Before I get into the meat of this blog today (it’s a mega meaty one, let me tell you), I just want to put it out there that I do not consider myself a star journalist. I am going to be taking an in-depth look at the recent interview with Korean boy band BTS as conducted by Billboard Magazine and whilst I will try my best not to be scathing, I certainly had some issues with the writing, themes and overall tone of the interview. If you’ve read the title of this blog, you already know the very basic feeling I am holding on to in regards to it. But as I said, I do not in any way consider myself high and mighty to the point where I will look down upon another writers work. Honestly, I hardly consider myself a journalist at all some days. What I am trying to say is that I am in no way in any position to consider myself a better writer than the three journalists who reported the interview I am talking about today. I am very much an advocator of constructive criticism and advice and always try and take this on in regards to my own work in a mature and open minded manner. This is kind of what I want to do here, although I do so as a fellow writer with a dream of one day interviewing BTS (pigs will fly first but you gotta have a dream) rather than as someone who considers themselves superior in any way or in terms of writing. I can also appreciate the time and effort that goes into conducting and then putting together these kinds of articles. It isn’t easy and I can appreciate the effort of the writers in that respect. All of that being said, I am still not impressed with this interview and I’m going to try and put as to why into some form of coherence. I would advise reading the interview for yourself – linked here– so you can draw your own conclusions. Let’s get started.
All Images Courtesy of Billboard Magazine.
All About Business
Let me start by saying that I am very aware that BTS are a brand as well as a group and as a brand, they have to market themselves a certain way. This isn’t just because of their roles as “K-pop idols” (although they are far too versatile to fit into that box completely), it’s also because they are part of an industry where this is a necessity. Every band since time immemorial has had a “hook” that they use to market themselves with to attract their audience. That is just how it works. That being said, BTS are also far more than merely a marketed brand. Much like some of the most infamous bands in the world- the likes of Queen etc. – they have a depth which gives them staying power. Their music, their song writing, their choreography, their talent, their role as performers and artists; all of these things need to come together perfectly to allow an artist to reach the kind of heights that BTS has. However, so much of this interview is all about business and numbers. It’s interesting to get a bit of information on the inner workings of HYBE- the entertainment corporation that manages BTS- and how they have transformed themselves from a small, underdog company to the powerhouse it is today as well as how BTS have played a substantial role in that. But that’s not why I am reading a BTS interview. I want to know about the group as people, about their personal feelings on their success, how they deal with the stresses and enjoy the successes. I want to know about their connection to music and their processes when it comes to creating songs and working with producers and external parties. The WeVerse Magazine interviews do this brilliantly, asking interesting questions that don’t pander to the group but instead challenge them to think about their careers and their roles in the music industry. We don’t get much of this with the Billboard interview.
After a promising start with the Billboard interviews – I liked the introduction to the band themselves as the writer remarks on how they could easily be mistaken for “college kids en route to their dorm” and their discussions of “terrible hangovers from the previous night and the effect alcohol has on their skin”. There’s even a nice little titbit of Jungkook singing to himself in the hallway before the interview. This adds some humanity to the group, making them feel like real people rather than celebrities. However, the article quickly descends into facts and figures of the groups chart successes, awards and nominations. That’s when the business numbers come in and the band themselves drift further away into the statistics. Even the little interludes of quotes from the group don’t feel integrated in a natural way. Rather, it feels like an inclusion to remind us that they are still here. The brief descriptions of some of the members certainly feel somewhat hollow too, with Jin described as “the vocalist who often introduces himself as “worldwide handsome” to deafening screams from fans” and jhope as the “the group’s lead dancer and most cheerful member”. These feel like cookie cutter descriptions of the members from someone who has watched a few YouTube videos and then cast Jin and jhope in their most stereotypical roles. There’s more business talk about how HYBE- as a money making corporation- will likely struggle when BTS face one of their most daunting tasks, which brings me to my next point.
We all know that BTS are facing their military enlistment at some point, despite South Korea extending the law that means that men have to have enlisted to perform their mandatory service by the age of 28. The law extended this to age 30 but the eldest member Jin will be turning 30 in December of next year and so it is unclear as to how the group will be tackling this challenge. This isn’t something that tends to be talked about openly as it is- as can be imagined- a personal matter for each member of the group and not really anything to do with their music. The only affect that this has is that the group will either have a hiatus or they will continue working with only certain members for a short time until the rest are called up. The ARMY fan base doesn’t feel the need to discuss this at large. At the end of the day, is there much point? Whatever happens will happen and all we can do is enjoy the music that the group gives us until that time and respect their privacy in regards to this topic in the meantime. For some reason, US publications can’t seem to let the military service issue lie. I have noticed that this is a common theme in western interviews with the band and it comes across as disrespectful to keep bringing it up to be honest. It has nothing to do with their music, nothing to do with their role as performers. Yes, it will have an impact at some point but that point is not now so why do we need to keep constantly reminding them of something that is probably very daunting. The interview goes into how this will affect the company;
“(BTS’s military enlistment is) bad news for HYBE. BTS is the dominant engine behind the company’s income, bringing in about 85% of its 796.3 billion won ($680 million) in total 2020 revenue.”
Sure, from a business perspective I can see how this would be relevant. But this is Billboard, a company that is all about music and who literally control the American music charts. So with that in mind, why is this important? Why does any of this matter right now? Why can we not just talk about their music and its performance in the charts? Well, Billboard does actually get on to that but it isn’t in the way you might think. This brings us on to my next major gripe with this interview.
Accusations of Chart Manipulation
Yep, this is actually something that is discussed openly and with a definitive and accusatory tone in the interview. Even as the interview begins, I was a little put off by the way that the writer compares the fan support for BTS to that of a religious organisation;
“(BTS) has charmed millions of fans into supporting them with an almost religious fervor.”
There is already a suggestion of obsessive, worshipping behaviour in this statement but that is something that the ARMY has to deal with constantly. Yes, there are fans that take their love for BTS much too far (what fandom doesn’t have these kinds of fans?) but the vast majority of us are normal people who found a message of self-love, individualism and joy within their music. From a personal stand point, I can genuinely say that I am a more positive person on the whole since I found BTS. Most of us are not insane people with a serious case of idol worship. I overlooked this comment though, wanting to give the writer a chance to explain this viewpoint later in the article. However, all that I was met with in terms of talk about the ARMY were allegations of “cheating” and “manipulation” in regards to the chart performances of the recent English songs released over the last year. “Dynamite”, “Butter” and “Permission to Dance” all performed exceedingly well, particularly on the Billboard charts themselves with Butter achieving nine weeks at the number one spot. Rather than discussing the incredible achievement that this is- particularly for a Korean group- the article explains away the successes of these songs with these claims of fans manipulating the charts in favour of BTS;
“both the group and the agency are coming under scrutiny for BTS’ recent chart successes, which fans of some competing acts say are achieved through concerted “manipulation” antithetical to the charts’ purpose of accurately highlighting the world’s most popular acts. After “Butter” and the Ed Sheeran co-write “Permission to Dance” debuted atop the Hot 100, where “Butter” ruled for nine non-consecutive weeks, some noted how the group’s fans, known as ARMY, organize themselves on social media, using tactics like bulk purchases of physical albums and coordinated digital buying to influence chart performance. Both HYBE and BTS reject accusations that chart manipulation accounts for the group’s success.”
I don’t understand why BTS is being singled out for this. At the end of the day, there will always be fans that will do everything they can to ensure that their favourite artist gets to the top of the charts, but this does not only extend to BTS’s fan base. Personally, I don’t feel like there is any chart manipulation going on. It seems like an excuse for people who don’t understand how a foreign band can possibly be so successful in the States. There are likely fans out there doing what they can to get BTS to number one but there is also the possibility that maybe they are just popular. Is it that inconceivable of an option? Can the only way for BTS to achieve such chart topping success be through crazy fans cheating the system?? No, it surely is not. So why does this interview feel very much like that is the case? Later on in the interview, these accusations get even more prominent and as an ARMY member myself, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit put in the firing line here;
“Through above-board means, ARMY has long exploited loopholes in music chart rules (including those of Billboard) to propel BTS singles’ performance…On Twitter, where BTS has over 38 million followers, fans acting on behalf of ARMY will call out for assistance in pushing certain singles on days when they can have the most effect on chart performance. So while other singles on the Hot 100 typically rely on streaming for the majority of their weighted points (followed by airplay and then sales), the chart-topping performance of BTS’ “Butter” in July, for example, was propelled mostly by sales, the bulk of which flowed directly through BTS’ own webstore, say sources familiar with the matter. That webstore, those sources say, does not recognize prior purchases or limit how many copies a fan can buy, unlike iTunes, which notes when someone already owns a copy.”
This doesn’t even feel like an interview anymore. It feels like an essay written up with the intention of proving how the ARMY are boosting BTS’s sales by unlawful means. It even feels like the writer is defending other artists too, suggesting that they are being unfairly left behind because of the dedication of BTS’s fans;
“While other artists’ fan cohorts also prefer direct-to-consumer purchasing for sustained sales runs and have tried tactics similar to ARMY’s, none have done so as effectively or with as much apparent coordination, those sources say. And this summer, when “Butter” and “Permission to Dance” reigned atop the Hot 100 for 10 straight weeks total, fans of artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa — whose own singles were shut out from the No. 1 spot during that time — began calling ARMY’s work akin to cheating.”
That is not how this works. If your favourite artist doesn’t get the number one spot, you cannot just start accusing fans and artists of “cheating”. I am honestly not just saying this as a BTS fan. Trust me, over here in the UK BTS barely get any radio airtime and they struggle to make a dent in the charts. If I was to do this every time BTS weren’t number one over here, I would be accusing the entirety of the music industry of foul play! I’m genuinely surprised that this has been included in a legitimate interview as it reads like an attack rather than as an informative piece. Not only that, but the writer mentions “sources” but doesn’t actually go into any deeper context than that. As a writer, that makes me mad as I feel that the duty of any writer- no matter what level you are in the profession- is to provide informative content with direct reference to the sources you have used for said content. It takes time and research but it is necessary to avoid speculation and pure unprofessionalism. Quoting a source but not specifying that source is not proper journalism in my opinion and it is a habit all too apparent in writing when writers are either given unobtainable deadlines and are forced to take shortcuts or simply do not know where the information came from and do not want to take the time to find out. In fact, the only sources that are mentioned when discussing this “chart manipulation” are from Twitter users (a highly reliable source indeed!);
“Rodrigo’s fans claimed that it wasn’t a coincidence. @scrappyseal, noting the reversal, tweeted that BTS had “0 GP [general public] support. A real smash is sustained by the GP support.” Another fan of both Rodrigo and Lipa’s, @lipaanostalgia, described BTS as having “fraudulent ways” and its fans as “involved in chart manipulation” and “mass buying.”
I am really not someone who wants to call out others as I hate drama and conflict but I fear this has to be said: how is this journalism in any way? Fans of Olivia Rodrigo and Dua Lipa are accusing BTS fans of cheating. That is all this is. That is internet drama that you can find anywhere simply by logging in to social media. This is not content that should have been utilised for an interview. How can this have been greenlit during an interview with the biggest band on the planet right now? Can you imagine years ago if an interviewer sat down with Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and they started throwing accusations at them of cheating or manipulating the market and when asked their sources the interviewer said, “well that guy over there said you did”. That is what this feels like and I am so irritated that this is the kind of interview that the band has to deal with. You’d be forgiven if you’d forgotten this is actually an interview at this point though as they have asked the group so little thus far.
The interviewer continues to quote social media when discussing the “crowdfunding efforts” of the ARMY, going into detail as to how they (Billboard) have reviewed “screen grabs of account balances and bulk purchase receipts on Twitter” to make their argument for BTS’s fans going about this undercover work. Again, I understand wanting to collect evidence for an argument but how is this proper journalism? Traversing Twitter feeds for evidence of purchases just feels like a weird method to me. I must admit, I got particularly angry at one part of the interview discussing the source of ARMY’s funds;
“The source of those funds remains unclear, and some BTS fans have expressed concern about revealing more about their methods. “Feeling the need to be a bit more discreet on the timeline about what we do and how we do it,” @RafranzDavis wrote during a funding run in early August. “It’s annoying but thnx to everyone that just gets it.” (MRC Data has a standard process for examining any suspicious chart activity; Billboard would not allow sales funded by an act or its label/management to count toward chart performance.)”
There’s a nice little disclaimer at the end there intended to act as justification but I think there are two major reasons why these funds “remain unclear”. The first is that, well why would you want to discuss something as sensitive as finances on social media? Also, when I first joined the ARMY I was shocked by the generosity of some fans. I often struggle with money (I work 3 part time jobs. Useless info but I promise it has some relevance here!) and so it can be hard to afford things like music. The ARMY have several accounts on social media that deal with organising funds so that those who cannot afford BTS’s music can be given the money to purchase it. It’s a lovely thought and one that is only possible when you have a fan base as extensive as the ARMY. So maybe some ARMY do not want people to know their financial situation, no matter what it might be. That’s why I gave you that useless info just now, I am certainly one of those people who doesn’t want that and I am certain I am not alone. The second reason is – quite frankly- what business is it of yours, Billboard?? That disclaimer at the end is their reasoning behind asking but it is highly unlikely that this is the first time something like this has occurred with a popular music artist and yet I have never seen any other fans of a band or solo artist get hauled over the coals the way the ARMY is. Billboard even suggests that BTS actually have significantly lower streams then the numbers tell us;
“These efforts have buoyed the group’s singles, as they have sailed to the top of the charts despite BTS’ weaker streaming numbers and radio airplay than some of its pop contemporaries.”
BTS’s streaming figures speak for themselves. They became the most streamed group of all time on Spotify last year and their song “Dynamite” recently joined the exclusive one billion streams club on the streaming platform too. Also, mentioning airplay seems highly unfair as even if BTS are at the top of the charts, they tend to get less air time than American artists. As I said before, it is rare to even hear their music being played in the UK (well it is where I live anyway). The reason that BTS have “sailed to the top of the charts” – as Billboard states- is because they are great artists in their own right. Their English songs are what put them on the map internationally (which is unfortunate as their Korean music is incredible and they have a lot more personal input) and it is insulting to suggest that the only way that the group have managed to achieve the success that have in the US charts is via “cheating”. RM gets a chance to respond to these claims- as does Big Hit Music’s president Shin Young- Jae- and here is what they had to say;
RM: “It’s a fair question…But if there is a conversation inside Billboard about what being No. 1 should represent, then it’s up to them to change the rules and make streaming weigh more on the ranking. Slamming us or our fans for getting to No. 1 with physical sales and downloads, I don’t know if that’s right … It just feels like we’re easy targets because we’re a boy band, a K-pop act, and we have this high fan loyalty.”
A mature and reasonable response that is far tamer than it needed to be. It would have been fair for RM to have treated this topic with the contempt that it deserves but he understands why this is being asked and- fairly- brings light to BTS’s ability to become “easy targets” in the music industry. Shin- Young Jae also had an understandable response to the question;
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had the ability to mastermind such a thing? I get that there are market developments [related to BTS] that are head-scratchers for some people. But I don’t believe the U.S. market is one that can be handily topped by downloads alone. We think the songs’ impact was shown in many ways, and we are proud of that achievement”
I’m glad that Big Hit’s president defends the accomplishments of the boys here as these questions really do feel like pure denunciations in an attempt to lessen all that BTS has managed to achieve in such a short time in the US. I’m not saying that Billboard’s points are baseless here. I’m just saying that rather than discussing them objectively, it feels very subjective and accusatory as well as somewhat insulting to the ARMY fan base. It also doesn’t feel particularly relevant to the interview, as the writer veers off to discuss this topic for so long that it’s easy to forget that this is actually meant to be a chat with the group themselves. I’m not sure why the article chooses to go in this direction as there is some interesting discussion as to the reality of the demanding schedules that the band had to deal with-working “28.5 days” a month as Jin says- as well as how they have become the pride of South Korea but also the pressures that this puts upon them. The interview then circles back to the matter of “chart manipulation” and the interesting, introspection on a group with the world at their command- but also the pressure of it on their shoulders- disappears into rumours, speculation and using Tweets as a professional source.
The interview goes back to the band a little bit after this large section on the charts -and the ARMY’s apparent tinkering behind the scenes-, discussing the livestreaming connection that the group has with the fans as a method of engagement. One point here has been called out as not entirely true though;
“After live performances, fans tell Billboard, they receive an email asking what they liked and disliked about them, too.”
I have not myself been to a live performance but I have never heard of this. Correct me if I am wrong ARMY users, but has anyone ever actually received an email after a BTS show like this? It seems like a majorly time consuming way to try and get feedback and it doesn’t make much sense but I could be incorrect as I have not been able to attend a BTS concert before. After this discussion, we actually go back to having some quotes from the members themselves about how the pandemic sapped the energy of the group and “killed morale”, leading them to consider taking time off but choosing to put their feelings into their songs instead (as with V’s “Blue & Grey” from the BE album). What interested me most here is how the English tracks are discussed. It is almost like Billboard is trying to suggest that BTS are not quite as collaborative as they seem by highlighting disagreements between the group and their label;
“the members say they didn’t all agree that English was a good idea. Both BTS and HYBE executives decline to elaborate, and Big Hit Music’s Shin says all discussions were amicable. “I think it’s a testament to the band’s strengths, the way they can come to a friendly resolution and be mindful of the company’s needs,” he says. RM’s memory differs. “There was no alternative,” he says.”
The way that this is worded highly suggests that this is not what the group wanted at all. Who knows, this might be the case. But I feel like this is a situation of comments being taken out of context and switched around to create some conflict. We do get an interesting nugget of information in regards to how member Jin learnt his English lines here-
“Jin admits that singing in English felt, at first, totally unnatural, saying he learned to mimic the guide track’s pronunciations by writing them down in Korean characters”
– but more than anything this feels like an attempt to separate BTS from their most popular songs internationally by suggesting that they didn’t really want to do them in the first place. Am I reading into that way too much? Probably. But to me- as someone who writes on a daily basis- the way this section is arranged feels like the writer is trying to suggest that there was drama behind the scenes. Maybe there was. But we don’t know for sure and it seems unfair to suggest otherwise.
Another element of this interview that kind of bugged me is how all seven members of BTS are portrayed as wanting to do nothing more but go back on tour and be seen by their fans. There isn’t much context put into that and so it’s hard to not to read it as seven celebrities just wanting to some attention from a world tour but any fan of the band will know that it is so much more than that for both BTS and their fans. As I mentioned before, I haven’t had the chance to see BTS live but I have some friends who attended the 2019 “Love Yourself” Tour when it went to Wembley in London. They were there for an iconic BTS moment; when the audience surprised the band with a rendition of their song “Young Forever”. My friends have recalled to me how emotional absolutely everyone was in this moment, with every audience member wiping away tears as the seven men on the stage either broke down and cried or desperately tried to hold back their emotions. This is the perfect moment to watch to see what BTS and their fans are really about. There is a mutual love and respect and the need to feel that we are a part of the same family almost. Their desire to tour stems from their desire to see the ARMY again so that both they and we can feel that happiness and togetherness once more. But here, the writer does not seem to see this from how this is written;
“The seven men’s eyes light up with unmistakable hunger, just as they do every time a tour is mentioned. Nothing else, good or bad, seems to matter.”
Fans will know that this is so that they can see the ARMY again and we can all celebrate our closeness but as I said, it just comes off as a bunch of pop starts wanting to get back into the limelight again, which- from what I have read and seen of the group- doesn’t seem to be the case. No one is perfect and I’m sure BTS all have their flaws but one thing that is certain is how much they care for their fans and this does not come across here at all. This is particularly true for what RM says beforehand;
“Only RM articulates what BTS’ top objectives might be — and industry-altering domination outside its home country actually isn’t one. He reiterates a point he has made for a few years now: that the group needs to maintain “the outlier” position and keep its lyrics predominantly in Korean. “I don’t think we could ever be part of the mainstream in the U.S., and I don’t want that either,” he says. “Our ultimate goal is to do a massive stadium tour there. That’s it.”
RM- and the entire band at that- has every right to think this. At the end of the day, they are not American and they don’t owe the US anything. They are Korean and should be proud of their heritage rather than made to feel like they need to become more westernised to be successful. They have fans in the US and they are the ones that the group clearly care about and whose opinions matter. It seems like RM is talking more about the American music industry here and I don’t blame him for not wanting to be part of something that clearly treats them differently due to their role as “outliers”. Again, the writing here feels kind of like this outlook should be viewed as a negative. I can sense the questions bubbling underneath the surface of this, “Why do they not want to do more English music? Why wouldn’t they want more attention in the States? Why don’t they want to be more main stream?? They don’t care about you as much you think, you know, or they would want all of those things”. Maybe that’s just me, but that’s what the undertones of this moment read as in my opinion.
All in all, I think I’ve made myself clear as to why this interview got me so frustrated. Another big, US publication that doesn’t seem to want to see BTS as anything more than a cutesy boy band with screaming fans willing to throw themselves into the fire for their idols. It’s a shame really as there were a few moments in this that had potential, such as the initial introduction to the group and those moments where the band discuss their reactions and feelings in the midst of the pandemic and their tour cancellation. Most of the article focuses on the business elements of BTS, their military enlistment and accusations thrown at the ARMY, and that is why it is a most disappointing interview to me as a fan and a writer. They don’t even talk that much about their music, with their three English tunes getting the bulk of the attention. Their album from November 2020- BE– did incredibly well and it is mentioned once or twice in the whole article. “Life Goes On”- their Korean language song- also debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (the first Korean song to ever do so) and it isn’t even mentioned once. Not to mention their Japanese song “Film Out” – released in April 2021- which also made it onto the Billboard Charts (another huge milestone as it meant that they were the first group to have a song in three different languages- Korean, Japanese and English- charting at the same time), and their second Japanese compilation album- BTS, The Best- which released back in June of this year. It’s almost like none of this work even matters or deserves to be acknowledged. Is it because these songs aren’t in English or because they weren’t quite as popular internationally? Who knows, but what I do know is that BTS have worked hard and struggled to get to where they are now- like I’m sure most artists have- and yet they still don’t seem to be getting the respect from western media that they truly deserve. At least we got a nice photoshoot out of the interview though.
The WeVerse interviews are definitely the best that I have read with the group so go and check them out here. Maybe I could give interviewing them a shot one day? Maybe? No? In my dreams? Yeah, we will stick with in my dreams. I’m going to post a clip of that “Young Forever” moment below too, so you can see how much BTS means to their fans and vice versa. Thanks to YouTube channel Natalia and Karolina for this!