For Rolling Stone Explainer’s fifth installment, we asked HYBE’s Global CEO Lenzo Yoon to break down the label’s artist development process, marketing strategies and business expansion
Over the past few years, the world has been enraptured with the rise of South Korean pop titans BTS. The seven member group have made their mark as one of the most important musical acts of our time, and their rise fueled the success and eventual worldwide expansion of their label HYBE Corporation (formerly Big Hit Entertainment) and its numerous subsidiaries. What was once a company on the verge of bankruptcy is now one of the leading names in South Korean entertainment and a rising power in global pop culture — it’s staggering to comprehend, but fascinating to map.
HYBE Corporation’s Global CEO Lenzo Yoon–who has been with the company since 2010 — joins Rolling Stone India for an in-depth breakdown of their artist recruitment and development process, marketing strategies and global business expansions.
Where it all began
There are numerous articles and papers that discuss the success of HYBE and Big Hit Music’s unique training system and they all seem to agree on one thing: that the process — born of HYBE’s CEO and founder Bang Si-Hyuk’s desire to go beyond the ‘typical’ Okay-pop group — is different from the pristine idols that were crafted by other agencies at the time. But what triggered the change? “A turning point occurred about 10 years ago when physical albums started to go downhill and the media environment digitized rapidly,” Yoon recalls. “For various reasons, the company’s financial situation gradually got worse. We all stopped everything we were doing and spent time seeking answers for the following questions: ‘What is music to people?’ and ‘What kind of role should an artist play for the people?’” He says the answer they found at the time was the essence of music and artists lies in comforting and moving hearts of many people.
This was reflected in the company’s famous credo when it was still Big Hit Entertainment: ‘Music and artists for healing.’ “From then on, we began developing an environment where artists can genuinely love music as well as expressing their stories through music,” explains Yoon. “This is what we consider most important to date. This all sounds very ideal, but this is what’s different about HYBE’s training system, which we continue to put effort endlessly in order to fulfil our dreams.”
The idol business is a highly competitive space. Hundreds of groups debut each year and with many of them blending into the backdrop and eventually disbanding, the fight to stand out and establish oneself is a brutal one. Yoon explains that there are a few key factors HYBE incorporates in the debut process for their new and upcoming artists. “The qualities needed for Okay-pop idols are complex – dancing, singing, songwriting, appearance, responsibilities, and many others,” he lists. “Above all, the love of music and performance is most important. Given that their job is to communicate with fans through music and performance, idols cannot do so unless they’re genuine about it. Thus, authenticity is what HYBE considers as top priority for trainees and artists.”
The artist within the idol
When it comes to HYBE scouting new artists, Yoon says it’s not quite a question of nature versus nurture– it’s about understanding the kind of nurturing that various types of talent need. It’s about figuring out how an artist’s skill set fits into the Okay-pop training system so that it may bloom naturally over time, rather than forcing upon them a role that has no potential for development. “A person is born with a talent but nurtured to a certain extent by environment, effort, and system,” says Yoon. “There are so many different kinds of talent, and even the same one is expressed differently depending on the type of system it merges with.”
It’s an idea that worked brilliantly with BTS during their traineeship in the early 2010s and built the bones of their artistry — the members were allowed to explore and develop the talents that came naturally to them, each branching into writing, dance, production, arrangement and conceptualization to tell their personal stories and connect with fans in a way that hadn’t quite been done before. In an interview with Rolling Stone India in 2017, BTS’ leader RM explained all seven members were very involved in the stories they wanted to tell and were encouraged by HYBE to create something that would resonate well after our time. “Star Wars came out tens of years ago, but a dad and his son still go to the theater to see [it],” RM said. “It’s not just like a five-year or a 10-year thing, you know what I mean? So our company knew that and they always told us about how important it is to make a world like Star Wars or Marvel [did].” He added that before making a record or music video, the entire group sits down with their label to discuss where the story will go. “There are characters, seven different characters in the videos, so we try to not be so far away from our real characteristics and our real life. We’re always [discussing] our experiences, our hardships and our sadness and that really helps in coming up with the character in the videos.”
With BTS’ work, a lot of it began with the message the artists wanted to put out into the world in terms of their production and songwriting rather than being told what to do or putting out someone else’s message. The members had a lot of creative control in their lyricism and overall album concepts and were involved in writing right from their debut with “No More Dream” in 2013. It’s an avenue HYBE wants to keep open for their junior groups and trainees — whenever they are ready to do so. “Artists writing their own songs is what HYBE considers very important,” stresses Yoon. “From their trainee years, HYBE artists write and listen to their own works to communicate a lot with the producers.”
Yoon insists the most important aspect of working within HYBE (whether idol, producer, choreographer or staff) is teamwork. There are many in-house names who are longtime collaborators for both BTS and their brother group TOMORROW X TOGETHER, some even working with both since their respective debuts and building long term bonds that show a deeper understanding of both artist and fandom. “HYBE’s producers and performance directors are fully aware of the artists’ fortes in music and performance more than anyone else,” Yoon explains. “Due to the fact that a team consists of several members, it’s extremely important to find the balance as one song or performance. The production teams provide accurate explanations and guidance related to that aspect. This is possible because of the ultimate trust that has been built for a long period of time. I don’t mean that we don’t collaborate with people externally. We are efficiently utilizing the capabilities of experts from both inside and outside of HYBE.”
With active participation from the idols and in-house producers, how are creative differences settled at HYBE? Yoon details that the music-making process begins based on artists’ opinions and messages and albums or songs are completed through a vibrant exchange of ideas between the various teams involved. “Since everyone agrees that this is an important process that we must go through to provide better results, I’m aware that they freely share their thoughts and opinions along with improving each other’s shortcomings and narrowing the gaps in a rational way.”
The next generation
After BTS’ meteoric success, was there a change in how HYBE Corporation would continue the recruitment and training process? “It’s true that HYBE looked back at how BTS has developed, and systemized the process after closely taking a look at what was effective and what needs to be improved,” admits Yoon. “However, that formula is not the absolute answer. The times are changing constantly, and every trainee has different talents, tendencies, and behaviors. HYBE always takes all of these into account and tries to put effort in order to find the most effective environment and communication method.”
When Big Hit Music’s second boy group, TOMORROW X TOGETHER debuted in 2019, all eyes were on the quintet — as well as the company — to see how BTS’ rise influenced their brother group’s artistry and concepts. Expectations were high and audiences wondered if the new group would follow in the footsteps of BTS’ hip-hop legacy or deliver something else. However this is where HYBE planned to again stress on the uniqueness of their training system crafted to suit the artist and not the other way around. “When preparing for TOMORROW X TOGETHER’s debut, we tried not to get influenced by BTS,” Yoon says. “In fact, we made it clear that these fellows are different from the previous group. We focused on TOMORROW X TOGETHER’s distinct musical colors, each individual’s tendency, and peer culture. However, TOMORROW X TOGETHER could have been influenced by BTS by themselves in terms of affection toward music, genuine attitude toward the stage, and the mindset of valuing the team.” The result was a very different concept, a vibrant celebration of youth and all its challenges while BTS’ fictional universe dives into the darker challenges of entering adulthood.
The development of ENHYPEN, HYBE’s most junior group under their subsidiary Belift Lab, is similarly distinct — dark synthpop paired with a supernatural storyline. There’s an exploration of fairytales and creatures of the night that differs greatly from BTS’ analysis of reality and TXT’s exploration of dream worlds.
ENHYPEN also opened the doors to HYBE trying a format more popular in the Okay-pop world — the idol survival show. The seven member group were formed via the survival competition show I-Land in 2020 and made their debut later that year. One of HYBE’s major plans unveiled in 2021 was their strategic partnership with Universal Music Group (UMG) to form a Okay-pop boy group in the U.S. for the first time. Yoon sees it as a new level of expansion in Okay-pop’s 30-year history. “HYBE America recently announced that it will be presenting Okay-pop artists based in the U.S.,” he says. “This project itself is an unprecedented attempt in which we will be delivering new experiences to fans and presenting the industry’s new paradigm at the same time through both process and outcome.”
The group will also reportedly be formed via a televised competition.”At this point, the birth of new artists and contents that combine with, and go beyond the boundaries of nationality and culture could be seen as another evolution of Okay-pop,” Yoon adds. “Since HYBE possesses the know-how and the expertise accumulated through experiences of BTS’ global success, I believe that it’s our role as a company to take challenges on another possibility and pave new ways.”
Bridging artists and their fans
At a surface level, one would expect an entertainment company to focus its resources on three key arsenals of the Okay-pop machine — music, concepts, and choreography to market their artists. However, Okay-pop marketing is built upon a more nuanced set of approaches. HYBE goes a step further to incorporate teamwork, effort, and a positive message, all mixed in harmony. “The element that plays the biggest role in marketing varies by artists,” says Yoon, “Every artist possesses different stories, characteristics of time, and strengths.” Once the entertainment company has identified the artist’s biggest marketing strength, it’s time to move onto the next stage — to hero those strengths.
Other than music videos and documentaries, Okay-pop is known to generate a wide range of content that is constantly delivered to elevate fan experiences. While there have been multiple studies conducted showing the rise in consumption of snackable content, in the case of HYBE’s biggest artist BTS, the company has adopted a slightly unique content strategy. From the variety shows such as RUN! BTS to the travel-reality show, Bon Voyage, and the most recent publication, Weverse Magazine, HYBE continues to invest in long-format pieces, going against the trend and eventually spurring other platforms to follow. It’s a more natural window into the artists’ personalities and lives, allowing for wholesome interactions and memories. “The main purpose lies in the communication with fans and the expansion of fan experience,” Yoon explains the inspiration behind HYBE’s content strategy. “We have a principle: ‘content and fans matter the most.’ We try to understand fans, proactively provide what fans want, and improve the quality of contents based on high standards. At the same time, we constantly think about the types, delivery methods, and technologies so that fans could experience our contents more pleasantly in their daily lives.”
Almost every Okay-pop star is present on global social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. However, to create an exclusive one-on-one relationship with fans, many companies invest their resources in setting up a fancafe — a big forum hosted by the Korean web portal called DAUM. While this works brilliantly for the local fans, international fans are somewhat at a disadvantage because of language barriers. Looking at the global appeal of Okay-pop, especially for the artists under HYBE, the company soon realized the lack of space for global fandoms to gather, communicate and unite. “The services in the U.S. were mainly used by fans in the U.S., and services in Korea by fans in Korea,” explains Yoon. “I thought there was a need for a space where fandoms around the world could gather across languages and borders, communicating with artists and enjoying all fan activities. This ultimately led to the birth of Weverse.”
An authorized playground for fans around the world, Weverse allows artists, fans and the company to interact, grow and develop together. Audiences expand their fan experience by enjoying all services such as content, livestreaming, and the purchase of official merchandise, making for a more inclusive fan experience. The platform can also be translated into 10 languages, helping to bridge the language barrier. In just two years, HYBE saw fans from 233 countries around the world enjoying their fan activities on the platform. Looking at the immense growth opportunities the platform holds, HYBE views Weverse beyond a communication platform. In a short duration, the platform has positioned itself as a virtuous ecosystem that will see growth in the coming years.
However, technological advancements come with their set of challenges. Though HYBE is a pioneer in blending music and technology, for some fans, consuming content emerging from this hybrid is nearly impossible. With language being the biggest barrier in consuming Okay-pop, how does HYBE hope to offer opportunities for fans coming from different economic and physical backgrounds to enjoy the content seamlessly? Yoon cites the case of the recently released Korean language study package Learn! KOREAN with TinyTan as an example of their strategies to tackle this issue; video content was created separately as a lighter version for fans who want to learn Korean but live in locations where the package is unable to be delivered, or feel that the price is on the higher end. “I believe that solving the inconveniences of fans is the way to innovate the industry, and this includes the issue of access to technology as well. The development of Weverse can also be explained in that context.”
As of today, Okay-pop is becoming a household name across the globe. With differences in culture and sentiments depending on the region, fandom of artists, it’s imperative to understand the art of catering to audiences with different demands and tastes. Case in point, BTS’ last leg of promotions for “Dynamite” and their 2020 EP BE, which saw an exponential rise in the number of views in India. Yoon says that HYBE is waiting to see if this is a meaningful sign, but confirms they are open to exploring the possibilities in an emerging global music market like India.
New strides in global business
With the company’s exclusive label partnership with UMG, HYBE aims at creating a solid symbiosis between the strengths of HYBE and the music production capabilities, networks, and marketing know-how that UMG brings to the table. Their acquirement of Scooter Braun’s U.S.-based Ithaca Holdings — which manages pop powerhouses like Justin Bieber, Demi Lovato, J Balvin and Ariana Grande as well as major country label Big Machine Label Group (Florida Georgia Line, Sheryl Crow) — is another extension of this international network to collaborations, profit and artistic growth.
With a solid groundwork set in America, HYBE continues to solidify its expertise and growth plans within the South Korean market through the acquisition of companies such as Source Music (home to GFRIEND) prominent Korean rapper ZICO’s company Koz Entertainment, Pledis Entertainment (label of popular boy groups SEVENTEEN and NU’EST.) They’ve also locked in partnerships with companies such as YG Entertainment and American video technology start-up, Kiswe, that lead to the creation of the interactive live music stage, VenewLive for concerts. While acquisitions of Source Music and PLEDIS Entertainment were the optimal way for HYBE to secure competitive artist IPs without slowing down the speed of growth, its industry crossover with YG Entertainment and collaborations with other diverse partners aided HYBE in expanding fan experience and innovating the music industry.
HYBE are eyeing a spot amongst the world’s best entertainment lifestyle platform based on music in the coming years, so one can expect the company’s business areas to expand and diversify accordingly. Yoon says, “Okay-pop is evolving even when I am answering your questions, and the livestreaming environment is constantly discovering new markets […] In this situation, attempts such as launching VenewLive and various forms of partnership greatly help validate our hypotheses and assess other possibilities. HYBE will continue its fearless adventure through industry crossovers and collaborations with diverse partners to expand our fan experience and innovate the music industry.”
Through HYBE’s comprehensive artist development programs, ability to forecast upcoming trends, and overall respect for the art of music and its artist, the entertainment company can be looking at a substantial growth in the coming years with its artists creating momentous events across industry verticals. “As Global CEO of HYBE and HYBE America, I feel great responsibility for and look forward to achieving great success in the future,” Yoon concludes.
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