BTS: a cut above the rest
JEREMY LEE | JUNE, 18 / 2021
BTS. A K-pop phenomenon. They have been breaking records, winning hearts, and growing into a household name. With the recent conclusion of K-pop phenomenon BTS's 8th annual "Festa" celebrating the group's debut in 2013, now seems like a good time to discuss the one-of-a-kind success achieved by the group. Their newest English single "Butter" scored the number one spot on Billboard's Top 100, and smashed numerous streaming records, reaching over 108 million views on YouTube and over 11 million streams on Spotify in a single day, also becoming the most streamed group on Spotify with about 16.3 billion streams total.

With their first English single "Dynamite" breaking its way into the Western music space back in August of 2020 (and obtaining streaming records of its own, only to be later surpassed by "Butter"), the group has achieved global superstardom and their ARMY continues to grow every day. But what is it about BTS that has made them so popular? And what kind of example does BTS set for the K-Pop industry, and music as a whole?
Before we can begin to understand some of the factors behind the success of BTS, it is important to understand the large-scale K-Pop industry and how they function compared to the American music industry. While the American music scene is fairly accepting of indie and independent artists, mainstream success tends to be achieved through record deals and by signing with large music entertainment companies, as is the case in the Korean music scene. However, to be signed to a label, aspiring K-pop stars, or idols, must first become trainees for years on end. Trainees take voice lessons, dance lessons, Korean language lessons (if necessary), and so much more to eventually audition for these record labels.

One other element that is markedly different from what people might expect is that trainees audition individually, even though there are so many K-pop groups that dominate the Korean music space. This is a result of the record labels fine-tuning their new signees to create their ideal successful pop group. Some trainees never even meet their future group mates until they have been officially signed, very much unlike Western bands that begin and grow together, before any record label influence (think One Direction, N-Sync, The Beatles, etc.).

Additionally, K-pop production is largely concentrated among the "Big 3", which are the largest record labels in Korea at the moment, while American music labels are far greater in number and variety. The "Big 3" currently are SM Entertainment, home to Girls' Generation, Exo, and Red Velvet, YG Entertainment, which houses Big Bang, Winner, iKon, and Blackpink, and JYP Entertainment, which manages 2PM, JJ Project, Twice, and more. You may notice that BTS is not included in this list, as their parent company HYBE Labels is not technically a part of the "Big 3," but due to recent trends and the explosion in popularity of BTS, this group has been informally extended to become the "Big 4."

These labels also typically have complete control over their group's aesthetics, production, content, and more. This manifests itself in incredibly high-budget music videos, audio quality and production, live performances, wardrobe, skincare and makeup, brand deals, etc. K-pop is probably known most for having extremely intricate dance routines in combination with catchy songs performed by conventionally attractive artists. Unique aesthetics and mind-blowing choreography often lies at the core of most groups as there is the constant pressure to dazzle audiences. The overall visual spectacle of K-pop is something that other musicians would be hard pressed to replicate.
Turning specifically to BTS, they without a doubt check all of the boxes for mainstream K-pop success. The seven members of the band — RM, SUGA, Jin, J-Hope, V, Jimin, and Jungkook — are some of the best singers and dancers in the industry right now and always have their aesthetic locked in. Their numerous photo shoots and choreography videos are proof of this. What seems to put BTS on top, however, is their ability to authentically connect with their audience, oftentimes in ways that run contrary to the standards set by large record labels.

One specific way that this manifests itself is in the songs released by the group. While HYBE Labels (formerly known as BigHit Entertainment) does hire songwriters to produce many songs, including "Dynamite" and "Butter", the guys are given the freedom to write and produce their own music. Their most recent album, "BE", released near the end of 2020, features songs written by individual members of the band and compiled together to form the album. They are not afraid to address issues of mental health, isolation, loneliness, fear, and topics that other artists may shy away from out of concerns that they may disrupt the fun, catchy, upbeat liveliness that is indicative of the industry.

"BE" is also not the first album of theirs to highlight the vulnerability of the group. Previous songs like "Outro: Tear", from their 2018 album "Love Yourself 'Tear'", tells the story of how the band almost broke up and how the members coped with the associated worries and fears. Their willingness to be open and honest with each other and their fanbase (lovingly referred to as their ARMY) could be a large factor of their success.

Along these same lines, the members of BTS often participate in reality shows and other television specials to highlight their unique personalities and give audiences a taste of what they are like behind the scenes and beyond the stage. Examples include their web series "Run BTS", which has been running for almost five years now, and "BTS In the Soop", which aired in 2020. These extra experiences have allowed ARMY to see a fuller picture of the band and connect with them to a deeper extent, with fan loyalty proving invaluable to the rise of all artists, especially BTS.

Surely, there are countless other reasons that can help explain BTS's meteoric success. No matter what the reasons are though, there is no doubt that the band has achieved something monumental. Through all of the ups and downs, BTS has always showered their ARMY with the most love and appreciation, never missing an opportunity to thank their audience, even going as far as to shout them out in their songs or write ballads about how they miss performing for ARMY. Other K-pop groups, and even American and Western musicians, may have a lot to learn from BTS as their impact grows larger and larger, not necessarily through fancy awards, but through genuine, authentic connection.
Jeremy Lee is an undergraduate economics and music student at Loyola Marymount University and Composium Ambassador
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