Enterprise of Ok-pop: Contained in the pandemic-proof empire of BTS

SEOUL — Within the leisure business, success wants a sequel. South Korea’s Large Hit Leisure has swept to huge fame with its marquee boy band BTS — which is why, in March, grandees of the recording label gathered to disclose what would come subsequent.

Large Hit was about to announce a metamorphosis, one that may take it from South Korean Ok-pop label to international leisure multinational. In a fashionably clunky 90s-style video, since seen greater than 3.7 million occasions, the corporate rolled out change after change — together with shifting its headquarters from the Seoul neighborhood of Gangnam, Ok-pop’s customary middle of energy, to a hulking concrete-and-glass construction north of the Han River.

Most startling of all, Large Hit would come below a completely new title, “Hybe.” Together with that got here an all-encompassing motto: “We consider in music.”

“We’ll proceed to create variations of music in a wider realm, unhindered by borders,” mentioned International CEO Lenzo Yoon.

The genesis of the brand new title was unclear (acronym? Portmanteau? Typo?). However Large Hit’s rebranding is the most recent and maybe most bold section within the evolution of South Korean popular culture, a rising export commodity. Makers of Korean cinema, TV and music more and more see international audiences, with movies just like the Oscar-winning “Parasite” and TV dramas like “Descendants of the Solar” and “Sky Citadel” inspiring hordes of devoted viewers.


Above: Ok-pop stars BTS carry out throughout a web-based live performance. (Provided by Large Hit Leisure). Beneath: Retro graphics accompanied Large Hit’s rebranding as Hybe. (Screenshot from HYBE YouTube web page)

Hybe, the sprawling leisure large behind Ok-pop phenomenon BTS, is proving more proficient than most in taking its enterprise international, after firms for years stumbled of their makes an attempt to search out sturdy reputation outdoors of Asia. 

The corporate’s cultivation of a complicated on-line fan base has paid off, significantly in the course of the pandemic. It noticed year-on-year gross sales bounce 36% between 2019 and 2020, a interval when the leisure business was hampered by the lack to tour artists or host theatrical releases.

On the identical time, BTS accounted for 87.7% of the corporate’s income within the first half of final 12 months, in line with Mirae Asset evaluation. It makes the corporate, which listed on the Korea Inventory Alternate in October at a $4 billion valuation, uniquely weak to the efficiency of 1 seven-member group — albeit one which recorded South Korea’s first-ever No. 1 hit on the principle U.S. Billboard chart. The truth that they are going to be out of motion throughout their necessary army service alerts not solely a interval of nationwide mourning, however monetary threat to the corporate’s newly minted shareholders.

Hybe and its rivals are busily recruiting members from abroad, releasing multilingual tracks and partnering with international manufacturers desirous to share their halo. For his or her rising crowd of buyers and followers, the query is: Can they stick with it? 

Hits and misses

BTS is among the first South Korean bands to change into a family title within the U.S. Their songs pipe in malls and kind the soundtrack for viral TikTok dance movies. Their faces seem all over the place, from addressing the U.N. to showing on mainstream late-night discuss reveals.

Their success has stunned with its apparently borderless attraction. BTS’s second English-language single, “Butter,” leapt into the U.S. Spotify Streaming High 10 when it was launched two weeks in the past, whereas their latest album, “Map of the Soul: 7,” has spent greater than 60 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart.


Bang Si-hyuk, founding father of Large Hit Leisure, now Hybe, seems on display screen in the course of the firm’s preliminary public providing in Seoul final October.

  © Reuters

The determine credited with BTS’s industrial triumph is Hybe founder Bang Si-hyuk, who grew to become a billionaire by way of the group’s preliminary public providing final 12 months. Bang goes by the nickname “Hitman,” one which sits oddly on the pudgy, bespectacled 48 12 months outdated, who graduated from Seoul Nationwide College, South Korea’s most prestigious faculty. Behind closed doorways, he has a status for being fiery and foulmouthed.

Born right into a profitable white-collar household, Bang as soon as informed an interviewer that, in his youth, he discovered learning a breeze and detected “echoes of genius” in himself, deciding that “it wasn’t cool to strive too laborious.”

“I used to be form of a jerk,” he mentioned.

He minimize his enamel early in his profession penning catchy tunes for JYP, one among Ok-pop’s greatest businesses, earlier than breaking off on his personal to kind Large Hit Leisure in 2005 — an unusually brash transfer in Korean enterprise tradition, the place long-term loyalty to at least one’s first firm is the norm.


Hybe’s headquarters in Seoul.

  © Getty Pictures

The engine of the corporate’s ascent has been BTS. The seven-member act has hit unprecedented achievements: Together with turning into the primary non-English language act to have a music debut on the high of the Billboard Scorching 100 singles chart, it was additionally the primary Ok-pop act to be nominated for a Grammy.

However their rise has been virtually a decade within the making. After being assembled by way of Ok-pop’s typically grueling audition course of, the group launched its first album in 2013. That and subsequent efforts didn’t make a lot of a splash — in South Korea or elsewhere.

They lastly hit their stride in 2015 with their third EP, which went all-in on the theme of youth. The group’s music associated the struggles of South Korea’s younger folks, who face intense academic strain earlier than getting into a brutally aggressive job market.

The 2020 chart-topping single “Dynamite,” the group’s first music sung solely in English, created an financial impact price $1.43 billion, in line with South Korea’s tradition ministry, by spurring big will increase in exports of merchandise and the creation of 8,000 jobs in tourism and different sectors.

BTS followers name themselves “Military,” a moniker that carries solely a contact of overstatement. Though fan bases that determine stridently with a selected act have lengthy been a characteristic of the Ok-pop panorama, Military stand out for his or her degree of impassioned assist.

Students who research the group’s far-reaching fandom say that Military are similar to followers of the Beatles, whose music instructions an infinite following many years on — even past those that got here of age alongside the band members. On-line, followers expertise their interactions with the band as real and confessional.

“The connection between BTS and their fandom are virtually like mates, not like stars and mere followers,” Lee Ji-young, a professor at Sejong College and creator of “BTS, Artwork Revolution” informed Nikkei Asia. 

American Staci Custus, 28, first encountered BTS in 2017 whereas working as a language assistant in a college in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture. Fighting loneliness and self-doubt as she adjusted to her new life, Custus came across BTS’s movies on YouTube.

“BTS was producing music with messages for a technology that was being pressured and harassed to comply with in the identical footsteps as their older counterparts, however with much less assist on all sides,” Custus mentioned. “I spotted that I wasn’t alone.”


BTS seem on the Tonight Present with Jimmy Fallon in September, 2018.

  © Getty Pictures

Whereas South Korean acts have lengthy had giant followings in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, the U.S. — the world’s greatest music market — has been far more durable to crack.

In April, Hybe introduced a deal price an estimated $1 billion to amass a 100% stake in Ithaca Holdings, which counts on its roster celebrity acts together with Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande. For supporters, it was proof that BTS had shattered the cussed impression that Western audiences have been postpone by non-English language lyrics, and accustomed to a extra swaggering form of pop star than comparatively harmless Ok-pop acts.

A key pillar of the growth might be bringing Ithaca’s artists onto Weverse, a net service developed by Large Hit Leisure by fusing the features of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube into an built-in channel for communication with followers. The platform brings in an estimated $90 million in funds per quarter, by way of merchandise and ticket gross sales. Unique streaming live shows and dwell chats with artists are held on the platform, drawing customers to spend time there.

“Ok-pop was constantly rising, however there was no discussion board the place the worldwide fandom may collect to speak and join,” Bang mentioned in the course of the rebranding presentation. “We felt that we wanted an area the place the worldwide fandom may talk with artists with no language barrier and revel in all fan actions, and that was Weverse.”

Hybe declined a request to touch upon the story, and didn’t reply to follow-up requests.

A latest Samsung Securities report discovered that within the fourth quarter of final 12 months, Large Hit’s working revenue got here in at 52.5 billion received ($47 million), up 122% 12 months on 12 months, regardless of not one of the label’s acts with the ability to maintain in-person live shows as a result of COVID-19 pandemic. Gross sales of albums and different content material, like merchandise and tickets to streamed live shows, drove the rise.

The corporate’s yearly development outpaced international business giants. Helped alongside by elevated streaming income, Common Music Group posted income development of three.8% in 2020, whereas Sony Music noticed a 9% rise.

“What you see within the case of Hybe is a coming-together of IT growth and Ok-pop, the place Ok-pop itself turns into a platform as nicely,” Michelle Cho, Assistant Professor of East Asian research on the College of Toronto, informed Nikkei. “They’re bringing American artists onto the Weverse platform, and making a system for fascinated by how artists construct the connection that they’ve with followers. Different firms within the business are prone to comply with this mannequin.”

No accident

For South Korea’s cultural sector, reaching followers around the globe is the fruits of many years of labor. Hwang Seon-hye, former director of Korea Inventive Content material Company’s Tokyo enterprise middle, steered that roots of right now’s worldwide success of South Korean content material date again to the late Nineties. Looking for development after the 1997 monetary disaster, then-President Kim Dae-jung wager on two complementary industries: tradition and knowledge know-how.

“In a means, it was the beginning,” mentioned Hwang.

Successive South Korean leaders continued their concentrate on tradition, and poured state funds into supporting the artistic business. Going through the nation’s struggling financial system and comparatively small home market, expertise and companies appeared abroad. The concentrate on data and communication know-how meant that the content material was designed to be distributed on-line globally, Hwang mentioned.

“After all, content material needs to be fascinating and enjoyable,” mentioned Hwang. However worldwide competitiveness, she mentioned, lies in mental property rights being relevant throughout codecs. Content material-related IP rights, whether or not for music or actors, or for distributing on-line or in several nations, all must be clear and clearly established.


Feminine idol group Blackpink carry out at California’s Coachella competition in 2019.

  © Getty Pictures

KOCCA is a part of an environment friendly bureaucratic machine that helps South Korea’s small and medium enterprises and creators. content material destined for worldwide export, the company evaluations which markets they may be suited to. Regional workplaces then assist join these firms or people with native clients.

The primary worldwide workplaces have been arrange in Japan and China in 2001, primarily to assist the animation business. However Hwang mentioned that alternatives have multiplied. Korean on-line cartoons may be changed into Japanese anime, and dramas may be remade in different languages, musicals or merchandise.

“All alongside, Korean leisure firms have been on the innovative … attempting to make their content material as accessible as doable, irrespective of the place on the earth you’re,” Jenna Gibson, a Ph.D. candidate on the College of Chicago.

“They have been making movies that have been shareable and have been meant to go viral instantly — and so they invested not simply in good music however in the entire manufacturing, the music video to go together with it, the stage efficiency,” Gibson mentioned.

Way back to 2000, singer Park Ji-yoon’s “Coming of Age Ceremony” garnered as a lot consideration for its sensual dance routine as for the music itself. The dance, risque for its time, continues to be coated to this present day, together with by members of BTS.

The primary actually international Ok-pop hit, 2012’s “Gangnam Fashion” by Psy, got here with a now-infamous horse dance that made the in any other case extremely particular music — a few sure form of man who lives in a sure a part of Seoul — open and accessible to audiences worldwide.

Deploying the Military

A driving drive of Ok-pop’s success has been the function of followers themselves in spreading their favourite act’s content material. Followers of BTS collect to speak on Weverse, Twitter or YouTube to debate find out how to greatest render lyrics, artist interviews and social media posts into dozens of languages — a form of PR exercise that cash cannot purchase.

Military has proved efficient at monitoring and analyzing who makes up BTS’s international fan base. Final 12 months, they carried out a survey of greater than 400,000 BTS followers representing greater than 100 nations and territories. The survey was carried out in 46 languages, and located that barely greater than half of Military are youthful than 18, and 86% are ladies. Exterior information from ticket gross sales means that the fan base is rising extra gender-diverse.

The nation with probably the most respondents to the survey was, by far, Indonesia, accounting for 20% of these surveyed, beating the U.S. with 8.4% and South Korea with 3.7%. Indonesia is a younger, populous nation, with a longtime affinity for Ok-pop that features the cosmetics and vogue that go together with it.


BTS followers socially distance whereas watching a web-based live performance in Seoul in October.

  © Reuters

Indonesian bookstores have a whole bunch of Korea-related ebook titles obtainable. Some are translations, however many, if not most, are written by Indonesians. The subjects vary from find out how to grasp primary Korean language, journey tricks to South Korea, introductions to Ok-pop, and novels and kids’s comedian books themed round Korea.

“I’ve purchased seasons-greetings packages, CDs, collectible figurines, posters, shirts,” Gustidha Budiartie, a 34-year-old state-owned enterprise worker in Jakarta, informed Nikkei, with the objects all representing her favourite stars — BTS, Tremendous Junior and common Korean actor Hyun Bin. Most have been official merchandise, however some objects have been domestically produced.

CedarBough Saeji, visiting assistant professor in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana College, Bloomington, describes the industrial alternatives based mostly on overflow from Ok-pop as “shadow industries.” In nations together with Indonesia, instructors construct careers instructing Ok-pop dance courses. Ok-pop stars adorn commercials for a slew of merchandise, notably cosmetics and skin-treatment merchandise, in dozens of nations.

Ok-pop followers themselves lead initiatives to show languages, cooking, and to assist one another discover jobs. “The friendships and connections constructed amongst followers are additionally part of what makes many on this neighborhood really feel that they’re a part of the BTS and Military household for all times,” mentioned Candace Epps-Robertson, a professor who research BTS fandom on the College of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Saeji argued that Ok-pop is exceptionally fertile floor for product placement and endorsements by artists. “Within the case of Ok-pop, the business has actually exploded out in so many instructions, as a result of in Ok-pop they don’t seem to be pretending to someway have an issue with commercialization,” Saeji informed Nikkei.

The business itself is way from clear. Murmurs have circulated for years of performers being caught in unfair contracts with their each transfer managed by administration businesses, even going through sexual or psychological abuse. These issues spilled into the open in 2019, when a number of high-profile Ok-pop figures have been discovered to be concerned in prostitution, drug trafficking and distribution of sexual movies of girls that have been taken with out their consent. 

However that Ok-pop stars are introduced by their businesses as clear and flawless boosts their potential as endorsers. “There has at all times been a need for alternate options, the place as a substitute of this raunchy, in your face, aggressive form of pop star, there has at all times been demand for the attractive, aspirational pop star, somebody you may look as much as. Western pop stars did not present that,” Saeji mentioned.

“BTS is the results of everybody that got here earlier than. A variety of it’s only a plain, sluggish constructing of an viewers. As Ok-pop grew to become much less of a distinct segment and fewer of a subculture, and folks not felt embarrassed or shy about it, their sharing grew to become much more regular.”

Life after BTS

Hybe’s efforts to diversify into different geographies and areas of musical style characterize a recognition that BTS, like most bands, cannot stay on high without end.

In December, South Korea’s legislature handed a invoice that may enable the members of BTS to delay their necessary service till age 30. The driving drive behind the invoice was Jeon Yong-gi, a ruling get together lawmaker, who mentioned that the aim of the laws is to acknowledge entertainers who’ve made vital contributions to selling the nation overseas, and permit them to defer their service to attenuate the interruption to their careers.

He talked about BTS as being significantly deserving for the constructive consideration they’ve drawn to South Korea, and mentioned the deferment may very well be prolonged to excellent esports athletes.

The nation stopped in need of permitting the members and different Ok-pop stars to skip their service altogether. South Korea’s system of obligatory service is a hot-button difficulty domestically, as members of the nation’s rich, well-connected elite have up to now discovered methods to keep away from service, and strikes to grant exemptions to entertainers or athletes are met with fierce public resistance.

Now, the query hanging over Hybe’s rebranding is whether or not the corporate can discover new acts to take the torch from BTS and create income to make up for the group’s short-term absence, in addition to carry Hybe into the longer term.

Hybe is prone to put extra promotional muscle behind Enhypen and TXT, teams which have already debuted efficiently. The corporate additionally not too long ago signed a strategic tie-up with YG Leisure, a rival which represents lady group Blackpink, whereas additionally planning to increase additional into areas spanning from music manufacturing to platform companies and Korean-language schooling.

“Large Hit is doing issues that different firms have executed earlier than, however what’s distinct is how shortly they’re doing it and the way a lot they’re investing in it. At this level, they’re experimenting by happening a variety of completely different avenues,” Gibson mentioned. “At this level it is too early to inform.”

The consensus amongst specialists is that BTS followers are usually not prone to lose curiosity within the group, and even considerably cut back their fandom actions, whereas the members are within the army.

“I do not assume Military will age out of the fandom as a result of BTS’s music and messages aren’t capped at a selected age,” mentioned the tutorial Epps-Robertson.

“If something, I believe you discover that their music and messages have cross-generational attraction, as a result of they mirror emotions and experiences that we encounter throughout our lifetime.”

Extra reporting by Jada Nagumo and Akane Okutsu in Tokyo and Erwida Maulia in Jakarta.

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