BTS Is Back: Music’s Billion-Dollar Boy Band Takes the Next Step
BTS, which accounts for $4.65 billion of South? Korea's GDP and rivals The? Beatles on the charts, invite The Hollywood Reporter to Seoul, where they open up about performing in Saudi Arabia, looming military service and a possible Grammy nomination.
The restaurant is called Dotgogi, which means either Sesame Meat or Aged Pork, depending on which online translator I consult. Normally there’s a weeks-long waiting list to get in (it’s famous for its dry-aged pork belly), but on this humid August evening in Seoul, South Korea, I waltz straight to a table in the VIP private lounge. That undoubtably has something to do with my dining companions: BTS, the super-magnetic, mop-topped K-pop boy band that is currently among the most successful music acts on planet Earth.
How successful? BTS is the first group since The Beatles — to whom they also are compared for the hysterical fan mania they generate — to score three No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 chart in less than a year, a feat that’s all the more astounding considering their songs are mostly in Korean. Their latest, an EP titled Map of the Soul: Persona, sold 3.5 million copies worldwide in the six months since its release, 562,000 of those in the U.S. alone. The candy-colored video for their single “Boy With Luv,” featuring a hook sung by Halsey (“Oh my my my!”), surpassed 100 million views in less than 48 hours — a YouTube record — when it dropped in April, and is currently closing in on 600 million views. That same month, they became the first Asian band to surpass 5 billion streams on Spotify. And then there are the live concerts. Demand for the U.S. stadium leg of their continuing 2019 tour, which resumes in October after a three-month break, was so fierce, it repeatedly crashed Ticketmaster’s servers, selling out all 300,000 seats — average price: $452 each — in a matter of minutes.
Add in merchandising ($130 million worth of books, T-shirts, cosmetics, jewelry, dolls and other branded memorabilia — eBay Korea currently features 40,000 BTS-related products — sold every year), tourism dollars and other revenue generators, the BTS ecosystem is so enormous, it accounts for $4.65 billion of South Korea’s GDP. That’s enough to put it in the same league as Samsung and Hyundai.
“We have to consider ourselves not just better [than other K-pop acts], but the best,” says RM, BTS’ 25-year-old charismatic leader. “When we’re out there on that stage, we’re there to conquer. We think we’re the ones.”
Forty-eight hours earlier, I’m on an Asiana Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, the only 47-year-old man on the plane with a pile of BTS books on his lap. While I was well aware of their status as a once-in-a-generation pop culture phenomenon — I’d seen them on Saturday Night Live last April (along with 4 million other viewers) and sampled their music videos on YouTube (where they have 22.2 million subscribers) — I admit to being a little fuzzy on some of the finer points of BTS history, like where they came from, why they are so appealing to so many millions or even what BTS stands for (Bulletproof Boy Scouts, but more on that later).
Over a 13-hour trans-Pacific journey, here’s what I learned. There are seven of them, all in their 20s — RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook — and they’ve been singing and dancing together since 2012, when 47-year-old South Korean music mogul Bang Si-Hyuk, aka “Hitman” Bang, pieced the group together at his Big Hit Entertainment factory, one of the pillars of the K-pop industry. While BTS is technically a K-pop act singing K-pop songs — a mashup of pop, hip-hop and contemporary R&B filtered through a distinctly Korean (which is to say, squeaky clean) prism — they were born out of Bang’s desire to break free from the genre’s stifling limitations, which at times have bordered on human rights violations.
Since its origins in the 1990s, K-pop has been part Motown, part Hunger Games. Thousands of wannabe K-pop stars compete at regular American Idol-style cattle calls. Those lucky enough to make it to the next level spend years learning their craft inside secretive K-pop training camps, where they’re sometimes subjected to dangerous diets, strict social rules (no dating), grueling rehearsal schedules and mandated plastic surgery and skin-whitening procedures. Only the best of the best wind up in an actual K-pop band — while some don’t survive at all. In 2017, the industry drew intense scrutiny after a member of SHINee, another popular K-pop band, took his own life, writing in his suicide note that he felt “broken on the inside.”
“The industry had developed a great many unreasonable practices,” Bang later explains in an email. Chubby and bespectacled, in photos he looks nothing like a K-pop Svengali — he’s more like Korea’s kinder, gentler Simon Cowell. “As I run my own company, I have tried my best to present a long-term vision that can contribute to the improvement of the K-pop industry without compromising these practices.”
Of course, Bang wasn’t only interested in cleaning up the business. He also wanted to create one K-pop supergroup to rule them all. “We focused on benchmarking the existing success formula rather than achieving strong differentiation,” he says in music-exec speak of his strategy. It all started to come together in 2010, when he met RM (short for Rap Monster, although his real name is Kim Nam-joon), a then-15-year-old rising hip-hop star with a genius-level IQ (148) who taught himself English by watching Friends reruns. “There are some bad people in Korea — quite a few Lou Pearlmans,” RM says, referring to the disgraced American music mogul who defrauded Justin Timberlake and others and died in 2016 while serving time for running a $300 million Ponzi scheme. “But we feel like we’re very respected when we talk to Mr. Bang.” Jungkook offers an equally glowing evaluation of the boss. “He gives us a lot of freedom to do whatever we want to do,” he says via a translator. “I’m not sure quite how to say it, but I think we need each other.”
With RM as its frontman, BTS was originally conceived as a hip-hop group — but Bang decided to go in a more radio-friendly direction, combining vocalists and rappers for what he calls “a U.S. pop formula.” At the time — 2012 — Big Hit Entertainment had about 30 young men in its own idol training program, and Bang began experimenting with various combinations until he finally landed on the magic seven: national dance champion J-Hope (real name Jung Ho-seok, now 25); introspective rapper Suga (Min Yoon-gi, 26); aspiring actor Jin (Kim Seok-jin, 26); sweet-faced Jungkook (Jeon Jung-kook, 22) as the band’s maknae — a K-pop term for the baby of the group; and V (Kim Tae-hyung, 23) as the soulful crooner. Last to join was Jimin (Park Ji-min, 23), a contemporary dancer with pillow lips and charm to spare.
“All of them had a strong passion for music and a story they wanted to talk about,” notes Bang, who considered several names for his new boy band, including Big Kids and Young Nation. But BTS — short for Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates in English to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts” — was his favorite. It conjured up a generational battle pitting millennial sensibilities against the conservative expectations of Korean society. “BTS symbolizes the periphery,” he explains. “They did not shy away from the pains of this generation and were honest about talking about their own ones. And they came together at a time of increased longing for fairness and the rights of the marginalized. I think this wholesome combination has led to their global success.”
But they were not successful right away. In fact, when they first came to L.A. in 2014, they literally walked around the city trying to corral people to attend their first free concert at The Troubadour. Only 200 showed up. Five years later, they’re filling Citi Field in New York and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena — a testament to their massive fan base, an internet-mobilized legion known as ARMY (which stands for Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth). “We started a massive guerrilla campaign — radio, TV, press — with the goal to open up as many doors as possible,” says Eshy Gazit, a 45-year-old manager with Maverick who was hired by Big Hit in 2016 to help break the band into the U.S. market. “And let’s not forget the internet; their engagement on social media kept growing exponentially.” What ultimately shot the Korean band to the top of the U.S. charts, Gazit adds, was a combination of its members’ “inelegant charisma” and old-fashioned timing. “The music industry in the internet day and age is global in every aspect,” he says. “The consumption of music now is at our fingertips.”
At Dotgogi, I clumsily attempt to break the ice by gifting the band members with seven small pins I bought at LAX — a Hollywood sign, a Beverly Hills sign and some other souvenirs. The boys seem to appreciate the gesture, or at least are good at faking it. Before I know it, I’m downing soju shots and sharing lettuce wraps (filled with pork belly that’s been aged 506 hours, according to the online translation of the menu) with the most famous band in the world. J-Hope is the only one not eating or drinking; he cheerily explains that he’s on a dermatologist-prescribed juice cleanse.
It is an auspicious time to meet them — on August 13, just two days after an announced hiatus made international headlines, fueling speculation about a BTS breakup. “It’s not a big deal,” says Suga through a translator, waving off the rumors. “It’s literally a vacation.”
You’d think they were just seven college buddies catching up over a meal — scrolling through smartphones, laughing at Jin’s story about a high-pressure Louis Vuitton salesman and sharing their hiatus plans. Some are going to spend it with their families, whom they haven’t seen in well over a year. RM is headed to Venice, Italy, to check out the art scene. “I’m just a young man who likes to watch Stranger Things on Netflix and loves to eat and drink beer,” he says. “But I turn on CNN and BBC and they’re talking about our vacation. It feels like we’re living in a different world.”
Of course, they are living in a different world. Bang allows them a longer leash than most K-pop managers — unlike rival groups, they write many of their own songs, release solo singles and mixtapes and are free to improv emotional monologues at shows, revealing their deepest fears and desires to 45,000 screaming fans, turning their concerts into gigantic group therapy sessions. But they still exist very much in a bubble. When they aren’t touring or vacationing, all seven men share a single $7 million condo in the most expensive complex in South Korea, sleeping two and three in a room, dorm-style (albeit a dorm adorned with Banksy art on the walls). And while their world is filled with private jets, legions of bodyguards and armies of personal chefs, their private lives — if you can even call them that — are scrupulously monitored. When Jungkook was spotted with a 22-year-old woman on Geoje Island near the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Big Hit threatened legal action against any news outlet that suggested they were romantically linked. Girlfriends, apparently, aren’t supposed to be part of the synth-pop-star fantasy.
If the boys ever bristle at their super-controlled lifestyles, they keep it to themselves. Indeed, whenever the conversation turns to anything controversial — or just slightly provocative — their answers have all the spontaneity of a Disney animatronic figure. For instance, when asked if they have any reservations about resuming their tour in America during such a politically fraught period, a switch seems to flip in RM’s brain. “BTS doesn’t talk about big issues like war or peace, or global poverty or starvation, or things like that,” he says, shooting down the question. “There are a lot of issues, both in the United States and in Korea. I think the message [is] loving yourself, as well as to look at the small things.”
On the other hand, they couldn’t be any more human when dealing with fans, even if the vast majority of their interaction happens on social media. Although their social footprint is colossal — they have three of the top 25 most retweeted Twitter posts of all time; only Barack Obama has as many — they will sometimes dive into their feeds, post little home movies of themselves (Bangtan Bombs, they’re called) and even personally respond to comments. “We do it because we really like it,” says Jin.
Still, a five-week vacation is clearly well deserved, especially after the whirlwind of the past year, which has included three album releases, a record-shattering tour documentary (Bring the Soul: The Movie, which grossed more than $24 million worldwide) and a U.S. blitz that had them appearing not just on SNL but also on Late Show With Stephen Colbert (where they performed a black-and-white sendup of The Beatles), on the soundtrack of HBO’s Euphoria (singing, what else, their single “Euphoria”) and at the United Nations (where they urged the youth of the world to “love yourself and speak yourself”). A particularly important moment for the ultracompetitive group was their appearance at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards, where they beat out Maroon 5 and Imagine Dragons for the top duo/group honors. In the K-pop world, where there are dozens of music trophies and titles up for grabs, awards are a significant marker of success — and now the biggest of them all, a Grammy, seems tantalizingly within reach (nominees will be announced Nov. 20). “When we were presenting [at the Grammys in 2019], we said that ‘We will be back!’ ” says RM, “so hopefully we can keep our words. It would be an absolute dream come true. Just thinking about it is thrilling.”
After the five-week break, which ended Sept. 16, the group plunged back into the K-pop grind. They are restarting the Love Yourself: Speak Yourself world tour, which kicked off in May at the Rose Bowl (two sold-out dates and $16.5 million in ticket sales, another record) and resumes Oct. 10 at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The appearance comes at the request of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and has generated controversy (especially after Nicki Minaj canceled a date there in July).
“I wouldn’t say it was easy,” RM says (extremely carefully) of the decision to play Saudi Arabia after MBS was implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “But we were officially invited. It’s been a while since we’ve performed in the Middle East — I guess the last time was 2015 in Dubai.” Adds Jimin: “To put it simply, if there’s a place where people want to see us, we’ll go there. That’s really how we feel.”
For the moment, it’s hard to find a place in the world where fans aren’t clamoring to see BTS — at least fans of a certain demographic. About 83 percent of BTS fans are female, according to a Korean study, with 45 percent of them between the ages of 10 and 30 (only 4 percent are in their 50s). In the U.S., the audience also skews toward young females but the average age is ticking upward: In 2018, women aged 18-24 comprised 50 percent of ticket sales, according to online ticketing marketplace Vivid Seats; that number dropped to 39 percent in 2019, even as overall demand for tickets grew, surpassing legacy acts like The Rolling Stones and The Eagles. It’s impossible to say how long those fans will stay interested. The last comparable sensation was One Direction, which after six years together went on indefinite hiatus in 2016; its members’ solo careers have met with varying success. But BTS recently signed a seven-year extension on its Big Hit contract, meaning its seven stars could rule K-pop into their 30s. Bang won’t share deal specifics, saying only, “It is our philosophy that we should provide the best terms and best treatment to the artists who are achieving unprecedented global success.” But there is much speculation in the K-pop press about each of the members’ worth. It has been reported that the boys have made as much as $8 million each in merch sales alone, although they don’t have individual representation and instead are wholly owned by Bang’s Big Hit. Bang himself is worth $770 million, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
There is one potential problem for BTS looming on the horizon: military service. South Korea expects every male to serve two years in the army by the time he turns 28 — which means the clock is ticking for Jin, who is 27 in December. Despite the efforts of ARMY, it looks like no exceptions will be made, not even for K-pop idols. Says Bang, “The company believes military service is a duty, and we will try to show the fans the best of BTS until, and after, the members have fulfilled their service duties.”
For now, though, BTS is content to just keep doing what the group has been doing. They have no delusions about TV or movie careers — at least not ones that require them to speak English (though in 2014, they did star in a Korean reality show, BTS American Hustle Life, in which they traveled to Hollywood and were subjected to a hip-hop boot camp led by rapper Coolio). They say they are perfectly happy to continue focusing on their music and are eager to keep collaborating with Western chart-toppers like The Chainsmokers, Ed Sheeran, Nicki Minaj and Halsey, all of whom have contributed to BTS tracks (all distributed in the U.S. by The Orchard/Sony Music).
“We’re not really compelling each other to keep this going,” says Jimin, polishing off the last of the pork belly. “It’s nothing like that. We just have so much fun together singing and dancing that we want it to continue.”
Suga concurs, echoing the party line: “As long as our bodies hold up, we’ll be doing the same thing in 10 years.”
This story first appeared in the Oct. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.