“I have been anticipating a return to the globalized Billboard pop charts of the ’60s for years now…all it took was loosening the stranglehold that radio has muscled on the mainstream for nearly half a century.” - Jakob Dorof, K-pop expert (via The FADER’s Owen Myers)
We’ve seen this before: the Beatles, New Kids on the Block, *NSync, and most recently, One Direction. Lots of high-pitched screaming, lots of security, and a whole lot of people making money.
But since One Direction’s split in 2015, who are American teens going to fangirl/boy over? Simon Cowell/Columbia’s PRETTYMUCH? Maybe. Atlantic’s Why Don’t We? Why not? Both have massive industry machines behind them, and forming only in 2016, they have a lot of runway ahead.
But the real answer (for now, at least) is Korea’s BTS and Latin America’s CNCO. They’re already cruising at 30,000 feet, and they’ve respectively got a global ARMY fandom and an entire continent behind them to take them even further. After all the hair gel and heart-wrenching eye gazes, this international trend is one thing the US hasn’t seen yet.
One Direction for BTS → Up.
To measure BTS with perspective, we’ll use UK’s One Direction (active 2010–2015) as our boy band benchmark. During our two-part deep dive into BTS & CNCO, we’ll present Chartmetric’s data alongside the British boys.
For this first installment, we’re going to focus on BTS (which Romanized, originally is Bangtan Sonyeondan, roughly translated to “Bulletproof Boy Scouts”; which has been shortened to Bangtan Boys; and most recently, now stands for Beyond The Scene).
Chartmetric has a quick Social snapshot bar on every artist’s profile, and here we can see One Direction (1D) still pulls in 7.5 million YouTube views, 6.6K new Spotify followers, and 6.4K Twitter followers daily, and they’re not even active. There is certainly something to be said of some kind of self-generating interest threshold, which Psy’s “Gangnam Style” enjoyed for nearly five years as YouTube’s all-time most viewed video (2012–2017), despite being similarly inactive.
Comparatively, BTS generates 6.6 million YouTube views and 5.1K Spotify followers, on the heels of their British counterparts. However, BTS garners 18K more Twitter followers, 6K more Facebook likes, 16K more Instagram followers, and 8.5K more Wikipedia views.
But the groups couldn’t be at more opposite career phases: BTS is currently enjoying the fruit of a heavily strategic US-focused publicity campaign (AMA performance, Ryan Seacrest, Ellen, Jimmy Kimmel, James Corden), and it is unfair to say that BTS is “better” than 1D in social media statistics. What’s more important is understanding how they got here.
Their origins are similar: a product of Simon Cowell and The X Factor in 2010, 1D was formed from individual contestants. BTS, as a product of Korean music agency Big Hit Entertainment auditions, also cobbled together individually talented singers/rappers/dancers to create its seven-member troupe. But 1D had many British groups as predecessors: Take That, Westlife, Boyzone, and of course, the Fab Four themselves. But as a non-English-native group, BTS’ stateside success is unprecedented.
K-Pop: We’ve Been Here Before.
There are many acts littered on the hypothetical road from Seoul to the US: Rain, BIGBANG, Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls, CL. Psy of 2012’s “Gangnam Style” fame, even with superstar manager Scooter Braun’s help, hasn’t created a meaningful presence stateside. But at first blush, you wouldn’t guess it.
From the 2000s on, Korea’s government-supported, multi-pronged hallyu assault on the global cultural market has been a lesson in soft power: Korean soap dramas, Korean beauty products, and Korean pop music have all flooded the Western Hemisphere to the tune of $4.7 billion in 2016 global revenue, according to Bloomberg & the Korea Creative Content Agency.
It’s so far been led by Korea’s “Big Three” music oligopoly: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. The aforementioned acts and their agencies became conquistadors of East Asia, smashing markets throughout the region. The next logical step was the US, the #1 music market in the world.
Surely the reasons why an international act doesn’t make it in the US are myriad, but culture certainly must be a factor when young, gorgeous, musical shock troops, supported by chaebol-level (conglomerate) financing, can dominate all of East Asia yet barely make an echo in America.
So why has BTS succeeded in the US this time around? While it’s outside of this article’s scope to be comprehensive, I find three factors fascinating: cultural timing, a diverse ARMY fandom, and data as validation.
BTS: K-Pop 2.0, Embodied
Historically speaking, BTS/Big Hit Entertainment is benefiting from those who have come before, preparing the Western market for an East Asian act to achieve commercial success. So this timing, as already discussed, has resulted in BTS being a sort of “K-Pop 2.0” to Americans who have only known a Gangnam Style-ian form of K-Pop. BTS’ predecessors formed a cultural beachhead in mainstream American culture- just like the the Count Basies and Louis Armstrongs made a Jackson 5 or Stevie Wonder possible in the 1960s, or how the Tito Puentes and Carlos Santanas made any J-Los or Ricky Martins possible in the 1990s.
BTS also benefits from the diverse ARMY (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth) fandom highly dedicated to supporting their boys. Popsori’s 24-minute “The Rise of BTS” video runs through 15 points that brought BTS to their current status which includes their unique use of single social media accounts (vice separate members’ on the same platform), a tight network of Korean and international ARMYs that instantly translate new content for each other, and a demonstration of their military-like precision at BTS’ 2017 Billboard Top Social Artist win. While the unexpected landslide (BTS’ 6 million Twitter followers beat out six-time winner Justin Bieber’s 95 million) exposed some of the xenophobic barriers any Asian act still faces in the states, it also shows how ARMYs are less attached to aged stereotypes of who their favorite music group should look like, come from, or even if they speak English or not (Nam-joon excluded, of course.)
A shining example of K-pop fandom power, they assemble their globally-dispersed ranks through dedicated mobile fandom apps like Amino, faithfully bring their ARMY “bombs” ($50 lights) to shows, and memorize fan chants synchronized with specific BTS songs (see video above). 1D surely has their “Directioners” fandom…but did they rehearse? The BTS ARMY, empowered by their freedom from close-minded stereotypes of Asian artists and a diligent mastery of digital coordination, simply brings fandom to another level.
Lastly, BTS has the data validation to back up all the hype, and for all its prejudices, the US loves a winner. In September 2017, two months prior to their American media blitz, BTS went from under 200 playlists (virtually all personal Spotify accounts) to 431 playlists (to include the #1 and #2 Spotify playlists: Today’s Top Hits & Global Top 50). This increased their playlist follower exposure from 1 million (mostly K-pop insiders) to a mainstream audience with over 66 million, a 6600% increase. No matter who you are or where you come from, this ARMY-powered, by-the-numbers credibility validated this “unknown” group in the eyes of American media, greenlighting their November media run on the biggest talk shows in US pop culture.
Prior to that, the kindle to their current fire was Spotify’s K-pop Hub, rolled out sequentially to East Asia, North America, Latin America, Oceania, then Europe between 2015–2017. This should be a pretty suggestive measure of where K-pop is most popular. The Hub features 29 Spotify-curated playlists including K-Pop Daebak (Korean for “cool”; 917K follows), Korean OSTs (for the popular K-dramas; 663K follows), and of course, This Is: BTS (589K follows).
YouTube Virality: 1D & BTS
“…If you put K-pop fandom on an equal setting to [fans of] the Western artists that are huge around the world, you totally get to witness their power.” — Jeff Benjamin, Billboard K-pop columnist (via The FADER’s Owen Myers)
“Good for BTS making it in the States…but there’s no way they’re giving One Direction a run for their money…” one might think. But if we measure each band’s fanbase virality, purely through YouTube Views…BTS is 2–3x more viral than One Direction. Directioners: hear me out.
Let’s perform a time-shift approach: 1D’s last major M/V release (pre-Zayn Malik’s departure) was the ballad “Night Changes” (record released Nov 14 2014), while BTS’s most recent M/V was the electropop “DNA” (record released Sept 18 2017).
I reached back 75 days before each group’s release date to capture that period’s median/average daily view activity, looked forward 10 days to capture the following reaction, and synced each release to “Day 0".
Recall from our Chartmetric YouTube FAQ video that Google uses Content ID to use all user-generated content (UGC), as well as the official M/V, to increase View Count.
- Already eye-opening is the daily view medians: BTS’ daily views (18.2M views/day), was 2.3 times as big as 1D’s (7.3M views/day). Note: using medians (vs. averages) is the conservative method here, as we are essentially minimizing large outliers like BTS’ Love Yourself: Her EP release at Day -62.
2. The highest post-release spike for BTS clocked at 123% above its median, 2.67 times as big as 1D’s (46%), and twice as big in magnitude (40M vs. 19.6M). This seems to fall in line with the purposeful ARMY fandom who likely pumped up release day views through pure love and coordinated action.
3. 1D reveals slow and steady count growth (.90% median / 1.38% average) over this period, while BTS shows 3.37 times (4.66%) 1D’s average growth (1.38%). BTS unexpectedly featured a negative median decline (-1%), suggesting its mercurial nature more than makes up for its quieter in-between release periods.
All in all, this small window into the data hints at exciting potential, and how the geographical proportions of BTS’ growing fan base evolve will be the next chapter of their story.
Hold on to those Earplugs…
BTS, standing on the shoulders of their Korean predecessors, Gen Z digital power, and a highly strategic Western play by Big Hit Entertainment, is pioneering K-Pop 2.0’s moves stateside. While it is unfair to say that a practically defunct 1D is beaten by a rising BTS by the numbers, it is arguable that BTS’ fanbase by both sheer volume and its dynamic viral nature is helping to fuel a brand new Western boy band culture that, empowered by digital streaming, is reflecting its diverse tastes.
Tune in for the next chapter of Chartmetric’s deep dive into the current boy band craze: Latin American heartthrobs CNCO.
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Author’s edit (Dec 6): Through a series of Tweets and helpful re-directs to other BTS research, I’ve corrected a presumption that diverse BTS support mainly came from “Gen Z” fans, which I now realize I did not have actual data on. I’m humbled and thankful for the lesson.