By Dana Sasu
On January 22, 2020, HYBE Corporation, a recent rebrand of the South-Korean music and entertainment company Big Hit Entertainment, announced the schedule for the worldwide concert tour Map of the Soul Tour, headlined by K-Pop boy band BTS. The tour was supposed to kick-off on April 11 at the Seoul Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, and then travel to venues all over the globe. We all know what happened since. A global health crisis broke out and the tour was cancelled.
In this blog post, I look at how HYBE Corporation and their most famous act, BTS, responded to the challenges faced by the music and entertainment industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic. How to survive in a time when performing in front of an audience is no longer a given and travelling restrictions have made touring impossible? How to absorb the loss of the important revenue source of selling tickets for live music, or the loss of the collective fan experience that a concert can offer? The example of HYBE and BTS shows how some brands and bands in the industry have used the pandemic to further invest in virtual concepts for performing music and for engaging with fans. Concepts that may have a lasting impact on the industry, even as societies are slowly opening up again and live concerts with audiences are once again taking place.
First Endeavor: Bang Bang Con
For many artists in the music industry, online presence is an afterthought, but the seven-member K-Pop group BTS has always been comfortably at home on the internet. In their journey through the years – BTS was formed in 2010 and debuted in 2013– the boy band has steadily built up an enormous online following. At the moment, the group’s Twitter page (the platform they use the most when posting personal content) has 37,6 million followers. Their label HYBE Corporation has equally always been online minded. The Korean music industry is highly competitive, and it is fair to say that the company’s success at a global level is not only the result of the content it provides, but also of the many media – online and offline – it utilizes to disseminate this content.
In an interview with Rolling Stone India, HYBE’s Global CEO Lenzo Yoon recently explained that the company’s marketing strategy is to assure the fans’ easy access to content: “We have a principle: ‘content and fans matter the most.’ We try to understand fans, proactively provide what fans want, and improve the quality of contents based on high standards. At the same time, we constantly think about the types, delivery methods, and technologies so that fans could experience our contents more pleasantly in their daily lives.”
Fast-forward to April 2020, when HYBE came up with the idea of Bang Bang Con, a special free online streaming event of BTS’s previous concerts and fan-meetings. It was set to last for two days, during which fans could enjoy a streaming marathon of eight concerts, four per each day. There were in-between concerts ‘Guide Videos‘ where the seven members came up with tips for enjoying the streaming event: drinks, snacks, stretching break, dancing time, singing time and getting the family and friends involved (pets were not forgotten). The event recorded 2.24 concurrent million viewers and an overall count of 50 million clicks for its two days of online attendance. The event was free of cost and it was accessible via the group’s official YouTube account, BANGTANTV.
A special role in the virtual concerts and online get-togethers was assigned to the so-called ‘ARMY Bomb’, the band’s ‘official’ light-stick that is named after the collective self-identity of their fans as ARMY. In ‘normal times’ the ARMY Bomb, which has a Bluetooth feature through which its light syncs up with the beat of BTS’s songs, was an important feature at live concerts. They can be controlled by the staging team so they sync up and generate large-scale texts that light up the arena.
During the streaming event the ARMY Bombs could be activated at home, with the result that millions of ARMY Bombs around the world were synced up to the beat of the songs featured throughout the stream.
A few months later, on June 14 2020, celebrating seven years since the band’s first musical release, BTS hosted Bang Bang Con The Live. This event was their first paid online concert, selling 756.000 tickets to viewers in 107 countries (The Diplomat). The online concert was available for live streaming via the platform Weverse, an online space designed by HYBE (Big Hit Entertainment at the time). It presents a Twitter-like format where artists can post images, videos, texts or respond to fans’ posts. Beside this, it also acts as a streaming platform, creating a space similar to YouTube, which displays artists’ music videos or other video contents. The app’s developers also plan to include a live feature, through which artists could start live videos on their own.
Later in 2020, on October 10 and October 11, BTS took part in another paid online concert, where they promoted their latest released album Map of the Soul: 7 (initially meant to be promoted during the tour that was canceled). This event was technologically and logistically even more complex than their previous online events. During the two days of concerts, 993.000 fans from 191 different regions around the world (Soompi) witnessed performances which included the use of augmented reality and extended reality software and hardware spectrums.
The concert itself was held at Seoul’s Olympic Gymnastics Arena, while fans had access to a multi-viewing streaming service which allowed them to enjoy the event by choosing between six different camera angles. (Aju Business Daily).
In June 2021, the band took part in Muster Sowoozoo, a paid two-day live streaming concert event, celebrating the band’s eight years since their debut. While streamed on Weverse, the concert was hosted out-doors, in front of Seoul’s Jamsil Olympic Stadium and the seven members were backed up (literally) by a screen which displayed their online audience. In a similar way, the ‘on-site audience’ was made-up of screens, decorated on top with the ARMY Bomb light sticks, which showed fans who took part at the live stream. The virtual show was held on June 13 and June 14 and it garnered 1.33 million paid viewers from across 195 countries (Indian Express), more than the band’s previous online concerts.
More than just concerts
Questions still remain whether the technology of streaming concerts will be further developed once the pandemic is over. But given the success of the two online concerts headlined by BTS, it seems that HYBE is fully dedicated to improving their services when providing innovative technological solutions to the online demand of content. This may lead to a new trend within the South Korean entertainment industry, as it looks like more and more companies are willing to adopt the live streaming formula. And the success that HYBE and BTS are having with their innovative live streaming concerts has not go unnoticed outside the music and entertainment industry. In fact, it caused the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to invest into the construction of a concert hall designed specifically for hosting online concerts. This initiative is meant to support artists coming from small or medium-sized labels and indie musicians who do not have the financial possibilities of hosting online events (Aju Business Daily).
HYBE itself is currently heavily invested in improving their online platform, Weverse, which it sees as being more than a communication platform. Ultimately, the company is focusing on an undergoing process of turning the platform into an all-inclusive “virtuous ecosystem”: a social media network, music and video streaming platform, online shop, online magazine and environment for live music experiences all wrapped into one digital environment; easy to access for everyone but tailored to the fans’ different technological resources, media and music preferences (Rolling Stones India).
This points to a possible future, where the online space will become like a second home for live performing events. HYBE may play an important role here – and not for South Korea only. The company recently merged with American company Ithaca Holdings in a $1 billion deal, expressing the desire to make their presence known within the world’s largest music industry (Variety). Will this eventually have a worldwide impact on the emerging online streaming culture of concerts? It might be, as HYBE accepts artists from all countries to join Weverse. Only time can tell whether live streaming concerts will still be around after the pandemic ends. But if that is the case, HYBE will have a large share in its future, and as such in the future of the music industry in general.
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“BTS Muster Sowoozoo 2021: BTS Earns over $71 Million, Fan Event Breaks Viewership Record.” The Indian Express, 16 June 2021, indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/music/bts-muster-sowoozoo-2021-bts-earns-72-million-dollars-two-day-fan-event/. Accessed June 25 2021.
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