Bang Si-hyuk was an artist first. But these days, the founder and co-CEO of Big Hit Entertainment is better known as the mastermind behind BTS, the world’s biggest boy band and the K-pop group that has led the charge in breaking open the Western market for acts from South Korea. Bang started out in the K-pop industry as a composer (nickname: “Hitman”) working with JYP, one of the so-called “Big Three” entertainment groups that dominate the multi-billion dollar South Korean music market. But he broke away to found his own company in 2005. Now, Big Hit is one of the music industry’s most interesting case studies, having struck gold with a powerfully popular — and highly lucrative — act.
Over the course of an hour and a half, Bang opened up to TIME about the genesis of BTS, the difference between Western artists and the K-pop model and the surprises he’s encountered in the K-pop industry. “It’s difficult for me to say things like A led to B,” he said. “But what I can say is that BTS’ success in the U.S. market was achieved by a formula different from the American mainstream formula. Loyalty built through direct contact with fans had a lot to do with that.” He cited Disney and Apple as examples of brands that have built similarly committed fanbases and complex universes, but stressed that to him the product — the music itself — is paramount.
Humble about his influence and eager to make his role clear, Bang highlighted his luck and timing, and tried to pin down what makes BTS unique. He also cautioned against making predictions about the future. “If you were to ask, will they sing in English? How long will they be in the U.S.? Will they sign with a major label? I would say the artist needs to make the best decision at each moment, and I can’t say what they should do,” he said.
Below is a translated and condensed version of Bang’s conversation with TIME.
TIME: K-pop is distinctive for its trainee system, in which aspiring “idols” train for years after being scouted and before being introduced to audiences. How did you find and train the seven members of BTS?
Bang Si-Hyuk: One of our producers, Pdogg, brought RM’s demo tape to me and said, “This is what the young kids are into.” RM [who is now the group leader and a rapper] was 15 at the time. I signed him immediately. I had considered putting together a hip-hop crew, not an idol group. But when I considered the business context, I thought a K-pop idol model made more sense. Because many trainees wanted to pursue hip-hop and didn’t want to be in an idol band, they left. At that time RM, Suga, and J-Hope stayed back, and they remain BTS’s musical pillars. From there, through auditions, we discovered and added members that had more of an idol-like quality to the group.
When you started Big Hit, you could have gone down many paths in pop music. Why did you decide to form an idol group?
At the time that I started my company, physical album sales were abruptly going down and digital sales were not coming up to compensate. But K-pop idol groups had an advantage, in that they had many opportunities to diversify revenue streams and their fans were extremely passionate, allowing concerts to compensate for the dropped album sales. This was also a time when many around the world were saying the only replacement for the demolished musical industry is live performances. If a performance-based model were to be created in South Korea, I thought, it would [still have to] be a K-pop idol group.
What do you think has been the distinguishing factor that set BTS on its unique path?
It was their sincerity, consistency and ability to embody the spirit of the times. When they [solidified as an] idol group, I promised them they would be able to pursue the music they wanted [including hip-hop]. Because it was hip-hop, they could express their thoughts and we wouldn’t touch that. If in turn the company felt they weren’t being genuine, then we would comment. I kept that promise, and believe that had an impact. I personally feel it’s not always necessary for an artist to speak their mind. But I believe at the time, BTS touched something that young people from all over the world were seeking.
Ever since BTS’ debut, they’ve never suddenly switched gears or changed pace. They were consistent. I think that convinced the public. They don’t shy away from speaking about the pain felt by today’s generation. They respect diversity and justice, the rights of youths and marginalized people. I think all of these factors worked in their favor.
So far this year, BTS has sold the most physical albums in the U.S. of any musical act. What does that say to you?
The case of BTS is very ironic to me. I had predicted a steady decline in physical sales and thought performances and a loyalty-based model would be a solution. That being said, because I’m an old-school music producer, I place a lot of importance on the quality of the album. So I led an album-focused production. With good music and communication, the sales can follow. The K-pop industry as a whole has been seeing rising album sales, contrary to global market trends. I can’t personally explain why. I do not believe this will last forever.
Why has BTS managed such an impressive crossover feat in the U.S., while so many other K-pop acts have struggled to gain traction?
I fundamentally believe BTS’ success in the U.S. had a lot to do with luck. It wasn’t my brilliant strategy or BTS being such a perfect fit for the U.S. market. It was rather that their message resonated with a certain demand, and through digital media it spread quickly. And BTS touched something that wasn’t being addressed in the U.S. at the time, so American youths reacted, and that was proven through numbers.
One of your big pushes this year is bolstering the “universes” you’re building for each group, connecting the fans to the artists beyond live shows and albums. Why?
With BTS and K-pop idols, fans want to be a part of the lifestyle of their beloved idols outside of concerts, but there’s no product on the market that fulfills that desire. I hate expansion for the sake of expansion; it has to be rooted in music. So that’s why I did it that way. Many people believe because K-pop idols hold the title of “singer” that it’s the same thing, but fans of typical singers [are different]. They might go to a concert, buy an album or a track, or buy a t-shirt. But K-pop idol fans want to feel close with their idols. BTS is the only team that has sizable selling power all over the world, in almost every country. As a result, working with BTS’ fandom is one of the biggest services Big Hit provides.
How did you figure out what they would express in their music, or how they would present themselves on social media?
Frankly, K-pop artists, by average artists’ standards, have to show acrobatic-level skills in their performances; they must sing perfectly, and so they must be in top shape. It requires a high level of skill-based, focused training. Despite that, I always believed trainees should be well socialized. When BTS members were trainees, there was a lot of internal conflict with my staff regarding social media; [they said,] “Let’s take the safe road, social media leaves traces, some of which could be harmful to them in the future.” It’s also difficult for young people to follow rules. So there was a bit of trouble there, but because I believed it was right to make mistakes and learn from them, I built a relatively liberal trainee system.
In our company, we invest a lot of time educating trainees about life as an artist, including social media. After we provide guidance, we choose to let artists be, and leave a window open for them to ask the company anything they need. I think that helped the sincerity get through to the fans. Since BTS’ success, I’ve been changing the trainee system to be more school-like, with mentorship and a coaching system, and opportunities for students to work together.
Recently, some current and former K-pop idols have been implicated in illegal activities. When you see controversies like that in K-pop, do you feel you have given BTS and other trainees tools to avoid those kinds of issues?
I’m not sure. The fact that I gave them a lot of freedom from trainee years and educated them on responsibility can logically explain that it has prevented scandals, but that’s consequentialism. Right now a trainee system is in some ways an educational institution. As a team, we talk a lot about how we can provide the best possible environment for these artists. But to say that we were able to avoid some sort of scandal in the K-pop industry is way too definite.
There’s a common perception that in K-pop, the music is manufactured by committee, or that it’s a top-down system of adults giving material to young artists. Is that accurate?
First, I believe in the West there is this deeply embedded fantasy of the rock star — a rock star acts true to their soul and everyone must accept it as part of their individuality, and only through that does good music come. But in reality, devoting a long time to honing and training music-related skills is a tactic used in many professional art worlds. Ballerinas spend a long time in isolation focused only on ballet, but you don’t hear people say ballet lacks soul or isn’t art. So I think it’s a matter of perspective.
Another layer is that in the U.S., an artist will work in the underground scene for many years before signing with a major label. In Korea, that time is spent as a trainee. I think it’s debatable which system produces the better artist. In addition, I believe the statement that an artist must sing their own songs to have good results cannot possibly be true. A singer is foremost a performer, and a good performance can convince audiences. I do think when a trainee spends too much time just focusing on skills and not life experiences, it becomes a concern as to whether they can become a musician with a complex understanding of the world.
How important is it that the artists you work with have a cause or a social issue that they care about? With BTS there has been the ongoing “Love Yourself” narrative, paired with their work with the U.N. and their openness on topics like mental health.
Whether you want to speak out on a social issue or not is the individual’s choice. What I want is for them to be sincere. To make up something, I can’t accept that. But neither the company nor I can force an artist to speak or not speak about any social issue. Personally, I believe art is one of the strongest mediums for revolution, and I want the artist to speak out on social issues. They speak out when they want to and I don’t say what they should or shouldn’t do. I think that’s one of the misconceptions people have about the K-pop industry: that a producer could have that level of control over their artists. We can’t. When the artist wants to express something, I believe my role is to refine the message in a way that expresses their sincerity and has commercial value.
You mentioned that “rock star” narrative. In the U.S., it can seem that artists are applauded for being rebellious. There’s a lot of value placed on independence and fighting the “system.” Do you think in the South Korean cultural context there’s more respect between artists and management?
I think Asian culture and Western culture are certainly different. But if we’re to talk about how that influences expressing rebellion toward society — South Korea has had many revolutions, but in terms of personal relationships, you respect elders. It’s hard to equate that with speaking out, or to say Western artists are this way and Asian artists are this way. But in general, especially for K-pop artists, artists and companies seek to take less risks.
But to talk about fighting the system: many American artists cooperate with their management, as long as they’re left to pursue the music they want. Recently, many artists don’t sign with major labels, because there are more revenue streams available. I don’t think that’s a statement against the system, though. In fact, fewer Western artists speak out on social issues compared to before.
You’ve always given the members of BTS opportunities to release solo work as well. Does that make them unique in K-pop?
I don’t really think their uniqueness comes from independence. Many K-pop idols think about solo careers once they achieve a level of success, discuss it with their management and pursue solo projects. It’s not that they do this because Big Hit gives more freedom. What’s unique here is that Big Hit doesn’t produce solo projects. We emphasize the team image. But of course the members are individuals, and have their own identities, so we encourage and support mixtapes and free release songs, which allow the artist to express themselves with less liability than an official solo project. Since we started taking this approach, many more companies started pursuing more unofficial mixtapes or free release tracks in addition to official solo projects. I believe in some way Big Hit helped enrich the music market.
You recently acquired Source Music, and expressed an interest in forming a new girl group. How is that going?
Regarding [Source Music group] GFriend, they’ve released great content so far. What we’re trying to do is refine and streamline a storyline, a concept, so that when they’re on their next project it would make sense how they arrived at a new style. We are also going to be promoting an audition for a girl group with us and Source Music. Just like with Disney — animations, family movies, Marvel and Star Wars — I am trying to approach market segmentation while retaining the virtues of K-pop.
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is ARMY (the fandom name of BTS’s avid supporters around the world). You’re planning a lot to involve the fans, from the development of Weverse (a fan app) and Weply (an e-commerce platform) to movies. What should BTS fans and Big Hit followers be looking out for?
First, the next album. It’s going great. As you know, many people are saying that BTS is the Beatles of the Youtube era, or that they’re the Beatles of the 21st century. I know they haven’t reached that stature, though I’m honored. But I believe there is some connotation to this title, which is that BTS was able to create a global fandom, which was very rare. Through that gigantic fandom, they were able to reshape the order of commerce; they are creating new forms of communication. And they’ve embodied a certain spirit of the times and formed a new musical message. So in that way, it’s reminding many of the Beatles.
I hope to protect that honorable title and remain heroic figures down the line like the Beatles. To get there, it would be good if BTS could continue to receive recognition in major global arenas. It would be nice to get some reaction from the Grammys; ARMY has long awaited a BTS performance at the Grammys. I was fortunate to become an Academy member, so I’d love to discuss this further with the Grammys [team] because I believe we have something symbolic to contribute.
—with reporting by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang