One cannot talk about modern music without acknowledging the meteoric rise of BTS. The South Korean boyband’s influence on musical entertainment over the past half-decade has been compared to that of the Beatles in the 1960s, and many credit the group with bringing K-pop definitively to the world stage.
One key driver of BTS’ rise to superstardom is Lenzo Yoon of the music label HYBE. Lenzo was instrumental in building the band’s powerful fanbase and laying down a path for many more K-pop acts to follow.
His influential work has earned him spots on the 2022 Billboard Power List as well as the Billboard Indie Power Players and International Power Players lists in 2021, along with a Korean American Community Foundation Trailblazer Award in 2020.
Nowadays, as co-CEO of HYBE America, he’s focused on exploring what’s next for his fandom-driven formula. At this week’s Rakuten Optimism 2022 conference, Lenzo joined Rakuten Chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani for a deep-dive into the ever-changing world of musical entertainment.
Building an unstoppable fandom
“Fans were a very important part of our growth,” said Lenzo to Mikitani at Rakuten’s largest annual business conference. “The fans create their own content, which draws in more fans. Fans organize their own events. Events like donating to a charity on the birthday of an artist. Special events during a concert. Our company grew with the fans, and we grew because of the fans.”
Recognizing the importance of BTS’ fandom (known as the BTS ARMY), Lenzo strove to give fans everything they wanted and more – not just great music and unforgettable experiences, but a lasting connection.
“When we were getting ready to debut BTS, the content world was becoming digital. We were a small company, and it was difficult for us to use traditional media, like music shows on television, to promote our new group. So we looked at the power of new media.”Lenzo Yoon, CEO, HYBE America
“We continue to find new ways for the fans to engage with the artist, and for the artists to engage with the fans, too. For example, artists can share their lives through our Weverse app, and read and comment directly on postings by fans. After a concert, artists will do a live stream. They share their thoughts and reactions, and interact with fans by reading and responding to their comments in real-time.”
The band’s content strategy is one significant part of this puzzle: Instead of relying on traditional media, Lenzo looked to the platforms fans were already using.
“When fans listen to the music of BTS, or see their performance, they want to know more about them. They want to know more about their favorite members, and they come to the content we provide,” he explained. “We knew that content would become more important than the brand of the channel. We knew that new types of media, like YouTube, would become important for fans. Instead of using traditional content and the traditional ways to deliver them, we started to create new content. New ways to provide them to fans.”
BTS fans have access to extensive behind-the-scenes videos of artists, variety shows and more – all delivered directly through social media and other tech-powered platforms.
“We can all see the markets changing. Fans consume music and content in new ways. This has been a trend in the U.S. for many years. Now we see these changes all over the world.”Lenzo Yoon
“Today, all K-POP acts, and even global artists, make this kind of content. Back then, it was brand new,” he recalled. “People were starting to change how they consume content, and they were able to consume our content in new ways, like never before. This was the formula for the success of BTS.”
A new era of tech-fueled musical entertainment
Lenzo credits much of BTS’ success to this healthy embrace of cutting-edge tech.
“I think the keywords are ‘adapting to change,’” he surmised. “When we were getting ready to debut BTS, the content world was becoming digital. We were a small company, and it was difficult for us to use traditional media, like music shows on television, to promote our new group. So we looked at the power of new media.”
The arrival of the pandemic again showcased the adaptability of Lenzo’s strategy: “When we couldn’t hold physical concerts, we turned to online streaming, which brought millions of fans to these virtual concerts,” he told Mikitani. “When we began to start concerts again this year, we used our platform to provide our fans a better concert experience.”
But it’s not just BTS fans changing the way they seek out entertainment. Lenzo believes that this evolution is something everyone in the industry needs to stand up and pay attention to.
“We can all see the markets changing. Fans consume music and content in new ways. This has been a trend in the U.S. for many years. Now we see these changes all over the world,” he revealed. “Before, it was about listening to the music, on a CD, or digitally. Next it was the fan experience. Going to a concert, in person and now online. Buying merchandise. Now, it’s about participation. Not just for idol groups. Fans want to participate in the process. They want to discover new artists on social platforms and see them become stars.”
Even CD-loving Japan is being forced to change, as Lenzo found out on a recent visit.
“Music stores were always very important for music lovers in Japan. We went to buy CDs, to find something rare, browse through the albums,” he recounted. “Now, it’s a much more diverse space. There are special events. New ways to connect artists with fans. And the pandemic forced people to stay home, and they found new ways to consume music and content.”
Starting fresh in the U.S.
Over in the United States, Lenzo is co-CEO of HYBE America – and he sees a major opportunity in the space of fan-driven entertainment.
“I think fans want a new kind of idol group in America, they want to grow together with their favorite band and become a part of it. HYBE has always been at the center of this innovation, and that’s why people are watching what we are doing here.”
HYBE recently partnered with Universal Media Group to launch a new ‘global girl group’ that leverages the company’s expertise in K-pop.
“We have to go back to the basics, and ask, what is K-pop? At the foundation is the idol group, and that is fandom marketing. Providing great content to fans that love great content, and creating real engagement with fans.”Lenzo Yoon
“What we are trying to do here in the U.S. is both continue the success of K-pop and create a new genre,” he explained. “I ask myself, how can we continue this success and make it sustainable?”
Lenzo sees a future in which K-pop is something more than ‘South Korean music’ – in a similar vein to how Latin pop has transcended geographical boundaries to become its own genre.
His venture in the U.S. is a relatively new one: Instead of leaning on the established might of the South Korean label – a potential shortcut to success that may not be indicative of an artist’s true appeal – with HYBE America, Lenzo is pursuing a more organic approach.
“Our team working on this project is much like a startup. We are trying something new, and trying to create a new industry and new services,” he explained. “A new team, but with the best people from HYBE and Universal Music with many years of experience… So this is a new challenge for us.”
Despite ushering in a new era of musical entertainment and riding the cutting edge of entertainment technology, Lenzo hasn’t lost sight of his company’s roots.
“We have to go back to the basics, and ask, what is K-pop? At the foundation is the idol group, and that is fandom marketing. Providing great content to fans that love great content, and creating real engagement with fans,” he told Mikitani. “The world is changing. I mentioned how we used YouTube ten years ago to take BTS to the top. We have to think about new ways for today. That can be technology, new channels for content, new ways to build communities. But we always focus on the fundamentals.”