BTS Map of the Soul: 7: How K-pop group BTS built a billion-dollar fandom – Vox.com

Posted: February 20, 2020 at 9:41 am


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In one photo for their upcoming 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 colorful, Wes Anderson-esque aesthetic of their previous album, Map of the Soul: Persona, but that wasnt a shock to fans: The Bangtan Boys public image, one that doesnt rely on traditional forms of Western masculinity, is constantly evolving, as is their music. Fans will tell you that the Korean supergroups 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 BTSs material success, theres a verse that translates to the world thinks we own the whole world. It sure seems like it. BTSs new album, which comes out February 21, has 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. Theyve 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 BTSs dominance. Theyve posed on the covers of glossy magazines with headlines like How BTS Is Taking Over the World, Musics 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 skepticism and resistance to their status as the worlds biggest pop stars still persist on the grounds of their boy band label, the (wrongful) assumption that their fanbase is fueled solely by teenage devotion, and xenophobia from an industry traditionally dominated by white Western stars.

BTSs path to superstardom was paved, in part, by South Koreas wave of cultural exports to the West from music to television dramas to elaborate skincare 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 $4.65 billion for the South Korean economy through physical album sales, concert tickets, and branded merchandise. The band is currently worth 0.3 percent of the countrys gross domestic product and is projected to contribute $48 billion for South Korea by 2023, according to a report from the Hyundai Research Institute. These staggering numbers highlight how BTSs 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 be the USs Billboard Hot 100 or South Koreas Gaon Music Chart. To understand the scale of BTSs success among other K-pop acts and Western artists, you have to delve into the Korean entertainment industry and understand how its a wholly different beast than 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 specializes in distributing Korean music. That means they have a top-down approach when it comes to managing creative endeavors and, in some cases, producing and shaping an artist or a band.

This is best reflected through K-pops 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 groups formation, their marketing and music, and even their personal lives. 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 fanbase nicknamed ARMY (an acronym for Adorable Representative MC for Youth), consisting of millions of people that span across ages and cultures.

These fans are well-organized and single-mindedly devoted to the Bangtan Boys. They constantly flood Twitter with hashtags to promote the bands activities, organize 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 arent 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 BTSs astounding success overseas. It is a large part of the groups appeal to companies seeking their endorsements. From 2013 to 2018, BTS sold more than $1.1 billion worth of branded items, and theyre 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 theyre drawn to how genuine BTS is and how theyre 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 thats 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 arent enough Koreans on this planet, living inside or outside of Korea, to singlehandedly make K-pop go global, Cho said on BTS and the genres ascending popularity. Simply put, international fans are why K-pop is international.

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. Thats why you can find virtually every type of BTS-branded product imaginable on the internet. Theres BTS cold brew coffee, hand cream, Mattel dolls, and Funko Pop figurines. You can also buy BTS-inspired colored contacts, streetwear, Reebok shoes, and bank checks.

Granted, this is only a short list of BTSs 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 members golden touch can quickly sell out, whether that be a sweater, fabric softener, or a bottle of wine. As careful as a member might be to not name-drop a brand, its only a matter of time before sleuthing fans and BTS product accounts identify whatever theyre wearing or alluding to.

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 didnt 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 BTSs: Fans want to support their favorite 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 havent 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 analyzes Korean culture and K-pop, told the Washington Post.

Theres a downside to this focus on consumerism: Some fans spend thousands of dollars on merchandise or travel to attend concerts and meet-and-greets. Its 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 its prohibitively expensive to get items shipped. US BTS ARMY, a not-for-profit organization 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.

Theres a wide spectrum of ARMY fans, including those who are teenagers or are in school, that dont have the extra income for merch, Jackie, the chief financial officer at US BTS ARMY, told me. (Jackie, who volunteers to work on the site, asked to only be identified by her first name.)

We like to partner with a company and host these giveaways so that anyone can have access to some of this official merchandise, she said. As with most popular artists, theres 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 unauthorized merch outside of concerts, but online, small businesses by fans proliferate.

To their credit, fans are wary of off-brand merchandise that appears to be exploiting BTSs 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 that shes managed to successfully monetize in the past year. Fans tend to purchase official merchandise, but they also see the value we bring to things that arent normally produced, Le told me. I consider myself a multi-fandom pin maker, but BTS has lately been a big inspiration for me so Ive been drawing them more often.

Her operation is relatively small (she needs at least 20-50 preorders before she can manufacture a pin design), but some apparel and merchandise makers operate full-time businesses that solely cater to K-pop fans and even carry official products. Theres a constant stream of demand for novel items or t-shirt designs, especially when a band like BTS releases a new album.

Demand for branded merchandise is huge, but most devoted fans know that physical album sales carry weight in official music rankings. ARMYs have been savvily setting goals online for the boys comeback in late February, according to Jackie. When a new album comes out, we as a fanbase 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 were a US base, most of our goals are directed towards the US.

Thats why Korean entertainment companies put so much effort into developing sleek, beautifully crafted albums; theyre 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 [that comes] 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. Some of these extra items are what industry insiders refer to as bundling, or including concert tickets or a piece of merch with the purchase of an album or song, something many top US artists do to boost album sales. (BTSs 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 doesnt really make a difference what the album comes with or what it looks like; theyve planned to purchase it from the start. This level of sincere devotion to an artist and even mass mobilization on said artists behalf is what helped propel BTS into the international limelight. In other words, BTS fans take it upon themselves to actively promote the bands work. Theyve 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 BTSs 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 Koreas two-year military service requirement, which all BTS members will be subjected to by the time theyre 28. For fans, its a fraught and bittersweet reality, given how Jin, BTSs 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. BTSs trajectory in the past three years has been unstoppable; theyve smashed records, sold out stadiums, cemented their international presence, and signed another seven-year contract, which means theyll likely keep performing into their 30s.

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

And, likely, as long as BTSs bodies hold up, its not a question whether their fanbase 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.

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BTS Map of the Soul: 7: How K-pop group BTS built a billion-dollar fandom - Vox.com

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February 20th, 2020 at 9:41 am

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