By: Caroline MacLellan
July 10th, 2023
On June 1st, 2023, three members of K-pop group EXO announced their intent to sue their management company, SM Entertainment. Baekhyun, Xiumin, and Chen, also known by their subunit name EXO-CBX, released a statement alongside their legal representatives stating their intent to end their exclusive contract with SM over payment transparency issues and unreasonable contract demands.
SM Entertainment is considered one of the Big 4 K-pop entertainment companies in the industry, having produced groups such as Girls’ Generation, TVXQ!, SHINee, aespa, Red Velvet and EXO themselves. Despite being a high-profile and successful company, SM Entertainment has consistently faced issues with artist mistreatment, and are at the center of two other notable lawsuits.
In 2009, three members of TVXQ! filed an injunction against SM Entertainment to end their 13 year long contract. The issues they found with the contract were similar to EXO-CBX’s claims against the company, and at one point claimed that it was a “slave contract.” The legal issues between members Junsu, Jaejoong and Yoochun continued for three years until the case was settled.
This also isn’t EXO’s first bout of lawsuits. Three other members of EXO, Chinese members Kris Wu, Lu Han and Tao, each sued SM Entertainment in 2014 for mistreatment. These three lawsuits revealed a difference in treatment that SM provided Korean and Chinese EXO members. Lu Han’s lawsuit in particular revealed such favoritism.
Though Kris and Lu Han’s lawsuits were settled in 2016, Tao struggled against SM until 2018, when he lost his final appeal for contract termination. In the end, none of their contracts were terminated, but SM and the former members agreed to terms that allowed them to do activities under other agencies. Their contracts all officially ended in 2022.
The aforementioned examples clearly demonstrate that SM Entertainment doesn’t have a shining reputation when it comes to artist management. While they’re not the only K-pop entertainment company to become embroiled in scandals revolving around the treatment of their idols, they’re certainly one of the most high profile ones. EXO-CBX’s lawsuit proved this to once again be true.
K-pop fans thought that this new lawsuit would be another turning point in the K-pop industry — one that might influence the way K-pop companies choose to treat their artists in the future. EXO are one of SM’s biggest groups of all time, bringing in millions in revenue for the company. Baekhyun, in particular, is a prolific solo artist who may rival the popularity of EXO as a whole. With this in mind, fans figured that EXO members suing SM would push them and other companies to change their policies to hold onto valuable artists.
About three weeks after the news of the lawsuit dropped, EXO-CBX and SM Entertainment released statements clarifying that the two parties had resolved any issues between them. Since Chen, Baekhyun and Xiumin seemed so resolute about their decision, fans suspected that SM may have pressured the three members in some way. However, there is no clear proof of this, nor any clarity about how things were settled between the two parties. Fans can only have their suspicions, and continue to cheer on EXO as a group. Their next full album, titled “Exist,” will be released on July 10th.
Though this lawsuit has been dropped, other groups have sued and won. The number of lawsuits filed by K-pop groups as a whole, as well as individual members, is at least over 20. One notable example is girl group LOONA. After member Chuu was kicked out of the group unfairly, the remaining members of LOONA filed injunctions to terminate their contracts with Blockberry Entertainment.
By June 2023, all 12 members of LOONA had successfully won their lawsuits and had their contracts terminated. The issues regarding this lawsuit also included payment issues, mistreatment and non-consensual contract transferrals.
Another noteworthy lawsuit in the last year is boygroup Omega X’s battle against abusive upper management at their company, Spire Entertainment. News first broke about this treatment due to a video taken during their first U.S. tour, where their CEO was seen screaming at members and even pushed one to the ground.
The lawsuit revealed even more horrifying acts of abuse committed by CEO Kang, including physical, verbal and sexual abuse. To make matters worse, this was considered Omega X’s ‘second chance.’ After failing in previously debuted groups, which were most likely also mismanaged, several members joined Omega X instead. Thankfully, Omega X won their lawsuit and escaped Spire Entertainment.
The fact that many idols have had to endure mistreatment and abuse frequently demonstrates how cruel the K-pop industry can be. Many idols are most likely aware of the things happening in the industry before they even debut. However, these are people that have been dreaming of this their whole lives, and while they know the risks that may be associated with it, everyone wants a chance to do what they love.
While the K-pop industry and K-pop agencies certainly have their issues, many idols are doing their best to make it a better place for others, including themselves. Many artists who have left their agencies have started their own companies in hopes of providing a place for other artists. Perhaps those who have experienced mistreatment and the other pitfalls of the industry first-hand know how to best combat them.
Caroline MacLellan is a senior studying Professional and Public Writing, with a minor in Japanese. In her free time, she loves watching Korean dramas, reading manga and creative writing.