In a video statement, SM Entertainment CEO Chris Lee (also known as Lee Sung-soo) has claimed the label’s founder Lee Soo-man is the reason why aespa’s new music has been delayed.
On February 16, Lee, who is one of the K-pop agency’s two current CEOs, released a 30-minute statement regarding the company. In the video, which is the first part of a series, Lee made several allegations about SM’s former chief producer Lee Soo-man.
According to Chris Lee’s video, Lee Soo-man was the reason why aespa’s music has been delayed. The four-member girl group was supposed to release a new record on February 20, he said, ahead of their two-night residency at Seoul’s Jamsil Arena for the SYNK: HYPERLINE concerts on February 25 and 26.
Chris Lee alleged that Lee Soo-man ordered SM Entertainment’s A&R team as well as Yoo Young-jin – one of the label’s longtime in-house producers and songwriters – to begin injecting environmentalist motifs of tree-planting and sustainability into songs by the company’s artists, including aespa.
Some of these lyrics in aespa’s case allegedly include ‘1도라도 낮출’ (directly translates to ‘lowering by one degree’) and ‘상생’ (directly translates to ‘coexistence’), while other English lyrics allegedly included key words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘greenism’. Chris Lee noted that these lyrics and concepts “did not fit the world of aespa, which is currently centred on the metaverse”, and claimed that the band were “upset” as a result.
Chris Lee later claimed that he, alongside co-CEO Tak Young-joon, eventually decided to scrap this song in favour of a new project that better aligns with the original lore and vision SM had for aespa. “The aespa members, all production departments and the A&R team are preparing new songs and content with more sincerity. We are planning a comeback soon, so please look forward to it,” he said.
Lee Soo-man’s alleged attempts to inject environmental concepts into SM artists’ music, Chris Lee claimed, are linked to his wider attempts to pursue ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) initiatives through SM. Chris Lee alleged that Lee Soo-man’s push for sustainability and K-pop were tied to his own personal interests in real estate and casinos.
Other explosive allegations Chris Lee made against Lee Soo-man – also his uncle – in the video include claims that Lee Soo-man pushed for SM to make unusual contract arrangements with a company he established overseas in a bid to avoid taxes, and that Lee Soo-man made demands of SM to expand his control over artists and the agency and to ensure personal profit.
Lee Soo-man has yet to address the many allegations made against him in the video, though he did issue a statement to news outlet JTBC expressing his disappointment in Chris Lee. “I’ve watched my late wife’s nephew grow up since he was four,” Lee Soo-man said, according to Koreaboo translations. “He’s been with me since he entered SM Entertainment at 19 years of age, working on managing fans. He’s a kind nephew who grew up in a family with his father a pastor. My heart hurts.”
These allegations further widen the rift between Lee Soo-man and the label he founded. They come a little under a week since Lee Soo-man struck a deal with BTS’ label HYBE to acquire his shares in the company and make HYBE the largest shareholder in SM, one of its rivals in the K-pop industry. SM executives have stated their opposition to what they have labelled a “hostile takeover” by HYBE.
Shortly before HYBE announced its move to acquire a controlling stake in SM, Kakao Entertainment also announced its acquisition of a 9.05 per cent stake in SM – which would have made the South Korean tech company, after Lee Soo-man, the second-biggest shareholder in the company. However, Lee’s legal counsel alleged that Kakao’s acquisition of company shares was an “act of illegality” and filed an injunction to stop the transaction.
HYBE has reportedly responded to Chris Lee’s video, stating that it has no reason to get involved with Lee Soo-man’s projects or campaigns unless they are directly linked to SM Entertainment.
“We were not informed about the ESG-related campaigns run by Lee Soo-man when signing the deal to acquire his shares,” HYBE said, according to the Korea Herald. “Therefore, we are not informed about what CEO Lee claims.”