How BTS became the biggest band in the world

Even if you’d been living under a rock you’ve probably heard someone mention the band BTS. The South Korean group has risen up through the ranks of K-Pop – a Korean musical blood sport – since 2013. From very humble beginnings indeed, they’ve risen from pimply youngsters with a dream into a 7-member powerhouse in the world’s pop industry.

How big? Whilst there’s been ‘Beatlemania’, the stand-out genius of Michael Jackson, the YouTube-upstart Justin Bieber and the half-century run of The Rolling Stones, there’s never been anything quite like BTS. Everything about their rise to the top has broken the mould of pop music culture.

Forgetting the thousands of ‘western’ pop hits to make it to the top of the Billboard Top 100, BTS boasts the most non-English-language top 10s at four, two more so far than their fellow South Korean, Psy. The last Asian performer to have a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was in 1963… ‘Sukiyaki‘, sung by Kyu Sakamoto. Even Psy’s phenomenal hit ‘Gangnam Style’ only reached #2 in the Hot 100.

Their latest retro summer bop ‘Dynamite’ has already been #1 for 2 weeks in a row (as of September 13) and looks like it’s going to be the late summer positive pop the world was looking for. In the 3 weeks since its release the YouTube video clip has amassed 345 million views, a record. They also broke the record for the most number of views in 24 hours, at 101 million.

So, yeah, they’re BIG.

 

Whilst difficult to compare musically, statistically BTS are up there with the greatest bands of all time, and they’re still on the rise. By the way, BTS is short for their full Korean name Bangtan Sonyeondan (방탄소년단), translated loosely as Bulletproof Boy Scouts.

Whilst their clean-cut image and positive messages are are a bit ‘old style’ for the grittier current pop music scene, the BTS message has clearly resonated with a new generation of music consumers.

In 2019, 39% of ticket buyers to BTS stadium concerts were 18 to 24 year old females, 27% were 24-35 year olds of both sexes. The next biggest core of BTS fans is females over 40. And these fans are from all over the world.

In the white-washed pop music world, and a storm of white noise on the internet, it’s difficult for a performer to ‘break out’ and find a voice in the current model of the music business. So how could 7 young Koreans claw their way to the top of the charts and fill the world’s biggest sports stadiums with screaming fans?

The group, comprised of Kim Nam-joon (RM), Kim Seok-jin (Jin), Min Yoon-gi (Suga), Kim Tae-hyung (V), Jung Ho-seok (J-Hope), Park Ji-min (Jimin) and Jeon Jung-kook (Jungkook), are hardly ‘overnight successes’. They debuted in June 2013 in the cut-throat K-Pop scene and they were hardly an instant success.

Their big break came when an act of a popular Korean music show had to cancel and the producers needed a filler. They wore T-Shorts with their names emblazoned across the front because no one knew who they were.

Working with an almost unknown production company (Big Hit Entertainment), the 7 members started crafting their sound with long nights and weekends, living in the one room, using their managers cars and homes as props and sets for music videos. Somehow the trainees fitted in their schooling as well. They contributed to the production and writing in most of their material, and still do.

They battled a cruel K-Pop industry and haters that saidBTS “didn’t fit the mould” of K-Pop ‘idols’. There were plagiarism controversies, death threats, social media hate campaign and just plenty of people who thought they’d go the way of most K-Pop acts… into obscurity. But they persisted and were relentless in their dream to make it big in South Korea and even dream to one day reach the shores of the lucrative US pop market. In November 2016 they won Best Album of the Year in the South Korea’s main music awards program. They were utterly surprised (below) but it was a pivotal moment and they would never turn back…

They clawed their way to a position of recognition in the K-Pop world, meanwhile garnering growing support in the west, well, everywhere around the world. Whilst it’s difficult to measure their success against other bands, there are a few important keys to their success which has music executives scratching their heads.

BTS sing mostly in Korean. Just consider that for a moment. They’ve passed through the musical bamboo curtain to have #1 hits in the UK, the US, Europe, Asia… well, everywhere. They’ve already scored 3 number one albums in the US on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart, in the same year – a feat achieved only once before by The Beatles, a situation that hasn’t been lost on the humble septet. BTS even sent themselves up, along with Stephen Colbert, on The Late Show performing in the same Ed Sullivan Theatre The Beatles debuted to a US TV audience back in 1964 – a pop culture moment that not only launched The Beatles to global stardom but changed pop music forever, proving that bands would have to be TV-friendly to succeed in the future.

For 2020, BTS have already sold the most albums of any artist in the world, when you include actual albums and digital downloads, beating out a host of huge US, UK and European names. ‘Map of the Soul – 7’ is a reflective look back at their own careers, over 7 years, as a team of 7.

And now ‘Dynamite’, the feature single from their upcoming new album, is reaching an entire new audience with a retro disco vibe that pays homage to the dance grooves of Michael Jackson.

At their sellout concerts, the audience sings along with all their hits, in Korean. At their concert in Bangkok in 2019 I witnessed 50,000 (mostly) Thais singing along… in Korean, a language otherwise completely foreign to them. (By the way, on one side of me at the concert was a 40-something husband and wife who had flown from Sydney to see the concert, on the other a mother and three kids, 8 – 15ish)

As to their ‘secret sauce’, that is quite clear. It’s a devoted fan base who are mostly tech and social media savvy. They’ve weaponised the internet and used it as a positive tool to share, chat about and sing everything ‘BTS’.

Tat fanbase is called ‘ARMY’. Whenever the group speaks they ALWAYS sincerely attribute their success to the legion of loyal fans. ARMY have meanwhile used the internet to do what ‘radio play’ would have provided in the past, reaching beyond South Korea’s borders in a way that had been impossible even 10 years ago.

As #BlackLivesMatter trended in social media, as part of a larger protest movement in the US following the death of George Floyd, BTS made a $US 1 million donation to the movement. ARMY responded and within two days had matched the BTS donation from fans. They’re fans were also part of the K-Pop fans flooding of the #WhiteLivesMatter counter-movement, replacing messages of hate with pictures of their favourite BTS photos or lyrics.

BTS’s YouTube music videos (there are hundreds) have broken several records on YouTube, their Twitter followers were the world’s most dedicated in 2018 and one member, J-Hope, had the most tweeted video in the world last year. BTS, through 7 years of sharing their lives, arguments, dance practices, ups and downs, have cleverly used social media to reach out with their message and music.

The band members shared the minutiae of their lives with thousands of uploaded photos and videos and also relentlessly shared their core themes – that life isn’t always easy as a teenager and young adulthood, you need to love yourself before you can love someone else and your mistakes will make you stronger in the long-run. Their music isn’t all sugary sweet and often lapses into darker messages and addresses current social issues.

Many of their videos are expensive, cinematic extravaganzas with hidden messages and ongoing story lines threaded between them. ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears’ is 4 years old now but was a breakout video for the band and exemplified their command of music, story-telling, dance and style – all in one piece of art.

 

They also shared videos showing themselves fighting, crying, arguing, laughing, eating, shopping and backstage  – just being 7 young men battling their way through the music industry labyrinth as underdogs. The classic rags-to-riches story is at the core of their popularity.

The difficult-to-measure ‘X’ factor is also strong in these 7 talented young men. There’s a genuine bond of friendship between the Bangtan boys and it shines through whenever they appear in public, or video – it’s not fake. And, after working their act for 7 years, there’s a comfort and ease on the stage, some describe it as ‘swag’, where their performances appear effortless whilst pulling off breath-taking dance routines. As they’ve grown over 7 year,s their music and performance has also morphed from earlier hip-hop beats to more sophisticated performances, edgy R&B, pure pop and epic power ballads and anthems.

Within their 7 years of ensemble work there are also generous sprinklings of solo projects, fully supported by the rest of the team. Whilst ‘doing a solo project’ from within a group is usually code for ‘I’m leaving the band’, with BTS it’s been a core part of the band’s raison d’être. At every BTS concert, each member also gets their moments to shine.

Another part of their strength is that they’re all remarkably talented – they sing, they dance, they rap, they write, they produce. They also have great ‘visuals’ (in K-Pop speak) presenting an all-Asian look to a white-washed western pop industry. There are no weak links in this ensemble, just cruising along with their good looks.

They keep collecting legions of adoring fans and celebrity fanboys and fangirls, have had 3 successful cinema releases of concert tour documentaries (the latest ‘Break The Silence’ released this weekend), have spoken at the UN, appeared on just about every important TV variety show around the world, and somehow stayed reasonably grounded along the way.

Their music, whilst often sung with Korean lyrics, is immediately catchy, has plenty of pop influences yet shines through with something unique that continues to set them apart and keeps amassing new fanbases around the world. In their concerts you’ll here pure pop, hip-hop, rap, power ballads and other songs that simply show-off their voices and powerful dance moves. That they keep it up, at full throttle, for their 2 and a half hour live concerts, is one of the modern wonders of the music world.

Yet, amongst the hype, the YouTube records, the sell-out concerts and music sales, are 7 young men who have allowed their true personalities to shine through.

RM (Kim Namjoon) is the group’s leader (the only member to speak fluent English) with an IQ of 148, V is the quirky one who’s often described as the band’s ‘secret weapon’, Jimin the ‘flirty’ one who shares his ‘up & down’ journey with fans, Jungkook the supernaturally talented youngest member (or ‘maknae’ in K-Pop speak). J-Hope is hyper-energetic and perennially cheerful, Suga is the brooding musician with the sharp tongue, and Jin the ‘world-wide handsome one’ (a self-mocking moniker he gave himself after the media attention to his looks over the years) who loves cooking for the band and telling dad-jokes.

There are thousands of videos on YouTube recording the band’s rise from very bottom of the K-Pop pile to international stardom. Whilst you can check out any number of their music videos or live performances (there are thousands of videos!) I would urge BTS-newbies to start with this address by leader RM (Kim Namjoon) at the United Nations in September 2018. It provides an insight into the intellect and feeling behind the pop sensation and a small part of what sets BTS apart from just about every other musician in the world today.

 

Whilst they are obviously riding high on a wave of fame right now, most music pundits think they’ve got plenty of room, musically, to extend their fandom and fame. Perhaps, even to become one of the greatest music bands of all time.

As a footnote, looming over BTS is the Korean government’s security law that all it’s young men must enter 2 years of national army service by the time they reach the age of 28. The oldest member, Jin, is already 27 and the band members have already stated they are happy and proud to serve their time of conscription. In the meantime they’re not wasting any time as they continue to plunge head-long into a grilling schedule they’ve been keeping up now for seven years.

This post was last modified on September 15, 2020 8:14 am

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  • While having a Tiger on Soi 4 in Bangkok last Nov, I read an op-ed piece by a Korean guy who thought these K-Pop bands were damaging to the image of the Asian male. He thought there was already a battle to project stronger, more masculine image in movies and these bands makes it tougher.

  • Thanks for this article, well written and with real facts.
    You can love them or you can hate them, but you can't ignore them.
    This is the impact of BTS on the world today.

  • Oh thanks so much for the article. I so love this. Great take on how they became the biggest in the world. I beesech you writer. Thank you. Hate them or love them, you can't deny their success.

  • You may say they look gay, never heard of them, dandies to not be heard of in a few years, or giving Asain males a bad rap...so to say, You All shouldn't judge!You have NO IDEA WHAT THESE YOUNG MEN GO THROUGH!THEY GO THROUGH MORE PAIN,INJURIES,EXHAUSTION FROM CONCERTS to make ARMY'S around the WORLD HAPPY!They have accomplished more in the last 5 years than many entertainers were NEVER able to accomplish!So please be kind...they are AMAZING,TALENTED,VERY GOOD LOOKING,EDUCATED YOUNG MEN!My list could go on, but I wouldn't want to bore you.I only PRAY that I will get the chance to meet them one day 🙏💜 ARMY FOREVER 💜💜💜💜💜💜💜 Grammy Soon 😁🙏

  • Comment here show that most Thaiager readers are old, white, homophobic, racist men hiding out in Thailand thinking they know everything.

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