To label BTS the reigning kings of K-pop would be no hyperbole. In the past five years, few bands anywhere have accomplished more. Similarly few producers have earned the influence and industry-wide respect of Bang Si-hyuk, its founder.
The following interview was first published (in Korean) shortly after the band’s June 2013 debut. Bang speaks candidly to Cha Woo-jin, of the music site [weiv], about BTS’s early priorities and how his company shaped itself around them. For Bang, artistry is central. He and Cha end up going back on forth on the intricacies of building the band’s sound around another of its strengths, stage performance. But in 2013, Bang’s mind was also on the realities of navigating a competitive industry as CEO. Their conversation starts there. — TD
Cha Woo-jin: I notice that you have the book The CEO’s Way on your desk. Given that you’re no longer producing, that seems especially significant. You stopped while you were preparing to debut BTS. Up till now, you were the face of Big Hit Entertainment. Why did you decide to take a step back, and hand over to Pdogg?
Bang Si-hyuk: First, I haven’t finished the book. I bought it because I was curious about what CEOs are supposed to do. I don’t really enjoy being the front man. Even when I used to go on TV shows to promote the BigHit brand, I always said to our company executives and employees, “There will come a day when I lose my touch. When that day comes, if I’m the only thing the company’s relying on, what will we have achieved? If we stay on that path, are we not just expanding my personal network?” So we created a system and experimented many times to operate the company using music composed by other people. To keep it short, we’re still in transition. In creating the system, there were many failures, but the biggest culprit was me. There was a lot of trial and error. If we ended up using my composition as the title song because it was the best one after listening to all the songs, then it was like the other BigHit composers were nonexistent. And I’m not a very friendly person, so when I would give critical assessments of their songs, the composers would get hurt. That happened over and over again. Nevertheless, a system was a necessity, so I thought we’d try different things for at least a year, to three years at most. If it wasn’t for BTS, the company might still be experimenting.
Cha: Could you tell us more about what you were experimenting with?
Bang: Both management and music. In terms of music, I started participating less and less in 2AM’s albums, and I was far from being at the center with Glam as well. In terms of management, BTS hasn’t yet produced results, but I believe that I’ve achieved the fundamentals I wanted to accomplish. First, everyone at the company feels attached to the groups. They’ve all worked together to bring them up, you know. And it had been a long time since we’d worked on a boy group. These two things created tremendous energy to propel us forward. Company owners often talk about their employees having to have “love for their company” but it’s not something that you can force on them. It happens when the workers like the results and the projects they’re participating in. I’m also happy with the system as well. I rarely “confirm” stuff these days. The ones in charge are doing it well themselves. I’ve never been fans of idols, so our staff know more than me about the way the fans feel about them. As for the music, Pdogg is well versed in hip hop. He’s done all kinds of hard work at BigHit, and we used to get into fights, but he had a kind of ambition, or hope, to make BTS himself. He participated in the whole process of casting and training members. I was one of the first to be involved in the development of new recording artists in the Korean entertainment industry, and I learned a lot while working at JYP. But there is a huge gap between having the knowledge and actually developing people in the way I want. So I think it took several years figuring out how to translate that knowledge into practice. You can say that my philosophy and worldview is reflected in BTS. Our New Artist Development Team has the determination to create artists who love music and the stage. If you don’t like music, you’re eliminated, and if you can’t show your passion for music, you’re eliminated even if you’re good at everything else. BTS members work crazy hard at music. FYI, we don’t tell them what to do or what not to do. We don’t take their phones away or set a curfew. We tell them, “Do whatever you want. But get out if there’s no development.” We don’t force lessons on them either. Personal assignments are the only things that we criticize. For instance, when they bring their own choreographed dances, we tell them whether it’s good or not. Locking up the kids who don’t want to dance in a room and teaching them twelve hours a day—that’s not my style.
Cha: It seems like you treat them as adults.
Bang: Yes, that’s how I am. I don’t like treating people like kids. Perhaps until third grade or something. But I believe that from then on you can tell what’s right and what’s wrong. Of course, if you’re younger you act more on impulse, so you might get into trouble. But you don’t know what’s right from wrong? That’s not true. When you’re young, you think that you’re more adult than you are. I started thinking that I was an adult when I was in fourth grade. Then in middle school, I got annoyed at people for lecturing me about life. So I don’t think it’s necessary to tell young people what to do or what not to do. I simply tell them that they are responsible for their choices. And there’s one more thing for BTS. We wouldn’t be here together if they didn’t like hip hop. I mean, you can’t really teach people to love hip hop.
Cha: This is one intimidating company!
Bang Si-hyuk: Actually, I don’t think it’s as intimidating as other companies. There aren’t many out there that acknowledge the work the trainees put in on their own. It’s not intimidating—they’re only judged by their talent.
Cha: I’d like to ask you more about the company. What is the organizational structure of BigHit like?
Bang: Well, we have the Business Management Team, and Artist Management, New Artist Development, Artists & Repertoire, Visual Creative, and Strategy Task Force Teams. And we have the Global Business Team, led by the vice president and the director of the Japanese branch.
Cha: Of the teams you mentioned, I’m most interested in New Artist Development, Artists Management, and A&R. Isn’t the New Artist Development Team one of the more important teams?
Bang: The New Artist Development Team’s work ends with the photo shoot for the first album cover, and they then turn over the duties to the Artist Management Team. Once the countdown for the debut begins, then the Artist Management Team takes full responsibility for the artists. Their managers move in with the artists and learn from the Development Team. The New Artist Development Team’s role is to find and teach new artists. Prior to the debut, the Business Management Team’s PR and fan management people teach the artists about the media, communication, and how to respond to fans. When the Artist Management Team takes charge, that’s when they actually get to learn about living as celebrities in Korea.
Cha: Where’s the line that separates the roles of the A&R and the New Artist Development Teams?
Bang: Their roles are completely different. A&R stands for artists and repertoire, so the team is in charge of managing the recording studios and scheduling recording and other album related schedules. The Artist Management Team also works with them. But the most important thing the A&R Team does is getting songs. In our company, for instance, the A&R Team proposes the music styles and composers for artists such as 2AM, Lim Jeong-hee, Lee Hyun. And New Artist Development is a place that creates artists who have the skill and qualifications to go on stage. So the team is in charge of teaching the artists to sing while dancing. That’s the most important thing, and laying the foundation for the artists’ character, so that the artists can make their own choices after they debut. I think that’s why the New Artist Development Team feels overlooked after the artists make their debut. Because they’re only criticized after the artists debut. No matter how hard they work, they rarely receive compliments, since the artists who haven’t yet debuted aren’t perfect. And even if the singers do well on stage, all the praise and compliments are directed at me, so the New Artist Development Team doesn’t get a lot of chances to receive positive feedback on their work.
Cha: So that’s the team that works really hard behind the scenes? (Bang: Yes, that’s right.) I heard that Pdogg learned about RM and suggested him to you. In this case, did RM go straight to the New Artist Development Team?
Bang: Yes. I sent him right over. At the time, there wasn’t much of a system, but now we spend about three months to make sure the new arrivals like music and if they have what it takes to be trainees. So for three months, we tell them to schedule their own lessons and training sessions. The company doesn’t intervene at all. Then we do a short, basic assessment. If they like music, have good attitude, have the skills, and personality, then we start personalized lessons. Starting then, I also give directions as to what to teach and how to teach them. And then we wait and train them without a deadline. Then about a year before the official debut, we form a task force team. (The BTS Task Force, for instance consisted of the key staff members of the project from each department.) Every week, we record their lessons, have meetings, and figure out who to put in the group, replacing ones that need to be replaced, and further developing the ones that need to develop. We focus on that until the very end. In that process, each artists gets to create his own style. Then three months before the debut, we assign a performance director to the team. Then for the last three months, they send me a recording of their rehearsals every day, and I criticize them. It’s a repetition of fixing and changing. As for BTS, three months before they debuted, I gave them a lot of homework and checked on them every day.
Cha: Could you tell us about the details of the basic assessment?
Bang: Usually, we let the kids choose their own song and choreography. The instructor only tells them what’s good and what’s not. And we conduct these assessments every month.
Cha: So it’s an internal audition?
Bang: Right. But when RM came, we didn’t have the basic assessment program. (Cha: That was three years ago?) Yes. As soon as we started the BTS project three years ago, I assigned the trainees rappers, hired new teachers, and told them what to do. And the trainees had a really difficult time. And our company encourages independence, but there were kids who only listened when they were supervised. We even hired a psychiatrist to head a project team and design the program to teach the trainees about building character. And based on that, we turned this into a system and finally created a basic assessment system to evaluate everything. And I basically told the New Artist Development Team that I don’t want to talk to someone who doesn’t like music.
Cha: How can you be a singer if you don’t like music?
Bang: I don’t want to talk to kids who just want to be entertainers. Of course, it’s great that they want to enter the entertainment industry, because that requires talent. But what I mean is, I don’t want to work with someone whose goal is to become an entertainer and is simply using music to achieve that end. So it’s a matter of priority. It’s a completely different story if you like music and do it and become a celebrity through that. On the other hand, I also don’t like people who say, “I like music, and being an entertainer is a means to achieve that end”. Because then you can just do music off stage. I believe that you have to love both music and the stage.
Cha: The term “entertainer” only started being used in Korea recently. Even the concept of it didn’t really exist in the 1990s.
Bang: Right. I want people who love music, are willing to work on their own, and have talent—sort of like a polyhedron, multifaceted. Fortunately, when BTS made its debut, I think my needs and the market’s needs were perfectly aligned. These days, K-pop idols are required to have some kind of aura as an artist, aside from their talent. People who don’t need to be taught but to just bring out that thing that’s inside them. I think our company is just a guide that helps them realize that.
Cha: Usually when people outside of the industry look at new idol groups, they think “What kind of concept did the company choose?”, but after interviewing the key figures involved in the BTS project, it seems that everyone on the project team was centered on the BTS members.
Bang: From the get-go we wanted members who were sure about what they wanted to do, and I’m happy that that’s what we ended up getting. But we can’t rely completely on the members. They have the basics, and the company provides whatever is lacking. One of the special things about BTS is that the members negotiate with the management to set their own schedules instead of working on a set schedule. Since the members have to make their own music as well, they have to learn to manage their own schedules. Because if they don’t, then we don’t get the next album. They have clear opinions on what they want to wear as well. So their own philosophies account for more than half of BTS’s image.
Cha: It seems that BTS is pointing in the direction that BigHit wants to head in as an entertainment company.
Bang: That’s absolutely correct. As we debuted BTS, I also decided on the direction of my identity as the CEO of an entertainment company, and where I should be headed. It was an opportunity for me to figure out the details of the vague ideas I had. “From now on, I’ll take such and such people and produce them this or that way. And apply this aspect globally…” Those are the parts that became clear to me.
Cha: When BigHit debuted Glam, people seemed surprised, like “BigHit created an idol group?” It was like a bottled water company suddenly entering the soda industry. What kind of decisions did you make, considering that the company didn’t have experience with idol groups?
Bang: I think that’s more about the trend of the music industry than the company’s color. I thought that it would be impossible to create a meaningful entertainment company in the industry with only non-idol singers. If you want to work with music groups that are not idols, then it’s best to simply work with a manager. I could just write good music and produce, and the manger promotes, and the profits would be divided in half. But rather than this system, I wanted to create a company that would become significant in the industry and propose something like a role model. Like SM Entertainment. I think SM is a company that created a model that kept on growing, independent of the ups and downs of the rest of the music industry. I started producing idol groups thinking that we need to propose a role model for the industry like SM did. And it wasn’t easy. I thought things would be good if we had good songs, but that wasn’t everything. Succeeding in the K-pop market comes down to more than my personal abilities or a good song—it comes down to how you target the audience. So I did a ton of study on new artist development, with a focus on idols. All the staff got together for discussions. But you can’t accumulate know-how by studying. I realized that you need more than the producer’s intuition, and I took a large step back.
Cha: It seems that you’ve thought a lot about the direction and the vision of BitHit in the structural and industrial context. But even then, don’t the marketability and commercial viability involve personal decisions? As in Glam and the Vocaloid SeeU performing together, or debuting BTS, which is a hip hop idol group.
Bang: I believe that’s an important quality that not only ‘artistic’ CEOs but all CEOs must have. It’s not something that simply comes from analyzing the market. The first thing about making such decisions is that you need to like it. I believe it’s probably the same for Samsung and Apple. The most important thing is whether you like it or not. And second, is your intuition. I fully rely on my likes and my intuition when making the big decisions and I take all the responsibility for them as well. I think that the executives, at least, see that as my role. Back in the day, those were the two things I relied on when making songs as well, but not anymore. And I’m not sure about the fans. I can’t usually decide between A and B when it comes to content for fans, but the Fan Management Team knows right away. When I ask, “A or B?” they say, “A” right away. I ask them why, but they say, “We don’t know. We just like A.” And when we create it, voila! Everyone likes A!
Cha: Or maybe you hired the right people.
Bang: That’s what people say. (laughs) But going back to the main point, I like doing something unique, and that’s why BigHit exists. Because we can pick the ones that the majority of people think are pretty, choose the songs that the majority think are great, and go with the choreography that the majority think is good. But not doing that is an advantage that a company owned by a producer has. It’s not that that’s good or bad. It’s just that the company develops a trend depending on the owner’s taste.
Cha: As a producer, what do you think is the difference between idols and other singers?
Bang: Idols are more like a service industry. There is a specific target audience, who wants certain things. So idols need to have the qualities that the target audience wants. When we meet their demands, it triggers consumption. All musicians have to provide fan service, but that’s even more important with idols. I actually don’t like it when people talk about idols and non-idols as if they’re comparable. It’s not a matter of who’s superior and who’s inferior. They provide different services. You don’t want the same things from Justin Bieber that you’d want from Lil Wayne. On a broader scale, I believe that the starting points are different for idols and other singers, and there’s nothing we can discuss by grouping them together and comparing them. The only things in common are that they sing on stage.
Cha: But music is at the center of both kinds of career, right? What are your thoughts on the increasing trend of purchasing songs from abroad? Personally, I was impressed by Jo Kwon’s solo album because it was a collaboration.
Bang: In the case of idols, stage performance and songs have to come together to create music. Generally, dance music trends begin in the US, and it’s difficult to create strong performances with songs that have strong Korean sentiments. Because the beats are completely different. Personally, I think it’s easier to create a stage performance with songs composed by foreign composers than Korean ones. But I don’t believe that collaboration with foreign artists is going to scale right away. I think that’s only possible with small groups who are willing to take music projects out onto the global stage.
Choi Min-woo: In that context, could the trend of increasingly complex music from SM and YG be seen as a way to make stage performances more impactful?
Bang: That’s right. We have to consider dancing even when writing rap. We now choreograph dances not only around the beat but also for the rap parts. There’s got to be something that excites people in rap to make people dance. I understand this well, compared to the BTS members, so I give a lot of advice when they’re working on rap parts. And as you said, the reason music is becoming more complicated is one hundred percent because of performances. It’s clearly because producers want to incorporate musical-like qualities into songs.
BTS performing their debut song No More Dream on June 13, 2013, the day after its release.
Cha: Stage performance is an element that is unique and central to K-pop. You’re saying that you believe music is changing based on that, and that’s K-pop’s competitive edge?
Bang: Right. But I think it would be difficult for all music industries to change this way. Assuming that 100 small businesses are each competing with 100 products, when one big enterprise jumps in with one product, that begins to dominate the market. Even with just one product, they’re untouchable in terms of sales numbers. Look at the Korean music industry. Complex songs don’t account for a huge portion of all songs out there. But there are times when those songs come to define K-pop abroad. That’s the industry result that music companies work to create.
Cha: Have you been to music markets abroad?
Bang: I haven’t. I’ve sent our staff. But I’m not sure why we need to go. It’s not for collaboration, and it definitely doesn’t make sense to try to read the trends there. I’m skeptical.
Cha: Earlier, you mentioned that there were problems in the digital music market. In that context, what markets and profitability are BTS targeting?
Bang: The digital music market can no longer be a profit model. I think the global trend is that people are giving up on digital music. Digital music cannot replace albums. People are thinking that we need to make profit from concerts, goods, and endorsements. But in Korea, we still believe that singers have to sell music and that’s the real value of music artists. But when you think about it, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, who sold music? In the early 20th century, people sold sheet music and concert tickets. Even when I started out, I didn’t expect much profit from the digital music market. It was more like, since there were idols like Wonder Girls and Big Bang who made profits from digital music, maybe we might be able to? That was about it; I never thought we’d make money from that. Instead, I think concerts are the most important. And if you want to target the concert market, China is the place to go next. Japan is a given, obviously. In the past, Korea was a given, Japan was the place to go, and China was a market to consider. But now Korea and Japan are givens, and China is the place to go. The second important thing is endorsement. YG is a good example. If you can put on great concerts, you can get endorsements. You continue to get sponsorships, and all advertisements move with concerts. And the last is goods. And that has to become a profit model in the end. The basis is fandom, but we need to expand from there.
Cha: I completely agree. What you just mentioned is something that major recording labels in the US are pursuing as well.
Bang: Right. The emergence of Live Nation at the forefront of the music industry is a result of the belief that there is no future in the recording music business. Live Nation believes that it’s at the center of the music industry, and that’s why they’re signing contracts with Jay-Z and Korean artists. Distributors also realized that when the songs are already out there from concerts and such they have a hard time selling albums.
Cha: It seems that BigHit is looking at a bigger market. Could you tell us more about advancing into the Chinese market?
Bang: The reason that China is an important market is because that’s the only possible one. Brazil, I think, whatever we make isn’t even going to be enough to pay for the flights, and profits from Japan have decreased. That’s why I’ve got to hand it to SM. They’re amazing! If EXO continues to do as well as they’re doing now, then they can create a market, just like TVXQ and BoA did. I don’t think that China has ever been a major market. A couple of Korean celebrities in Chinese TV dramas or commercials—that’s not really a market.
Cha: Then what’s the reason that you’re confident about BTS? A reason that you can push ahead with them?
Bang: There are largely two reasons. The reason I’m able to direct BTS to where I believe they can go is because they’re pure BigHit idols, who started training at BigHit. This is actually kind of rare. Often, one or two members come late to the group after training in different entertainment companies. Because they’re all from BigHit, the members of BTS accepted and understood the intentions of our producers without bias or prejudice. And they all have such passion for music. Most of the members started singing and dancing in their early teens, and despite their age they worked hard on different things to achieve their dreams and everything came together at BigHit. This passion, this real passion that they have is what drives me to believe in them.