Big Hit Entertainment│① “New Generation” to introduce a new future of K-pop

Big Hit Entertainment’s new K-pop boy group Tomorrow x Together (TxT) made no public appearance before their recent debut. The members’ voices had not been revealed in advance, let alone building their fame through TV entertainment programs like member auditions. The only PR activities conducted by Big Hit since posting the team’s teaser video on January 10 was uploading it onto platforms like the company SNS feed or onto Naver V Live. And yet their very first posting swiftly passed 15 million views without any promotion via Youtube.

The teaser viewings may not come as a surprise, given that Big Hit Entertainment has over 21.5 million subscribers on Youtube as of March 3. However the teasers and preview videos uploaded one week ahead of the debut on February 25, 26, and March 1 each recorded over 4.7 million, 4.5 million, and 3.97 million respectively, as of March 3. The small difference demonstrates better numbers for the videos posted comparatively later. This is directly opposite to the way most idol teasers receive the best response for the very first posting with receding interest. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to state that many more were interested in the specifics of TxT content since their very first teaser. From a commercial standpoint, TxT’s debut album The Dream Chapter: Star sold over 100,000 copies in pre-orders 2 weeks before the debut, and over 30,000 copies on the first day of sales – more than a week’s sales for most boy groups. All of this was achieved with just 15 videos on Youtube, without any TV appearance, self-produced reality show or Naver V Live. Big Hit Entertainment knows how to utilize SNS to capture people’s interest, and transform that interest into sales.

While TxT prepared their debut, what Big Hit Entertainment did was launch an “ARMYPEDIA” event for the BTS fandom, ARMY. The event involves a scavenger hunt of QR codes scattered both online and offline across 7 cities worldwide, allowing fans to chip in on memories of the 2080 days since the debut of BTS as set out by Big Hit Entertainment. Once the event was unveiled, ARMYs worldwide busied themselves with harvesting the QR codes and reviving memories of the group. In the case of entertainment giant YG, a reality show was created for the debut of its newer boy groups iKon and WINNER, starring members of its older group BIGBANG, such as G-DRAGON and TAEYANG. Incorporating the most popular team to promote a new debut is a typical way for major entertainment agencies to tap into their influential power. But here before the debut of its new team has Big Hit Entertainment launched a large-scale event for a group with already unprecedented popularity around the world. Before the TxT debut there wasn’t a single photo taken with BTS, nor was there any mention of phrases like “the next Bangtan Boys” or “aspiring BTS” to describe them in the press release sent over. Right from their media exposure to any involvement of existing teams, TxT’s debut process appeared pretty consistent. A different strategy was taken to that of the “Big 3” agencies or other practices within the K-pop industry.

Following the first TxT teaser video, some BTS fans discussed wither to “support” or “hate on” the group, expressing concerns that BTS may participate too much in the debut process or lose company support for the sake of the newcomers. It appears Big Hit has sent a clear message regarding these concerns through its latest ARMYPEDIA event, which no doubt requires substantial capital and personnel. The SNS followers accumulated by BTS will of course serve as the foundation for TxT publicity. But any delay or lack of resources caused by TxT at the expense of BTS is not likely to happen. Also, TxT’s title number “One day, my horns grew in my head (CROWN)” gives off a refreshing tone, comparable to the darker rebel character of BTS back in its debut days. It is highly unlikely that BTS fans will see TxT as an imitation or as competition. While it is not easy to put a finger on the exact intention for Big Hit’s move, at the end of the day the majority of the BTS fandom did not end up “hating on” TxT.

Not just ARMY but fandoms across the wider K-Pop scene have been experiencing a great deal of change. While teams formed under the same entertainment agency do receive their share of interest, they are no longer viewed as requiring “allegiance” for simply being in the same agency. Likewise, it is a common sight for fandoms of groups within the same agency to get into fights or arguments. Fans now care what the other team in the agency wears, and which staff they work with. As much as the idol industry in Korea is based on maximizing individual sales in the fandom based on the consumer’s level of devotion, the game is about zeroing in on everything about the artist. How to direct this sort of devotion and energy has become a difficult task for many companies. The crisis faced by YG Entertainment is not just about the criminal charges of BIGBANG member Seungri. Following the selection of new members in its debut reality show “Treasure Box,” fans continue to post various demands and complaints on the Instagram account of YG founder and main producer, Yang Hyun Suk. The complaints range from who the members should be to their appearance, concept, investment, promotion plans, and more. In the SM Entertainment front, fans protested when Mark’s “graduation” from the NCT DREAM unit was confirmed. Prior to the debut of JYP Entertainment’s new girl group ITZY, some fans complained about the team composition, targeting a specific member. K-pop fandoms, in particular the devoted core fandoms, act not just as consumers of these agencies but as profit groups or shareholders that want their interests facilitated. Issues that used to be solely the realm of companies themselves have now become areas of conflict, negotiation, and compromise with their fandoms.

Regardless of good or bad, market needs have changed completely, to the point that it seems there is a new industry of itself. Big Hit Entertainment has chosen to respond to this kind of change with a different method of management. To Big Hit, it is important to manage BTS and TxT more like an IT company than yet another entertainment company. This way Big Hit’s various SNS channels and webpage can serve as the teams’ platform, providing diverse content and events to fans and thus lengthening the time they spend on these platforms. Although “ARMYPEDIA” is a large-scale event encompassing outdoor ads in 7 cities around the world, all participation is free of charge. From a fan’s perspective there is not much to complain about such a service, and participation involves spending more time on BTS. This, as shown by all of BTS’s free content so far such as V Live, Youtube, mix tapes, Vlog, etc., transforms into money. It becomes possible to list new teams like TxT as recommendations on a 21.5 million-subscriber platform. By keeping fans who already show a high level of engagement “on a roll (refers to active fan activity),” fans will respond more positively to the company message.

One of BTS’s main success points is their active use of SNS right from their debut. From the standpoint that fandoms now constitute the essence of the K-pop industry, idol groups’ SNS use can be attributed to a deeper understanding of the needs of the current fandoms in 2019. Fans no longer turn to mass media for content and information regarding the teams they love. Even before it hits the front page of the portal site, information is already spreading from a personal twitter account. That then is soon reproduced in the form of translation into another language. Big Hit Entertainment successfully infiltrated into an area where mass media could never quite satisfy fandoms. All the while, TxT focused on promoting features that did not seem to have much to do with BTS on a platform that has influence all over the world. How fandoms respond will be different for each team or circumstance, and all content, services, promotions should be tailored accordingly. An event like “ARMYPEDIA” requires the devotion of a fandom to record the history of its team across 7 cities in order for it to bear any meaning. Through this event Big Hit has officially involved ARMY in the BTS history. The company has linked the team and its fans within its platform, offering another reason for them to consume them. This is a completely different dimension to coming up with a good idea or making good content. It is a question of management vision. What needs to be done, and for whom?

Up to now the focus of the entertainment industry has been on how content was produced. From the K-pop front some changes surfaced in the form of optimizing the team to work simultaneously in Korea and China like EXO, or select members by voting, as shown in the Mnet “Produce” series. But what has really changed is the consumer. As BTS has demonstrated, the spending power of a fandom spread across the world has long exceeded norms within the K-pop industry, and the behavior patterns and location of activity has also changed completely. Big Hit has reflected this change in its management strategy as it has in its operating platforms. BTS and TxT each comprise 7 and 5 members, not different to most K-pop groups so far. It is not as though they have come out with a new music or dance genre, either. And yet Big Hit’s output has become a kind of industry standard. Nowadays everyone runs his or her SNS account mainly through Twitter, Youtube, and V Live. It has already been some time since the activities of idols have found their place somewhere between a singer and a Youtuber. Companies that once used to emphasize sales in Japan now send out press releases about being received in the US. There are also teams like JYP Entertainment’s Stray Kids that show BTS-like features embracing hip hop, self-produced content, youth, rebellion, and cross-album narrative. Big Hit Entertainment is the future of K-pop. We just didn’t know what the future was.

In that sense, the future was already upon us in the past. While BTS was expanding its fandom without TV entertainment shows, while their music video reaction clips were trending, while their album sales grew out of existing norms, everything was already changing. 2 years ago Billboard Music Awards named BTS the “Top Social Artist.” The US music market is already zooming in on what impact that devoted fandoms such as ARMY will have on the market. Yet Korean producers and mass media have yet to provide a proper measurement to assess this sort of performance. BTS goods produced as limited editions are sold out in the blink of an eye. BTS sold out their second day at London’s Wembley Stadium with over 200,000 on the waiting list. The profit structure is of a different dimension to that of previous albums and records, or the sales projections in concerts in other parts of Asia. However there is not much discussion domestically in the Korean media about how all of this has been possible. Articles mostly stop at mentioning the numbers surrounding sold out stadiums or translations of foreign press. While mass media was talking about what they saw in the way they knew it, Big Hit Entertainment was off changing what remained unseen. Perhaps this is how Big Hit and BTS were able to achieve such unprecedented success. They connected us to a new world of ARMY in an area nobody was talking about. However, this could also turn out to be an unfortunate turn for them. Unless mass media can offer the right performance indicators to explain their success, their success may be downplayed or attributed to mere luck. For example, there are still rumors that BTS focused on SNS because they were unable to appear on TV programs, which coincidentally led to their success.

The fact that BTS was not able to perform at the year-end ending stage of the major broadcasters’ music programs is symbolic. In a year like 2018 where BTS had done all that a Korean artist could possibly achieve, the major broadcasters did not grant them the honor of the ending stage. But it is also true that the standing of a team like BTS is no longer swayed by an ending stage. The world has changed, which mass media has yet to accept. Many companies also remain somewhere in between, focusing on producing seemingly trendy contents fast. All of this ignorance, neglect, misconception, and prejudice turns the K-pop industry into something as pitiful and uninteresting as success only measured by market value and Melon Chart rankings.

In 2017 Big Hit Entertainment recorded a higher operating profit than the “Big 3” agencies SM, JYP, and YG Entertainment. Many financial institutions and experts estimate that their 2018 sales and operating profit increased close to threefold. If that were the only differentiation point, BTS would be nothing but part of the top “Big 3” player or perhaps the member of a “Big 4.” However Big Hit has found a new market drive, just the way that the “Big 3” once did, and responded differently to the others. It laid its foundation in a different time and space to the Big 3. Whether for better or for worse, it is a completely different world from the past. Big Hit managed to bring in some part of the future. How will this be received? Will it even be acknowledged? The future of K-pop begins with this question.



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