I'm in a cab headed 45 minutes southeast of Seoul with S.M. Entertainment's strategy and planning rep Sean Saw. There, the nine members of Girls' Generation are holed up in two hangar-sized studios, shooting a commercial for the online game Freestyle Street Basketball. Saw, a Seoul native who is also a former classmate of T-Pain's at James S. Rickards High School in Tallahassee, Florida, had requested I send questions in advance for the girls; one of the queries ("How much of what Girls' Generation do could be considered distinctly Korean?") was rejected for fear that its response might obscure the cultural singularity of S.M.'s product. Girls' Generation, Saw tries to explain, is more S.M. than Korean.
As we drive, Saw begins detailing the 2012 debut of a yet-to-be named, 12-member boy band that's evenly split between Korean and Chinese members, allowing S.M. to launch a new brand in two markets simultaneously. When it's time to tour, the Chinese members will fulfill dates in their native country while their Korean bandmates will perform at home, coming together only for special performances. It's a more focused extension of the success that S.M. had with their highly malleable boy band, Super Junior, whose 13-member roster (now down to just nine) seems designed to be broken apart into whichever permutation the occasion might require. At the moment, Saw says, the new Korean-Chinese group has already amassed an inordinate number of eager online followers.
How is that possible, I ask, when the group doesn't even have a name? "It's like Apple," replies Saw. "You don't know what or when, you just know the style. It's S.M. style."
That "style" has been in constant development since the mid-1990s, when founder and chairman Lee Soo Man introduced early Korean boy band H.O.T. In business terms, S.M. has been leading the pack ever since. In 2002, BoA, an S.M. solo act, became the first Korean artist to top the Japan-based Oricon chart (a less-reliable version of Billboard, originated in 1967 by a company called Original Confidence Inc.). That broke down the door for future K-pop idols in Japan, a feat that's paid dividends all around. In the past ten years, BoA has topped that same chart six consecutive times.
"We never expected to fast-forward ten years later to a time when a Korean artist going No. 1 in Japan would be less the exception and more the rule," says Cho. BoA's success in Japan is often attributed to the care with which she learned to speak Japanese like a native. More than a decade later, BoA, now only 25, has become a shareholder in S.M., the first K-pop management company whose stock has become publicly traded. (Both JYP and YG since have followed suit.) According to Chairman Lee's company-wide philosophy: "Culture is the highest high technology." And, "as leaders of 'culture technology,' " S.M. will " contribute to national economic development and a higher quality of life by producing the most advanced cultural products."