How BTS Contributes Billions To The Korean Economy : The Indicator from Planet Money Korean boy band BTS is a global music phenomenon. The group has millions of fans called A.R.M.Y., who happily support the group with their wallets. Today on the show, we dive deep into the economic impacts of BTS and what makes the group special.

BTS: The Band That Moves The Economy

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

So every year in the U.S., there is a song, a song of the summer. And this year, that song is "Butter" by Korean pop band BTS.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER")

BTS: (Singing) Smooth like butter, pull you in like no other.

VANEK SMITH: Well, at least it was "Butter." "Butter" was recently replaced by "Permission To Dance," also by BTS.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PERMISSION TO DANCE")

BTS: (Singing) 'Cause we don't need permission to dance. There's always something that's standing in the way.

VANEK SMITH: Tamar Herman is a reporter for the South China Morning Post and author of "BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears." She says as big as having a song of the summer is - much less two songs of the summer - this is like a blip for BTS, which has been on a streak of success that's almost hard to fathom.

TAMAR HERMAN: They're just so big. You can't just look at BTS and be like, ah, yes, this is just the same cloth reshaped. No, it's a brand-new cloth. It's just something so new.

VANEK SMITH: That something so new, says Tamar, is the way that BTS connects with its fans. Tamar says it's akin to, like, the Beatles or the Grateful Dead. BTS fans are devoted, and they are putting their money where their hearts are.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, BTS Inc. The band has become this global economic force, creating jobs, generating billions in revenue, and even moving the needle on the South Korean GDP.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VANEK SMITH: BTS, the Korean pop band, has been around for about eight years. But in the last couple of years, they started bringing in so much money, the South Korean government decided to try and measure the economic impact of the band. Park Chanuk (ph) is head of cultural industry research at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute.

PARK CHANUK: (Through interpreter) We have some tools that can help us make estimates from the Bank of Korea, which lets us see the impact of sales growth spilling out to other industries.

VANEK SMITH: An online concert held by BTS during the pandemic brought in more than $70 million in ticket and merchandise sales. But like Park Chanuk says, there is a major ripple effect. BTS' popularity is fueling tourism to Korea, study of the Korean language, interest in Korean movies, television, fashion and food. All told, BTS is bringing in an estimated $5 billion a year to South Korea. That's around half a percent of the country's entire economy.

PARK: (Through interpreter) The influence impact of fandoms are huge and started to spread globally with the success of BTS.

VANEK SMITH: BTS fans are known as A.R.M.Y., and there are huge groups of A.R.M.Y. in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and THE INDICATOR.

So are you, like, in the A.R.M.Y.?

MICHAEL HE, BYLINE: Yeah, it's not like you have to register and get a registration number there.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

HE: You just have to call yourself an A.R.M.Y. And yes, I am a proud A.R.M.Y.

VANEK SMITH: Michael He is our intern, and he's a huge BTS fan. He first got into the band in high school. He remembers the moment well.

HE: It's very melancholic, sentimental, kind of - you miss your friends.

VANEK SMITH: Then Michael heard this song by BTS called "Spring Day," and something about it really spoke to him. He started listening to the song over and over again. Can you sing a little bit of it?

HE: Let's see. It's (singing in Korean).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPRING DAY")

BTS: (Singing in Korean).

VANEK SMITH: Wait. Did you learn Korean?

HE: I'm terrible at Korean, but...

VANEK SMITH: Wait. You learned Korean for BTS?

HE: I learned Korean from their songs.

VANEK SMITH: This is not unusual, according to journalist Tamar Herman. She says many of BTS' songs, especially the early ones, tell stories - very personal and emotional stories with a lot of historic and literary references. And so fans, A.R.M.Y., they connect with the band and with each other through the study of these songs.

HERMAN: Literally, like a linguistics class - so this word means this thing, but it also can relate to this situation in Korean history.

VANEK SMITH: People are doing, like, close readings of their songs.

HERMAN: Yeah, so it's because there is so much depth there. There's so much storytelling in the music itself.

VANEK SMITH: Michael says his first deep dive into a BTS song, "Spring Day," was really rewarding. And the deeper he dove, the more he started learning Korean, the more he felt like BTS understood exactly what he was experiencing with his own friends and the more he wanted to know about the people who'd written and performed the song. So he started checking out BTS' social media.

HE: They have so much content on online, probably hundreds, if not thousands of hours of direct footage of them living life, going on trips, you know, even just eating together. Don't go down the BTS rabbit hole because then you wouldn't have time for work.

VANEK SMITH: BTS is all over social media - Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook - and they post all the time. Like, it is a tidal wave of content. And it's not necessarily your typical celebrity posts of people looking hot on the red carpet. Michael says it's all these intimate little moments, like the band members goofing off, hanging out. They kind of bring you into their lives.

HE: They openly share their struggles. And, you know, they struggle because in the early years, a lot of negative publicity - and it's all there. So they really feel like someone you know, you know, like a friend you know for a long time. You just don't get to see them.

VANEK SMITH: Do you feel like you care about them?

HE: Yes, I do. And I'm - and they do - I think they care incredibly for the fans.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, you feel, like, care coming from them.

HE: It's mutual. It's very mutual.

VANEK SMITH: Michael says the fact that the members of BTS have been so open about their struggles with depression and critics and relationships, it makes the fans feel connected to them and also to each other.

HE: A BTS concert is like a group therapy session with 70,000 people.

VANEK SMITH: Wow.

HE: Like, you get this seven - I don't know - psychiatrists. Somehow, you feel like your soul has been comforted in a way.

VANEK SMITH: Tamar Herman says this connection Michael has to BTS - this is something she hears all the time. Tamar says somehow through their songs and their kind of relentless social media, BTS manages to come off as very genuine and like they are truly giving of themselves.

HERMAN: I have spoken to senior acts in the industries who are supremely talented and supremely popular in their own rights, and even they say, yeah, BTS is different. We recognize that there is something else there. They're just doing so much and so above and beyond everyone else.

VANEK SMITH: And fans respond by buying everything BTS touches, and BTS is touching a lot of stuff. The band has not been shy about brand partnerships. They've collaborated with Samsung Galaxy on a BTS phone, which sold out in an hour, with FILA on a sportswear collection, which sold out in a day, with Hyundai on the Palisade model that ended up in six-month backorders, with Baskin Robbins, Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton and McDonald's. And in every case, everything sold out. Michael, our intern, says he sometimes worries that BTS is doing too much and moving away from its roots - the soulful Korean songs that first drew him in. Still, he says, he's A.R.M.Y. And for A.R.M.Y., BTS is family. And he says A.R.M.Y. - it's everywhere.

HE: Even with NPR internally, there is, like, a little A.R.M.Y. group just - we just share things...

VANEK SMITH: What? There's an NPR A.R.M.Y. group?

HE: Yeah, it's private.

VANEK SMITH: It's private.

HE: It's private.

VANEK SMITH: Really?

HE: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and Dave Blanchard. It was fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STACEY VANEK SMITH AND MICHAEL HE: (Singing) Hot like summer. Yeah, I'm making you sweat like that.

HE: Break it down.

VANEK SMITH: Woo.

HE: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: I feel like we could go on the road (laughter).

HE: We'll open for them. Why not?

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

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