jealousy, which is coming through in some of their changed behaviour. The reason behind Yifan and Luhan’s success is well worth analysing, as well as the implications on the dynamics between China and South Korea.
First, beginning with Luhan, arguably the more popular of the two in China. Forbes have described Luhan’s extraordinary ascent into fame by writing that “in less than five months, he has garnered the most attention from the Chinese entertainment industry, becoming a new rising force.” Elle described the phenomenon that is Luhan as an indication of the “reversal of the K-pop trend”. Having experienced fame in Korea, Luhan is now praised for bringing glory and glamour back home to China, where his loyal supporters lie.
Taking a look at Luhan and Yifan’s career trajectories, many have suggested that, paradoxically, K-pop has functioned as a stepping stone for their careers into their domestic market. Korean idol groups are designed to be enormously successful, but are intended to remain a cohesive mass that can appeal to a broad spectrum of fans. The group as a whole can gain popularity in a hot minute, but the rewards for individuals are often pitiful. In the case of Luhan and Yifan, establishing themselves in a Korean group first has actually bolstered them into their own local markets, because being in a group had drummed up enough hype and momentum for them to excel on their own. As a result, they have seamlessly transitioned from the Korean market to an eager Chinese audience, which would have been incredibly difficult to do from the ground up.
However, if K-pop becomes seen as nothing more than a stepping stone for personal gain, things can get complicated in the Chinese and Korean music industries, and relations may become strained between the two. Korean agencies may become discouraged from scouting foreigners, and the foreign idols who are already in the industry may face even more backlash from fans who deem them to be untrustworthy. It is also possible that many will forego trying to enter the Korean market, with the potential of being mistreated and ending up in lengthy court cases not being worth it for many. Thus, SM Entertainment is losing its international appeal and broader image.
The most obvious reason behind Luhan and Yifan’s success is of course the fact that returning home to China has provided ample opportunities for self-development, unlike SM Entertainment. Given a greater degree of autonomy, they have been able to chase out the opportunities that suit them, network with industry figures and actually make a decent income from the work that they do. Seeing Yifan and Luhan’s success, SM Entertainment is slowly waking up to this reality, attempting to give greater opportunities for independent projects to some of their foreign idols, such as Amber’s solo debut and Lay’s independent studio in China.
If, however, they decide to be flexible, they will be able to reap the benefits from these artists’ individual projects. By letting Lay establish his own studio, act in films and appear on variety shows, for example, SM Entertainment have appeased his needs as an artist, but are also latching onto him for further profit in the Chinese market, rather than pushing him to abandon his Korean-ness, exemplified by the stage name Lay, and take on his Chinese name, Yixing, much like Yifan did. Someone like Lay is used to bridge the gap between the two nations, as a way to make Chinese fans feel as if they have a K-pop star of their own.
Undercurrents of nationalism can also explain the pair’s meteoric rise in China. In many ways, they are seen as heroically returning home after mistreatment by SM Entertainment. Stories of a culture of racism at SM Entertainment only fuels the sense of being wronged on the Chinese side, with fans welcoming Luhan and Yifan home with open, protective arms. The ‘us v.s. them’ feeling between the two countries is tense, with Luhan and Yifan being welcomed home to their rightful place, and many Korean fans growing suspicious of Chinese artists for fear they may ‘betray’ the groups they are in.
The upwards career trajectory that Luhan and Yifan have enjoyed proves that you don’t need the biggest Korean company behind you in order to succeed; in fact, the company needs you, as they have to invest in people in order to turn them into products and profit. Chinese fans seem more than eager to welcome Chinese artists back home, with leaving SM seeming like quite an intelligent career move now. Others who may be considered to be foreigners, such as Jessica, also seemed poised for success, and if any other foreigners decide to leave SM Entertainment (which seems highly plausible), the future looks bright for them in their home country.