The BTS Effect: The Changing Trajectory of Fan Economy
If you haven’t been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard about the global sensation that is Korean pop music, popularly abbreviated as K-pop. Stunning visuals, million-dollar production and breathtakingly beautiful choreography, accompanied by staggering views on streaming platforms are all synonymous with K-pop music. But, has it always been this way?
Park Jae-sang, known professionally as Psy, is a South Korean singer, rapper, songwriter, and record producer. His international hit, ‘Gangnam Style’ which was released in 2012, was arguably the first song classified under the K-pop genre that managed to get a breakthrough into the US market. Unfortunately, the song ‘Gangnam Style’ was considered a chance success and the hype around K-pop started to dwindle much like the popularity of the song.
Then came forth BTS or Bangtan Sonyeondan (“Bulletproof Boy Scouts”), a South Korean boy band of seven members- RM, Suga, J-Hope, Jin, V, Jungkook and Jimin who would go on to change the face of K-pop music forever.
Most K-pop music traditionally relies on visual and auditory stimulation for its fruition and rarely has philosophical or complex lyrics. What makes BTS different from all its predecessors? BTS revolutionized K-pop by providing commentary on the social fabric of South Korea through their lyrics, challenging the popular notion that K-pop music is just meaningless melody. Their anti-conservative lyrics deeply resonate with a huge section of youth all across the globe, which was previously severely underrepresented in mainstream K-pop media. Their open support for the LGBTQIA+ community, music which critiques the social pressure put on younger generations and willingness to share their mental health struggles with their fans, propelled forward their wagon towards global domination.
There is another facet to this idol-fan relationship; a $4 Billion USD industry run on the emotional capital of fans ubiquitously.
Fan Economy and the Emotional Capital
The term ‘Fan Economy’ was first coined by Scholar Yang Ling and is used to represent “a kind of operation mode used to obtain economic and social benefits through promoting the users’ loyalty to optimize the effect of word-of-mouth marketing”. In simpler terms, fan economy encompasses the revenue generated by fans when they consume music or products from the artists they enjoy. In order to extract maximum benefits from the interactions, companies curate the music and behavior of idols to suit the image that they think the audience wants.
Big Hit Entertainment, the record label of BTS has managed to elevate seven young men from small provinces in South Korea to the global sensation that they are today. Needless to say, they are the masters of controlling and diverting fan economy in their favor and have quickly made a name for themselves in the business world too.
BTS's economic impact has amounted to over 1.7 trillion won (the national currency of South Korea) which roughly amounts to 1.5 billion US dollars, and continues to grow exponentially both in South Korea and overseas.
According to a December 2018 report by the Hyundai Research Institute (HRI), if BTS continues to maintain their global success till 2023, the group will be able to generate over 56 trillion won ($49.8 billion USD) in a decade, between the course of their debut in 2013 to 2023; surpassing the economic capital generated by 2018’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which amounted to 41.6 trillion won in comparison.
The Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE) has projected that as many as 800,000 tourists visit South Korea every year for BTS-related reasons. Reports have also stated that exploring the cities where BTS first flourished could be the sole reason why 7.6% of all tourists visit South Korea. It is quite an extraordinary accomplishment; for a single boy band to impact a country’s tourism so remarkably.
BTS’s impressive economic impact, much like their popularity, is not restricted to South Korea solely. Their unduplicated amalgamation of talent and authenticity have positively influenced the tourism and hospitality of foreign cities which host their tours. Their weekend performance in 2019, at the Wembley Stadium in London alone accumulated over $13 million USD in just a matter of a couple days.
Their recent hit ‘Dynamite’ made history by topping the Billboard Hot Hundred Chart three times, a milestone which has never been conquered by American and non-American artists alike. The disco pop with its funky rhythm has had an effect of 1.7 Trillion won on South Korea’s economy.
Psychological Intimacy is at the Core of Fan Economy
Fan economy is propelled forward by the success of the artists, which is a direct result of the support fans provide their idols. But what drives individual fans to actively invest in brands endorsed by the artists and buy merchandise they might not have direct use of? The answer is psychological intimacy; established with years of shared success and failure, smiles and tears alike.
Their social media presence on popular platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, V-live and Weverse (an app developed by BigHit itself), all attribute to the synergetic bond BTS have managed to create with their fans despite the language barrier. Their influence has exponentially increased the social media engagements of other South Korean celebrities as well, even those who have never been associated with BTS. Likewise, exports of consumer goods manufactured in South Korea like cosmetics, clothing and food is estimated to increase by $312 Million USD, generating over 8,000 new jobs in South Korea as suggested in a report by South Korea's Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
This bewildering economic impact has only been realized by the unfaltering support of their huge and very well organized fandom called ARMY (Adorable Representatives of MC of Youth). ARMY fan accounts across social media organize ‘streaming parties’ and ‘donation drives’ to help sustain the incredible influence and support BTS have garnered overtime. What distinguishes BTS ARMY from other fandoms? They are no strangers to breaking streaming records when it comes to Billboard charts, but they made international headlines last year when they managed to match, and ultimately overcome the $1 million USD donations made by BTS towards the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. That was one of the numerous occasions wherein the BTS fandom utilized their might towards uplifting and funding social and environmental causes.
The World Economic Forum (an international forum for powerful business leaders and top economists) drafted a report where they highlighted BTS’s effect on the globalization of Korean culture and language. BTS’s global success is often considered against “cultural odds” as Korean is not even in the top 10 of the World’s most spoken languages. BTS members also received the Order of Cultural Merit on October 24, 2018 for their admirable services to the Korean culture and economy, becoming the youngest recipients of the same. Their unwavering support for their culture by refusing to produce an all-English album, even after numerous suggestions from American labels and radio hosts has resulted in an enormous increase in the number of people applying to learn Korean. The snowballing popularity of K-dramas is also a direct result of BTS’s rise to fame.
The BTS Effect is in India Too!
The Indian BTS ARMY raised over 2 Lakhs in a single day for Covid relief funds. It also comes as no surprise then that India is also the third highest streamer of all BTS related content on YouTube. The pandemic proved to be an accelerator for the already swelling media presence of BTS in India; their interview with NDTV being a testimony of the same. Reports also suggest that there is an increasing level of students opting for Korean as the elective foreign language at both academic and professional level.
BTS’s growing popularity in India can be measured by the simple fact that BTS related trends are seen occupying the top ten spots on Twitter India quite frequently, be it for raising awareness or simply squealing over a member when they don a new look.
It goes without saying that fan economy has come a long way and no longer comprises just the idol and the fan. This fast evolving alternative creative industry might just be the need of the hour and its impact remains unparalleled.