South Korea’s BTS dominates world music industry: millions of fans, billions of dollars

The Bangtan Boys at KCON France 2016. Credit: korea.net/Wikimedia Commons.

Music fans have always loved a good boy band, from the Beatles to NSYNC. Now the boy band of choice appears to be South Korean pop group BTS (The Bangtan Boys). The seven members reportedly brought in $4.6 billion to the South Korean economy last year. 

BTS performed at the Grammys this year with Lil Nas X, and they’ve sold out nearly all their North American tour dates, including two dates at the Rose Bowl. They had to add another date because of all the demand.

The boys also just released a new album, “Map of the Soul 7.”

Vox writer Terry Nguyen says the Korean-to-English translation of the group’s name is the Bulletproof Boy Scouts. 

“They're one of the most recognizable public figures in South Korea. And for any Korean music act to make it so successful overseas … you really need a strong fan base at home to kind of propel you to the international stage. And they've definitely done that,” she says.

She adds that fans are spread across the U.S., Europe, and Asia, ranging from teenagers to people in their 30s. 

What’s so appealing about BTS? 

Nguyen says fans point to the group’s lyrics and openness -- and how that creates an emotional connection with the public. 

“To really understand their appeal, you have to see that [the] k-pop entertainment industry is a lot different than American industry. … A label has much more control over how a group is formed. But with BTS, their label Big Hit gave them a lot more -- they were able to do a lot more things with their personal lives, even manage their own social media, create their own blogs. And that really helped them create a really strong fan base.”

“Whalien 52” 

This song sounds upbeat, but it deals with loneliness and isolation, and the title is a combination of “whale” and “alien.” It’s sung in Korean.

“The whale that they're referencing, this 52-hertz whale, actually can't communicate with other whales because of its level of frequency. And so I thought that was a really clever metaphor. … When you listen to it as an American, you don't really understand what they're saying. But you kind of have to delve deeper into the lyrics to really understand the meaning of the song,” says Nguyen.

“Spinebreaker”

Nguyen explains that this song is about how teenagers are “spine breakers” to their parents, making mom and dad bend over backwards so they could have certain material goods. “This is more of a critique of Korean society … than Western society,” she points out.  

“On”

This song mixes Korean and English lyrics. “When they’re attracting a larger fan base, I think they're trying to introduce more English language into their lyrics that fans can understand. But it's a common theme in K-pop, just singing a line in Korean and then adding a few English words or adding a line in English,” says Nguyen. 

Tough competition

The seven boys look extremely successful, but getting there is a tough road. These boys “pretty much came from nothing,” Nguyen says. 

“If you look into the Korean entertainment industry, it's really, really hard for groups to even debut. And even when you do debut, there's a lot of competition to stand out. … I was talking to a Korean music executive, and he said that in Korea … selling the same exact song outside of Korea, it is making eight times more profit than it is within Korea. So that gives you already an idea of the saturated music market,” she says. 

Will BTS break up?

Nguyen explains that there’s a two-year military service requirement for all South Korean able-bodied men, and there hasn't been an exemption for a musician or celebrity. And so, it’s “a bittersweet reality” for fans that Jin is about to turn 28 years old, while the other members are 22-23, and he might have to enter military service. That could mean the end of the band. 

Is there a chance that the South Korean government would give BTS a pass because they’re bringing in billions of dollars to the nation’s economy?

“This is all just speculation, but just given their impact and how well known they are and really bringing this level of attention towards [the] South Korean economy … I think it would definitely benefit South Korea if they kept letting BTS do what they're doing. … The fan base is already growing so rapidly -- how much more can it grow?” says Nguyen. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson