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THE BROAD VIEW

BTS, the K-pop supergroup that's changed the music business

BTS is everywhere. Their branding prowess is undeniable.

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The Bangtan Boys' public image, one that doesn't rely on traditional forms of Western masculinity, is constantly evolving, as is their music.

IN one photo for their album Map of the Soul: 7, the seven members of the South Korean supergroup BTS, or the Bangtan Boys, are cloaked in feathers, obscured by an ominous cloud of darkness. Other photos show them dressed in all white and in neutral tones, posing in the midst of a sumptuous feast in a shadowy room.

These images are a sharp detour from the colourful, Wes Anderson-esque aesthetic of their previous album, Map of the Soul: Persona, but that wasn't a shock to fans: The Bangtan Boys' public image, one that doesn't rely on traditional forms of Western masculinity, is constantly evolving, as is their music.

Fans will tell you that the Korean supergroup's discography, once heavily inspired by hip-hop, belongs to no genre. What defines BTS - what sets them apart in the eyes of fans - is their emotional honesty, expressed through their lyrics, press interviews, and personal vlogs. Theirs is an underdog story, where they managed to surpass the odds to become one of the highest-earning K-pop acts and the unofficial face of Korean music worldwide.

In Home, a sentimental track that reflects on BTS's material success, there's a verse that translates to "the world thinks we own the whole world". It sure seems like it. BTS's new album, released on Feb 21, had garnered more than 3.42 million preorders within the first week of its announcement. The boys have drawn comparisons to legendary music acts like the Beatles and the Jackson 5 for their ability to sell out massive arenas worldwide. They've sold out at least seven shows for the North American leg of their 2020 tour from fans in all 50 states, surpassing ticket sale records of top US pop stars Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift.

The Western media - and the world, for that matter - has only been able to gawk at the sheer scale of BTS's dominance. They've posed on the covers of glossy magazines with headlines like "How BTS Is Taking Over the World", "Music's Billion Dollar Boy Band Takes the Next Step", and "The K-Pop Megastars Get Candid About Representing a New Generation". BTS is receiving star treatment, but scepticism and resistance to their status as the world's biggest pop stars still persist on the grounds of their "boy band" label, the (wrongful) assumption that their fan base is fuelled solely by teenage devotion, and xenophobia from an industry traditionally dominated by white Western stars.

BTS's path to superstardom was paved, in part, by South Korea's wave of cultural exports to the West - from music to television dramas to elaborate skin care routines. Before BTS, a series of top K-pop acts (Big Bang, Girls' Generation, EXO) have made US debuts, yet none really stuck, making the boys' success even more unprecedented and unexpected.

In 2019, BTS reportedly brought in US$4.65 billion for the South Korean economy through physical album sales, concert tickets, and branded merchandise. The band is currently worth 0.3 per cent of the country's gross domestic product and is projected to contribute US$48 billion for South Korea by 2023, according to a report from the Hyundai Research Institute. These staggering numbers highlight how BTS's influence is a 21st-century tour de force, something few Western pop artists are capable of achieving today.

At its heart, the music industry is driven by fan activity - the money poured into live shows, album sales, and official merchandise to bolster an emerging artist onto musical charts, whether that's the US's Billboard Hot 100 or South Korea's Gaon Music Chart.

To understand the scale of BTS's success among other K-pop acts and Western artists, you have to delve into the Korean entertainment industry and understand how it's a wholly different beast from its American counterpart, down to how its biggest stars are cultivated and marketed. While record labels, artist management companies, and talent agencies operate as separate entities in America, Korean entertainment companies are a configuration of all three. "The top K-pop music companies are hybrid, highly integrated, full-stack 'cultural technology' enterprises," said Bernie Cho, president of DFSB Kollective, a Seoul-based agency that specialises in distributing Korean music. That means they have a top-down approach when it comes to managing creative endeavours and, in some cases, producing and shaping an artist or a band.

This is best reflected through K-pop's intense trainee system, where potential stars are recruited through auditions and cultivated over years of rigorous performance training. Music studios are typically responsible for a group's formation, their marketing and music, and even their personal lives.

A different approach

While BTS members were recruited through this system, their management label, Big Hit Entertainment, took a different approach, placing fewer restrictions on them. BigHit CEO Bang Si-hyuk envisioned the boys as relatable, down-to-earth figures that fans could connect with. (BigHit did not respond to an emailed request for comment from Vox.)

Compared to other idols, BTS members have more creative and personal freedom, like the ability to write their own songs and lyrics and manage their own social media - aspects that BigHit aggressively marketed to audiences. The result is a massive international fan base nicknamed ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative MC for Youth), consisting of millions of people that span various ages and cultures. These fans are well organised and single-mindedly devoted to the Bangtan Boys. They constantly flood Twitter with hashtags to promote the band's activities, organise to stream new music, and even create merch for other fans. Perhaps, most importantly, fans see BTS as original, authentic, and socially conscious public figures who aren't afraid to talk openly about the struggles and anxieties of their career path.

This core notion of authenticity - something that influencers, celebrities, and politicians alike aspire to embody - is a key factor in BTS's astounding success overseas. It is a large part of the group's appeal to companies seeking their endorsements. From 2013 to 2018, BTS sold more than US$1.1 billion worth of branded items, and they're expected to have an even greater economic impact than the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics within 10 years, according to the Hyundai Research Institute.

"When I talk to American BTS fans for my research, they say that they're drawn to how genuine BTS is and how they're saying something about themselves, rather than just talk about money, sex, and drugs (like American artists)," Jade Kim, an associate professor at Texas A&M International University who researches Korean pop culture and media, told me. "BTS blurs the line between (being a pop idol) and a person, and that's a big difference for fans."

The price of a music download or stream in Korea is worth shockingly little, Cho told me. "Selling the same exact song or exact same album, Korean acts could earn more than eight times more profit outside of Korea than inside," he said. This has driven all types of Korean artists, from idols to indie singers, to go overseas and target an international audience. "There aren't enough Koreans on this planet, living inside or outside of Korea, to singlehandedly make K-pop go global," Cho said on BTS and the genre's ascending popularity. "Simply put, international fans are why K-pop is international."

While product sponsorships are common in the Korean entertainment industry, BTS has broken into the US market by the sheer force of its fandom, who have rallied stores like Hot Topic, Target, and Walmart to carry band merchandise and albums. That's why you can find virtually every type of BTS-branded product imaginable on the internet. There's BTS cold brew coffee, hand cream, Mattel dolls, and Funko Pop figurines. You can also buy BTS-inspired coloured contacts, streetwear, Reebok shoes, and bank checks.

Granted, this is only a short list of BTS's brand collaborations and official merchandise. There are thousands of other unofficial products on the market, and the Bangtan Boys are also ambassadors for Fila, the city of Seoul (for three consecutive years), the Hyundai Palisade, and an electric street racing championship hosted by Formula E.

In short, BTS is everywhere - in Korea and abroad. Their branding prowess is undeniable, and even products that are unintentionally promoted through a BTS member's "golden touch" can quickly sell out, whether that's a sweater, fabric softener, or a bottle of wine. "The fandom is very focused on buying official merch from concerts, BigHit, or the BTS Line store because it directly supports BTS," said Liv, a 24-year-old BTS fan from England who didn't want to disclose her last name for privacy reasons. Liv has stopped purchasing BTS merch for herself, but she sometimes gives away items on Twitter for other fans to have a chance at owning some BTS goodies.

Money is an inextricable aspect of any music fandom culture, not just BTS's: Fans want to support their favourite artists, and that devotion is usually expressed through purchasing concert tickets, albums, and merchandise collections - all things that help the artist succeed. Still, not everyone can afford that or live where merch is easily accessible, Liv told me, which is why she and her fellow ARMYs are so passionate about hosting social media giveaways. K-pop fan culture is especially consumerist because, as Caitlin Kelley wrote for MTV, fans understand "many Korean acts do not make much money if they haven't attained the rarified stature of a top-selling group like BTS".

Therefore, fans can feel like they have a responsibility to "support their faves" by buying branded items every time a new collaboration or album is released. The relationship is "like a parent giving unconditional love and support to their child, the band," David Kim, a YouTuber who analyses Korean culture and K-pop, told the Washington Post.

There's a downside to this focus on consumerism: Some fans spend thousands of dollars on merchandise or travel to attend concerts and meet-and-greets. It's normal to spend extra on multiple versions of collectibles. "Merch-shaming" also exists within some corners of K-pop fandom - the idea that having a more extensive merch collection or attending a lot of performances is the marker of a "good fan".

Fan culture is complicated, and not everyone buys into the consumerist (and classist) ideology that owning merch makes someone a more dedicated fan. Most fans buy merchandise and concert tickets simply because they love the artist.

Within online fan circles, ARMY members like Liv have found ways to make the BTS community more inclusive, especially for younger fans and those who live in places where it's prohibitively expensive to get items shipped. US BTS ARMY, a not-for-profit organisation and fan news site for BTS, occasionally hosts worldwide merch giveaways for global fans, and Album for Every ARMY is a charity project for fans who are unable to buy their own BTS albums. "There's a wide spectrum of ARMY fans, including those who are teenagers or are in school, that don't have the extra income for merch," Jackie, the chief financial officer at US BTS ARMY, told me.

As with most popular artists, there's a vast black market for unofficial products created and sold by companies and independent artists alike. Big Hit Entertainment has previously sought to curb the use of the Bangtan Boys' image and crack down on unauthorised merch outside of concerts, but online, small businesses by fans proliferate.

Collectibles, not just music products

To their credit, fans are wary of off-brand merchandise that appears to be exploiting BTS's image for purely monetary gain. However, ARMYs are generally supportive of small artists who create original trinkets and drawings, said Stephanie Le, a 21-year-old college student who runs the Happi Peach pin shop on Instagram. Le has turned several of her original designs of BTS members into enamel pins, a hobby she's managed to monetise in the past year. "Fans tend to purchase official merchandise, but they also see the value we bring to things that aren't normally produced," Le told me. "I consider myself a multi-fandom pin maker, but BTS has lately been a big inspiration for me so I've been drawing them more often."

"When a new album comes out, we as a fan base try and encourage the purchase of the album in the country where you reside in so it counts towards a chart in that country," she said. "Since we're a US base, most of our goals are directed towards the US."

That's why Korean entertainment companies put so much effort into developing sleek, beautifully crafted albums; they're marketed as collectibles, not just music products. (BTS was nominated for a 2019 Grammy in the Best Recording Package category.) "Instead of buying a CD with a booklet, you often buy a luxurious photo book with posters, postcards, stickers, or tickets - with the CD thrown in as a bonus," Cho of DFSB Collective told me of most K-pop albums.

The purchase of some of these extra items, like concert tickets or T-shirts, when paired with an album or single is considered "bundling", something many top US artists do to boost album sales. (BTS's upcoming album is not bundled with any merchandise, and the band is one of the few acts that have reached No 1 on the charts without bundles.)

For ARMYs (and other K-pop fans), it doesn't really make a difference what the album comes with or what it looks like; they've planned to purchase it from the start. This level of sincere devotion to an artist - and even mass mobilisation on said artist's behalf - is what helped propel BTS into the international limelight.

In other words, BTS fans take it upon themselves to actively promote the band's work. They've already figured out the number of iTunes and Spotify streams, YouTube views, and Shazam song requests it would take for BTS to reach the No 1 spot once Map of the Soul: 7 is released. If achieved, these goals would once again prove BTS's ability to top the Billboard charts. This energy is something that even well-known stars like Justin Bieber struggle to capture: animating legions of fans to stream or buy music that will benefit the artist.

When journalists and music critics speculate about the future of BTS, the narrative inevitably turns to South Korea's two-year military service requirement, which all BTS members will be subject to by the time they're 28. For fans, it's a fraught and bittersweet reality given that Jin, BTS's oldest member, will turn 28 in December. With this latest record, however, 2020 will likely be another big year for the young men in both music and commercial spaces.

In a corporate briefing in early February, BigHit announced its plans to invest in a more immersive BTS concert experience, introducing "tour villages" in select cities with attractions like a BTS-themed hotel, an exclusive pop-up store, and other themed exhibits. The label is placing its focus on what fans want, a crucial part of its formula for success, according to executives. BTS's trajectory in the past three years has been unstoppable; they've smashed records, sold out stadiums, cemented their international presence, and signed another seven-year contract, which means they'll likely keep performing into their 30s.

"As long as our bodies hold up, we'll be doing the same thing in 10 years," Suga, one of the group's three rappers, told the Hollywood Reporter in a cover story last year (a story that was thoroughly criticised by fans for its inaccuracies, culturally insensitive sentiments, and lack of prior research).

And, likely, as long as BTS's bodies hold up, it's not a question whether their fan base will continue supporting them, financially and artistically, individually or as a group. Whatever they do and wherever they go, the ARMY will be behind them. VOX