Inside the Business of BTS — And the Challenges Ahead

From far down a hallway in the new Seoul headquarters of HYBE Corp., a crystal-clear falsetto rings above distant footsteps and murmurs, singing the refrain to the blockbuster K-pop group BTS’ summer jam “Butter” — the longest-reigning No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 this year. As the sounds come closer, a dozen-strong posse, all wearing face masks, passes by.

Until the world’s biggest boy band reappears minutes later, it is hard to connect the dots and realize that the hallway dozen was BTS, flanked by five members of their management team. Each BTS member is so dressed down in a strikingly regular-guy wardrobe (oversize T-shirts and pants, bare feet in sandals) that they appear more like college kids en route to their dorm. They exchange banter about terrible hangovers from the previous night and the effect alcohol has on their skin — a common topic among young people here.

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When the seven members — Jin and Suga, 28; J-Hope, 27; RM, 26; V and Jimin, 25; and Jungkook, the mystery hallway singer, is 23 — sit down and begin answering questions, however, they look and sound like the veteran pop stars they are. Seated in foldaway chairs on a stage — where the white surfaces bear shoe prints and other marks from a recent livestreamed appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — they speak politely, eloquently and with conviction, emanating the humble charisma that has charmed millions of fans into supporting them with an almost religious fervor.

“We are not exceptional people — our plate is small,” says rapper Suga, the group’s bookworm, using the Korean expression for lack of ability or small-mindedness. “We’re these rice-bowl-size guys getting so much poured into it. It’s overflowing.” V chimes in: “The pressure has been overwhelming.”

“We’ve been avoiding blowing our own horn since 2017 because we’re afraid of payback someday,” adds RM, the rapper who usually acts as the de facto spokesman-leader. “We constantly think about karma.”

That kind of self-deprecation is, says RM, at least somewhat just part of BTS’ “Korean DNA.” But it’s also the product of a stratospheric rise to global stardom and unusual staying power that, the group itself is first to admit, has come as a surprise. Following the viral success of PSY’s dance anthem “Gangnam Style” in 2012, multiple K-pop acts from the early 2010s gained some traction overseas, but none came close to penetrating mainstream pop the way that song did. That a boy band from a cash-strapped agency like Big Hit Entertainment — recently rebranded as HYBE, which went public in October — could conquer the global music industry a few years later was unthinkable. “We made our debut through such a small company, and it’s been tough from day one,” says Suga. “My dream was never huge.”

In 2014, BTS was handing out free tickets on the streets of Los Angeles to perform to a crowd of about 200 at West Hollywood’s Troubadour. Three years later, at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards — the first time the group says it witnessed the power of U.S. fandom — it won top social artist, breaking Justin Bieber’s six-year streak. By the following year, BTS was selling out stadiums around the world (including in the United States) and regularly breaking records: five No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 since 2018, the fastest accumulation by a group since The Beatles in 1966-68; five No. 1 hits on the Hot 100 in under a year, the quickest run of five since Michael Jackson in 1987-88; several music videos garnering over 1 billion views each on YouTube. It’s the first K-pop act to be nominated for a Grammy, and earlier this year the band won four BBMAs. According to IFPI, its album Map of the Soul: 7 was the world’s best-selling last year; follow-up BE was ranked fourth despite being released in late November.

Alongside BTS’ international explosion, HYBE has likewise transformed. A month after rebranding in March, the company paid $1.05 billion to buy uber-manager Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings — and went from being a small agency with a valuation of 10 billion South Korean won (at the time about $9.3 million) in 2011 to an industry juggernaut worth over 1,000 times more (about $9.5 billion). In turn, BTS’ members, who own shares in HYBE, have become multimillionaires, each holding equity worth about 20 billion won ($17 million).

“As we’ve gotten older, our perspective has become wider,” says Jin, the vocalist who often introduces himself as “worldwide handsome” to deafening screams from fans. “You can’t ignore experience,” adds J-Hope, the group’s lead dancer and most cheerful member. “When we were 20, we had the guts. We charged forward without looking. Now we’re more prudent.” “I’ve become calmer,” says Jimin. “There are more things to consider in my head.”

The seven men all have a lot more weighing on their minds these days. Their importance as cultural ambassadors for South Korea has become so great that this past December, in an unprecedented move, the country’s government changed a law, allowing the group to wait until age 30 to enlist in the military. (Previously, it had been 28.) But with Jin turning 30 at the end of 2022, BTS faces a lengthy period with at least one member missing — and should they all choose to serve at the same time, as some stock analysts in South Korea have predicted, a group hiatus could last about 18 months (the minimum length of service).

That’s bad news for HYBE. BTS is the dominant engine behind the company’s income, bringing in about 85% of its 796.3 billion won ($680 million) in total 2020 revenue. Though HYBE has begun diversifying its portfolio of talent — signing new K-pop acts and, starting next year, partnering with Universal Music Group (UMG) on a U.S.-based boy band talent show — it remains unclear whether anything could replace BTS on the company’s balance sheet.

On top of these pressures, both the group and the agency are coming under scrutiny for BTS’ recent chart successes, which fans of some competing acts say are achieved through concerted “manipulation” antithetical to the charts’ purpose of accurately highlighting the world’s most popular acts. After “Butter” and the Ed Sheeran co-write “Permission to Dance” debuted atop the Hot 100, where “Butter” ruled for nine nonconsecutive weeks, some noted how the group’s fans, known as ARMY, organize themselves on social media, using tactics like bulk purchases of physical albums and coordinated digital buying to influence chart performance.

Both HYBE and BTS reject accusations that chart manipulation accounts for the group’s success. BTS’ members say that they accept that their fame will peak and, at some point, evaporate — after all, BTS has already outlasted the industry-standard seven-year life span of a K-pop group. In the meantime, though, their runaway success has caused a reckoning in the industry. And whether BTS’ mobilization of fandom on a global scale can be sustained — and possibly be replicated for other acts — will not only decide the future of BTS and HYBE, but also define their legacy.

HYBE was “very smart in understanding that the future of music needs to look at the past — that music is what people use to identify themselves,” says Mark Mulligan, a music-industry analyst at the consultancy MIDiA Research. The rise of streaming in recent years, he adds, has loosened the emotional bond between artists and consumers. “Outside of Korea, in the U.S. and the U.K., at a time when BTS was still singing mostly in Korean, there was a whole generation of teenagers who just knew that there was a hole in their musical soul. They knew something was missing, but they didn’t know what it was. And then, suddenly, [BTS] comes along, and they say, ‘This makes sense. I can say who I am through being a fan of this band.’ ”

What the future of BTS looks like, and what it will be most remembered for, remains more of an unknown — especially to the group itself. “When our history is over, it’ll be clearer. When the dust settles and we come down from our pedestal, we’ll be able to tell,” says RM. “At the moment, we’re standing in the eye of the cyclone. I don’t think we or anyone else can accurately say anything.”

Whether it’s performing live or in one of its technicolor music videos, BTS has always projected a kind of debonair effortlessness: flawless dancing, smooth live vocals, perfectly calibrated harmonies. But as its members tell it, being BTS has not been easy for a few years now.

To anyone paying attention, this isn’t a shock. Back in 2018, after winning the top prize at the year-end Mnet Asia Music Awards ceremony, most of BTS broke down in tears at the podium, and Jin confessed that they had considered breaking up earlier that year due to emotional hardship. Recalling that moment today, the band insists quitting was never seriously on the table but admits its members have suffered from burnout.

“We used to get the monthly calendar with work scheduled on 28.5 days,” says Jin — a grueling though not unheard of schedule for K-pop groups. During their contract renewal negotiations in the same year as their Mnet appearance, they received a monthlong vacation for the following year, their first real break since they had joined the company as trainees. “The road up to here has been arduous. It’s taken a toll on my health, and I think we’ve put in every bit of our youth and more,” says lead vocalist Jungkook.

Here in South Korea — a patriotic nation that sees itself as a small state squeezed by superpowers like the United States, China and Russia — the idea of victory on an international stage has always carried tremendous weight. So the fact that a Korean act performing songs in the Korean language has moved so many people beyond its own borders has become an enormous source of national pride — and placed a degree of pressure on BTS far beyond that of any usual cultural export.

The South Korean defense ministry’s December announcement that it would allow pop stars to delay their military draft and continue their careers — with strict qualifications that, so far, only BTS meets — was historic. The law currently exempts only certain elite athletes, classical musicians and dancers, and while BTS isn’t fully exempt, the decision is a clear indication of how pivotal to the country’s soft power BTS has become. In late July, President Moon Jae-in appointed BTS the Special Presidential Envoy for Future Generations and Culture, giving the group diplomatic passports. That status pushed it to the front of the line for COVID-19 vaccinations — a real privilege in a country that has struggled with shortages — and in September, the group is set to make its third appearance at the United Nations General Assembly. “We expect BTS to make great contributions to raising our country’s prestige as a leading nation in the post-COVID age,” the president’s office, known as Blue House, said in a statement at the time.

HYBE has its own set of expectations for BTS. Since 2019 — when, according to HYBE’s latest prospectus, BTS accounted for 97.4% of its revenue — the company has been growing revenue streams that don’t directly involve BTS’ active participation (fan merchandise, video games). Per the prospectus, in preparation for BTS’ contract running out in 2024, HYBE has plans to debut at least six new groups starting around 2022. Still, HYBE executives (along with BTS itself) say there are no fixed plans yet for how to deal with the band’s forthcoming military service.

That could add up to a financial punch in the gut — and BTS seems well aware of how its continued success helps stave off that possibility. “When you watch the Olympics, you can see how hard every athlete worked to get there. But then what the public wants are the medals, isn’t it?” says Suga. “It’s not something that will change even if we talk about it one way or another. We just want to be good to the people who love us. That’s what lasts in the long run.”

Especially when those people make up an ARMY.

Virtually all major pop stars rely on a loyal fandom that will unite to buy and stream their latest release. But ARMY has taken that new norm to a whole other level. “This is a result of a struggle, and I don’t want to overlook that,” says RM of his group’s success — referring not to its own hours of toiling behind the scenes, but to the amount of work ARMY exerts to ensure its object of adulation stays on top of the world and the charts.

Shin Cho, head of K-pop and J-pop at Warner Music Group, says this stems from a particular fan culture in K-pop that pulls out all the stops to ensure whomever they’re supporting will get mainstream attention. “Fans will do whatever they can to create the success story,” says Cho.

But just how much they’ll do has recently come into question. Through above-board means, ARMY has long exploited loopholes in music chart rules (including those of Billboard) to propel BTS singles’ performance. Billboard’s rules, for example, allow people to buy a certain number of versions of songs or albums per week, and any sales per version exceeding that cap do not contribute to the artist’s weekly sales total or chart placement. For a K-pop group like BTS that typically releases multiple versions of a particular single — including both digital and physical — that can add up to multiple sales per consumer. (“Butter,” for instance, had six digital versions plus two physical singles.) On Twitter, where BTS has over 38 million followers, fans acting on behalf of ARMY will call out for assistance in pushing certain singles on days when they can have the most effect on chart performance.

So while other singles on the Hot 100 typically rely on streaming for the majority of their weighted points (followed by airplay and then sales), the chart-topping performance of BTS’ “Butter” in July, for example, was propelled mostly by sales, the bulk of which flowed directly through BTS’ own webstore, say sources familiar with the matter. That webstore, those sources say, does not recognize prior purchases or limit how many copies a fan can buy, unlike iTunes, which notes when someone already owns a copy.

While other artists’ fan cohorts also prefer direct-to-consumer purchasing for sustained sales runs and have tried tactics similar to ARMY’s, none have done so as effectively or with as much apparent coordination, those sources say. And this summer, when “Butter” and “Permission to Dance” reigned atop the Hot 100 for 10 straight weeks total, fans of artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa — whose own singles were shut out from the No. 1 spot during that time — began calling ARMY’s work akin to cheating.

On the July 24 chart, “Permission to Dance” debuted at No. 1 with 140,100 total sales, according to MRC Data, with “Butter” falling six spots to No. 7 and Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” holding at No. 2. But then, something highly unusual happened: The next week, “Butter” returned to No. 1 (leapfrogging Rodrigo and others) and switched places with “Permission,” which slipped to No. 7.

Rodrigo’s fans claimed that it wasn’t a coincidence. @scrappyseal, noting the reversal, tweeted that BTS had “0 GP [general public] support. A real smash is sustained by the GP support.” Another fan of both Rodrigo and Lipa’s, @lipaanostalgia, described BTS as having “fraudulent ways” and its fans as “involved in chart manipulation” and “mass buying.”

ARMY’s crowdfunding efforts are certainly near legendary at this point. As screen grabs of account balances and bulk purchase receipts on Twitter reviewed by Billboard show, BTS fans use PayPal to pool money from ARMY around the globe and make the purchases that will count toward U.S. sales. “ARMY WHERE ARE YOU??” @borakore52 asked in an Aug. 5 tweet. “I have enough for 448 sets of 16 PTD plus 24 Butter!! Even if you cannot buy until later, please get your requests in ASAP!!”

Some ARMY organizers then offer to reimburse other fans for purchases. The source of those funds remains unclear, and some BTS fans have expressed concern about revealing more about their methods. “Feeling the need to be a bit more discreet on the timeline about what we do and how we do it,” @RafranzDavis wrote during a funding run in early August. “It’s annoying but thnx to everyone that just gets it.” (MRC Data has a standard process for examining any suspicious chart activity; Billboard would not allow sales funded by an act or its label/management to count toward chart performance.)

These efforts have buoyed the group’s singles, as they have sailed to the top of the charts despite BTS’ weaker streaming numbers and radio airplay than some of its pop contemporaries. “It’s a fair question,” says RM of allegations that ARMY’s work amounts to chart manipulation. “But if there is a conversation inside Billboard about what being No. 1 should represent, then it’s up to them to change the rules and make streaming weigh more on the ranking. Slamming us or our fans for getting to No. 1 with physical sales and downloads, I don’t know if that’s right … It just feels like we’re easy targets because we’re a boy band, a K-pop act, and we have this high fan loyalty.”

When asked if HYBE itself organizes fans in any chart manipulation, Shin Young-Jae — president of BTS’ label, BigHit Music (a HYBE subsidiary) — answers with a chuckle. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had the ability to mastermind such a thing?” he says. “I get that there are market developments [related to BTS] that are head-scratchers for some people. But I don’t believe the U.S. market is one that can be handily topped by downloads alone. We think the songs’ impact was shown in many ways, and we are proud of that achievement.”

Still, HYBE appears to be doing its best to keep the BTS fandom close. In recent years, the company has promoted its platform Weverse, where stars and fans upload text and video updates, as well as other exclusive content, without the need for YouTube or Twitter. In its earnings report for the first half of 2021, HYBE says Weverse “not only consolidates and solidifies fandom, it also supports fandom’s longevity by fostering community activity between fans,” adding that HYBE itself generates direct revenue through merch and content purchases.

HYBE has also become a major investor in Fave, a new superfan-engagement platform that on Aug. 18 onboarded ARMY. According to CEO/founder Jacquelle Amankonah Horton, HYBE is especially interested in Fave’s marketplace feature, which allows fans to create and sell unique artist merch. “They realize that fans are interested in each other, want to hang out with each other, and there’s a way to make money from fans [making] things,” says Amankonah Horton. “I thought I would be learning from them because they’ve nailed this fandom world in the East. And they were saying, ‘No, you extend our business model because you’re tapping into fan-to-fan.’ ”

Though still in its nascent stage, HYBE’s involvement with the likes of Weverse and Fave could set a new template for fan engagement in the industry. A strategic partnership between HYBE and UMG has already led to young artists such as Gracie Abrams and Jeremy Zucker opening Weverse accounts. K-pop artists from rival agencies, like Blackpink, have also signed on.

Finding artists who are willing to hold up their end of the fan relationship the way BTS does, on the other hand, may be a challenge. The band says it has never attended an awards-show afterparty in the United States. Instead, it has always been back to a hotel to jump on V-Live, a livestreaming app now merged with Weverse, to celebrate with ARMY. “It’s like a ritual for us,” says RM. BTS has used livestreaming to connect with fans since even before its 2013 debut, at a time when people were buying their first 4G LTE-enabled smartphones, says Lenzo Yoon, co-CEO of HYBE America, the company’s U.S. division. Yoon first proposed the video engagement idea and managed the operation from early on.

Today, the moments BTS shares with ARMY several times a week — whether career-defining or mundane — garner millions of views each. After live performances, fans tell Billboard, they receive an email asking what they liked and disliked about them, too.

Last year, BTS found itself forced to do something that the members hadn’t considered could happen in years: playing to an empty house.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the group offered a livestreamed pay-per-view concert series, which ended up drawing nearly 2 million people from around 190 countries and regions. But the lack of a live audience came as a shock. “It was nerve-wracking when we were waiting for the curtain to rise, but when we went onstage, there were just a lot of video cameras in the place the audience was supposed to be,” says Jimin. “I know I should be grateful for the chance to perform at all, but it was painful.”

Suddenly, the most exceptional group in pop music was just like every artist with indefinitely waylaid plans. The members were lonely, taken aback by the sudden change to their usual rhythm. “It sapped our energy and killed our morale,” says RM. “I’ve been getting very pensive lately,” admits Suga. “You know, we haven’t been able to perform in a year and a half, not being able to do the work we do.” “These days, my thoughts are more scattered than they usually are,” says J-Hope. “Sometimes, I just feel like taking some time off. Other times, I feel like I need to keep moving.” V, who calls himself emotional and says he experiences mood swings, recalls that the band has been planning a tour for two years now — yet the wait drags on: “Letting these emotions hurt me, torment me and scream inside me was upsetting.” (He adds that he wrote the track “Blue & Grey” last year as an outlet.)

In lieu of its planned world tour in 2020, BTS pivoted to something more unexpected: singing completely in English. It put out three singles in the language (“Dynamite,” “Butter” and “Permission to Dance”), all of which reached No. 1, with “Dynamite” and “Butter” receiving mainstream airplay — the band’s first true crossover pop success, marking the first time songs by an all-Korean group hit the top 10 of Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 Airplay chart. But the members say they didn’t all agree that English was a good idea. Both BTS and HYBE executives decline to elaborate, and BigHit Music’s Shin says all discussions were amicable. “I think it’s a testament to the band’s strengths, the way they can come to a friendly resolution and be mindful of the company’s needs,” he says.

RM wasn’t fond of the idea, though he acknowledges it was a crucial way to keep buzz alive during the pandemic. “There was no alternative,” he says. And Jin admits that singing in English felt, at first, totally unnatural, saying he learned to mimic the guide track’s pronunciations by writing them down in Korean characters. “The English I learned in class was so different from the English in the song,” he explains. “I had to erase everything in my head first.”

For now — with live performances suspended in Korea and its world tour recently canceled due to pandemic-related logistical difficulties — BTS says it has settled into a familiar routine: spending almost every single day together. But there’s one twist that’s more relaxing than usual — a “9-to-7” schedule. “For the first time in maybe 10 years, we kind of have a clear line between work and life,” says RM. “That’s probably the only good part,” replies Jimin. “It’s still COVID times.” Jungkook says he has been reading critical feedback online to motivate himself; he still practices singing “all the time, even to a pillow pulled up to my face when I’m in a hotel room or at home.”

Whatever music comes out of this time, the band members have little to say about it right now. Only RM articulates what BTS’ top objectives might be — and industry-altering domination outside its home country actually isn’t one. He reiterates a point he has made for a few years now: that the group needs to maintain “the outlier” position and keep its lyrics predominantly in Korean. “I don’t think we could ever be part of the mainstream in the U.S., and I don’t want that either,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to do a massive stadium tour there. That’s it.”

The seven men’s eyes light up with unmistakable hunger, just as they do every time a tour is mentioned. Nothing else, good or bad, seems to matter. “We’re always ready,” says Jungkook. Jin remembers the difficult talks back in 2018 around BTS’ contract renewal and what has happened since. “We were promised by the agency that they would pull out all the stops for supporting our passion for performing. I think they did keep that promise,” he says. “We ended up telling each other that because we worked so hard up to that point, let’s see how far we can go. I don’t know if I should say this, but [we said], ‘Screw the agency, screw everything. Let’s just put our faith in the members and the fans and start again.’ ”

Additional reporting by Tatiana Cirisano and Dan Rys.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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