Lee Soo Man had been a modestly successful singer in his native South Korea before studying for a masters in engineering in the 1980s in the United States, so he couldn't help but notice the meteoric rise of Michael Jackson and other American superstars of the MTV generation. After returning to South Korea, Lee founded SM Entertainment in Seoul 1995, giving the pop music world a decidedly Asian twist and making him one of the region's most influential music producers.
Lee spoke about South Korea's largest entertainment agency and its efforts to take the company's music acts global during a packed speech on April 19 at Stanford GSB.
Lee peppered his talk with numerous concert videos of the "boy bands" and "girl groups" that epitomize SM Entertainment. One clip featured the all male Super Junior performing in Malaysia with an energetic, highly stylized choreography that is reminiscent of the 1980s Backstreet Boys.
Another concert video shot in Shanghai shows the newly-launched all-girl band f(x), clad in white micro shorts and matching white go-go boots, performing before thousands of screaming 20-something fans who waved glo sticks or balloons.
Time magazine calls Lee "the man with the Midas touch" for recognizing that his country's increasingly affluent teens "yearned for homegrown idols they could call their own." In 1996, he capitalized on that opportunity by creating the seminal Korean boy band, H.O.T., which remains one of the biggest-selling local groups ever, according to Time.
As a nod to the wide success of Korean pop, f(x) even appeared recently on the cover of Nikkei Business magazine as part of a story that explored the growing prominence "K-pop" groups throughout Asia and beyond.
"It should come as no surprise that what was once considered a strictly Asian phenomenon is now poised to spread throughout the entire globe," Lee told the Stanford MBA audience. "Korean culture has gone far beyond its typical popularity and boundaries and is being transformed into nothing less than a social phenomenon. Super Junior and f(x) have already gained tremendous popularity throughout the whole Asian market and are ready to take on the global market."
The company's success hasn't come without growing pains.
Lee admitted initially having doubts about the success of last year's SMTown Live 2010 concert, which featured several of the company's young music idols in concert outside of Asia for the first time and kicked off in Seoul before heading to Los Angeles' Staples Center.
"We weren't sure if the concert would sell out," Lee said of the Los Angeles event, "but the tickets were sold out completely and it was such a success that it ranked in the Top 10 of America's Billboard magazine's box score concert chart." Even more astonishing, Lee said, was that more than 70 % of the concert's audience was non-Asian.
New media is helping spread the word about Korean pop to new, multi-ethnic and cross-continental audiences, he said. SM Entertainment's artists are promoted through Facebook fan pages, iTunes downloads, Twitter profiles, and music videos on SM Entertainment's YouTube channel. The company, which is listed on Korea's KOSDAQ stock market, is striving to cross cultural boundaries in other ways. In May, SM Entertainment plans to launch two new groups - one consists of seven Korean artists while the other will have five Chinese members. Both acts will have the same name, which is as yet undisclosed. "We plan to launch the group simultaneously in Korea and China, singing the same song in two different languages," said Lee.
Lee urged the Stanford students that, whatever career they chose, to love what they do: "No genius will ever come out of a life without passion. I'm happy when producing great music and great artists. I really love what I do and will continue to love every minute of it."