The band debuted with twelve members separated into two sub-groups: Exo-K (Suho, Baekhyun, Chanyeol, D.O., Kai, and Sehun) and Exo-M (Xiumin, Lay, Chen, and former members Kris, Luhan, and Tao). Kris, Luhan, and Tao departed the group individually amid legal battles in 2014 and 2015. Exo-K and Exo-M performed music in Korean and Mandarin, respectively, until the release of their third EP Overdose in 2014. Since 2015, Exo have exclusively performed as one group while continuing to release and perform music in multiple languages. Members Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin debuted as the sub-unit Exo-CBX in 2016, and members Sehun and Chanyeol began promoting as the sub-unit Exo-SC in 2019. Each member also maintains solo careers in music, film and television.
Exo's first album XOXO (2013), released alongside breakthrough single "Growl", was a critical and commercial success; it sold over one million copies, which made Exo the first Korean artist to do so in twelve years. Their later works also had strong sales, with their Korean studio albums each selling over one million copies. Exo's sixth album, Don't Mess Up My Tempo (2018), became their highest-charting album on the US Billboard 200, debuting at number 23, and their best selling album in South Korea, where it sold over 1.9 million copies.
Exo have won numerous awards throughout their career, including five consecutive Album of the Year awards at the Mnet Asian Music Awards and two consecutive Artist of the Year awards at the Melon Music Awards, and have performed over 100 concerts across four headlining tours and multiple joint tours. Outside of music, the band members have endorsement deals with brands such as Nature Republic and Samsung and participate in philanthropic efforts such as Smile For U, an ongoing project by SM Entertainment and UNICEF that began in 2015.
In 2011, SM Entertainment CEO, Lee Soo-man, revealed plans to debut a new boy band that would be divided into two sub-groups, promoting the same music simultaneously in South Korea and China by performing songs in both Korean and Mandarin. After several member changes in December 2011, the group finalized its name as Exo, taken from the word "exoplanet". The news of an upcoming debut from SM Entertainment attracted substantial media attention from within South Korea and internationally, with many comparing Exo to fellow SM boy band TVXQ. It was also reported that Exo would compete with a new girl group from rival YG Entertainment.[
Exo-K's leader, Suho, was the first member to join SM Entertainment, after a successful audition through the company's casting system in 2006. The following year, Kai, with encouragement from his father, auditioned at the SM Youth Best Contest; he won and received a contract. Chanyeol, who took second place in a Smart Model Contest, and Sehun, who went through four auditions in two years, were the next members to become trainees in 2008. In 2010, Exo-K's D.O. sang for his audition and was eventually offered a contract. The last member of Exo-K to become a trainee was Baekhyun, who joined in 2011 through SM Entertainment's casting system and trained for approximately one year before debut. In Exo-M, Kris auditioned in 2008 at a global SM Entertainment audition in Canada, before moving to South Korea for training. That same year, Lay auditioned in Changsha, China, and subsequently moved to South Korea, while Xiumin attended an audition with his friend and won second place. In 2010, Luhan was scouted by an SM Entertainment representative in Seoul and passed his audition, while Tao was scouted at a talent show. The last member to join Exo-M was Chen, who took part in the casting system in 2011. The band's first televised performance was at the annual SBS Gayo Daejeon event on December 29, 2011.
Exo-K and Exo-M debuted with the single "Mama" on April 8, 2012, followed by the EP Mama on April 9. The two sub-groups promoted the album separately; Exo-K performed on South Korean music program The Music Trend while Exo-M performed on the Top Chinese Music Awards in Shenzhen on the same day. The Korean version of the EP peaked at number one on South Korea's Gaon Album Chart and at number eight on the Billboard World Albums Chart, while the Mandarin version reached number two on China's Sina Album Chart and number one on various Chinese streaming platforms. Prior its debut, Exo released two singles, titled "What Is Love" and "History", which peaked at number 88 on and number 68 respectively on the Gaon Digital Chart and at number six on the Sina Music Chart. Exo was awarded Best New Asian Group at the 2012 Mnet Asian Music Awards and the Newcomer Award at the Golden Disc Awards.
The group's first studio album, XOXO, was released on June 3, 2013, in two versions: one in Korean and one in Mandarin. Unlike the EP Mama, for which Exo-K and Exo-M had separate promotions, XOXO was jointly promoted, mainly in South Korea. Exo recorded the album's lead single "Wolf" together, but the rest of the album tracks were recorded separately. A repackaged version of the album, titled Growl, was released on August 5, 2013, with three additional tracks. New single "Growl" peaked at number three on the Billboard K-Pop Hot 100 and at number two on the Gaon Digital Chart. All versions of XOXO collectively sold over one million copies, making Exo the first South Korean artists to reach that milestone in 12 years. That December, Exo released a second EP, Miracles in December, as a special winter album containing the single of the same name. Prior to the release, the group promoted the album through their first reality show, Exo's Showtime, which premiered on November 28, 2013 on the cable channel MBC Every 1. Following their 2013 releases, Exo won Song of the Year at the Melon Music Awards for "Growl", Disc Daesang at the Golden Disc Awards and Album of the Year at the Mnet Asian Music Awards for XOXO, and the Daesang at the Seoul Music Awards. In addition, Exo-M received the Most Popular Group Award at the 2013 Top Chinese Music Awards.
Exo's third EP, Overdose, was released on May 7, 2014. Originally scheduled to be released on April 21, the album was delayed due to the Sewol Ferry accident on April 16. Overdose was promoted similarly to Mama, with Exo-K in South Korea and Exo-M promoting primarily in China. The album had over 660,000 pre-orders, making it the most pre-ordered Korean EP in history. The Korean edition also peaked at number two on Billboard's World Albums Chart, and at number 129 on the Billboard 200, making Exo the highest-ever charting male Korean group at that time. Overdose became the best selling release of 2014 in South Korea, and was the first EP to top the yearly charts and win the Album of the Year Award at the Mnet Asian Music Awards. On December 22, Exo released their first live album, Exology Chapter 1: The Lost Planet The album's single, "December, 2014 (The Winter's Tale)", peaked at number one on the Gaon Digital Chart, making it Exo's first number one single. By the end of 2014, Exo was Japan's best-selling K-pop artist of the year.
On May 15, 2014, Kris filed a lawsuit against Sm Entertainment to terminate his contract and alleged that SM: disregarded his health; maintained unfair profit distributions; restricted his freedom; and treated him like a product rather than a person. On May 24, the group began its first headlining tour, "Exo from Exoplanet 1 – The Lost Planet", at the Olympic Gymnastics Arena. Tickets for the concert sold out in 1.47 seconds, breaking the record for the quickest concert sell-out by a Korean artist. On October 10, Luhan also filed a lawsuit against SM Entertainment to terminate his contract. He cited health problems and alleged he was treated differently than the band's Korean members.
On March 7, 2015, Exo began their second headlining world tour, "Exoplanet 2 – The Exo'luxion", with 70,000 attendees across five nights at the Olympic Gymnastics Arena in Seoul. The group released its second studio album Exodus on March 30, 2015, in both Korean and Mandarin versions. Domestic pre-orders for the album surpassed 500,000 copies within 24 hours, setting a new record for pre-orders. Lead single "Call Me Baby" was released ahead of schedule, on March 27, because versions of the song had been leaked online. The music videos were released four days later; the Korean version later became the most-watched K-pop music video of the first half of 2015. The album spent a record four consecutive weeks at number one on the Gaon Album Chart and sold over a million copies, making it Exo's second album to do so, after XOXO. Exodus won Album of the Year at the 2015 Mnet Asian Music Awards, giving Exo their third consecutive win. In April 2015, Exodus peaked at number 95 on the US Billboard 200, making the group the highest charting Korean artist. Exo also entered Billboard's Canadian Hot 100 chart at number 98, making them the first K-pop group and second Korean artist to chart there.
Tao was absent during promotions for Exodus due to injuries and, on August 24, became the third member to file a lawsuit against SM Entertainment to terminate his contract. This followed social media posts earlier in the year from Tao's father on Chinese social network Weibo, expressing his wish for his son to withdraw from the group and return to China due to health issues and a lack of support for individual career development. SM responded to his legal action with a statement: "Our company plans to use everything in our power including both Korean and Chinese legal professionals and partners to respond legally both in Korea and China in a multi-faceted manner. We also plan to take legal steps to respond to Tao's illegal promotions and actions." Exo released a repackaged version of Exodus, titled Love Me Right, on June 3, 2015. This edition added four new songs, including the single "Love Me Right". Due to Tao's absence, the group promoted the song as nine members. That October, Exo became the first artists to hold a dome concert in South Korea; it was called "Exo – Love Concert in Dome", and took place at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.
On November 4, 2015, Exo released their Japanese debut single Love Me Right ~romantic universe~, which contains the Japanese version of "Love Me Right" and an original Japanese song titled "Drop That". On the day of its release, the album sold 147,000 copies and reached the top of the Oricon chart, becoming the all-time best-selling debut single in Japan by a Korean artist. Five days later, Exo released a special single titled "Lightsaber" to promote the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens ahead of its release in South Korea, as part of a collaboration between SM Entertainment and Walt Disney. On December 10, Exo released its second winter special release and fourth EP, Sing for You, containing the singles "Sing for You" and "Unfair". The album sold 267,900 copies in its first week, breaking the record for the highest first-week sales by a Korean artist. "Unfair" also became the first K-pop song to be featured in the "Best of the Week" playlist by Apple Music, and Exo became the first Korean artists to appear on the platform's homepage. Part of the profits from the album were donated to UNICEF's Smile For U campaign, to support the music education for children in Asia. In December 2015, South Korean entertainment industry leaders ranked Exo at number seven in the top ten pop culture leaders of 2015, the highest rank held by a K-pop artist.
On January 5, 2016, SM Entertainment won one of its countersuits against Tao following the ruling of the Intermediate People's Court in Qingdao, China. The company sued Tao over his failure to repay the company after his departure; it released an official statement that said: "SM has ongoing lawsuits against Exo members Wu Yifan (Kris), Luhan, and Tao for violating their exclusive contracts and partaking in illegal promotions in China. Among these lawsuits, SM filed a lawsuit against Tao for failing to repay SM on October 13, 2015. An intermediate court in Qingdao, China made the verdict that Tao is to repay SM Entertainment as well as interest for the delayed payment."
Exo's third studio album Ex'Act and its singles, "Lucky One" and "Monster", were released on June 9, 2016, in both Korean and Mandarin versions. Domestic pre-orders for the album exceeded 660,000 copies, making it the most pre-ordered K-pop album ever at that time. The album broke the record for the highest first-week sales of a Korean album, previously set by the band's own fourth EP Sing For You. "Monster" became Exo's first number one on the Billboard World Digital Songs chart, and "Lucky One" debuted at number three. On August 18, 2016, a repackaged edition of the album, titled Lotto, was released; it added four new songs, including the single of the same name. "Lotto" became Exo's second number one on the Billboard World Digital Songs Chart, and peaked at number two on the Gaon Digital Chart. The repackaged edition's Korean and Mandarin versions reached number one and two on the Gaon Album Chart, respectively Within two months of its original release, Ex'Act had sold over 1.17 million copies, becoming Exo's third album to sell over one million copies, earning them the title of "triple million sellers" from the media.
On July 21, contractual disputes between Kris and Luhan and SM Entertainment were settled. The two sides settled during their third court-mandated arbitration; the previous two were held in September 2015 and June 2016, when the court settled the case with a recommendation for reconciliation. The singers will maintain their contracts with SM until 2022. SM would contract out their work outside of Korea and Japan; i.e., Kris and Luhan's Chinese agencies will "share related revenues" with SM for activities anywhere but Korea and Japan (where SM has exclusive rights per their contract) because SM is technically "contract[ing] out management" for its non-Korean/Japanese activities until 2022, when their contracts with SM expire.
On July 22, Exo embarked on its third headlining tour, "Exoplanet 3 – The Exo'rdium", with a record six consecutive concerts at the Olympic Gymnastics Arena. On May 28, 2017, the tour ended with the second of two consecutive concerts at the Seoul Olympic Stadium, the largest stadium in South Korea, with an estimated maximum seating capacity of 100,000. Tickets for the first date went on sale on April 12 and were sold out within 20 minutes. The tour brought the band's total number of concerts to over 100. In June, Lay announced he would not take part in the band's next album, and would instead focus on his acting career. Since then, he has been absent from Exo albums and public appearances. On December 7, Exo released their second Japanese single, "Coming Over". Selling over 158,000 copies, it reached number two on the weekly Oricon Chart and became the band's second Japanese single to receive a Platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of Japan. Exo's third winter release and fifth EP For Life was released on December 19. The band did not publicly promote the album, which sold over 442,000 copies in less than two weeks.
Also in 2016, the group's members spent time advancing their solo careers. On January 7, Baekhyun released "Dream", a collaboration with popular South Korean singer Suzy. The single proved very popular, and won Best Collaboration at the 18th Mnet Asian Music Awards among other awards. On October 31, Chen, Baekhyun, and Xiumin debuted as the group's first sub-unit, Exo-CBX, which is a combination of the first letter from each member's stage name. Exo-CBX released their debut EP Hey Mama! and the music video for the single of the same name on October 31. The EP was a success, selling over 293,897 copies. As of 2018, they have released two EPs in Korean and two EPs in Japanese. Lay's debuted as a solo artist in May 2016 with the release of "Monodrama" through the project SM Station. The song was a success in China, ranking number one on Billboard China V Chart for four consecutive weeks. On October 28, Lay released his debut EP, Lose Control. It was a commercial success, breaking several Guinness World Records and debuted at number one on South Korea's Gaon Album Chart. In 2016 he also acted in The Mystic Nine, a television show in China that drew over 12 billion views online. All of the other members also pursued solo activities in various industries, including music, film, television, and theater. Exo-CBX debuted in Japan on May 24, 2017, with the release of an EP titled Girls, which followed the release of a short version of the music video for the lead single "Ka-CHING!" in late April. The EP sold over 60,000 copies in Japan within a month of its release.
Exo's fourth studio album The War was released on July 18, 2017. The album had received 807,235 pre-orders, surpassing the band's own record of 660,000 for Ex'Act. Lead single "Ko Ko Bop" debuted at number one on the Melon Digital Chart, making Exo the first K-pop group to enter at number one after chart changes were implemented on February 27, 2017. Upon release, the album recorded the highest first week sales of any K-pop album. It debuted at number 87 on the Billboard 200, number one on the Billboard World Albums Chart, and on many other charts around the world – a first for Exo. On August 29, the 2018 edition of the Guinness World Records named Exo as having won the "Most Daesang" (grand prize) awards at the Mnet Asian Music Awards. On September 5, the group released a repackaged edition of The War, titled The War: The Power of Music. It added three new songs to the tracklist, including the single "Power". On September 14, "Power" recorded the all-time highest score on M Countdown with 11,000 points, which made Exo the first artists to achieve a perfect score after the show's calculation system changes were implemented in June 2015. The win also marked the group's 100th win on a music show.
Exo began their third world tour, "Exo Planet #4 – The Elyxion", with three consecutive nights at Seoul's Gocheok Sky Dome, beginning on November 24. As of November 30, Korean sales of The War had reportedly reached nearly 1.6 million copies, making it Exo's best selling album at the time and earning the group the title of "quadruple million sellers" from the media. In early December, Exo announced its fourth special winter release and sixth EP, Universe. It was originally due for release on December 21, but was delayed until December 26 because of the death of labelmate Jonghyun.
On January 16, 2018, "Power" became the first K-pop song to play at The Dubai Fountain at Burj Khalifa Lake, Dubai. Seven members of the group traveled to Dubai to view the first showing. The song's initial run was extended from January to March. It was also brought back from September until November of the same year. On January 31, Exo released its first Japanese studio album Countdown. The album debuted at number one on the weekly Oricon chart, selling approximately 89,000 copies. This achievement made Exo the first non-Japanese band whose debut single and debut studio album both reached number one on the weekly Oricon chart. Ten days after its release, on February 9, Countdown was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of Japan.
Exo performed at the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on February 25, serving as representatives of K-pop along with CL. Prior to the performance, Baekhyun sang the national anthem at the opening ceremony of the International Olympic Committee general assembly on February 5, and Exo performed at the official D-100 Concert in late 2017, which marked 100 days until the start of the Winter Olympics. The band's performance drew widespread global media attention and praise. The Russian two time Olympic silver medalist and figure skating world champion Evgenia Medvedeva also drew media attention for her support of Exo. In April 2018, the Korean Mint Corporation released official commemorative medals for Exo, honoring the group for their contribution to the global spread of Korean culture. The nine medals, each commemorating one of the group's members, were unveiled at a ceremony in Seoul. In October 2018, Lay debuted in the U.S. with his third solo album Namanana. The album topped the charts of Billboard's World Albums and Independent Albums, and placed 21st on the Billboard 200, making Lay the highest-ranked Mandopop artist on the chart.
Exo's fifth studio album, Don't Mess Up My Tempo, was released on November 2, 2018. Don't Mess Up My Tempo featured all nine Exo members – the group's first release to do so since Lotto in 2016. The album received 1,104,617 pre-orders, surpassing the group's own previous record. The album was a commercial success, selling 1,179,997 copies by November 30, making Exo "quintuple million sellers" in the media. With the release of Don't Mess Up My Tempo, Exo became the first artist to surpass 10 million total album sales in South Korea. The album debuted at number 23 on the Billboard 200 with 23,000 equivalent album sales and number one on the Independent Albums and World Albums Billboard charts. The album is Exo's highest charting album on the Billboard 200 and fourth number one album on the World Albums Chart. Love Shot was released on December 13, as a repacked version of Don't Mess Up My Tempo. The lead single, also titled "Love Shot", became Exo's third number one single on the Billboard World Digital Songs chart and held the position for three consecutive weeks. Don't Mess Up My Tempo sold 1,951,879 copes in South Korea in 2018 and is Exo's best selling album.
Chen became the second Exo member to debut as a soloist with his debut EP April, and a Flower, which was released on April 1, 2019. The album peaked at number two on the Gaon Album chart and number three on the Billboard World Albums Chart. Xiumin enlisted for his mandatory military service as an active duty soldier on May 7, 2019. D.O. enlisted as an active duty soldier on July 1. Baekhyun debuted as the group's third soloist with the release of his EP, City Lights, on July 10. City Lights sold over 500,000 copies in July 2019, breaking the Gaon Chart record for the highest monthly album sales by a solo artist. The album also peaked at number four on both Billboard's World Albums and Heatseekers Albums charts. Chanyeol and Sehun debuted as Exo's second official sub-unit, Exo-SC, and released their first EP, What a Life, in July 22; the duo released "We Young" for SM Station X 0 in September 2018. What a Life debuted at number eight at the World Albums chart, and at number ten at the Heatseekers Chart. Chen released his second EP, Dear My Dear, on October 1; the album peaked at number one at the Gaon Album Chart. Baekhyun and Kai represented Exo in SM Entertainment's supergroup SuperM. The group released its self-titled extended play on October 4, which debuted at number one at the Billboard 200 albums chart, becoming the first Korean act to top the chart with their debut release. Exo embarked on their fifth headlining tour, Exo Planet 5 – Exploration, with six dates in Seoul from July 19–28, accumulating to thirty-one overall shows.
Exo's sixth studio album, Obsession, was released on November 27, 2019. It was the first album that featured a six-member lineup. Obsession debuted at number one on the Gaon Album Chart. The group debuted several songs from the album live through Exo Planet 5 - Exploration [dot] encore concerts in December 2019, which also served as the tour's concluding shows.
2020–present: Focus on solo activities and group comeback
In February 2020, SM Entertainment revealed that Exo members would prioritize solo and unit activities for 2020, due to hiatuses from the group by several members while serving their military enlistment. Suho became the fourth Exo member to debut as a soloist with his debut EP Self-Portrait which was released on March 30, 2020. Self-Portrait sold over 200,000 copies in March 2020 and peaked at number one on the Gaon Album Chart. Suho enlisted in the military as a public service officer on May 14. On May 25, Baekhyun released Delight, featuring the lead single "Candy". The EP garnered over 732,000 pre-orders, making it the most pre-ordered album by a soloist in South Korean history. On July 1, it was announced that the album had sold more than 1,000,000 copies, making it the first solo album in South Korea to do so since Another Days (2001) by Kim Gun-mo. Lay released his third studio album, Lit, through two-part EPs; the first part was released on June 1, while the second part was released on July 21. The album's pre-orders surpassed 1.5 million copies within seven minutes; Lit went on to sell 2.5 million records, making Lay the best-selling artist in China in 2020. The album also reached number one on iTunes charts in twenty-one countries. Exo-SC released their first studio album, 1 Billion Views, on July 13. The album debuted atop the Gaon Album Chart. Baekhyun and Kai returned to activities with SuperM for the group's first studio album, Super One, which debuted atop the Gaon Album Chart and number two at the Billboard 200 albums chart. Chen enlisted as an active duty soldier on October 26. Kai debuted as the group's fifth soloist with his self-titled mini-album on November 30.
Xiumin was officially discharged from the military on December 6, while D.O. was discharged on January 25, 2021. Baekhyun released his self-titled Japanese extended play on January 20, 2021, as well as his third extended play, Bambi on March 30. Lay released his fourth studio album, Producer, on February 5. Chanyeol enlisted on March 29, while Baekhyun enlisted on May 6. Prior to the enlistment of Chanyeol and Baekhyun, the active members recorded Exo's next album in secret. In a video celebrating their ninth anniversary on April 8, the group showcased the filming of their upcoming music video and that they were preparing for their album to be released in the first half of the year; the album would mark Xiumin and D.O.'s return to the group. Lay also participated in the album, marking his first Exo group activity since Don't Mess Up My Tempo. The group's seventh extended play, the "special album" Don't Fight the Feeling, was released on June 7. D.O. debuted as the group's sixth soloist with his debut EP, Empathy, on July 26.