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Back in the 1970s, when Lee Soo-man was performing at a music festival, the South Korean folk singer known for his top hits found his audiences unusually quiet.

But the atmosphere changed immediately when a foreign band took to the stage, with audiences shouting and waving along with rhythms.

“It occurred to me that singers overseas are welcomed in Korea. But Korean singers were not loved in other countries,” Lee told CNBC last year.

As Lee moved to the United States to study in 1981, he was further impressed by how popular US musicians were around the world.

A dream was planted inside Lee’s heart: he wanted to bring South Korean music and singers to the world.

In 1989, after saving enough to start his own company, Lee launched SM Studio, named after not just his own initials, but also his dream of creating a “star museum” to showcase South Korean music worldwide.

Decades later, Lee’s small agency has grown into the SM Entertainment Group, accounting for 29.5 per cent of K-pop album sales in 2021.

A man in a purple shirt and dark suit, with transparent sunglasses, smiles with his arm around a young woman

Lee Soo-man established SM Studio in 1989, and went on to develop a string of successful pop acts, including ‘Queen of K-Pop’, BoA. (Reuters: Kim Kyung-Hoon)

As the genre grew into a multi-billion-dollar industry with millions of fans around the world, Lee earned himself the nickname “godfather of K-pop”.

However, the 70-year-old producer has recently entered a tough battle with his nephew, Lee Sung-soo, who was appointed chief executive of SM Entertainment in 2020 — and the senior Lee was losing.

But he had one final trump card up his sleeve: selling his own company to the rival agency that owns BTS.

The godfather of K-pop and his mission to bring culture to the metaverse

As SM Entertainment’s chief producer, Lee not only oversees and participates in the recruitment of singers, but is also heavily involved with their training, marketing and branding, as well as their music concepts and all album releases.

With his vision and strict quality control, SM introduced the boy band H.O.T. in 1996, widely considered the first K-pop idols.

Lee’s formula for H.O.T. — strong visual performance, mixing hip-hop and pop styles, good-looking young singers and close relationships between band mates and fans — was soon followed by other production companies.



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