'Hitman' Bang Si-hyuk, The Brand-New Billionaire Behind BTS
BTS is Bang Si-hyuk's greatest strength and biggest vulnerability.
The seven-member group from South Korea has succeeded to a historic degree, far beyond anyone's imagination – even Bang's. His company, Big Hit Entertainment, recently went public on the stock market, making chairman Bang, its largest shareholder, a billionaire. When BTS recently became the first Korean act to top Billboard's Hot 100, with the single "Dynamite," the Korean president congratulated the band. "BTS wrote a new K-pop history," President Moon Jae-in tweeted. "It is a splendid achievement, elevating the pride of K-pop. This will be a great comfort to our people, suffering from the COVID-19 national crisis." Together with his team, Bang Si-hyuk, a short, bespectacled man nearing his fifties, has made "K-pop" a global household name, particularly in the U.S. But now, they are faced with having to recreate the BTS "miracle."
"He will go down in music history, and not just in South Korean music history," says Dr. Colette Balmain, a BTS fan and a senior lecturer in film and media at Kingston University in London, of Bang.
"He is bold, confident and has a vision," says Mark Mulligan, a music-business analyst and managing director of MIDiA Research.
Big Hit's achievements are numerous, and often groundbreaking: from a debut single that peaked at 124th in the Korean charts, BTS became the first Korean artist to win at the Billboard Music Awards in 2017, released the first Korean album to go gold in the U.S., and holds the world record for the most Twitter engagements ever, along with numerous other achievements. Thanks to BTS, Big Hit grew astronomically in parallel, and was named the fourth-most innovative company in the world in 2020 by Fast Company.
In South Korea, BTS isn't just a music group. For many here, BTS's success in the West is the premiere expression and culmination of Korean soft power, or the "Korean Wave" – the global export of Korean culture generates billions of dollars in revenue annually. Its most profitable player is the gaming industry, followed (far behind, it must be said) by music – predominantly, K-pop idol music.
When BTS first debuted in 2013, very few in Korea predicted them to be the next big thing. "Nobody paid attention to BTS or Big Hit," remembers Kim Youngdae, a music critic since the late 1990s and author of BTS The Review. In 2013, Big Hit was a small fish in a music market dominated by three companies: SM, YG and JYP (each an acronym for the name of its founder – Lee Soo-man, Yang Hyun-suk and Park Jin-young, respectively). Countless idol acts came and went. Although Bang himself was a respected producer for JYP, his own company hadn't produced any memorable hits since its creation in 2005. Failure was the norm.
Notable, though, was Glam, the first girl group Bang ever produced, which debuted a year before BTS. Already, Bang was fascinated by the intersection of music and technology: Glam performed with a computer-generated vocaloid, which generated some buzz in Korean media. "That was an interesting attempt," says Kim. "Bang was ahead of his time." Unfortunately, what gave Glam more mainstream fame was a blackmailing scandal involving a member and a prominent actor, leading the group to disband in 2015.
Before BTS, Bang was renowned as a producer and composer, but not much is known about his private life. Bang has said he is a huge fan of Duran Duran, reads anime every night, and cries easily during corny movie scenes. "I'd bawl my eyes out, this forty-something man in only his underwear. I felt more ashamed when I was eating jajangmyeon at the same time," he said in a 2011 interview.
Bang was born in Seoul in 1972, in the midst of a military dictatorship that censored free expression, including music. But American culture seeped in through channels like AFKN (American Forces Korean Network), in a country that still hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops. "He read books all day as a child," Bang's father remembered. "He had an incredible ability to focus. He read Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans before he entered elementary school... Unfortunately, this reading habit has made him gain too much weight."
Bang was raised by elite, educated parents: his father, Bang Geuk-yoon, was the chairman of a government organization on labor rights. His mother, Choi Myeong-ja, received a degree in English lit at Seoul National University (SNU) — a rare feat for a woman of that generation. Bang followed in her footsteps to SNU, a dream school to many Koreans. But, much to his parents' disappointment, he majored in aesthetics, not law.
"I was kind of a prick," he remembered jokingly of his youth. "My friends from middle and high schools can attest to that. I'd say, 'Isn't studying something you just breeze through and get top grades for?' "
By the time Bang started his music career in the mid-to-late 1990s, Korea had transformed into a young democracy. Popular music was changing quickly, led by the likes of Kim Wan-sun and Seo Taiji and Boys, setting the foundation for the modern K-pop idol industry, which would eventually cultivate studio-trained stars and organized fandoms.
"When I started, I didn't have much talent in music," Bang said humbly. "Of course, I had enough talent to do something. But I was surrounded by the best, like Park Jin-young, Shin Seung-hun ... I cried a lot back then. I had to work really, really hard." He taught himself to play the piano, and said he'd practice until his thighs broke out in a heat rash.
"Si-hyuk is a genius," said singer Baek Jiyoung, who worked with Bang in the 2000s. "But he rejects the label. I think he is an extreme perfectionist."
"There was no critical moment at which I decided to do music," Bang said at an SNU graduation ceremony in 2019. "I kept floating on, and found myself doing it ... I'm not an ambitious man painting big pictures and grand dreams."
More recently, Bang presents himself as precisely that man: "We will become the best entertainment and lifestyle platform company in the world," he declared on Oct. 15 this year, when Big Hit debuted on the stock market at double its initial price, South Korea's largest debut in three years.
Bang founded Big Hit, serendipitously in hindsight, the same year that YouTube, which would later be so central to BTS' success, was launched. "At the time  that I started my company, physical album sales were abruptly going down and digital sales were not coming up to compensate," Bang told Time in 2019. But he saw opportunity in K-pop idols, who, armed with passionate fans, seemed to have more diverse revenue streams, especially online.
BTS took a long time to take shape: Originally, the group was conceived as a hip-hop crew, scheduled to debut in 2011. A year prior, in 2010, Bang had signed RM (Rap Monster) as the putative leader of the group. "But when I considered the business context, I thought a K-pop idol model made more sense," Bang said of the pivot. After much reshuffling, the group's lineup was finalized in 2012: RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, Jimin, V and Jungkook. At the time of BTS' debut in 2013, K-pop's idol music was already popular in many non-Western markets, particularly Asia. But sustained success in the U.S. music market, the world's largest and most influential, was still elusive.
Bang was intimately familiar with K-pop's aspirations in the U.S., particularly as a close friend of JYP Entertainment founder and CEO Park Jin-young, whose company is widely seen as a pioneer of the industry's initial ventures, and failures, in the U.S. "Because of the name, everyone thinks JYP was created by Park alone. But musically, the company was a collaboration between Park and Bang," says critic Kim.
JYP's first artist was singer Jinju. She debuted in 1997, when the term "K-pop" had yet to be fully defined, or much used. "JYP didn't even have a company sign at the time. I worked in Si-hyuk's studio. It was just a rectangular office in an alleyway. We'd practice for hours and order jajangmyeon for lunch," she tells NPR. "He was much skinnier back then." They met at least twice a week to work on Jinju's first album, on which Bang helped create eight of its 10 songs.
"Music production wasn't like today, where each part of a [pop] song is written by different specialists. Today, there are different people for the melody top line, the hook, the verse; another specialist for arrangement and sampling," Jinju says. "Back then, Si-hyuk had to do everything. He composed, arranged, recorded and even acted as the sound supervisor."
Bang is infamous for being strict with his artists. He himself admitted in a 2011 interview, "I don't normally raise my voice and speak harshly. But when I'm working with artists at the company, I speak more strongly than on television. I've shouted angrily, 'And you call yourself a singer?' Every singer I've worked with must've heard this."
"He listens very closely," says Jinju. "If you make a tiny squeak, he would call you out."
Then-19-year-old Jinju's output marked the beginning of JYP's string of K-pop hits, which would include "first-generation idol" g.o.d. ("groove overdose"), ballad group 2AM, the seminal Wonder Girls and, more recently, globally successful idols like TWICE and ITZY. Bang was often at the heart of these projects, producing with Park. In the 2000s, Bang would gain the nickname he still uses today, "Hitman Bang," for his successes in the Korean market.
From very early on the two, like many K-pop players, shared a dream of spreading Korean music to the U.S., well beyond Bang's former office in Gangnam. The U.S. mainstream was a big part of Bang's childhood: "I used to memorize Billboard's top 100. I even looked up all the producers, who they were, their background, etc. Billboard was the barometer of popular music," Bang said in 2011.
As early as 2003, Bang and Park were trying to break into the U.S. – Park recalled how difficult it had been. "We didn't have money and [we] were sharing a room in a friend's house. After a whole year in the U.S., we hadn't sold a single song. We were lonely and missing Korea."
One day, after another round of rejections, a fight erupted over laundry, which Bang was in charge of. Park had, once again, crumpled up his socks. Bang Si-hyuk had had enough.
"Seriously, the socks again?" Bang yelled, according to Park's recollection. "What the hell is that tone? I'm older than you!" Park yelled back.
Jinju remembers these fights (although none about socks). "They'd be friendly one moment, and sharply critical to each other the next. At the time I was young, and thought, how could they say that? I got scared. But now, I see they knew how to draw boundaries. People think producing is about musical skills and sensibilities, but it's so much more than that. You need to manage all these relationships, be critical, say no. They were so good at that."
Bang and Park's collaborative efforts continued with Wonder Girls, arguably the biggest idol girl group of the mid-to-late 2000s. (Wonder Girls failed to make an impression in the U.S., although they briefly made it onto Billboard's Hot 100 in 2009.)
There were other one-off hits from elsewhere in the industry: Girls Generation (produced by SM) performed on Late Night with David Letterman in 2012. The same year, Psy's "Gangnam Style" (released on YG) went viral on YouTube, leading many prominent U.S. publications to write about K-pop seriously for the first time. "K-pop was becoming increasingly popular on YouTube since the late 2000s. Something was brewing in the atmosphere, for K-pop to explode outside of Korea," says music critic Kim of the U.S. market.
Then came BTS.
There are numerous theories as to how BTS became what it has become. Bang himself has repeatedly expressed surprise, attributing the success to luck. "It wasn't my brilliant strategy or BTS being such a perfect fit for the U.S. market," he told Time. "It was rather that their message resonated with a certain demand, and through digital media it spread quickly."
"What BTS revolutionized is precisely understanding and using social media," says Kim. Social media marketing came partly out of necessity. Especially in early days, Big Hit couldn't compete in mainstream media like SM, YG and JYP. But Big Hit also showed a savvy — and looseness — that other labels seemed to lack.
Even before debuting, BTS members were uploading vlogs and personal posts on social media, which are still key to their relationships with fans. Over the years, the boys would build an impressive archive of mundane moments: petting a dog (for four minutes), painting (for 36 minutes), talking about insecurities, resolving conflicts, or just staring at the camera while eating an apple. A seeming lack of editing heightened the sense of authenticity.
"Most other K-pop idols' social media accounts were managed by the labels," says Lee Jiyoung, professor at Sejong University, ARMY and author of BTS, Art Revolution. "BTS members had their own accounts, in which they talked freely with fans."
차에타서 pic.twitter.com/X5ri2Bl452— 방탄소년단 (@BTS_twt) September 18, 2014
One memorable moment was a barrage of drunk Twitter posts from V and Jungkook in 2014, when V was finally of legal drinking age. "BTS's tweets were hilarious," recalls Kim. "Big Hit knew how to show BTS members' personalities, and make people become fans of the people, before their music."
"In our company, we invest a lot of time educating trainees about life as an artist, including social media," Bang told Time. "They speak out when they want to and I don't say what they should or shouldn't do."
Fans say it's not just about personality marketing, which isn't unique to BTS. Plenty of pop stars worldwide, though perhaps not as effectively as BTS, appear on variety shows, documentaries, social media, etc., creating an image of intimacy and accessibility.
Music, fans say, is what distinguishes BTS. "Every good content has a good statement," says Kim Youngmi, a veteran marketer, ARMY and organizer of the BTS Insight Forum. "BTS's statement is about growing up together and asking questions about the self."
The evolution of BTS's albums, in which members actively contribute to most songs, reflects the nuances of growing up. Suga raps about the "gray hairs of greed and ambition" during his three years as a trainee. J-Hope sings about his mother, who had to work overseas to support his music. There are love letters to a piano, each other, even their first dormitory, where "the wallpaper, bathroom and veranda were all blue," and where the boys would fight, even physically. "This place smells like us. Let's not forget this scent, wherever we are."
"When I think about BTS, I think about the fact that they share so much of their life with us, as a choice," one fan told NBC. "Their interactions with us never feel forced, and they continue over time. That's why they feel so human to us."
Over the years, Bang has emphasized repeatedly that BTS's personal storytelling is at the heart of the group. "I think the most important part of being a singer is the will to communicate something," he said. BTS may have that will, but people wouldn't have heard them — at least, not to this scale — without Bang's attitude toward the fandom and his talent for capitalizing on it.
Bang is deeply aware of the fandom's powers. "It's not an exaggeration to say, whereas fans of the past were passive recipients, the fans of today are active collaborators, helping the artist's growth," he said during a 2018 presentation, "BTS and the Future of K-pop."
"Big Hit monetizes fandom," says Mark Mulligan. "In some ways, it's not even the artist that is the product; it's the fan which is the product. It's almost like a crop: you keep harvesting and put in more fertilizer to see how much more you can grow."
Indeed, BTS ARMYs, or "Adorable Representative MC for Youth," have been essential. Millions of fans mobilize worldwide to vote during awards seasons, or to raise $1 million for Black Lives Matter. As a tiny tip of the social-media iceberg, BTS's official YouTube account has nearly 40 million subscribers and over 6 billion views. BTS was the most-tweeted-about musical act in the U.S during the first 6 months of quarantine this year.
Even before BTS was BTS, fans were campaigning as volunteer marketers. Notable is BTSx50States, a 2017 campaign in the U.S. to "educate" local radio stations, introduce BTS to the market and, eventually, reach Billboard's Hot 100.
"Fans called stations like telemarketers," remembers professor Lee. "They'd hear things like, 'Request a real song. Who'd listen to Korean music?' So fans created manuals to prevent callers from responding angrily." When San Francisco's KYLD WiLD 94.9 played "Not Today" for the first time, fans sent the station flowers, donuts and handwritten letters. Fans are the "core and goal" of the "Big Hit winning formula," says global CEO Lenzo Yoon, who has been instrumental in the company's business developments since 2010.
"BTS has a continuous story, which creates a universe," says critic Kim. "Fans have fun exploring that world. Big Hit is declaring to them, 'You are all a part of this world.' "
The BTS universe is intricate and vast: it's not just the albums, whose stories are connected. There are multiple channels, including games, animated characters, novels and "Easter eggs" (hidden clues) in music videos, that emphasize intertextuality and encourage fan participation.
Big Hit's fandom-building strategies, though, are not unique. "They've built upon what was already happening for years before," says Mulligan, particularly in gaming fandoms. "But it feels to me there's a more consistent approach and methodology to how you build a K-pop fanbase."
"I think Bang Si-hyuk perceives the ARMY as a partner in intellectual amusement," says professor Lee. "For example, there are all these literary, philosophical, artistic symbols in music videos. He'd plan meticulously for years, planting seeds one by one. When fans eventually connect the dots, they feel electrified. They also imagine how much fun this middle-aged man is having, creating these riddles."
Lumpens, a longtime music video director for BTS, says Bang uses references from his own life to inform BTS content. For example, he'd read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a sci-fi novel about a seemingly idyllic city that sustains its prosperity by abusing a child. The name "Omelas" became a central motif in BTS's "Spring Day." Since the video was published, numerous devoted fans have created spin-off content analyzing the connection.
Not all of Big Hit's engagement ventures are immediately popular with BTS fans. Recently, a group of fans have threatened Big Hit with legal action, protesting against a BTS television series currently in the works. Fans say the plot is sensational and unrelated to the actual lives of BTS members. Over 97% of 14,000 objected to the characters being named after the boys, according to a fan survey. True to ARMY fashion, some have started a social media campaign urging Big Hit to stop production."
The richest land in the BTS world, though, is Weverse, a "one-stop service for Big Hit's music business," according to Steve Seo, CEO of beNX, the Big Hit subsidiary which developed the online social networking platform.
On Weverse, fans pay membership fees to talk directly with artists, subscribe to watch Guinness-record-breaking concerts during COVID, learn Korean with BTS and open their wallets at the Weverse Shop, which sells every conceivable type of merchandise, including overpriced drinking water. As of March 2020, Weverse had 1.4 million daily users. Today, the platform includes A-list K-pop artists outside the Big Hit label.
"I would say they've industrialized fandom," says Mulligan, referring to how systematically Big Hit builds and monetizes its army — a trend visible not just in K-pop, but also Japan and China's pop industries. "Western record labels aren't even starting the race of monetizing fandom yet, because they are so obsessed with building streaming numbers."
"Bang knows how fans feel, because he's been a maniacal fan himself," says Kim Youngmi, marketer and ARMY. "That's what makes him a good marketer. But you can't just attribute BTS's success to media strategies, messaging, etc. BTS is about people doing things, not machines. I don't think we can simplistically judge their success; lots of different things somehow fitted miraculously together."
Today, Big Hit is worth more than SM, YG and JYP combined. It comprises four music labels, seven family companies, and around 1,000 employees. Its most recent hires include power players like CEO Park Jiwon, a key figure in the Korean IT industry, and Chief Brand Officer Min Heejin, formerly the creative director at SM Entertainment.
"Big Hit's competition isn't SM. It's Naver," Korea Economic Daily commented, referring to Korea's largest search engine, often called the "Google of Korea." According to industry sources cited in that article, over 100 employees in various IT companies have transferred to Big Hit, including talents from Naver and Kakao.
Not everyone is so optimistic. "Having a fanbase predominantly around one artist and saying that is a foundation for becoming the next Google — there is a massive leap between saying that and getting there," says Mulligan.
It's true: BTS makes up the overwhelming majority of Big Hit's revenue. In 2019, the boy band, all of whom are due for Korea's mandatory military conscription in the next few years, generated 97% of the company's sales in 2019.
"The lifecycle of successful pop groups averages about 5-7 years, with peak earnings averaging a period of no more than five years," tweeted Nathan Hubbard, formerly of Ticketmaster and Twitter and now CEO of Rival, a tech platform for live events. "That means you'd be highly speculative as an investor to value a pop group at an earnings multiple of more than five times. The BTS IPO values them at fifty times!"
Already, that value seems to be deflating. Since Oct. 15, the company's stocks have dropped toward their original price of 135,000 won, or around $115, per share. Big Hit is hurrying to diversify its artist pool but, so far, no other acts have come even close to BTS's success.
"It must be very difficult to be BTS; to be these role models, to have to be so careful about what you do, and to have this huge responsibility," says Dr. Balmain. "It's kind of like living in a fishbowl, like The Truman Show. How do you do that? I just don't know. But they do. I think they accept this is the price they pay."
At least publicly, Bang and BTS seem mindful of that price. BTS members have been relatively open about their mental health and the strains of success. Suga raps in the 2020 album Map of the Soul: 7, "I'm afraid; flying high is terrifying. No one told me how lonely it is up here. Now I know, my flight can be a fall.... People say, there's splendor in that bright light. But my growing shadow swallows me and becomes a monster."
In one documentary, Bang asks the boys, after their Billboard win in 2017, "Shouldn't you look for ways to be happy? I'm worried that if you continue living like this, you will be unhappy. And you started all this, because music made you happy."
Is Bang Si-hyuk happy?
On the one hand, Bang stresses, "Music is not the Olympics. Let's not obsess about the results and breaking records." Yet, he finds himself stuck in a hamster wheel of recreating an unbelievable success into a 'winning formula.' At a recent corporate briefing, generally seen as an important platform for investors, he said, "We must be able to reproduce success."
Is Bang Si-hyuk trapped in his own success story?
"I firmly believe that a second and third BTS must and can come into being," he said after receiving a presidential award in 2017.
"The risk would be, you don't want to make another BTS," says Mulligan. "You want to make another artist that is as successful as BTS, but is different. Do they have enough institutional expertise and experience to be able to say, how can we do what we've done but do it completely differently? The temptation would be, let's just do it again."
"Big Hit's strength and weakness are clear. Its strength is BTS; its weakness is BTS," says music critic Kim.
It's not clear how Bang would answer these questions; Big Hit declined NPR's interview requests, citing scheduling difficulties.
Big Hit is at the forefront of new music, changing the way artists are produced, and more importantly, how they communicate with their audience. In the years to come, the way BTS uses social media and platform technology to engage with fans will have far-reaching effects beyond K-pop. "Music won't survive on its own," says Dr. Balmain. "People pirate and stream music. So there has to be added value for fans to engage with one group over the other."
BTS is now officially seven years old, making the group one of the older boy bands around. With another album coming out on Friday, Bang and BTS are still on top of the world. Although Bang has publicly professed his faith that BTS will remain together for a long time — their contract ends in 2024 — nobody can predict how the band will evolve. The company is under intense pressure to succeed. Can Bang stay as open-minded and flexible toward other Big Hit artists, as he claims to have been toward BTS?
"These days I often think, what makes a person's mind close?" Bang said at his alma mater's graduation ceremony last year; nearly three decades after his own. "I see it close in many people, after a certain age. I am at that age now, so I view myself with incredible fear ... I want to stay self-aware."
Bang says that music is still at the heart of Big Hit. "Never forget the love you have for music, and the gratitude you feel for your fans," he told BTS in 2017. At a corporate briefing a few years later, he reiterated, "No matter how the market changes, our core values remain 'content' and 'fans.' We focus on the fundamentals." But his business empire is unrecognizably more complex than when he started in 2005. It's not always easy to focus on the fundamentals, when there are so many more people, so much more noise. Perhaps that's Bang's biggest challenge in the long run: to keep his feet on the ground, and remember what sounds good.