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HARVARD CASE STUDY REVIEW: “Big Hit Entertainment and Blockbuster Band BTS: K-Pop Goes Global”

Initially developed for class discussion purposes, the 22-page case study “Big Hit Entertainment and Blockbuster Band BTS: K-Pop Goes Global” has been appealingly promoted on Twitter and caught ARMYs’ attention. A Harvard Professor and an alumna investigate BTS’s worldwide influence with Big Hit’s approval and participation… Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

From Underdogs to Global Artists

BTS has been smashing records globally for years, yet nobody had anticipated “their unparalleled success;” not even Bang Sihyuk, the founder and co-CEO of BTS’s company Big Hit Entertainment. This case study, written by Harvard Professor Anita Elberse and alumna Lizzy Woodham, offers an educational approach to BTS and Big Hit’s place in the Korean music industry, allowing people to reflect on the sustainability of such an innovative model.

Recent studies show that “BTS’s contribution to South Korea’s GDP was $4.9 billion - more than South Korea’s National airline, Korean Air. This figure and many others provide serious references to Elberse and Woodham to build their case on BTS’s impact on the K-Pop industry, formerly ruled by three main entertainment companies (known as the “Big Three”) which Big Hit was not part of.

Big Hit Entertainment in the K-Pop Industry

The case study starts with an overview of the K-Pop industry. The first part provides a better understanding of the working environment in which BTS has been living since the very beginning. The authors comprehensively describe the origins, the main actors in the industry, and their way of working. From the start, a fact-based comparison is made between Big Hit and other companies. For example, whereas Big Hit has been focused on their artists’ well-being (by offering them mentorship programs and mental care), other K-Pop Entertainment agencies used to seal their artists with exclusive contracts and give them little to no control over their careers.

The readers are accurately walked through the audition, training, and debuting processes in K-Pop. Parallels are made with Big Hit’s vision on the whole organization, and how they worked to find balance between high skills in dance and singing, and the artists’ personal lives and autonomy.

Once the big picture is set, the authors gradually narrow their study to Big Hit Entertainment before moving to BTS exclusively. From its creation to the financial struggles, we get to know the slow evolution of the company and their will for innovation. The study is documented with quotes from Bang Sihyuk along with Lenzo Yoon (co-CEO), Seon Jeongshin (Head of new talent development), Kim Shingyu (Chief of the artist management office), and Kim Sejin (co-leader of artist protocol department and manager of BTS). The study shows how they all participated in bringing a new approach to artist management and creative content.

BTS Exists Thanks to Big Hit and the Reverse is True

To set reasonable understanding of the roots of BTS, the authors quote Bang Sihyuk: “When I heard RM’s demo, I made it my mission to debut this person. A person this young, with that sort of musical skill, so able to put his soul into his music? I just felt I had to debut him.”

From this, they review the band-making process, their humble debut, and their break into the Korean market thanks to I NEED U, which progressively led them to global stardom. The turning point of 2016, when BTS entered the global market, is again highlighted through Bang’s words: “Some in the company wanted to make songs that would appeal to the South Korean market in which BTS had already achieved success. I disagreed. I felt it was the right time to test whether we could find bigger success abroad. We came up with the song Fire, which sounds more American than Korean. And because of that song, BTS found its way into the U.S. market.”

The study thoroughly focuses on 2018, 2019, and 2020, from Love Yourself: Tear to Map of the Soul: 7. Elberse and Woodham mention the important (and widely fantasized in the fandom) discussion about BTS members’ contract renewals and their wise approach of their ability “to continue this success for another seven years.” According to Bang Sihyuk, the members declared: “We will give you seven more years, but give us the acknowledgment that we deserve for the successes that we have achieved, and reflect that in the contract.” That statement puts rumors at rest once and for all about the members’ freedom. BTS are obviously the leaders of their own lives and careers, and know what is best for them. Probably because Big Hit’s vision, once reaffirmed by Yoon, is that, “We are focused on fostering trust between the company and its artists.

On multiple occasions, the study emphasizes how much Big Hit cares about their artists and the mutual respect they have towards each other, while pursuing different dreams. BTS creates music, whereas Big Hit “produces and markets their music,” as Kim Sejin said, “winning together.” The study also confirms that BTS is always encouraged to use their decision-making power and to live their own experiences. One of the best examples is Big Hit’s decision to let BTS take a month-long vacation in 2019, despite being aware of the risks. In this regard, Yoon said, “For idols today, to go on vacation… it’s a gamble. Without anything happening around the band, there is a genuine fear that fans will leave.” Fortunately, ARMY are not that kind of fans.

A Success That Brings Reflection

The readers are constantly encouraged to ask themselves about BTS’s success and about K-pop in general. Not only is it an instructive recap of what BTS is now and how they reached their popularity, but a didactic foray into the K-Pop industry and Big Hit’s plans to pursue a model that puts the artists in the center of everything.

It is also a great resource to sort out reality from rumors. It brings actual thinking about the place BTS has in music, Korea, and globally. Its educational approach and open questions along with easily understandable figures perfectly serve the analysis of BTS’s success.

While the conclusion reports that Bang Sihyuk is confident about the future of K-Pop and believes that he has found the right formula to replicate BTS’s success, we cannot help but wonder if this future has enough room for BTS to continue to thrive on their own and to explore new paths. One thing is certain, even if Big Hit manages to recreate the magic all over again, there is and will be only one BTS in ARMY’s hearts.

Resources: Anita Elberse and Lizzy Woodham. "Big Hit Entertainment and Blockbuster Band BTS: K-Pop Goes Global." Harvard Business School Case 520-125, June 2020.

Written by: Hel.B

Edited by: Dae

Designed by: Paige

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