SM Station: Is it Working?

In late January of 2016, SM Entertainment announced a new music project entitled SM Station that would involve the release of a new digital single every week for 52 weeks, a year that is. The songs released were to be from both SM and non-SM entertainment artists and the purpose of the project was to create, in Lee Soo Man’s words, a network of digital songs. Something outside the lines of the traditional physical albums and singles that are released periodically by music companies in South Korea. SM Station is considered a part of the New Culture Technology endeavor that SM is currently pushing, be it with the boy group NCT or their less conventional station songs. As we’ve passed the halfway mark of 2016, let’s take a look back and consider what SM Station has done so far and if it has succeeded in its goal of spreading Hallyu and globalizing SM itself.

As time goes on, the Kpop community seems to be placing more and more importance on charts and numbers to validate their favorite artists’ popularity and talent. Numbers mean an easy way to quantify success, which is sometimes mistaken for quality. It’s no surprise then, that SM Station songs have been scrutinized for underperforming on the digital charts. However, this generalization doesn’t take into account the Station songs that have performed very well, or the genres of the songs that did not chart high.

SM started the Stations project off with a bang by releasing SNSD Taeyeon’s “Rain.” This track was a light jazz-ballad, came from one of the top female idols in South Korea, and swept music charts upon its release. It even managed to win once on Inkigayo, despite little promotion and being only a digitally released single. “Rain” remains the most streamed Station song of 2016, accumulating over 44 million streams during the first half of the year. Taeyeon set the bar high with her song, and other Station tracks may have comparatively less impact as a result. That doesn’t mean they all “flopped,” as some Kpop fans would like to say, or are bad songs. In fact, the reality is far from it.

Let’s take Wendy and Eric Nam’s collaboration for the Station release “Spring Love.” This is the second most streamed SM Station song with over 3o million streams gained through June of 2016. And at third place is Chen and Heize’s “Lil Something” with over 15 million. All three of these Station songs charted in the top 100 of Gaon’s streaming chart for the first half of 2016 and two of them in the top 30 most download songs on Gaon’s download chart. Other fairly successful collabs include Baekhyun and K.Will’s “The Day,” which snagged two roof hits on Melon, and Kenzie and Yoon Mirae’s “Because of You.” Both of these songs racked up over 6 million streams over the course of the first half of 2016, and while that’s not breathtakingly successful, for a non-promoted SM digital single it’s nothing to scoff at. Now it could be argued that fans are the ones streaming the songs and boosting the chart positions, given that the most successful Station songs tend to come from idol members. But that can’t account for the entirety of the downloads and streams, and even if it did, it still means people are listening to them regardless.

Looking past the domestic SM Station songs that were released only in Korean, SM has made efforts to include tracks in other languages for this project, likely as part of the company’s “globalization” initiative. The first non-Korean Station track was the self-composed song “Borders” by f(x)’s Amber. While not finding great success in the Korean charts, the fact that this song was written and performed entirely by Amber in English is a step towards SM targeting international fans with their releases. And perhaps more importantly, “Borders” allowed Amber to share her music and message in a way she simply wouldn’t have been able to in a f(x) album. That is, in her native tongue, in exactly her own words.

SM’s non-Korean releases didn’t end with Amber however, and one in particular found great success. This being EXO Lay’s Chinese Station song entitled “Monodrama.” This track, which was written, composed, and arranged by Lay himself, topped China’s V-Chart for five weeks and earned the high score of 99.9 on the V-Chart for the month of June. An undeniable hit, even rumored to have broken multiple Guinness world records, “Monodrama” definitely found success outside of South Korea. Lay, a musician through and through, has never been able to showcase his songwriting capabilities in Exo’s discography outside of assisting with some Chinese lyrics of Exo’s tracks. “Monodrama” was his first real chance to release his own music through SM in his native language if we ignore his past few solo releases which were OSTs for Chinese media.

But qualitative analysis aside, let’s look at the quality and character of the songs released from SM Station. An enormous range of musical genres have been showcased through SM Station with D.O. and Yoo Youngjin’s R&B slow jam “Tell Me (What is Love),” Inlayer’s heavy metal track “Mindjack,” and BoA and Beenzino’s house-influnced EDM song “No Matter What” to name just a few. It’s refreshing to see a Korean music company like SM that is most known for their idol groups explore different sounds outside the cookie-cutter idol pop song. And it’s been a real pleasure to see the collaboration of such different artists for these SM Station songs – duets I never would have dreamed of coming together for a cohesive track. SM isn’t setting limits within their company for this project and it’s a breath of fresh air to see them branching out to connect with artists outside their big pink umbrella. It’s not feasible for SM to give solo debuts to all their artists, but the Stations project is allowing some of them to demonstrate their talent just for the span of a digital single, a bit of a happy medium.

I will say I’ve found some SM Station songs to be underwhelming, forgettable even. With such a wide variety of song styles featured, it’s a given they won’t all suit somebody’s taste. But there have been some standout songs I’ve adored like J-Min and Sim Eun Jee’s beautiful ballad “Way Back Home.” And above all else, Tiffany and Simon Dominic’s “Heartbreak Hotel” which quickly became one of my favorite SM releases in general for 2016. Regardless of performance on Korean charts, and in fact sometimes contrary to it, SM Station has delivered some great tracks this year for those who take the time to check them out.

Now, is this project aiding SM in conquering a global market? I don’t see it quite yet. As previously explained, Yixing’s “Monodrama” was the first really successful non-English Station track and its success outside of South Korea has yet to be replicated by another Station song. And besides only releasing a few non-Korean singles, SM Station still largely remains on a Korean scale. That being said, I don’t think most of the songs themselves are aimed to suit South Korea’s taste. Some of the more eclectic genres of music SM has dabbled in this year haven’t performed well on charts like MelOn and unsurprisingly aren’t the type of song you often see sitting at the top of them. I don’t think this disparages the quality of the releases however, and there are still some very successful Station tracks that did top charts. So while the project isn’t churning out hit over hit, it is shining light on the talents of some of SM’s less promoted artists and exploring genres of music you simply don’t hear quite as often in Kpop. You can fault SM a lot of things, but diversity and frequent releases aren’t anywhere close to the top of that list and SM Station is helping that fact.

So what are your thoughts on SM Station so far? Have you enjoyed the releases or were you expecting more from them? Share you thoughts in the comments below!

Sources: SMTOWN ENGSUB, Gaon chart

If there's a Baekhyun, there's a way.

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  • Great post. On one hand I found the songs a little underwhelming, I’m one of those people that like catchy cookie cutter generic pop songs and Station was mostly ballads. But on the other hand it did give SM artists more room for creativity as you wrote and it is cool to have a different way of getting music other than the six months and a new mini album from your favorite group. Overall I’m glad SM started this.