Chairman and CEO Bang Si-hyuk, middle, photographed Oct. 15, 2020, the day his firm, Big Hit Entertainment, debuted on the Korea Exchange in Seoul. To his left, Jiwon Park, Big Hit CEO of HQ & Management; proper, Lenzo Yoon Big CEO of Global & Business.

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Chairman and CEO Bang Si-hyuk, middle, photographed Oct. 15, 2020, the day his firm, Big Hit Entertainment, debuted on the Korea Exchange in Seoul. To his left, Jiwon Park, Big Hit CEO of HQ & Management; proper, Lenzo Yoon Big CEO of Global & Business.

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BTS is Bang Si-hyuk’s biggest power and largest vulnerability.

The seven-member group from South Korea has succeeded to a historic diploma, far past anybody’s creativeness – even Bang’s. His firm, Big Hit Entertainment, just lately went public on the inventory market, making chairman Bang, its largest shareholder, a billionaire. When BTS just lately turned the primary Korean act to high Billboard’s Hot 100, with the one “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 along with his crew, Bang Si-hyuk, a brief, bespectacled man nearing his fifties, has made “K-pop” a world family identify, significantly within the U.S. But now, they’re confronted 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 movie 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 quite a few, and sometimes groundbreaking: from a debut single that peaked at 124th within the Korean charts, BTS turned the primary Korean artist to win on the Billboard Music Awards in 2017, launched the primary Korean album to go gold within the U.S., and holds the world file for essentially the most Twitter engagements ever, together with quite a few different achievements. Thanks to BTS, Big Hit grew astronomically in parallel, and was named the fourth-most revolutionary firm on the earth in 2020 by Fast Company.

In South Korea, BTS is not only a music group. For many right here, BTS’s success within the West is the premiere expression and end result of Korean tender energy, or the “Korean Wave” – the worldwide export of Korean tradition generates billions of {dollars} in income yearly. Its most worthwhile participant is the gaming business, adopted (far behind, it have to be stated) by music – predominantly, Okay-pop idol music.

When BTS first debuted in 2013, only a few in Korea predicted them to be the following huge factor. “Nobody paid attention to BTS or Big Hit,” remembers Kim Youngdae, a music critic for the reason that late Nineties and writer of BTS The Review. In 2013, Big Hit was a small fish in a music market dominated by three corporations: SM, YG and JYP (every an acronym for the identify of its founder – Lee Soo-man, Yang Hyun-suk and Park Jin-young, respectively). Countless idol acts got here and went. Although Bang himself was a revered producer for JYP, his personal firm hadn’t produced any memorable hits since its creation in 2005. Failure was the norm.

Notable, although, was Glam, the primary lady group Bang ever produced, which debuted a 12 months earlier than BTS. Already, Bang was fascinated by the intersection of music and expertise: Glam carried out 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 extra mainstream fame was a blackmailing scandal involving a member and a distinguished actor, main the group to disband in 2015.

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The Okay-pop idol group GLAM, photographed on Dec. 29, 2012 in Seoul.

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The Okay-pop idol group GLAM, photographed on Dec. 29, 2012 in Seoul.

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Before BTS, Bang was famend as a producer and composer, however not a lot is thought about his personal life. Bang has stated he is a big fan of Duran Duran, reads anime each evening, and cries simply throughout corny film 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 stated in a 2011 interview.

Bang was born in Seoul in 1972, within the midst of a army dictatorship that censored free expression, together with music. But American tradition seeped in by channels like AFKN (American Forces Korean Network), in a rustic that also hosts tens of hundreds 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 mother and father: his father, Bang Geuk-yoon, was the chairman of a authorities group on labor rights. His mom, Choi Myeong-ja, obtained a level in English lit at Seoul National University (SNU) — a uncommon feat for a girl of that technology. Bang adopted in her footsteps to SNU, a dream faculty to many Koreans. But, a lot to his mother and father’ disappointment, he majored in aesthetics, not legislation.

“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 began his music profession within the mid-to-late Nineties, Korea had remodeled right into a younger democracy. Popular music was altering shortly, led by the likes of Kim Wan-sun and Seo Taiji and Boys, setting the inspiration for the fashionable Okay-pop idol business, which might ultimately domesticate studio-trained stars and arranged fandoms.

“When I started, I didn’t have much talent in music,” Bang stated 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 stated he’d apply till his thighs broke out in a warmth rash.

“Si-hyuk is a genius,” stated singer Baek Jiyoung, who labored with Bang within the 2000s. “But he rejects the label. I think he is an extreme perfectionist.”

A set of songs produced by Bang Si-hyuk in chronological order, starting in 1999.

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“There was no critical moment at which I decided to do music,” Bang stated at an SNU commencement 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 just lately, Bang presents himself as exactly that man: “We will become the best entertainment and lifestyle platform company in the world,” he declared on Oct. 15 this 12 months, when Big Hit debuted on the inventory market at double its preliminary worth, South Korea’s largest debut in three years.

Bang based Big Hit, serendipitously in hindsight, the identical 12 months that YouTube, which might later be so central to BTS’ success, was launched. “At the time [2005] that I started my company, physical album sales were abruptly going down and digital sales were not coming up to compensate,” Bang advised Time in 2019. But he noticed alternative in Okay-pop idols, who, armed with passionate followers, appeared to have extra various income streams, particularly on-line.

BTS took a very long time to take form: Originally, the group was conceived as a hip-hop crew, scheduled to debut in 2011. A 12 months prior, in 2010, Bang had signed RM (Rap Monster) because the putative chief of the group. “But when I considered the business context, I thought a K-pop idol model made more sense,” Bang stated of the pivot. After a lot 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, Okay-pop’s idol music was already widespread in lots of non-Western markets, significantly Asia. But sustained success within the U.S. music market, the world’s largest and most influential, was nonetheless elusive.

Bang was intimately acquainted with Okay-pop’s aspirations within the U.S., significantly as an in depth good friend of JYP Entertainment founder and CEO Park Jin-young, whose firm is broadly seen as a pioneer of the business’s preliminary ventures, and failures, within 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 time period “K-pop” had but to be totally outlined, or a lot 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 a minimum of twice every week to work on Jinju’s first album, on which Bang helped create eight of its 10 songs.

The singer Jinju labored with Bang Si-hyuk early in each of their careers, she a singer and he a producer, at a time when the which means of Okay-pop had but to calcify.

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“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 notorious for being strict along 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 start of JYP’s string of Okay-pop hits, which would come with “first-generation idol” g.o.d. (“groove overdose”), ballad group 2AM, the seminal Wonder Girls and, extra just lately, globally profitable idols like TWICE and ITZY. Bang was typically on the coronary heart of those initiatives, producing with Park. In the 2000s, Bang would acquire the nickname he nonetheless makes use of right now, “Hitman Bang,” for his successes within the Korean market.

From very early on the 2, like many Okay-pop gamers, shared a dream of spreading Korean music to the U.S., effectively past Bang’s former workplace in Gangnam. The U.S. mainstream was an enormous a 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 stated in 2011.

As early as 2003, Bang and Park have been attempting to interrupt into the U.S. – Park recalled how tough 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 one other spherical of rejections, a battle erupted over laundry, which Bang was in control of. Park had, as soon as once more, crumpled up his socks. Bang Si-hyuk had had sufficient.

“Seriously, the socks again?” Bang yelled, in keeping with Park’s recollection. “What the hell is that tone? I’m older than you!” Park yelled again.

Jinju remembers these fights (though 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 largest idol lady group of the mid-to-late 2000s. (Wonder Girls didn’t make an impression within the U.S., though they briefly made it onto Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2009.)

There have been different one-off hits from elsewhere within the business: Girls Generation (produced by SM) carried out on Late Night with David Letterman in 2012. The identical 12 months, Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (launched on YG) went viral on YouTube, main many distinguished U.S. publications to write about Okay-pop severely for the primary 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 got here BTS.

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BTS, photographed throughout a presentation on Aug. 10 at KCON 2014 in Los Angeles, one 12 months after the seven made their group debut.

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BTS, photographed throughout a presentation on Aug. 10 at KCON 2014 in Los Angeles, one 12 months after the seven made their group debut.

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There are quite a few theories as to how BTS turned what it has turn out to be. Bang himself has repeatedly expressed shock, attributing the success to luck. “It wasn’t my brilliant strategy or BTS being such a perfect fit for the U.S. market,” he advised 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 advertising got here partly out of necessity. Especially in early days, Big Hit could not compete in mainstream media like SM, YG and JYP. But Big Hit additionally confirmed a savvy — and looseness — that different labels appeared to lack.

Even earlier than debuting, BTS members have been importing vlogs and private posts on social media, that are nonetheless key to their relationships with followers. Over the years, the boys would construct a formidable archive of mundane moments: petting a canine (for 4 minutes), portray (for 36 minutes), speaking about insecurities, resolving conflicts, or simply staring on the digital camera whereas consuming an apple. A seeming lack of modifying 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 writer of BTS, Art Revolution. “BTS members had their own accounts, in which they talked freely with fans.”

One memorable second was a barrage of drunk Twitter posts from V and Jungkook in 2014, when V was lastly of authorized consuming age. “BTS’s tweets were hilarious,” remembers 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 advised Time. “They speak out when they want to and I don’t say what they should or shouldn’t do.”

Fans say it isn’t nearly character advertising, which is not distinctive to BTS. Plenty of pop stars worldwide, although maybe not as successfully as BTS, seem on selection reveals, documentaries, social media, and so on., creating a picture of intimacy and accessibility.

Music, followers 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, by which members actively contribute to most songs, displays the nuances of rising up. Suga raps in regards to the “gray hairs of greed and ambition” throughout his three years as a trainee. J-Hope sings about his mom, who needed to work abroad to help his music. There are love letters to a piano, one another, even their first dormitory, the place “the wallpaper, bathroom and veranda were all blue,” and the place the boys would battle, even bodily. “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 advised 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 emphasised repeatedly that BTS’s private storytelling is on the coronary heart of the group. “I think the most important part of being a singer is the will to communicate something,” he stated. BTS could have that can, however folks would not have heard them — a minimum of, to not this scale — with out Bang’s perspective towards the fandom and his expertise for capitalizing on it.

Bang is deeply conscious 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 stated throughout 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 important. Millions of followers mobilize worldwide to vote throughout awards seasons, or to increase $1 million for Black Lives Matter. As a tiny tip of the social-media iceberg, BTS’s official YouTube account has almost 40 million subscribers and over 6 billion views. BTS was the most-tweeted-about musical act in the united statesduring the primary 6 months of quarantine this 12 months.

Even earlier than BTS was BTS, followers have been campaigning as volunteer entrepreneurs. Notable is BTSx50States, a 2017 marketing campaign within the U.S. to “educate” native radio stations, introduce BTS to the market and, ultimately, attain 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 performed “Not Today” for the primary time, followers despatched the station flowers, donuts and handwritten letters. Fans are the “core and goal” of the “Big Hit winning formula,” says world CEO Lenzo Yoon, who has been instrumental within the firm’s enterprise 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 huge: it isn’t simply the albums, whose tales are linked. There are a number of channels, together with video games, animated characters, novels and “Easter eggs” (hidden clues) in music movies, that emphasize intertextuality and encourage fan participation.

Big Hit’s fandom-building methods, although, will not be distinctive. “They’ve built upon what was already happening for years before,” says Mulligan, significantly 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 makes use of references from his personal life to tell BTS content material. For instance, he’d learn The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, a sci-fi novel a few seemingly idyllic metropolis that sustains its prosperity by abusing a baby. The identify “Omelas” turned a central motif in BTS’s “Spring Day.” Since the video was revealed, quite a few devoted followers have created spin-off content material analyzing the connection.

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Not all of Big Hit’s engagement ventures are instantly widespread with BTS followers. Recently, a gaggle of followers have threatened Big Hit with authorized motion, protesting in opposition to a BTS tv sequence at the moment within the works. Fans say the plot is sensational and unrelated to the precise lives of BTS members. Over 97% of 14,000 objected to the characters being named after the boys, in accordance to a fan survey. True to ARMY style, some have began a social media marketing campaign urging Big Hit to cease manufacturing.”

The richest land in the BTS world, though, is Weverse, a “one-stop service for Big Hit’s music enterprise,” 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 throughout 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 each day customers. Today, the platform consists of A-list Okay-pop artists outdoors the Big Hit label.

“I might 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 file labels aren’t even beginning the race of monetizing fandom but, as a result of they’re so obsessive about constructing 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 value extra than SM, YG and JYP mixed. It includes 4 music labels, seven household corporations, and round 1,000 staff. Its most up-to-date hires embrace energy gamers like CEO Park Jiwon, a key determine within the Korean IT business, and Chief Brand Officer Min Heejin, previously the inventive 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, typically known as the “Google of Korea.” According to business sources cited in that article, over 100 staff in varied IT corporations have transferred to Big Hit, together with skills from Naver and Kakao.

Not everyone seems to be 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 income. In 2019, the boy band, all of whom are due for Korea’s necessary army conscription within the subsequent few years, generated 97% of the corporate’s gross 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, previously of Ticketmaster and Twitter and now CEO of Rival, a tech platform for dwell occasions. “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 worth appears to be deflating. Since Oct. 15, the corporate’s shares have dropped towards their unique worth of 135,000 gained, or round $115, per share. Big Hit is hurrying to diversify its artist pool however, to date, no different acts have come even near 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 appear aware of that worth. BTS members have been comparatively open about their psychological well being and the strains of success. Suga raps within 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 completely 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 caught in a hamster wheel of recreating an unbelievable success right into a ‘successful method.’ At a current company briefing, usually seen as an vital platform for traders, he stated, “We must be able to reproduce success.”

Is Bang Si-hyuk trapped in his personal success story?

“I firmly believe that a second and third BTS must and can come into being,” he stated 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 reply these questions; Big Hit declined NPR’s interview requests, citing scheduling difficulties.

Big Hit is on the forefront of recent music, altering the best way artists are produced, and extra importantly, how they convey with their viewers. In the years to return, the best way BTS makes use of social media and platform expertise to interact with followers can have far-reaching results past Okay-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 formally seven years outdated, making the group one of many older boy bands round. With one other album popping out on Friday, Bang and BTS are nonetheless on high of the world. Although Bang has publicly professed his religion that BTS will stay collectively for a very long time — their contract ends in 2024 — no one can predict how the band will evolve. The firm is beneath intense stress to succeed. Can Bang keep as open-minded and versatile towards different Big Hit artists, as he claims to have been towards BTS?

“These days I often think, what makes a person’s mind close?” Bang stated at his alma mater’s commencement ceremony final 12 months; almost three a long time after his personal. “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 remains to be on the coronary heart of Big Hit. “Never forget the love you have for music, and the gratitude you feel for your fans,” he advised BTS in 2017. At a company briefing a couple of years later, he reiterated, “No matter how the market changes, our core values remain ‘content’ and ‘fans.’ We focus on the fundamentals.” But his enterprise empire is unrecognizably extra advanced than when he began in 2005. It’s not at all times straightforward to concentrate on the basics, when there are such a lot of extra folks, a lot extra noise. Perhaps that is Bang’s greatest problem in the long term: to maintain his toes on the bottom, and keep in mind what sounds good.