The South Korean music industry has long been an innovative scene, ripe with ideas to learn from. Just last year, when in-person concerts came to an abrupt halt, it was K-pop artists who quickly jumped on new technologies first. While they delivered some of the most jaw-dropping livestream shows of the pandemic era, stars in the West were still getting to grips with doing anything beyond Instagram Live shows from their living rooms. Even in the before times, the K-pop industry found a solution to declining physical album sales that US labels have slowly begun to take notes from.
It’s no surprise, then, that one of the biggest labels in Korea could reshape the whole music industry worldwide with their continued slate of pioneering projects. In its plans for 2021 and beyond, Big Hit Entertainment – recently rebranded as HYBE – is leaving no stone unturned when it comes to pushing things forward, both at home and overseas.
Recent weeks have seen multiple news stories and presentations about the label’s ambitions coming out of Seoul, each more exciting than the last. In January, the label teamed up with YG Entertainment – home of BLACKPINK and BIG BANG – and Korean web company Naver to announce the integration of the latter’s livestream platform V Live and Big Hit’s own fan community space Weverse. Shortly after, Big Hit and YG joined forces again – this time with Universal Music Group and tech company Kiswe – to officially launch VenewLive, a digital space offering a platform for cutting-edge virtual concerts.
Then there was the news that Big Hit and Universal were forming a strategic partnership that would, among other things, see a K-pop group formed in the US for the first time. The boyband will be pulled together through a survival show, like how ENHYPEN were formed through last year’s I-LAND, that will be broadcast in the US in 2022. Through the new union, Universal will also bring more of their artists onto Weverse, giving fans more opportunities to interact directly with their favourite acts.
These new ventures aren’t just exciting for Big Hit or K-pop fans, though – they have the potential to have huge impacts on the global music industry, regardless of genre or geographical location. Even as in-person concerts begin to return as coronavirus vaccines roll out, it seems like livestream shows will continue to be part of our lives in some form, for example with concerts attended by both a mixture of on and offline audiences. Investing in VenewLive and boundary-pushing technologies relevant to it means fans will be able to access the most innovative gigs in real life or from the comfort of their homes.
Weverse, meanwhile, could revolutionise the way we use social media – particularly in light of increased conversation around the toxic spaces we inhabit on the internet. That’s not to say the platform is a peaceful utopia – as with any online realm, there have been instances of negativity – but the idea of signing up to a space specifically dedicated to one artist does feel like it lessens the chance of encountering trolls. There’s also the added benefit of being able to communicate not only with acts themselves but like-minded fans. It’s like an extension of curating your timeline so you only see content relating to topics you like, but without the algorithm trying to lure you into looking at other things.
It also hints at a future for social media where, instead of making a catch-all account on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, we have very detached digital worlds that are split up by area – or people – of interest. Although ideologically very different and conceived for a very different motive, it’s a similar development as we’ve seen with other social media apps like Parler, where far-right groups have flocked to preserve “free speech”.
All of the above could also have perhaps the most important impact of all: Korean artists would finally be taken as seriously as they deserve to be by the global industry. The partnership with Universal feels like the tide could be turning in that respect but, as history has unfortunately shown us, things only become “legitimate” once it’s gotten the Western stamp of approval. However, giving people around the world easy access to content that will challenge their perceptions of K-pop – survival shows highlighting the hard work, dedication and artistry that go into idol groups, for example – will only speed up that process.
Headline-grabbing innovations and forward-thinking projects aside, there’s something a lot simpler major labels in the West can learn from Big Hit too – the value and importance not just of music, but fans’ experience of it. In his SXSW 2021 keynote speech last week (March 16), the label’s Global CEO Lenzo Yoon highlighted how Big Hit had built its way up to the position the company is in now – by nurturing the link between artists and fans.
“The passion of fans is the engine that drives the industry,” he noted. “We must respect fans and treat them as companions in our growth and development.” It’s unusual to hear an industry executive give so many props – and so uncynically – to fans, but it serves as a reminder of how important relationships with audiences are.
In everything it does, Big Hit looks to break down the barriers fans might face, be that in language by creating the ‘Learn Korean With BTS’ educational package, or in ties to artists by constantly providing new ways to interact with them on social media and in other content. The company’s priority is its supporters, enhancing our enjoyment of music and the connections we make with it in brilliant new ways. Even if the rest of Big Hit’s innovations do the unlikely and don’t work out, that alone is something the music world should pay big attention to.