Bang Si-Hyuk cut his teeth in the music industry as an artist—a songwriter. But lately, as founder and now Chairman of HYBE, the South-Korea-based talent agency and technology company behind supergroup BTS, Bang has become better known for his canny strategies and vision as the ringleader of one of the world’s most potent culture companies. Just launched on Korea’s stock exchange in 2020, HYBE is now worth more than $9.5 billion.
In a lengthy Zoom interview with TIME, Bang shared his thoughts on his company’s recent evolution, his sense of personal legacy—or lack thereof—and his responsibility to the people who have buoyed HYBE’s success: the fans who support artists and are invested in their work.
This interview has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity.
In the last two years alone, so much has changed for HYBE: You rebranded from Big Hit Entertainment to HYBE, you acquired U.S.-based Ithaca Holdings and other properties, and you went public on the Korean exchange. What were the most transformative changes to the business?
Although the vision has not changed, there have been a lot of changes over the past two years in the process of implementing that vision. First of all, we went from a label that managed one team called BTS to an entity that manages various solution businesses and artists—what we call 360-degree businesses. Further, we’ve merged several IP [intellectual property] companies and acquired a platform. We were able to create a place that we call our “base” in Korea of course, as well as Japan and the United States. With headquarters in three countries, we have achieved territorial expansion.
How did going public impact your approach?
For any company, going public is a good opportunity for the company to acquire resources in pursuing its vision, and it can serve as an opportunity to be socially recognized for what the company has accomplished. But on the other hand, there is also somewhat of an obligation to give the market the results it wants, and a perception that the market is always monitoring. That can be difficult, especially in Korea where the market is generally driven by current numbers and shares rather than future potential value. At times, I feel the obligations for public companies are a bit tougher in Korea.
I also think if you try to match market demands, the company would make short-term moment-to-moment decisions rather than pursuing a vision, and that may not necessarily produce good results in the long run. On the day of the IPO, I said to our CEO, Jiwon [Park]: “Starting today, I will not look at our stock prices. Tracking stock prices, generating annual results, and satisfying the market seems like your job. Presenting our company’s long term vision and moving at times against what the market wants seems like my job.”
In terms of how the market looks at us—before going public, Big Hit Entertainment was a very veiled company. It seemed to be doing something cool, but many had little idea what we were doing. We looked like a management company that ran a huge IP called BTS, but then started to buy big IPs which were taboo in Korea at the time, while simultaneously operating solution businesses that were originally structured to be subcontracted, even claiming that we’re an IT company, making our own platform and competing in that space. But because it was difficult to see what exactly we were doing, people were very curious about what kind of business we were. As we went public and many things literally became public, people’s understanding of us increased significantly.
Because HYBE is still moving so fast, what I’ve been emphasizing to our staff as of late is that the HYBE that the market understands today is the HYBE of a year prior. “We’re doing something completely different on the global stage but there doesn’t seem to be that understanding, so please prioritize that effort,” is what I’ve told them. I started using Instagram, because frankly, garnering attention [through social media] could be a quick way to explain things. I also thought that if I show who I’m meeting and what I’m doing visually, it could perhaps quickly increase public understanding of our company. To be honest I personally don’t like social media very much, but I made this Instagram account.
What are some of the innovations HYBE is working on now?
When we said we were going to pursue an NFT exchange, the market reacted with enthusiastic welcome, but fans showed concern and at times aggressive feedback. All I’d like to say to fans is: As of now, we haven’t announced anything. We haven’t discussed what kind of product we would service or what type of product we would make, although I fully understand the concern. In fact, one of the reasons we decided to pursue an NFT exchange was in order to be able to address these concerns ourselves, the artist management company, who can respond directly to fan concerns rather than a platform company that moves according to their own interests. I’m thinking a lot about policies and technical measures that can reflect these concerns as well.
We are doing our best to provide more value and experience to fans while trying to satisfy the market’s quick demands, which can be difficult. That being said, quite some time has passed. We have some interesting projects in the works and I think we’ll be able to show them to you soon. And when that happens, I’d like to say cautiously, that perhaps you’ll find yourself not thinking, “These guys don’t understand why we hate this.”
The global music industry has undergone some profound changes over the past decade. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the industry today?
This isn’t an easy question for me to answer because our company structure is so unique—we’re dealing with issues that are quite different from those the global music industry is dealing with. As a businessperson, I typically focus on problems I must deal with, so I’ve never thought deeply about what challenges the global music industry is facing. I personally think the music industry is losing quite a lot in the value chain. I feel the music industry should be making a lot more money and their value as a service should be recognized more, but to my knowledge the global music industry is happy about the expansion of the streaming market and recording music businesses were able to create additional income.
Many artists are frustrated with the payout structure of traditional labels and streaming platforms today. How does HYBE keep its artists happy?
It’s clear that streaming is giving IP holders a considerably smaller amount compared to the pre-existing structure of selling albums, and that this amount has to be even smaller when it then goes to the artists. But if you ask, “Can this be improved in a short time?” looking back on the history of digitalization over the past few decades, it doesn’t seem that easy to me. Platforms that have grown with a basis in music—when you consider how much music played a role in their success, the amount paid to music rights holders is comparatively minuscule. It’s such a small amount that you’d faint if you knew. So, can all of these issues be negotiated and solved overnight? I’m quite skeptical about that.
I think that the industry itself must have power in order to come up with solutions. Making the industry successful has to be a priority, so what we are doing now is expanding the territories that we can control, securing the IP holder and artists’ authority, and building a platform for people who can support themselves without the help of management companies or labels. Through an NFT exchange, or Weverse [HYBE’s social media platform], people can pursue music and e-commerce in certain forms. In ways like this I think that the entire music industry can be reorganized. Through that, the valuation of the entire industry should go up—to speak in market terms, the EBIT [earnings before interest and taxes] or PER [price-earnings ratio] should go up—and then only after that I think the negotiating power regarding streaming and the recorded music business would increase also.
That being said, it can sound like I’m some hero saying I can change everything. I’m frankly answering this question with some embarrassment. Nevertheless, I do think what I’m claiming is quite reasonable. The Korean market’s attitude toward the entertainment industry completely changed within a year since we went public; similar things can be done globally. I also think if other music companies benchmark or compete with the industry models we’re presenting, the overall value of the industry will increase. That’s my point of view.
Lastly, regarding what you mentioned specifically about artists. When artists feel they are being deprived of their rights or that they deserve more from their label or management, I think it’s very case-by-case. In some cases, those sentiments are extremely reasonable, but that’s something the artist has to negotiate through party-to-party deals.
As a leader, what values guide your business decisions?
The most important thing to me when making a decision is the why. More often than you’d expect, in a lot of cases, people just do things because that’s the way things have been. The industry has always been this way. Albums are always made like this. I have a hard time accepting that. And so in running a company, I always try to focus on: Why are we doing this? Why is our work structured like this? What is the essence of this work? And communicate that to the staff. I personally think you need to know the “why” in order to determine what to do, and it’s OK to think about the “how” later.
I’m a person who believes companies in general are good. Companies create wealth for society, provide value to societal pain points, and create jobs. But in order to be able to say this, I think there must be a premise that this company does not do bad things outside what society allows. Of course for companies, survival is imperative. It’s not like our company is a [charitable company or NGO]. [But] I think companies should operate within the rules of society, and I hope to keep our company within that line. That’s something I tell my staff a lot as well. Particularly considering that people who love our products, services, and artists are often quite young, we consider it a part of our duty to give thanks and present the right values as a company.
What legacy would you like to leave behind with HYBE?
This is always the most difficult question for me to answer, because to be honest I’m not someone who wants to leave something behind. After I leave HYBE, HYBE should just live and prosper independently. HYBE should not fall because I’m no longer there, nor should it waver between paths out of consideration for my legacy. I have never thought of leaving a legacy behind. I’m sure there are cooler things I can say instead, but if the word “legacy” itself implies a time after I’ve already left, I feel that’s their responsibility.
—Translation by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang
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