The war: EXO-Ls vs. SM Entertainment

SM Entertainment

By Nadine Kam I

Across social media you’ll find EXO’s fandom, EXO-Ls expressing their hatred for SM entertainment and wonder about the source of all the vitriol.

It would be funny if it were not also a sad demonstration of the brief lifespan of a K-pop band.

EXO has long been one of the brightest stars of the K-pop galaxy. Beyond making great music, the group has been a cultural and travel ambassador for South Korea for years.

On Twitter:

EXO-Ls were already miffed that it took more than a year and a half for SM to release an EXO comeback album. (Note: “comeback” doesn’t mean the same thing in South Korea as in the West. It just refers to a group’s new album; not a return following years or decades of inactivity or return after rehabilitation.)

So, EXO-Ls were thrilled to see the group return with “Don’t Mess up my Tempo” earlier this month. That happiness was short-lived when they learned that SM was spending only a week promoting the album. That means, aside from a few music program appearances, there were no accompanying variety shows, concerts and few fansign opportunities scheduled.

I thought that SHINee was short-changed when the company spent only six weeks promoting “The Story of Light” in May this year, but its number of variety shows, live shows, radio shows and performances was an oasis compared to the desert that has accompanied “Tempo’s” release.

I am not an EXO-L although I am a fan of the group and my bias list includes Chen (Kim Jongdae) and sometime member Lay (Zhang Yixing). I also consider Xiumin (Kim Minseok) a bias wrecker.

Watch: “Don’t Mess Up My Tempo”

Considering my newbie status to the world of K-pop, at seven months, I feel like I just met these guys, even though they debuted seven years ago. I’ve only heard about other bands disbanding or losing popularity over time, but never experienced it firsthand, so this feeling of discovery and potential loss comes at an accelerated pace for me.

The attachment fans feel for various bands come after several years of “togetherness.” For the most part, the fans grow up with the boys into adulthood and the loss if they were to disappear feels as strong as losing a best friend or brother. The time and loyalty fans invest in these “relationships” gives them an intensity that does not usually exist in the West, where stars keep fans at a distance. Western music acts come and go with little impact.

Building collective relationships is encouraged by the Korean companies, and those who are really good at it, like BTS’s Park Jimin, go as far as telling fans, “You don’t need a boyfriend. I’m your boyfriend. Look at me only.”

Watch: “Growl”

They are some kind of vampires, little changed since this video debuted five years ago!

It seems as though SM is giving up on EXO in favor of supporting one of its newer acts, NCT.

To a certain extent, there’s no need to put money behind EXO. Because of the strength and numbers of EXO-Ls, “Tempo” easily broke sales records with little promotion. EXO-Ls have proven time and again that they will show up to support the boys and all their endeavors, with all the money that brings. This has made the band a cash cow for the company, confirmed in a recent interview with SHINee’s Key, who pointed out that the income earned from EXO’s “Growl” alone, paid for SM’s glossy building in Cheongdam-dong. In comparison, he noted that SHINee’s “Ring Ding Dong” might have paid for four elevators at that time.

On Instagram:
Another factor in SM’s seeming lack of interest is the fact that members of EXO are reaching military age. The oldest at 28, Xiumin, will have to enlist next year. As more enter mandatory military service that lasts two years, EXO activities will wane. The youngest, Sehun, will have to enlist around 2022, making it 2024 when we can see a full reunion of the group.

Few bands survive such a hiatus, a time when hundreds of newer bands emerge to take their place with a new generation of fans.

Another factor behind SM’s decision may have been the rise of BTS in the west, which has every company looking toward the United States as the next viable territory to conquer.

Xiumin will be the first member to enter military service the end of the year. I hate to see him go. He’s often called the fake maknae of the group, the oldest who looks and acts as if he might be the youngest.

While many K-pop bands have at least one member fluent in English to communicate abroad, EXO has none. Its best English speaker is Chinese member Lay, who spends little time with the group, opting to promote his solo efforts in China—and with recent collaborations and the debut of his Mandarin- and English-language “Namanana”—the U.S.

Meanwhile, SM sent NCT127—the English-speaking subunit of NCT— to the American Music Awards on Oct. 9, and to make the talk-show rounds in L.A.

Also, EXO’s contract may be nearing its end. I’m not sure of the term of their contract, but it could be next year, or in 2022, the year that contractual obligations end for the three Chinese members—Kris Wu, Luhan and Tao—who sued to be liberated from their original contract from SM. (They must continue to pay a percentage of their income to SM through 2022.)

I actually see no reason for SM not to renew contracts because EXO is still one of the best groups in the business, with great voices and particularly sharp dancing. They have shown that they can still bring in sales without promotion thanks to their loyal fandom, but it hurts to know that they know they are being slighted by the company they have sacrificed their personal lives to enrich.

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