Love Yourself, Love Your Fans: The BTS ARMY Takes Over
(Photo: Big Hit Ent.)
It was indoor weather, to be sure – unless you were one of the 44,078 fans assembled under the dreary sky at Soldier Field to see South Korean sensation BTS for the second of its two sold-out concerts that weekend in the Windy City.
“I was lucky enough that, for that second show, I had seats on the floor near the stage,” says Imelda Ibarra, the founder of “U.S. BTS ARMY,” the pre-eminent American fan group for BTS fans, who collectively identify as the BTS ARMY. “Me and everybody else, we were wearing our ponchos. We were literally soaking wet, but all having the times of our lives, singing and dancing with them, and enjoying it. No one even felt the cold or the rain.”
If that level of devotion seems implausible, welcome to the world of BTS. Since the seven-member group’s June 2013 debut, it has gone from scrappy upstart to dominant K-pop artist to one of the world’s most formidable live acts. Many discuss BTS not in relation to its Korean peers but as heir to a lineage of historic boy bands that includes Backstreet Boys, New Kids On The Block and ‘NSync.
“I’ve seen a lot over the years that I’ve been doing this,” says Ron VanDeVeen, who as president and CEO of MetLife Stadium, in East Rutherford, N.J., hosted two of BTS’s six U.S. dates in May, and has worked at Meadowlands venues for three decades. “I’ve seen ‘NSync do stadium shows, and Backstreet Boys. Taylor Swift, obviously. Everyone’s a little different and has their own little different culture. These guys were right up there.
“We have generational bands like this that the kids get really excited for,” he says. “This is definitely one of them.”
As Ibarra puts it, “They’re the voice of our generation.”
BTS’s voice may be in Korean, but that hasn’t stopped Ibarra and the international legions of fans that comprise BTS ARMY – short for “Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth” – from catapulting the group to global fame.
“ARMY played a crucial role in spreading BTS music across the world,” Big Hit, the South Korean entertainment company that manages BTS (and uses the tagline “Music & Artist for Healing”), tells Pollstar via email. “Whenever BTS releases a new album or drops new content, they instantly pick it up, translate it into different languages and help spread them everywhere. ARMY globalized BTS.”
That passion translates to the live sphere.
“I thought I understood what it meant to have a large and passionate fan base, and I will admit I didn’t,” says Jared Braverman, senior vice president, touring, at Live Nation, which promotes BTS outside of Japan and South Korea. “My idea of what I thought this was completely changed when I was immersed in it. To this day, I still can’t explain it to anyone. All I can say is, ‘Come to a show and be a part of it.’”
Numbers support him. In 2019, BTS has cemented itself as one of the world’s premier live draws, selling 1.1 million tickets and grossing $145.1 million worldwide – good for fourth and fifth in the world, respectively – over 27 shows. Of that gross, $44 million came from a U.S. tour comprising six gigs at three venues – Soldier Field, MetLife Stadium and the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, Calif. – that kicked off BTS’s “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” tour that followed the “Love Yourself” tour that ran from August 2018 to April 2019.
The U.S. gigs weren’t merely high-grossing sellouts. With $16.6 million grossed at the Rose Bowl, BTS set a two-night gross record for the venue, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports, narrowly edging the $16.3 million Taylor Swift grossed in May 2018. The only acts to gross more than BTS over two nights at Soldier Field are The Rolling Stones, Swift and U2; BTS notched the third-highest-grossing two-night stand at MetLife, with $14.1 million grossed, after the Stones’ August mark of $25.5 million and U2’s June 2017 mark of $14.6 million.
Their box office hegemony is global. With $7.7 million grossed over two nights at São Paulo’s Allianz Parque, BTS out-grossed recent two-night stands by Ed Sheeran ($6.4 million) and Roger Waters ($6.1 million). BTS ranks fifth- and sixth-highest in grosses for two-night stands at London’s Wembley Stadium ($13.5 million) and Paris’ Stade de France ($13.7 million), respectively. Robust average ticket prices – $146.62 in the U.S. and $129.25 worldwide – buoyed those figures.
Even fans who can’t see BTS in the flesh have enjoyed its shows through three smash-hit concert films. The most recent one, “Bring The Soul: The Movie,” documented 2018 “Love Yourself” gigs and posted staggering numbers during its limited August engagement, drawing 2.55 million admits across 112 territories for a $24.3 million worldwide gross.
“It’s such a global phenomenon,” Live Nation’s Braverman says. “BTS is massive all around the world. Their audience continues to grow at a rate unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.”
Courtesy Big Hit Entertainment – Bomb Squad
BTS fans wave ARMY Bombs during one of BTS’s Rose Bowl gigs, where it sold 113,040 tickets and grossed $16.6 million over two shows May 4-5.
Perhaps counterintuitively, BTS has achieved unparalleled popularity for a K-pop act by doing what others wouldn’t: speaking out. Since its 2013 debut, the group’s prolific studio output – including three projects that topped the album charts between May 2018 and April 2019 – has tackled weighty topics such as mental health, bullying and politics, bolstering the bond between artist and fan.
“Don’t get me wrong, BTS, they have songs about love and songs about partying, but they also have really made a point to always try to go a bit deeper in what they’re expressing,” says Jeff Benjamin, who as Billboard’s K-pop columnist has followed BTS its entire career.
BTS has also stayed active in producing its music, which runs – and often combines – a gamut of styles from high-octane alt-rock to conscious hip-hop to expansive EDM.
“It’s not like they were the first K-pop group to work on their own music or go into deeper topics,” Benjamin says. “But I think really making it a point of conversation and really branding themselves as that, that was rare.”
Adds Big Hit: “BTS did not hesitate to speak about the pains that this generation has, which found the right time given the increasing awareness of respecting diversity, longing for fairness and the rights of the ‘marginalized’ (represented as young people).”
Another notable aspect of BTS’s global ascent: Its lyrics aren’t in English. Other high-grossing, non-English-language acts, from Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli ($53.1 million in 2018) to Latin trap star Bad Bunny ($20 million), don’t approach the eye-popping figures posted by BTS. Widespread internet fandom and the sheer spectacle of BTS’s concerts have toppled the language barrier.
“Whether you know the music or not, whether you speak or understand a word of Korean or not, there’s no way to walk in there and not be completely blown away,” Braverman says. “You walk out and you forget that it was in a different language.”
The Live Nation exec says that while BTS’s success as a non-English-language act surprises some, it really just represents the inversion of a long-standing element of pop fandom.
“You go back years, decades, Michael Jackson was going over to Asia and was singing in English, and people knew every word and danced and sang along,” Braverman says. “It’s taken this long for an Asian act to come over and have that same impact outside of Asia, but it’s nothing new in the world.”
All these aspects elevate BTS fandom beyond plain passion for the music.
“It gives fans a sense of family,” says Ibarra. “Here’s this person that lives on literally the other side of the world, that you’ve never met before and you’ve just had conversations with them on Twitter, but they understand so much of what you’re going through.”
At shows, these digital friendships can be realized in person. Ibarra went to all six 2019 BTS gigs in the U.S. and recalls meeting international fans at all of them. “It’s definitely a place where you can connect,” Ibarra says. “It’s like a huge family reunion.”
BTS fans take over cities when the group is in town, and they congregate well before BTS takes the stage. “They show up at seven in the morning and they spend the entire day together,” Braverman says. “These don’t feel like concerts, they feel like events.”
That necessitates intensive operational planning. VanDeVeen says MetLife staff applied logistical knowledge from hosting NFL games, particularly concerning mass transit and the lot experience, to the shows, and also scouted the preceding Rose Bowl and Soldier Field gigs to learn about the demands of BTS fans.
Among those demands: merch. While members of BTS ARMY connect with each other before shows, buying merchandise is also a rite of passage. MetLife opened its lot all day on May 17 – the day before BTS’s May 18 and 19 shows – to sell the group’s wares, and VanDeVeen says there were “steady lines throughout the day.” On both show days, he says at least 1,000 people were in line each morning before the merch booths opened at 10 a.m. Sales even resumed after the shows concluded.
“This was definitely our highest concert merch per cap we’ve ever done,” says VanDeVeen. “It was only second to the Super Bowl [hosted by MetLife in 2014].”
BTS offers apparel, posters and other familiar concert tchotchkes, but it also sells ARMY Bombs, its unique spin on the light sticks common among K-pop fandoms. ARMY Bombs sold for $55 a pop at BTS’s U.S. shows, and most fans bought them so they could more actively participate in the shows.
“There’s this larger idea of how can these fans best support these artists, even from their seats,” says Benjamin, referencing the call-and-response chants also common at K-pop shows and writ large at BTS concerts.
“There’s something bigger going on, where it is really about everyone in that building,” Braverman says. “The audience is as important as the band.”
Drew Angerer / Getty Images – The ARMY Invades
Enraptured BTS fans watch the group’s May 5 “Good Morning America” performance at Central Park’s SummerStage in New York City. Some camped for days to guarantee admission.
The communal dimension of BTS concerts, from the lot scene to the fan experience, helps to explain why people will travel, pay top dollar and even stand in freezing rain to see the group. And the crowds aren’t homogenous, either. “It’s the most diverse audience I’ve seen at a show,” says Braverman, citing the inclusivity of BTS shows as a major selling point.
According to Ibarra, “A lot of times you have kids that are young and can’t really go by themselves, so their parents tag along or they send someone with them. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, even if you’re not a huge fan, you’re going to enjoy it, because they put on an amazing show.”
Benjamin says BTS’s success, clearly bolstered by its positivity and honesty, could have ramifications for K-pop at large. “The larger impact is that the guys are making something where these artists can be artists, can be human,” he says. “That’s going to ultimately help a larger international crossover with K-pop.” Adds Braverman: “BTS has shown that K-pop isn’t a small, niche audience.”
But, for now, BTS is ahead of the curve – and its popularity keeps growing. The band announced a recuperative hiatus in mid-August that spooked fans, but has already returned. Next month, it’ll stage the final four “Love Yourself: Speak Yourself” shows, at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Oct. 11) and Seoul’s Olympic Stadium (Oct. 26-27, 29).
Still, BTS’s future contains some uncertainty. South Korea mandates military service ranging from 21 to 24 months for able-bodied men before they reach age 28, and BTS’s members range from 22 to 26. (A new initiative announced in 2018 promised to reduce the enlistment period to 18 to 22 months by 2022.) Because some musicians, but not K-pop stars, receive exemptions, the matter has caused some debate, still unresolved, at the South Korean government’s highest levels. (The enlistment of South Korean pop sensation Rain made news earlier this decade; stateside, Elvis Presley famously debuted with three No. 1 albums and then joined the Army for two years.)
Benjamin thinks BTS could weather a military-induced hiatus, especially if its members enlisted together, because the dedicated ARMY would keep the fandom alive. He also thinks the group could outlast other K-pop acts, which he says often fade from popularity after seven to 10 years in the spotlight; committed fans like Ibarra seem to confirm that.
“The show they deliver, the message they put out there to their fans, both in their music and in their performance, there’s no reason why this would be slowing down,” Braverman says. “This is just the beginning.”
Purchase a copy of this week’s magazine via the Pollstar Store.