Bang Si-hyuk is known among fans as the mastermind behind K-pop superstars BTS, but he is a veteran of the Korean music industry who has worked as a producer, executive and entrepreneur. His accomplishments are continuing to grow at a global scale as CEO of Big Hit Entertainment: The company is expanding its reach into ecommerce, gaming and tech to create a cohesive eco-system for their consumers — and just this morning announced that its label, Source Music, is holding a global audition to launch of a new girl group. During a short stop in Los Angeles, Bang sat down with Variety to discuss the importance of storytelling, the ideas behind his new tech platforms Weverse (which follows a social networking model, where artists can share updates with fans, and fans can create content for the artists) and Weply (an ecommerce app), as well as the core differences between BTS and TXT.
How do you see yourself as a company leader? What is your management philosophy?
I don’t see myself as a great businessman, but more as a good leader. There are certain qualities that a manager should have, whether it’s a drive, or maybe an aggression, but I am fundamentally an artist, and I am not too results- or performance-oriented. “Why are we doing this?” and “What are we doing?” are questions I ask, and I think this is reflected in our mission statement, “Music and artist for healing.”
Big Hit had its first Corporate Briefing a couple weeks ago. How important is transparency?
It has become necessary to explain our values because there are misconceptions in the market. People were speculating about our involvement with gaming. We saw misconceptions about how we were expanding “uncontrollably,” so we wanted to explain and alleviate these concerns. We also want to show what we are doing and what we have done every six months to build credibility in the market for Big Hit as a company.
How are you managing the growth of your company, with the acquisitions being made in music, gaming and tech?
With the remarkable success of BTS, we’ve built up knowledge and fine-tuned processes that are used to become experts in this realm. I can say with confidence that we have some of the biggest stars in the Korean IT industry. For big games, of course it’s necessary to work with large developers like NetMarble, but for games of a smaller scale, we want to be the creators so we can build them into our ecosystem.
In the Corporate Briefing, you also emphasized the importance of brand IP and storytelling. What made you want to double down on that?
Storytelling is a bit complex in K-pop — or perhaps I should say with BTS in particular. We didn’t necessarily start with a grand plan, but we wanted to convey a message to the audience through BTS, and this was the best way to do so. We also received a more passionate response than we had anticipated. There are some people within the BTS fandom who dislike the storytelling and expansion of our universe. However, many people also enjoy the narrative and we can’t let go of this opportunity to expand the business.
Personally, I love storytelling and following expanding narratives into a universe. Fans might think the universe is just for my sake since I enjoy them, but I would not be that foolish. (Laughs) We see the overall potential as a business in storytelling, so it is not just my hobby.
How do you stay up to date with pop culture and cater to fans who are mostly younger and female?
The K-pop fandom is very vocal. They will make their opinions heard, even if you don’t put in much effort to gauge what they want. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we didn’t take time to listen.
Most countries have their own music industries. Why does K-pop have such a wide appeal?
One of the key elements of K-pop is the idea of “total production.” There is a perception that a musician just needs to have good music, but in K-pop, in addition to the music, artists need to have attractive characteristics, appearance or not, and great performances, which are all visual components that come together to create a universal appeal.
How does Weverse differ from Twitter or V app, and what is your long-term vision for it?
Weverse is a platform for direct communication. A lot of the pre-existing platforms are not IP holders and are mass-target systems onto which content is grafted. As IP holders, we’ve noticed that there are certain needs that aren’t fulfilled by these platforms. As far as functionality, Weverse is not too different from Twitter or V app, but it is not going to be what it is now years down the line.
Is the vision similar for Weply as well? And can you explain how you came up with the names?
Weply comes from “We Play,” and Weverse is “We Universe.” We wanted to create something that was more enjoyable than a simple shopping experience. We also liked the name Weverse, because those who use the platform can be called “wevers” and we liked the sound of that.
BTS is one of the first K-pop groups to have a large following overseas, and these consumers were not able to use our existing networks. For consumers outside of Korea, it is difficult to access our products. They are paying the same amount of money and should receive the same level of service.
BTS had some struggles in their earlier years. Was there a moment when you felt sure that they were going to succeed?
I think there were two “Wow” moments. “Run,” which was released in 2015, was positively received and I definitely noticed. We felt the need to test that reception and created “Fire” — and with the release of “Fire,” BTS received global attention. Thinking back on it, I may have been too confident, but I told the members that I think they may have a shot at doing a global arena tour, and that I hoped they could become a group that was bigger than One Direction in their prime.
The second moment was when we were preparing their 2017 tour. We prepared for around 18 months, which is longer than the K-pop standard. We were very lucky because the shows in South America had explosive success and even the local news was covering BTS’ airport arrivals. With that start, when BTS landed in the East Coast, people were curious about them, and by the time they reached the West Coast, even Hollywood stars were saying they needed to get BTS tickets.
How has it been managing TXT, whose reputation you had a chance to build up, compared to managing BTS?
I think the biggest difference is that BTS truly started from the bottom. People may think that TXT got really lucky and have an easy path, but they have the burden of meeting expectations that have been set. Rookies have a chance to grow and shine when they are still rookies, but TXT started on a higher level so it’s harder to showcase growth.
This interview has been translated from Korean and edited for brevity and clarity.