Big Hit’s name isn’t often uttered in the same breath as Universal, Sony, and Warner — not yet. “We still have a long way to go,” says Lenzo Yoon, the company’s new global CEO. But he hints that the K-pop powerhouse, which recently founded Big Hit America and debuted on the South Korean stock market, is gunning for the major-label crown.
Between shepherding BTS onto the world stage and breaking fresh Korean acts, Big Hit — its mission is to build an all-encompassing “entertainment and lifestyle service,” as Yoon puts it — has been quietly doubling down on its technology, intellectual-property licensing, and spinoff content in recent years. While other music companies focus on their artists, Big Hit homes in on fans: It controls its own fan app, Weverse, which has been downloaded 10 million times, and develops content, such as the educational series “Learn Korean With BTS,” which has drawn more than 2 million viewers from 200 countries. Since launching its flagship septet in 2013, Big Hit has stuck to that core philosophy: Artists must be close with their audiences.
“For the last seven years, BTS have received more and more love,” Yoon says, proudly adding that the band “proved our success formula” when it topped U.S. charts for the first time with the 2020 English-language single “Dynamite.”
As BTS barrel over new milestones, Big Hit handles all the strategy and monetization. Early on, 80 percent of the company’s profit came from advertising and album sales; now, under its burgeoning “artist indirect participation” program, Big Hit uses its IP to create derivative works — for instance, putting BTS’s animated faces, a.k.a “TinyTAN,” in a brand campaign for fabric softener Downy — without any artist involvement. The idea is to create vast new revenue streams without sucking up artists’ time. Between 2017 and 2019, the annual profit from “indirect participation” jumped from 22 percent to 45 percent, Yoon says, and TinyTAN will pop up in other deals as well.
While Yoon has worked at Big Hit with founder Bang Si-Hyuk for a decade, he will take the company into new waters this year — literally and figuratively — when he moves to the U.S. to formalize its international ambitions. As the first head of a South Korean entertainment company to move stateside, he’ll work with local music-industry partners who are “equipped with know-how” about the cultures of various regions, but Big Hit won’t waver from its unique approach to fandom and growth.
“Developments of media and technology have changed, significantly, the way artists and fans engage,” Yoon says. “They communicate 24/7.” BTS, he points out, jumped on the livestreaming train long before Covid-19, telecasting their performance at the Seoul Olympic Stadium last year. When the pandemic shut down live events, BTS had to cancel their world tour — but Big Hit had a number of tech partnerships in place that allowed them to set up a paid livestream in June that drew an unprecedented 750,000 fans contributing around $30 a person. As Yoon puts it, “Only sincere planning wins empathy in this kind of environment.”