9:12 pm - 10/09/2019

The Mastermind Behind BTS Opens Up About Making a K-Pop Juggernaut



Some excerpts:
- Ever since BTS’ debut, they’ve never suddenly switched gears or changed pace. They were consistent. I think that convinced the public. They don’t shy away from speaking about the pain felt by today’s generation. They respect diversity and justice, the rights of youths and marginalized people.

- I fundamentally believe BTS’ success in the U.S. had a lot to do with luck. It wasn’t my brilliant strategy or BTS being such a perfect fit for the U.S. market. It was rather that their message resonated with a certain demand, and through digital media it spread quickly.

- First, I believe in the West there is this deeply embedded fantasy of the rock star — a rock star acts true to their soul and everyone must accept it as part of their individuality, and only through that does good music come. But in reality, devoting a long time to honing and training music-related skills is a tactic used in many professional art worlds. Ballerinas spend a long time in isolation focused only on ballet, but you don’t hear people say ballet lacks soul or isn’t art. So I think it’s a matter of perspective.



(For nicer formatting and pics, check out the interview on Time)

Bang Si-hyuk was an artist first. But these days, the founder and co-CEO of Big Hit Entertainment is better known as the mastermind behind BTS, the world’s biggest boy band and the K-pop group that has led the charge in breaking open the Western market for acts from South Korea. Bang started out in the K-pop industry as a composer (nickname: “Hitman”) working with JYP, one of the so-called “Big Three” entertainment groups that dominate the multi-billion dollar South Korean music market. But he broke away to found his own company in 2005. Now, Big Hit is one of the music industry’s most interesting case studies, having struck gold with a powerfully popular — and highly lucrative — act.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Bang opened up to TIME about the genesis of BTS, the difference between Western artists and the K-pop model and the surprises he’s encountered in the K-pop industry. “It’s difficult for me to say things like A led to B,” he said. “But what I can say is that BTS’ success in the U.S. market was achieved by a formula different from the American mainstream formula. Loyalty built through direct contact with fans had a lot to do with that.” He cited Disney and Apple as examples of brands that have built similarly committed fanbases and complex universes, but stressed that to him the product — the music itself — is paramount.

Humble about his influence and eager to make his role clear, Bang highlighted his luck and timing, and tried to pin down what makes BTS unique. He also cautioned against making predictions about the future. “If you were to ask, will they sing in English? How long will they be in the U.S.? Will they sign with a major label? I would say the artist needs to make the best decision at each moment, and I can’t say what they should do,” he said.

Below is a translated and condensed version of Bang’s conversation with TIME.

TIME: K-pop is distinctive for its trainee system, in which aspiring “idols” train for years after being scouted and before being introduced to audiences. How did you find and train the seven members of BTS?

Bang Si-Hyuk: One of our producers, Pdogg, brought RM’s demo tape to me and said, “This is what the young kids are into.” RM [who is now the group leader and a rapper] was 15 at the time. I signed him immediately. I had considered putting together a hip-hop crew, not an idol group. But when I considered the business context, I thought a K-pop idol model made more sense. Because many trainees wanted to pursue hip-hop and didn’t want to be in an idol band, they left. At that time RM, Suga, and J-Hope stayed back, and they remain BTS’s musical pillars. From there, through auditions, we discovered and added members that had more of an idol-like quality to the group.


When you started Big Hit, you could have gone down many paths in pop music. Why did you decide to form an idol group?


At the time that I started my company, physical album sales were abruptly going down and digital sales were not coming up to compensate. But K-pop idol groups had an advantage, in that they had many opportunities to diversify revenue streams and their fans were extremely passionate, allowing concerts to compensate for the dropped album sales. This was also a time when many around the world were saying the only replacement for the demolished musical industry is live performances. If a performance-based model were to be created in South Korea, I thought, it would [still have to] be a K-pop idol group.


What do you think has been the distinguishing factor that set BTS on its unique path?

It was their sincerity, consistency and ability to embody the spirit of the times. When they [solidified as an] idol group, I promised them they would be able to pursue the music they wanted [including hip-hop]. Because it was hip-hop, they could express their thoughts and we wouldn’t touch that. If in turn the company felt they weren’t being genuine, then we would comment. I kept that promise, and believe that had an impact. I personally feel it’s not always necessary for an artist to speak their mind. But I believe at the time, BTS touched something that young people from all over the world were seeking.

Ever since BTS’ debut, they’ve never suddenly switched gears or changed pace. They were consistent. I think that convinced the public. They don’t shy away from speaking about the pain felt by today’s generation. They respect diversity and justice, the rights of youths and marginalized people. I think all of these factors worked in their favor.


So far this year, BTS has sold the most physical albums in the U.S. of any musical act. What does that say to you?

The case of BTS is very ironic to me. I had predicted a steady decline in physical sales and thought performances and a loyalty-based model would be a solution. That being said, because I’m an old-school music producer, I place a lot of importance on the quality of the album. So I led an album-focused production. With good music and communication, the sales can follow. The K-pop industry as a whole has been seeing rising album sales, contrary to global market trends. I can’t personally explain why. I do not believe this will last forever.

Why has BTS managed such an impressive crossover feat in the U.S., while so many other K-pop acts have struggled to gain traction?

I fundamentally believe BTS’ success in the U.S. had a lot to do with luck. It wasn’t my brilliant strategy or BTS being such a perfect fit for the U.S. market. It was rather that their message resonated with a certain demand, and through digital media it spread quickly. And BTS touched something that wasn’t being addressed in the U.S. at the time, so American youths reacted, and that was proven through numbers.

One of your big pushes this year is bolstering the “universes” you’re building for each group, connecting the fans to the artists beyond live shows and albums. Why?

With BTS and K-pop idols, fans want to be a part of the lifestyle of their beloved idols outside of concerts, but there’s no product on the market that fulfills that desire. I hate expansion for the sake of expansion; it has to be rooted in music. So that’s why I did it that way. Many people believe because K-pop idols hold the title of “singer” that it’s the same thing, but fans of typical singers [are different]. They might go to a concert, buy an album or a track, or buy a t-shirt. But K-pop idol fans want to feel close with their idols. BTS is the only team that has sizable selling power all over the world, in almost every country. As a result, working with BTS’ fandom is one of the biggest services Big Hit provides.


How did you figure out what they would express in their music, or how they would present themselves on social media?

Frankly, K-pop artists, by average artists’ standards, have to show acrobatic-level skills in their performances; they must sing perfectly, and so they must be in top shape. It requires a high level of skill-based, focused training. Despite that, I always believed trainees should be well socialized. When BTS members were trainees, there was a lot of internal conflict with my staff regarding social media; [they said,] “Let’s take the safe road, social media leaves traces, some of which could be harmful to them in the future.” It’s also difficult for young people to follow rules. So there was a bit of trouble there, but because I believed it was right to make mistakes and learn from them, I built a relatively liberal trainee system.

In our company, we invest a lot of time educating trainees about life as an artist, including social media. After we provide guidance, we choose to let artists be, and leave a window open for them to ask the company anything they need. I think that helped the sincerity get through to the fans. Since BTS’ success, I’ve been changing the trainee system to be more school-like, with mentorship and a coaching system, and opportunities for students to work together.


Recently, some current and former K-pop idols have been implicated in illegal activities. When you see controversies like that in K-pop, do you feel you have given BTS and other trainees tools to avoid those kinds of issues?

I’m not sure. The fact that I gave them a lot of freedom from trainee years and educated them on responsibility can logically explain that it has prevented scandals, but that’s consequentialism. Right now a trainee system is in some ways an educational institution. As a team, we talk a lot about how we can provide the best possible environment for these artists. But to say that we were able to avoid some sort of scandal in the K-pop industry is way too definite.


There’s a common perception that in K-pop, the music is manufactured by committee, or that it’s a top-down system of adults giving material to young artists. Is that accurate?

First, I believe in the West there is this deeply embedded fantasy of the rock star — a rock star acts true to their soul and everyone must accept it as part of their individuality, and only through that does good music come. But in reality, devoting a long time to honing and training music-related skills is a tactic used in many professional art worlds. Ballerinas spend a long time in isolation focused only on ballet, but you don’t hear people say ballet lacks soul or isn’t art. So I think it’s a matter of perspective.

Another layer is that in the U.S., an artist will work in the underground scene for many years before signing with a major label. In Korea, that time is spent as a trainee. I think it’s debatable which system produces the better artist. In addition, I believe the statement that an artist must sing their own songs to have good results cannot possibly be true. A singer is foremost a performer, and a good performance can convince audiences. I do think when a trainee spends too much time just focusing on skills and not life experiences, it becomes a concern as to whether they can become a musician with a complex understanding of the world.


How important is it that the artists you work with have a cause or a social issue that they care about? With BTS there has been the ongoing “Love Yourself” narrative, paired with their work with the U.N. and their openness on topics like mental health.

Whether you want to speak out on a social issue or not is the individual’s choice. What I want is for them to be sincere. To make up something, I can’t accept that. But neither the company nor I can force an artist to speak or not speak about any social issue. Personally, I believe art is one of the strongest mediums for revolution, and I want the artist to speak out on social issues. They speak out when they want to and I don’t say what they should or shouldn’t do. I think that’s one of the misconceptions people have about the K-pop industry: that a producer could have that level of control over their artists. We can’t. When the artist wants to express something, I believe my role is to refine the message in a way that expresses their sincerity and has commercial value.


You mentioned that “rock star” narrative. In the U.S., it can seem that artists are applauded for being rebellious. There’s a lot of value placed on independence and fighting the “system.” Do you think in the South Korean cultural context there’s more respect between artists and management?

I think Asian culture and Western culture are certainly different. But if we’re to talk about how that influences expressing rebellion toward society — South Korea has had many revolutions, but in terms of personal relationships, you respect elders. It’s hard to equate that with speaking out, or to say Western artists are this way and Asian artists are this way. But in general, especially for K-pop artists, artists and companies seek to take less risks.

But to talk about fighting the system: many American artists cooperate with their management, as long as they’re left to pursue the music they want. Recently, many artists don’t sign with major labels, because there are more revenue streams available. I don’t think that’s a statement against the system, though. In fact, fewer Western artists speak out on social issues compared to before.

You’ve always given the members of BTS opportunities to release solo work as well. Does that make them unique in K-pop?

I don’t really think their uniqueness comes from independence. Many K-pop idols think about solo careers once they achieve a level of success, discuss it with their management and pursue solo projects. It’s not that they do this because Big Hit gives more freedom. What’s unique here is that Big Hit doesn’t produce solo projects. We emphasize the team image. But of course the members are individuals, and have their own identities, so we encourage and support mixtapes and free release songs, which allow the artist to express themselves with less liability than an official solo project. Since we started taking this approach, many more companies started pursuing more unofficial mixtapes or free release tracks in addition to official solo projects. I believe in some way Big Hit helped enrich the music market.


You recently acquired Source Music, and expressed an interest in forming a new girl group. How is that going?

Regarding [Source Music group] GFriend, they’ve released great content so far. What we’re trying to do is refine and streamline a storyline, a concept, so that when they’re on their next project it would make sense how they arrived at a new style. We are also going to be promoting an audition for a girl group with us and Source Music. Just like with Disney — animations, family movies, Marvel and Star Wars — I am trying to approach market segmentation while retaining the virtues of K-pop.


One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is ARMY (the fandom name of BTS’s avid supporters around the world). You’re planning a lot to involve the fans, from the development of Weverse (a fan app) and Weply (an e-commerce platform) to movies. What should BTS fans and Big Hit followers be looking out for?

First, the next album. It’s going great. As you know, many people are saying that BTS is the Beatles of the Youtube era, or that they’re the Beatles of the 21st century. I know they haven’t reached that stature, though I’m honored. But I believe there is some connotation to this title, which is that BTS was able to create a global fandom, which was very rare. Through that gigantic fandom, they were able to reshape the order of commerce; they are creating new forms of communication. And they’ve embodied a certain spirit of the times and formed a new musical message. So in that way, it’s reminding many of the Beatles.

I hope to protect that honorable title and remain heroic figures down the line like the Beatles. To get there, it would be good if BTS could continue to receive recognition in major global arenas. It would be nice to get some reaction from the Grammys; ARMY has long awaited a BTS performance at the Grammys. I was fortunate to become an Academy member, so I’d love to discuss this further with the Grammys [team] because I believe we have something symbolic to contribute.


source: @time, time
tungatunga 9th-Oct-2019 07:50 pm (UTC)
Surprisingly honest and interesting interview, I expected more typical kpop PR fluff and there is just sprinkle of that, nice to see that they don't plan to bankrupt themself trying to replicate BTS success and just go with the flow . Now I'm curious about Gfriend change of concept.
lil_poisonfrog 9th-Oct-2019 11:02 pm (UTC)
But in reality, devoting a long time to honing and training music-related skills is a tactic used in many professional art worlds. Ballerinas spend a long time in isolation focused only on ballet, but you don’t hear people say ballet lacks soul or isn’t art. So I think it’s a matter of perspective.

Tbh I can't believe ia with him on sth. I'm so tired of ppl (usually Kpop stans themselves) degrading the hard work and talent of idols. Like YES some get by on their looks only or their debut was bought by rich parents and it's not always fair--I gripe about many a useless visual myself. But in general, being a successful idol isn't just about singing and dancing. You have to be an all-around entertainer basically. Variety, MCing, modeling and acting skills will all be required at some point (even if the acting is just fanservice or CFs). Way too much is required of these kids for anyone to say "most ppl could do that" 🙃

I think part of the problem is, once you're a kpop fan for a while, you become so spoiled. So like, a Twice performance can seem mediocre bc they lipsync, but meanwhile there's so many western pop stars who sound like shit and don't even give you pretty dancing or have good stage presence like Twice. It's really only our upper upper echelon of pop stars that I would say are better performers than your average idol group really

Also this idea the public has that a pop star isn't an artist if they don't write their own music, regardless of how good they are at performing, is obnoxious and likely rooted in misogyny (bc in the west, pop stars are usually female--notice you don't see the same argument about actors and screenwriters). The vast majority of your almighty producers and songwriters can't get up on a stage and give you a Beyonce or Gaga or Adele or whomever performance, that's why they work behind the scenes doing what they're good at.

Edited at 2019-10-09 11:05 pm (UTC)
babyjenkski 10th-Oct-2019 03:40 am (UTC)
I love what you shared here. And I totally agree with you on so many things.
benihime99 10th-Oct-2019 10:52 am (UTC)
If hard work and talent were enough to be a sucessful kpop idol Ladies Code and Spica would rule over the industry
Most if not all k-entertainer work their ass off to get where they are, but those signed to one of the big 3 have a head start over the rest (and yes some of the group signed to the big 3 right would be completely ignored, especially considering the weak release they're putting out)

BTS is an exception, almost an ovni
lil_poisonfrog 11th-Oct-2019 11:36 pm (UTC)
I don't think hard work and talent is all you need to be successful, not by a mile. Ia with everything you said. But I still think even idols whose success can be significantly attributed to debuting under the Big 3 have to have above-average performance ability, minus the occasional visual who is shielded by the skills of the rest of the group (and I don't think that even applies to all visuals). Among the 3rd gen top tier groups that I'm familiar with, I can only think of 2 idols who I find to be consistently subpar performers who I don't feel deserve their success.

It's def not fair that super talented groups are underfunded or have bad timing etc. But my point that the base level of skill you need to work as an idol is still pretty high across groups from all companies. Whether the skill comes from raw talent or practice doesn't really matter to me, it's still more than most western pop stars do these days. Plus idols are expected to keep a clean image and maintain a professional demeanor at all times. I could never do it lol
fadeintoyou 10th-Oct-2019 12:24 am (UTC)

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting in this interview but he sounds and said a lot of right stuff. He seems as if he’s got his head on straight in leading and guiding BTS. And I sincerely hope that he is giving them freedom to be who they are, produce what they want, etc etc as well as any other groups that come later on.

scionofawhisper 10th-Oct-2019 12:57 am (UTC)
Hearing his name always slightly disgusts me ever since I saw a pic of that his alleged girlfriend, super young with huge fake boobs, but anyway.

"But K-pop idol fans want to feel close with their idols." aka why they can't openly have girlfriends? lol.

"First, I believe in the West there is this deeply embedded fantasy of the rock star — a rock star acts true to their soul and everyone must accept it as part of their individuality, and only through that does good music come." I mean, that makes sense, cause most western countries favour individualism, vs a lot of Asian countries that are collectivist.

But still, I mean it isn't just music that gets dictated to them, but also their identity, their image, their voice, etc, gets decided at a meeting table full of old men. :P Even BTS can't mention their real relationships or talk about sex in their solo stuff. It's not like ballet tries to erase the humanity of it's dancers, or makes feminism (aka girl power) into a concept where they don't actually have any real power or speak a speck of feminism.

jyusou 10th-Oct-2019 01:23 am (UTC)
The first excerpt already has me seething lmao when was the last time you or this group talked about our real pain, cowards.

Edited at 2019-10-10 01:29 am (UTC)
pikapika217 10th-Oct-2019 09:24 am (UTC)
I mean, depression is a real thing and has been consistent in their lyrics and music
pwrpuffgrl 10th-Oct-2019 11:53 am (UTC)
Are you ok
veep_throat 10th-Oct-2019 02:10 am (UTC)

It really was luck

babyjenkski 10th-Oct-2019 03:33 am (UTC)
Interesting read. And I agree that BTS worked really hard and its so good that they were lucky too. The group came out with good songs then with luck and good timing, they became really huge.
benihime99 10th-Oct-2019 10:57 am (UTC)
Luck, timing and eventually talent are required for every celebrity to succeed
This isn't just a kpop thing but when you dare say it out loud people will jump your ass

BTS are hard working, like basically every kpop act, but they also came out at the right time, with a carefully crafted and very well thought) image. It's great that they partake in their own music (and I'm still waiting for that august d solo thank you) but that's not a first in kpop.
I'm more impressed by them achieving all of this while not being from the big 3
And I think it's also important to recognize not just the boys work but what their fandom is doing for them (they're like the best wing man a kpop act can ask for, a bit crazy sure, but crazy effective when promoting the boys)
One cannot ignore the power of a dedicated fandom into making a group successful.
azoarka 10th-Oct-2019 01:25 pm (UTC)
All this discussion about talk about why did BTS of all groups get big/is it just luck reminded me that Jimin was also kind of introspective about that topic



So it seems to be something that even BTS isn't really sure about, what gave them that edge over other groups.

I'm a little bit meh that Bang gets these great interviews whereas BTS seems to be saddled with meh or terrible ones.
lil_poisonfrog 11th-Oct-2019 11:52 pm (UTC)
It's def a combination of things that gave them an edge imo, and luck certainly played a part (if BAP didn't go through what they did, would BTS be as big today?)

I don't feel like writing out a whole essay on all the factors that helped them but I will say I hate when Armys deny how BTS' use of social media set them apart from other groups. I'm starting to feel so gaslighted by this fucking fandom I swear. NO it's not the only thing but it's undeniable it played a huge part. Groups simply were NOT using Twitter and Youtube the way BTS was back in 2013-2016, meaning constantly uploading vlogs and having members run account themselves. They were also early adopters of Vlive which became the perfect replacement for their lack of variety opportunities. The whole reason "any Army here???" became a meme in the Kpop fandom is bc their fans were all over social media promoting the group long before they really blew up.

Edited at 2019-10-11 11:53 pm (UTC)
gigabytexx 12th-Oct-2019 05:52 pm (UTC)
Apart from great timing and luck, part of what makes them successful also because they keep constantly releasing MVs & albums, and none of the members doing drama or whatever (except Taehyung, once) right?
It's one of the reason I can stay loyal & devoted to them for 2 years now. With EXO the moment they took long hiatus for the first comeback and some members got drama I was like..... wow I wasn't feeling them anymore, lol.

BTS is constantly showing up in everybody's faces, also with the absence of great groups like BAP and Big Bang. Totally great timing.
lil_poisonfrog 12th-Oct-2019 06:21 pm (UTC)
I totally agree. Constant comebacks, touring, and when they did slow down a bit they released stuff like Bon Voyage and DVD packages that gave the fans something to look forward to. They made it so anyone who wants to follow them doesn't have time to stan any other groups lol
gigabytexx 12th-Oct-2019 06:30 pm (UTC)
Haha that's right. When they went on hiatus I tried to get into X1 & follow a bit of TXT but eventually I came back to fangirling BTS lol that's sad. I'm easily bored as a person, this is the longest I can keep my feelings all excited for a group :/
(also I kinda tagged you in another post but I wasnt sure how a tag in LJ works, lol. Here it is in case you didnt see it https://omonatheydidnt.livejournal.com/24846506.html?thread=1485229226#t1485229226 )
gigabytexx 12th-Oct-2019 06:15 pm (UTC)
"They speak out when they want to and I don’t say what they should or shouldn’t do."

This bs right here, BTS is still Kpop. And being a Kpop act they're still covered under your armpits. If you're saying they're free to do whatever they want then how come there's this huge meltdown regarding JK's private life, releasing false statements and keep silent when the casualties being harassed by Armys? The 'scandal' about Jungkook is still going until now with more people collecting evidences & random people leaking photos..... I mean if none of the people in bighit can openly addressed what happened then how can the fandom learn? If they wanna make some sort of breakthrough formula how about let them openly be proud of what they have done?
Jungkook literally had to hide his tattoos which I'm not sure if it's his own choice.
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