This summer, I’ve been incredibly lucky in finding exciting opportunities completely by accident. It recently happened again; while searching for things myself and a friend could do in Seoul one bored afternoon, I quite by chance came across a free ‘K-Pop Experience Programme’. Naturally, this sounded right up my street, so I clicked on the link and found out that it was a tour and dance class at SM Entertainment (the company that manages most of my favourite Korean artists)’s building at COEX Mall. Even better, it was organised especially for foreigners by the Seoul Tourism Organisation, which meant that it was completely free! It was a lottery system, so it wasn’t guaranteed that I’d be able to go, but the website allowed those applying to select three possible dates, and I remained hopeful. Sure enough, about a week later I received an email telling me which date I had been chosen for, and it happened to be just four days later.
I set off for COEX early on the Monday morning, with the ‘experience’ due to start at 10.45am. We were greeted outside by a lovely woman named Hanna from the STO, who ticked us off and checked our passports. Korea is great about offering amazing opportunities to foreigners, often for free, but they’re very particular about checking you’re definitely foreign, as well as gathering information about the nationalities etc. of those who participate in such programmes. Our group wasn’t that large, but had a good mix of people from various countries. We waited a little while for a few other participants to arrive, and then headed upstairs to the third floor of SMTown. I was already pretty familiar with the building, having previously visited a few times and spent too long/too much money in the shop and cafe, but the studio spaces were unknown to me.
We would have our tour first, followed by the dance class, so an SM tour guide came to meet us and began to show us around. She didn’t speak much English (Hanna diligently translated everything she said), but was friendly and, knowing her audience, told us to inform her of our favourite artists so that she could share specific stories about them as we went round. The space is still relatively new, having only opened in January of this year, and the majority of rehearsals, recordings and so on still seem to happen at SM’s other building. Nevertheless, in the short time that this one has been open, it has seen MV recordings, rehearsals, photo shoots, and press conferences with a host of different artists. It seems that EXO members frequent it most often – I think our tour guide said this is because the space is conveniently located not far from where they live. The first time I visited the building a few months ago, some of the members of EXO were actually there, but there were so many fans crammed into the small space outside of the studio that it was impossible to move, much less see anything. Super Junior held a press conference a week or two afterwards, and knowing about this beforehand, I went along and was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the members as they arrived.
Anyway, back to the tour. Our first stop was the hair and makeup area, which had hundreds of products on display, ready to be used. Everything seemed pristine, and the room looked as though it had never been used, but I’m sure this was for the benefit of tours like ours, which no doubt visit the space more often than the artists and stylists themselves. Nevertheless, I’m sure it descends into chaos pretty quickly when it is being used.
Next we were taken to the Photo Studio, which is (obviously) used for photo shoots. Ironically, we weren’t allowed to take any of our own photos in here, because one wall is covered with unreleased pictures of every artist imaginable from various shoots over the years. From here, we went to the wardrobe area, which was full of various items of clothing that have been worn by different artists in performances, videos, and so on. There are also many pieces – either inspired or designed by an artist – for sale, most of which seemed extortionately expensive. But if you really love EXO and have a lot of money to blow, this is your place.
From the costume room, we walked past the meeting area, one wall of which was covered in behind-the-scenes polaroids from SM’s most recent concerts. Once again, these had yet to be released to the public, and thus we unfortunately weren’t able to take pictures. Round the corner were framed editions of various albums, many of which were signed; our tour guide explained that each artist receives two copies, one of which is here and the other which they keep at home.
Our final stop before the dance class was the recording room, used for music video shoots. Again, I don’t think this has yet been used too many times, although apparently EXO really did shoot one of their videos here. At the moment, it’s decked out as one half an SNSD set, the other half EXO. We didn’t get long in here, though, because I think by this point our tour was running late, and we were only able to spend a minute or two before we had to leave again.
Finally, it was time for our dance class. We were taken into the rehearsal space, which in the short few months since it was opened has already become iconic among fans due to its red lockers. Yet again, these were decorated with unreleased photos, so we weren’t allowed to take pictures too closely. Part of our ‘experience’ was to have a photo taken by a professional SM photographer, and I think for most groups this doesn’t take place in the dance studio. For whatever reason, though, we had to have it taken in there, and were told to make sure our faces weren’t obscured, ‘to make it easier to photoshop’. I didn’t think much of this at the time, but a few days later when we were sent the photo, I realised they weren’t kidding. They completely changed my face shape, making my head look too small for my body in the process, and it would appear they also tried to alter the shape of my eyes. Is that how I need to look to become an idol here in Korea? Hmm…
Our dance teacher, an SM choreographer who works with many of the artists, didn’t speak English, so once again it was up to Hanna to translate for those who couldn’t understand – although dance language is fairly easy to comprehend, especially as counting etc. is always in English. We were taught part of Red Velvet’s ‘Ice Cream Cake‘, presumably chosen because it’s still fairly recent and isn’t as challenging as a lot of other SM choreography. However, initially we were all a little shocked, because the teacher went considerably faster than we had been expecting. She showed us several moves in sequence, and then expected us to do them right away. I did a dance workshop with a different SM choreographer back in London at the beginning of the summer, and he had taught much more slowly. After a few minutes, though, we adjusted to the speed and were able to keep up – and we ended up learning a considerable amount in less than an hour because we were going fast.
Once we came to the end of the dance class, the teacher picked a few of us – myself included, for some bizarre reason; I love to dance, but I am not good – to perform and have it recorded by Hanna, who had been taking photos (such as those above) while we were rehearsing. After this, we were asked to fill out questionnaires about the day, as well as about life in Korea in general – how long we were here for and why, what other kind of events we would like to participate in, and so on. Hanna gave us gifts of chocolate decorated with various famous Seoul landmarks, and an SM representative helped those of us who were interested to sign up for an SM passport, a membership which gives discounts and other benefits.
We were free to go after this, and even though I’d visited a number of times before, I couldn’t resist a trip to the cafe (overpriced but fun), followed by a look round the shop (even more overpriced, still fun). The cafe is a pretty cool space; there are machines by the entrance where you can request vinyls, which you then collect from a member of staff and can listen to at some of the special tables around the edge of the room. The regular tables and chairs are virtually all signed by one artist or another, and there are stacks of magazines and books to read should you desire. The food and drink is, unsurprisingly, themed by artist, and the cold drinks come in cute bottles that you can take away afterwards. These aren’t too badly priced at ₩6,000, which is actually a fairly standard cafe price in Korea. The food is more expensive and kind of ridiculous – you can, for example, buy themed macarons for ₩15,000 – but I’m sure they sell plenty each day.
The shop downstairs is huge, and sells a wide array of goods. In addition to the expected SM artist items, they sell a selection of Korean souvenirs which cater to every budget. In terms of merchandise, they sell everything from ₩1000 stickers to ₩70,000 sweaters and beyond. Standard items for each artist or group include notebooks, folders, sets of postcards, fans, mugs, and so on. Designer items which are somehow or other related to SM (mainly EXO) are on sale near the entrance, and these really would break the bank for a lot of customers – or at least for me. The CD selection is surprisingly small, and I’ve been informed that the CDs you buy through SM themselves don’t contribute to the overall album sales of the artists, which seems quite ridiculous. They also, bizarrely, aren’t necessarily the first to stock their own albums; when Super Junior released ‘Devil’ a couple of months ago, I went to the SM store in Myeongdong (located inside Lotte Young Plaza) on release day, only to be told they weren’t sure when they would get it in stock. Meanwhile, an independent K-pop store nearby had shelves of the album, and gave away free posters with every purchase.
Overall, SMTown at COEX Artium – to give it its full name – is definitely a space worth visiting if you’re even a little interested in any SM artists. As well as the studio, shop, and cafe, there’s a special theatre upstairs, which boasts ‘surround viewing’ of concert films – to give you the feeling of really being there – and hologram performances – to give you the feeling of the artist really being there. In addition, on the theatre floor you can also choose from a huge variety of images to have prints made, ranging from the small and affordable (₩5,000) to the huge and crazily expensive (bigger than lifesize, ₩100,000+). There’s also some kind of 3D printing booth, too, though I’ve never looked at that particularly closely. Meanwhile, the hallways and escalators of each floor are plastered floor to ceiling with photos, and cabinets on different floors display items such as costumes and awards.
The free tour and class is being offered by the Seoul Tourism Organization until November, and you can apply here. Hanna told us that they’re working on offering other events in the future, such as K-pop vocal classes, so keep an eye on the website for more information. And though they don’t come cheap, SM offers tours, classes, photo shoots, and more all year round – more details can be found on their website (available in Korean, English, Chinese, and Japanese).
Take the subway to 삼성역 (Samseong station – Line 2) where the World Trade Centre and COEX Mall are located. Come out of Exit 6 and as soon as you’re outside, ahead of you on the right you’ll see a building plastered in the words ‘SM’, the names of different artists, and a billboard of whichever group is currently promoting new music. It’s pretty hard to miss.