SM Leisure A&R Chris Lee Talks ‘Cultural Expertise’ & Creating Ok-Pop Hits – Billboard


A uncommon occasion occurred not too long ago at Lincoln Heart. Ok-Issue, the primary 50-piece orchestral efficiency of its variety placed on within the iconic New York Metropolis landmark, featured a stroll by way of the sonic historical past of South Korean music. An try to delve into the musicality behind Ok-pop and draw a story by way of the artistic patterns which have led to that business’s worldwide recognition, the June 20 occasion was preceded by a chat the evening earlier than that was, whereas much less musically impactful, simply as intriguing.    

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Titled “The True Worth of Ok-Pop,” the night featured SM Leisure’s Chris Lee as he laid forth the corporate’s present working mannequin, often called “cultural expertise,” and its objectives in a Ted Discuss-style session. 

Lee, who sits on SM’s board of administrators and serves as A&R government on the firm in addition to CEO of Tradition Expertise Group Asia (CTGA) Europe, began working with SM Leisure as an intern in 1998 whereas in college. First engaged on analysis reviews, he finally grew to become serious about A&R and in 2005 joined the corporate — which spearheaded the fashionable Ok-pop group construction with the launch of H.O.T  in 1996 and has been a serious participant ever since — as an A&R consultant. His first undertaking was engaged on Zhang Liyin, a Chinese language artist below SM, and by 2008 he grew to become the pinnacle of the division. 

Regardless of being a serious energy participant in South Korea’s music scene, Lee is gentle spoken and exudes an aura of calmness atypical of the frenzied Ok-pop world. After his speak, he spent about an hour talking to each viewers member who waited round, answering every query posited in direction of him, whether or not it was about SM’s plans for its artists or how they personally might become involved with the business. When requested why he stayed regardless that his schedule was packed on his journey to New York, Lee opined that as a result of “Ok-pop is much from right here” followers not often have entry to talk with insiders. He had an identical response when agreeing to an impromptu interview the following afternoon, backstage at Lincoln Heart because the orchestra practiced for that evening’s occasion, throughout which he mentioned SM’s operations, method to music making, the way forward for Ok-pop, and extra.

Billboard: How are you feeling right now about final evening’s occasion?

Chris Lee: I really feel actually good as a result of I’m executed. You recognize, I all the time really feel very pressured once I do a keynote speech in English, so I’m excellent now. 

You spoke about the way you began out at SM a bit. How do you’re feeling about your profession, trying again on it? What moments stand out to you essentially the most?

Lee: Simply every thing from the very starting in 2005. However I actually loved once I was solely doing the A&R job. I actually loved being within the studio, listening to all the recording classes with all of the artists, and when the sound engineers blended the tracks, it was actually fascinating and that was setting for me. And, additionally, that makes me delicate to all the sounds, the EQing and compressing the sound. Additionally being with the writers throughout the writing camps on the studio, that’s essentially the most thrilling for me. It’s not thrilling, however it’s extra valuable and an important time for me. 

I feel you stated final evening that you just have been the one which innovated tune camps at SM?

Lee: Yeah. [Laughs] I’m in control of it as a head of A&R, however it’s all communications. It’s not on my own, in fact, however with all my A&R employees and, in fact, my producer [SM Entertainment founder] Mr. Soo-man Lee. He all the time provides me the precise route. “It is best to exit to have a a lot larger community all all over the world,” that’s what he stated, in order that’s why I began to go overseas. I spend like half of my working time not in Korea however exterior Korea to fulfill and work with producers from Europe and the States.

SM is taken into account considered one of Ok-pop’s historic “Large 3” firms and has produced many hits within the tenure you’ve gotten director A&R. What do you search for once you’re placing collectively a tune that you just suppose might be a success? Is there any sound or fashion that you just search for once you’re listening to songs and considering, “That is it”?

Lee: Nothing particularly as a result of SM works with a whole lot of artists reminiscent of EXO, TVXQ!, BoA, Pink Velvet, Shinee, NCT, Tremendous Junior… I don’t actually deal with a selected style, however final evening, throughout the Q&A session, somebody requested me, “What’s an important factor to make a sound or tune as an A&R?” Make it not boring and produce coronary heart. We simply need the listeners, our followers, to get into the music. So meaning it must be excellent, musically excellent. Every thing must be excellent and must be attention-grabbing. Relating to perfection, what it means is having the proper progressions to make the tune to not be too free, to maintain the joy all through the entire tune. However it’s not simply concerning the music itself however different components, all the opposite components of Ok-pop, reminiscent of video and choreography, they’ve to come back collectively to goal for excellent perfection.

So we truly spend a whole lot of time working to make a file. It’s not only a one-time job, however generally we modify one tune round 60 occasions. 

[Lee pulls up a playlist on his smartphone, and shows and plays some of the separated elements of NCT 127’s “Cherry Bomb.”]

Lee: For just one tune, “Cherry Bomb,” I had greater than 17 totally different variations. It’s not solely “Cherry Bomb,” in fact. It’s all the songs. However [“Cherry Bomb”] was fairly excessive.

These recordsdata that you just simply confirmed me, they’re what ended up making up each single a part of the tune? They ended up within the last minimize? 

Lee: Yeah. There was an authentic demo however we modified it lots. “Cherry Bomb” didn’t have correct melody and verse the primary time once I acquired the demo from Dem Jointz. We acquired topliners and different producers to make the verses, center eights, dance breaks. In order we made that and recorded it, and throughout the mixing time, we additionally modified it lots. That’s how we work. Folks ask us how SM is profitable for the final 20, 30 years. That’s the one motive. Mr. Soo-Man Lee — producer — and assistants — SM Leisure — we’re obsessed to make perfection.

Is that a part of the cultural expertise system that you just have been speaking about final evening? Clearly every thing is totally different per scenario, however you appear to have a map for creating your SM Leisure content material?

Lee: That’s proper. It’s additionally due to my producer Soo-man Lee. He was type of a teen star throughout his college faculty pupil time, so he was a well-known singer, however on the similar time he studied mechanics on the primary college in Korea, at Seoul College, which is like the place all of the geniuses in Korea go. And he determined to go to the States to check extra about laptop science, robots, and issues like that. Soo-man Lee has this mindset that when it comes right down to expertise or laptop science and even science, there’s all the time a guide, proper? That step that must be adopted to be sure that one thing will get executed in the precise method. So being educated that method, Mr. Soo-man Lee, when he began the corporate, he needed to be sure that we’ve these manuals, particular manuals to observe to goal for perfection when creating artistic content material. Ranging from that time, he mixed the phrases “tradition” and “expertise,” which doesn’t actually appear to mix with unity, however Mr. Soo-man Lee, he determined to name this “cultural expertise.” For cultural content material to be made as completely as doable, it required a very detailed course of and system. In order that’s how the cultural expertise [of SM] has been shaped, even from the very early days up till now.

So SM is sort of a tech firm, not essentially a music firm?

Lee: Yeah, type of, and we do tech issues in our firm. We already had the AI division on the SM Leisure round six years in the past. We now have a whole lot of subsidiary firms, which create issues like apps which can be used for capabilities like creating communication between the fandoms and artists. Loads of these issues come from Soo-man Lee’s background. 

[Since this interview took place, SM Entertainment has faced increasing criticism from investors due to a variety of situations, including in part because the company operates too many subsidiaries that aren’t apparently lucrative.] 

You talked about final evening that the corporate has reached the ultimate stage of SM’s cultural expertise enlargement. Are you able to increase on that? The thought of finalizing an organization’s innovation sounds a bit like stagnation. 

Lee: There are three levels: tradition creation, tradition enlargement, and tradition exportation. First, we started with H.O.T. We made one very well-known group they usually went in every single place, China, Japan, and many others. BoA and TVXQ!, regardless that these are Korean artists, we educated, allow them to study Japanese in Japan, in order that they have been type of in between the primary and second levels.

For the second stage, we labored with worldwide artists, like Hankyung (Han Geng) from Tremendous Junior and 4 members from EXO-M who have been all Chinese language. 

For the third stage… Though there are music movies and choreography, the music is in Korean so there’s a language barrier. Additionally, on this cultural expertise, the administration and advertising and marketing is fairly essential, however we’re Korean and we can’t actually launch our artists overseas. We aren’t there, so generally it’s an issue. So one of the best ways to do it’s if we wish to increase our market. We should be there or be working with the people who find themselves already there. In order that’s this stage, the third stage. NCT’s idea is that NCT is a model of artist. NCT 127 is from this house [of Seoul]. NCT China, Weishen V [WayV], they’re recruited and casted from China and Asian markets. All of them communicate Chinese language and they’re managed by Chinese language firm referred to as Label V. We now have plans to make issues like NCT Thai, NCT Hollywood, NCT Europe. It may very well be NCT model, or it may very well be one other model or staff. We’re producing the artists, and artists’ album and all contents are produced by SM Leisure. We’re producing not solely Korean [stars] but additionally [talent] from totally different cultures and we’re working with native firms for joint ventures. That’s our last stage of this tradition expertise factor, glocalization.

How will it work? Will all worldwide artists be educated in Korea, with music popping out of Korea? Or will SM’s practices be exported to accomplice firms in different nations and every thing might be centered there however based mostly on SM’s methods? 

Lee: We’ll most likely produce many of the contents from the [SM] headquarter, however [local partners] will handle it. The CT, cultural expertise, may be transferred to these firms, that are companions. It will likely be very totally different case by case for various nations. For instance, in Japan we’ve a accomplice in Avex however we additionally do have SM Japan. Even right here within the States, we’ve totally different companions, reminiscent of Capitol [which represents NCT 127], together with SM USA. Our most important factor is having a accomplice to assist us with our distribution and help the advertising and marketing, partnering with them to assist out with the glocalization. Our final aim is to have extra glocalization, so, “Sure” relating to each of these questions. 

I’ve seen discourse on-line from followers who urged that the NCT model means there’ll by no means be one other new group from SM, however transferring ahead all groups, no less than boy bands, produced by the corporate might be a part of the NCT undertaking since it’s meant to be limitless. Is that the intent? 

Lee: Oh, no. After all, we are able to make one other NCT boy band or we are able to create one other completely totally different boy band, in fact.

So not every thing popping out of SM transferring ahead might be below the NCT model? 

Lee: Yeah.

Once you stated it was the ultimate type of this plan, how does that final aim tie into that?

Lee: We’re within the last stage of completion, attaining the aim, however as soon as the NCT platform is safe and it’s been stabilized, we might produce other totally different platforms which have extra totally different enlargement choices, so NCT just isn’t the top of improvement for SM. As SM Leisure, our aim is to have extra success with NCT bands after which different artists too, to have extra enlargement and discover extra markets, to have extra success, in fact.

What’s SM’s present aim transferring ahead? 

Lee: Our present aim comes right down to tradition expertise part two, which is IP enlargement. You recognize, these artists, if we think about them as mental property — they’re not merchandise however as an analogy they are often checked out that method. We wish to accomplice with the artists that we signify to make the most of them, so their characters and their artistry and branding may be utilized in lots of various kinds of enterprise. We’ve already been buying mannequin businesses and sports activities businesses to have extra range amongst our roster to increase additional. Sort of going again to the glocalization component, it’s about increasing SM’s presence.

You’ve got not too long ago acquired and commenced to work with a variety of artists in several genres past Ok-pop idols, so do these come into play on this regard? 

Lee: Sure, we’ve totally different sub-labels and are investing lots. There’s this one label that we launched with the sub-label Mystic [Story, formerly known as Mystic Entertainment] that we acquired [in 2017], All I Know Music. We additionally acquired a hip-hop label referred to as Million Market, which represents artists like Suran and others. There’s a firm that we’ve invested in referred to as Beasts And Natives Alike, or BANA, they usually have a number of totally different artists, just like the rapper ESENS and a duo referred to as XXX. 

SM has invested within the firm behind XXX? Their songs are fairly vocal in opposition to the established state of music in South Korea.  

Lee: I really like them. Really, the founding father of their firm BANA, his title is Kim Ki-hyun and he was considered one of my favourite A&R employees. At some point, he got here to me and stated he needed to stop to make his personal hip-hop label earlier than he turned 30-years-old. So he based it, and we invested. 

That’s fascinating. However going again to SM’s cultural expertise and glocalization goals, how do you cope with overseas markets when socio-political components come into play so tremendously, reminiscent of with how China and Korea got here to move a number of years in the past over the set up of THAAD and the Chinese language market has been comparatively closed-off to Ok-pop regardless that prior to now China has been such a serious market? How does SM method this volatility from a enterprise perspective?

Lee: We can’t actually predict the long run so we can’t actually say in any respect, you understand, “This or that for now,” particularly for territories in these political conditions. However our job is simply to do the most effective. We all the time have to think about political conditions, however our aim is to make this content material produced by SM, so we’ve totally different methods. Resembling with Southeast Asian territories, in the intervening time we’ve our joint ventures which can be managed and supported by a neighborhood accomplice to run. Within the U.S. and Japan, we’ve our SM subset label and work with native companions. If we determine to enter the Latin American market, our aim is to search out the precise accomplice to work with in these territories. We’ll undoubtedly think about what would be the greatest technique as we method all markets and political conditions, however discovering the precise accomplice is basically an important factor.

[Since this interview, South Korea and Japan have increasingly faced a cooling of tensions that have led to a trade war that will potentially impact the future of K-pop in Japan. SM recently held its company-wide SMTown concert series in Tokyo over Aug 3-5.]

The Chinese language market is a profitable one, and the C-pop scene is more and more rising. Many Ok-pop-trained stars are transferring to work in China, and the Chinese language business is commonly utilizing methods and emulating tv packages popping out of Korea. Is there any concern that the Chinese language market just isn’t solely not as open to the Ok-pop business however that it’s going to finally overtake the Ok-pop business as essentially the most internationally dominant East Asian music scene?

Lee: I feel the underside line is that we don’t consider it as a destructive however, merely, it’s simply the market getting extra aggressive. It’s the identical as simply inside our personal nation, you understand? We see it as a possibility to compete in rising markets as a result of they develop into extra obtainable for us to have extra enlargement.

Do you’ve gotten any private worries about the way forward for Ok-pop? 

Lee: Yesterday, on the dialogue there was an individual that requested the query, “How lengthy do you suppose Ok-pop will final?” However the reply to that was that I imagine that that is just the start. I used to be getting the identical query since a decade in the past and nonetheless the identical query will get raised. However on this ecosystem of Ok-pop, it’s been rising in a really wholesome method regardless that not too long ago there have been many incidents and information that reveals a foul a part of Ok-pop. However I consider it as persevering with to develop in a wholesome method. As for us [at SM], if we might make ourselves a good competitor out there and create good content material, we imagine that the long run’s brilliant. 

Personally, I’m a fan of Marvel. There are a lot of totally different characters, and lots of collection’. However followers aren’t fearful concerning the future as a result of they know that there are lots of different characters and there might be extra range coming alongside the way in which. It’s related within the Ok-pop scene. Whether or not it’s SM, JYP, or some other labels in Korea, I feel it may be an analogy to the Marvel storytelling universe. Past Korea, all through the entire world Ok-pop creates pleasure for followers. As totally different file labels and artists compete and create content material, it’s frequently transferring ahead and being groundbreaking. So the underside line is that, my reply is sort of too lengthy, however merely again to my easy reply: I don’t fear about the way forward for Ok-pop. I’m actually having fun with this job.

This interview was performed in each English and Korean, and edited for readability. 





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