The business of HYBE

How a South Korean entertainment giant is putting up a masterclass in rewriting industry standards (Warning: This is a long one)

Note: The truck here does not display all artists - it was already full. Please consider your faves aboard a second one.

Here we go peeps - everyone please board the HYBE train (or bus, it’s your pick really)!

Monday last week was another milestone for the entertainment industry history books. 

If you are confused why, I kindly implore you to peak out from whatever comfy rock you live under, take my virtual hand and let’s have a look HERE (It’s worth it whether you work in Entertainment or not, I promise)

The news in question summarized are: 

HYBE Entertainment (formerly BigHit Entertainment and home to arguably some of K-Pop’s most successful artists and brightest industry minds) joined hands with ITHACA Holdings (home of well, arguably some of the most successful artists and brightest industry minds the Western Hemisphere has to offer). 

Now you’re likely asking yourself: Why is this a big deal Jacky, why the hell are you writing about it, and more importantly - Why should I, your very educated reader care?

Putting aside the very obvious excitement around merging some of Pop Cultures most influential personal brands and artists, I promise there is a good reason we are both here. (I mean - JB, BTS, Ariana Grande, J Balvin and Seventeen under one corporate umbrella? SPICY!)

Simple answer: HYBE has been one of my “must obsess over their every business move” companies for a good 3 years at least now. The understanding of their core consumer they display and each strategic expansion of not only the artist portfolio, but also service they structure around this very fan experience makes them simply impossible to ignore! 

Also if you are one of those weird people like myself, that actually enjoy what’s going on in the world of business that doesn’t make it to the (Western) mainstream media news - WELCOME fellow friend!

A note ahead of the tumble we’ll take - I am not an expert in the entertainment industry or its practices by a long-shot, I do however have a background of spending the majority of my formative years and working career in the Asia-Pacific region simply consuming news through a very different lense than most my peers. One main observation during that time has always been that there seems to be a real knowledge gap to the fantastic world of consumer brands coming out of the East - this article today is supposed to be a first start to make you a bit more knowledgeable about them and give you some serious - “Ah, bet you didn’t know that” bragging rights for the next round of whoever you chose to impress (Fair warning in advance though: I will pick topics I actually enjoy writing about, not whichever get western investors panties in a twist) 

So back to HYBE Entertainment and the fact that with the acquisition of ITHACA now some of your faves/familiars will be part of one of Entertainment’s most exciting behemoths in the years to come.

For structural purposes and to not turn this into a 30 min read we’ll NOT dive into all the label specific announcements or topics (I won’t ever finish or do all the separate fandoms justice, so ain't touching that), but focus on the below in particular:

  1. Quick intro to what the hell is even going on (read: Background and a little overview)

  2. Company history and the key people behind the Hype around HYBE

  3. Besides being the home to BTS - What makes HYBE special?

    1. Fan centric services and content creation (HYBE Solutions + strategic partnerships)

    2. Understanding the most valuable resource of the future: Data (HYBE Platforms)

  4. What can we learn from all this?

QUICK INTRO - what the hell is even going on?

FastCompany and some of the smarter minds in business actually agree with me on the innovative spirit HYBE has displayed so far. Considering then still Big Hit Entertainment ranked fourth on their list of Most Innovative Companies of 2020 right after Snap, Microsoft, and Tesla. FastCompany in particular highlighted Weverse (a community platform we will dive into in-depth in Point 4) as the key ingredient which set the company apart from other industry peers. They simply were thinking in a very different way - far and apart from anything that their peers had previously been banking on for maximum profits.

As mentioned Big Hit Entertainment has since rebranded (last month and through a nice video full of unfortunate lemon colored branding - Yay, Pantone color 2021, Nay, my eyes), acquired K-Pop streaming platform V Live through its subsidiary beNX, went public as a company on the KOSPI in October 2020 making it’s Chairman + CEO Bang Si-Hyuk a billionaire, announced a partnership with UMG to create a new boy band project, and now in its acquisition of ITHACA through HYBE US, as well with further K-Pop labels under HYBE Labels boasting a truly incredible portfolio of some of entertainments biggest artist IPs as well as content juggernauts. 

SO MANY WORDS… I’m a little sorry if you’re a bit breathless from reading this - here a very rough timeline graph to illustrate the insanity for you:

Being fully aware that I might have just made things worse - rest assured, you are not alone in your confusion. We are watching a multi-label entertainment business shape up in real time before our eyes and we haven’t even gotten to the juicy bits.

What mostly makes the news - and that includes the deal with ITHACA - is news surrounding the LABEL portion of the business or the joint ventures/partnership side of activity. That is understandable considering there are many people out there that have heard of Justin Bieber or BTS, but not that many also get super excited about data sovereignty, the possibility of IP expansion, removing friction in merchandise consumption and concert going experience. I do though, as do you (if you are still reading) and the people in charge at HYBE do too (obviously).

To round it up on Section 1: 

What the hell is going on? A WHOLE LOT OF EXCITING STUFF! 

HYBE has graduated from their metaphorical local Korean public school (read the underbelly of the entertainment business in Korea) without having their creative spirit crushed and they said “F*ck the standard system, imma rewrite the whole damn rule book.” (Probably aggressively jamming to 2013/2014 Bangtan while doing so - they were a real mood)

This success however doesn’t come out of nowhere and especially in a cutthroat industry like K-Pop, dominated until recently by the BIG 3 (YG, SM and JYP Ent) it was a hard won victory. So in the next part we’ll dive into a bit of background to the Hype around HYBE and why these people are special in so many different ways. We’ll also put a bit of a critical lense on it though, so don’t expect just praise and niceties. 

SOME Company history (not all, I am lazy and Wikipedia has all you need) and the key people behind the Hype around HYBE

Now that we know that the list of artists in the HYBE LABEL ecosystem read like the who is who of “should definitely and does frequently get all dem Music Awards” and some of the strategic partnerships the mother company has struck are with an impressive array of other industry giants as well as future facing technology companies - let’s have a look at 3 key people/groups that drove this development primarily.

(Again - this is summarized and highly focussed on just 3 because if I pick more this essay will never end the list of big brains is that long in this company)

  1. Bang Si-Hyuk (aka Bang PD/hitman Bang) CEO + Chairman of HYBE and initial Founder

The brain behind HYBE and the driving force behind the mega group that is BTS has many faces. Some love to call out his amazing potential as a meme - his old audition call up is a true piece for video history - others see in him the father of BTS (the boys themselves certainly do to some extent as does their loyal fanbase). 

But the real genius of Bang Si-Hyuk lies in his incredible visionary sense when it comes to content creation and using technology to foster a sense of community and closeness to the artists under his management like seldom seen before. Don’t get me wrong - there have been other very successful labels and agencies, that managed to monetize the enthusiasm of their fans, but the fact that initially almost bankrupt Big Hit Entertainment managed to propel BTS to it’s global mega stardom is closely linked with Bang’s laser focus on putting the fan’s experience at the center of everything Big Hit/HYBE does. 

Not only does the company under him keep giving artists a chance to participate in the creative process as well as put an emphasis on mental health in an unforgiving industry, they also listen closely to what their high spending fandom demands. Have 63 minutes to spare? Then look into the Corporate Briefing the company did in February 2020 - it’s openly available on YouTube and starting at the 5:43 minute mark Bang goes into the specifics around rewriting the industry winning formula by their very standard centered around the best fan experience. (He also does that looking like that kind neighborhood man with too many flowers and with the relaxed confidence of a real badass - seriously, how can you not love this guy.)

  1. THE FANS (Adorable Representative M.C for Youth, CARAT, Moment of Alwaysness and many more) 

No, this is not a list of random words that I came up with after one to many glasses of wine (impossible considering I don’t drink wine in the first place, but I digress), but rather the above are what the more general public might have encountered as fandom names - then in their abbreviated version: ARMY, MOA and CARAT (okay that last one stays the same)

Sound a little familiar? Congrats, you actually watch entertainment news or have at least been part of a Twitter Storm before. (If on the vicious end of it - RIP you)

For those still drawing blank: All three are K-Pop fandom names of groups BTS, TXT and SEVENTEEN respectively. And to those journalists that think ARMY came from the fans being like an actual Army - do your job properly! The actual meaning of the abbreviation is so much more news-worthy! 

K-Pop fandom names in conjunction with their fandom colors, lightsticks and membership model (through a Fanclub or just by common identification) are a force on their own. It shows the power of words and a shared identity can have - and while fandoms are fluid in their nature they can also shape up to be literal forces of nature! (If you like reading about the dynamics of fandoms besides K-Pop, have a look at Zoe Scaman and her Substack - she goes deep into this phenomenon and it’s brilliant!)

  1. BTS (yes, that BTS - record breaking, chart topping, 7 member music phenomenon BTS)

Yeah okay, I shamelessly put my favorite BTS editorial shot of all time here - you can find the entire article and more of that sort in the interview they did with the Esquire HERE.

(I would apologize for flexing their visuals, but then again - LOOK AT THESE PICTURES! The Creative Marketing person in me is simply in love with HONG JANG HYUN and his work for this editorial)

Diving into the significance of BTS achievements would take at least another 3 separate articles, but I can guarantee you the Esquire feature does a pretty good job at showing how much they have matured as artists and humans already. 

Bursting with raw talent and having honed their craft to near perfection through incredible dedication and resilience to hardship, this seven member band is a role model for millions for a very good reason. Even if their music might not be your cup of tea, their journey to becoming one of the world’s biggest Mega brands (yes, I said brands, not bands) can’t be explained by pointing to “crazy fangirls” any longer. (If you still do that - you do you I guess, but man I hope you don’t run marketing for any consumer brand :))

Just look at the BTS-effect for many of the brands that have contracted them or not on products that sell out months worth of stock from everything like Tea, laundry detergent to Cars. (Rest assured, I’ll do a separate feature on how brands utilize BTS and the Best, Good and Meh version of getting a mega artist IP to promote your products eventually - because you can pay for an amazing endorser and still fail at marketing hard… *whispers* Curse you FILA)

Besides being the home to BTS - What makes HYBE special?

Back to the Business side of things though - Now that we know the 3 ingredients behind the Hype around HYBE (its corporate brain, the fans and their artists) we can look at what the company does to serve the fans experiences and content way beyond just albums and merchandise.

There are also 3 business mantras that you can observe, that really set the company apart from the rest:

  1. Obsess over the fan experience for everything you do

  2. Rigorously experiment 

  3. Take back data sovereignty to get even better at 1 and 2 

To implement these, the structure of the company has two more main business sectors besides the labels in-house - HYBE SOLUTIONS and HYBE PLATFORMS. The former serves as an engine to diversify the core content (MUSIC, duh) and amplify it in doing so. The latter functions as the glue in between, further filling gaps of fan experience as well as a data collection engine to further smoothen out future offerings.

Fan centric services and content creation (HYBE Solutions + strategic partnerships)

Of course the heart of any successful label / entertainment company is the creation of great content. Music being the blood that runs through the veins of anything HYBE does, each of the labels and their respective artists work hard with their teams to create content that makes a true statement in its messaging and also ensures they are being heard by as many people across the globe as possible.

The latter part of having the content created heard and experienced by as many people as possible is mainly where HYBE SOLUTIONS comes in. The definition given by HYBE itself for this part of their business reads a bit clunky, so let’s translate it so the normies can get it too:

We provide business solutions to our labels, and drive business initiatives based on music including performances, multimedia content, IP, education and games.

->

Teams within HYBE SOLUTIONS work on expanding your fan experience of your favorite artist beyond just listening to their music. Be it concert going, pop up shops, merchandise, games based on your faves music or language classes to make sure you don;’t need badly translated subs one day anymore - these guys have you covered.

There are dedicated HYBE solutions for Japan within this too, but for simplicity’s sake we will focus on the 4 key ingredients within the wider system that add the most spice to the soup:

HYBE 360: 

If you’ve ever been to a concert or you’ve worked in the event industry, you know how intense the experience can be and what level of work must be put in to make the a success. BTS regularly puts up a master class when it comes to Live events (in person or virtual) and you can  watch their GM flex that starting at the 11:30 minute mark in their recap on the 2019 World Tour the group did. Not only does HYBE 360 put intense work into their concert experience, they also make sure to capture the content for further distribution, such as movie documentaries and anything else related to making sure content consumption is being maximized to its fullest extent. 

With the at the beginning mentioned, newly formed KBYK Live (a joint venture between HYBE and US based Kiswe Mobile) it will be really exciting to see how the live streaming experience of concerts can further be evolved. UMG and YG have invested to get this rolling and considering the pandemic has brought concerts closer to a virtual experience not particularly bound to an actual physical location this is certainly on space to watch closely!

HYBE IP: 

Ah the IP department… For any fan out there: These are the people that continue to come up with stuff for you to spend your money on. Do we need yet another Starbucks collection? Technically, no - but then again: Take my money HYBE!

On a more professional note though - the IP department at HYBE works hard on making sure any products that get developed make sense for the fans. Be it album themed clothes, season greetings or photo packages - content and merchandize is top notch (most often). This certainly is worth a separate article another day though, because hit and miss are very close. 

HYBE EDU:

Addressing the language and cultural barrier many international fans of K-Pop face, HYBE EDU is a tech company aiming to tap into the vast space of educational technology. Starting with using Tiny Tan (an avatar version derived from BTS’ artist IP) to teach Korean (one would think this is a no brainer and be right with it) 

I say starting, because this is HYBE we are talking about and if there is one place that can get online learning fatigued people pick up more tech based learning, I am sure they’ll be right there on the list.

SUPERB Corp:

Now what would any proper entertainment company of the future be without a division or subsidiary that focuses on developing gaming content for a wider experience of their music? Especially considering CEO Bang Si-Hyuk’s cousin is the Founder of Netmarble (a South Korean Gaming heavy weight and major stakeholder in HYBE)? Introducing Rhythm Hive and many more to come.

All in all, HYBE SOLUTIONS is a masterclass in crafting a universe around the core content of music with well placed in-house knowledge and strategic partnerships with external specialty partners.

Understanding the most valuable resource of the future: Data (HYBE Platforms)

Wow, okay - so now that you know that HYBE is (capital) SERIOUS about content diversification and the removal of friction in the fan experience, let’s look at the part of their business that, just like it did with the people at FastCompany should get all us Marketing and Strategy people really excited (actually it should get the fans excited most, but they have been well… underwhelmed? More to that later)

In a day and age where content experience centered around and driven by a community is becoming the new norm HYBE has started catering to this in a very typical manner too - if the service available doesn’t work for you: Build it yourself!

Introducing HYBE PLATFORMS, specifically Weverse Company:

Now if you don’t normally operate in the world of K-Pop and you at most consume the occasional K-Pop video through YouTube or marvel at some great memes of the community on Social Media, you likely haven’t heard of Weverse or V Live before.

Simply put though - Weverse is an App developed by HYBE’s subsidiary Weverse Company (formerly also known as beNX and since with significant investment by Such Korea’s Google equivalent NAVER changed to its current structure) 

To be distinct here though I think we need to hit the analysis of it from two angles:

  1. What HYBE tried/tries to do with it (and the potential it indeed has)

  2. How fans actually experience it currently (because man oh man, that’s different)

The App functions as a central artist to fan interaction hub, with features that let each fan join a community dedicated to their favorite artist - giving them the chance to both directly interact as well as consume content specifically created for the App or from the wider HYBE ecosystem. A one-stop shop for all things that make a fan's heart happy and remove any of the paywall for HYBE that exist in the established Social Media environment, when it comes to both reaching the audience amassed as well as collecting their data.

The team around it generally has some beautiful numbers around Millions of sign ups and MAU (monthly active users) or engagement, but that’s where the scientist in me goes: Impressive quantitative targets my friends, but what about quality? Are those monthly active users really happy with the time spent on the App and what does the experience really look like for them? (This is where the company then usually gets a bit silent though and the answer from the official side remains, well, silent)

While one of the best parts in Weverse lies in its seamless integration with Weverse Shop - the merchandise and commerce platform (which doubles both as a ticket shop for events as well as a shopping platform for official merchandise or even event based merchandise), it is primarily supposed to be an artist to fan social media space. As an “active” user myself though I can sadly attest to the fact that Weverse generally is a clusterf*ck of nonsensical posts until one member comes online and all hell breaks loose! (Imagine one of those videos of notifications bringing a phone to near explosion - because wow people want to get noticed then)

So while in particular a seamless social media + commerce integration can make eg. purchase on the day of a concert much smoother, cut out long waiting times in queues and therefore converting excited concert goers into happy shoppers much easier - the social media component of it really has a LOT of homework ahead of it. Community is grown organically - giving it a space to flourish and the technology to go with it is important, but you nevertheless can’t 100% control it centrally. 

HYBE certainly knows this and continues to really make their ecosystem a one of a kind one. With the impending integration of V Live - K-Pop’s live streaming platform of choice (think Twitch but for K-Pop content and with an equally passionate user base) - it aims to ensure artists who use it won’t have to choose between reach or functionality anymore! (Just to illustrate the scale a little - BTS V Live sessions regularly draw Millions of simultaneous Live viewers, most recently having 22 Million effectively watch member Jungkook eat a salad and sing fan suggested songs for an hour - take that main stream peeps.) 

At the core however and Weverse really is all about taking back control of consumer behavior data, removing the advertisement/ paid media paywall in traditional social media settings, fostering a true at scale personal connection between fans and artist and rolling that all into a one stop shop for all things your fave to ensure you as the fan have the best possible experience (and the company making the maximum profit as a result of it).

It’s not perfect by any means yet of course - many still wouldn’t abandon Twitter or YouTube completely for it. The quality of the community part simply is overflowing with too much unregulated and at times toxic content and so while HYBE and its artists feed it great content, the fans have yet to fully adopt it as a primary part of their community experience. (More toxic than Twitter you say in disbelief? Just a little, I say chuckling over the dumpster fire that is a Weverse feed on a normal day)

As with many niche community platforms it is a question as to whether HYBE can enrich the user to user experience as much as they improve the artist to user experience - if they do manage to crack that code, the potential is really limitless! Until then however we will see more pretty numbers that ultimately do not mean much.

What can we learn from all this?

To wrap it all up, what should you take away from this? Why did I spend the good part of this weekend writing up this lengthy article?/

The answer is simple: The world is vast and I for my part am tired of seeing the same old “success” stories being paraded around in the media, while there is so much more exciting stuff happening under the radar every day.

HYBE is one example of a company born from the mind of a visionary wanting to do it differently, using great content, consumer obsession and technology to eventually build an innovation powerhouse. 

The premise isn’t new by any means considering the above sentence could also apply to Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, but it teaches us an important lesson on what really counts to rewrite the playbook of an industry or that success in doing so isn’t mutually exclusive to the white man. 

The management team at HYBE has fully understood that to win a game where any card on the playing field available was stacked against them they needed to go a different direction - and win they did!

The thing I love most about this though is one: winning locally in Korea was never the bar they’d set for themselves and I simply can’t wait for them to shake up the world.

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