With the world shut down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic three years ago, we were left to our own devices to cope with uncertainty and a difficult time. Naturally, we gravitated toward streaming apps and social media digital platforms that further eliminated borders and barriers and made music as global as ever, paving the way for live entertainment’s resurgence in 2022. The dust isn’t close to being settled yet as demand remains high and tours and festivals are announced daily. But with some of the big-name international stars taking a break from the road, who will be the new artists to take the baton to become the next global star in 2023?
The answer may be found in evaluating figures such as album sales and box office, and when one does so, the answer may not be an artist but a number: SEVENTEEN, a 13-member K-pop group that rose to great heights last year with a successful global stadium and arena tour and is carrying that momentum into 2023. The Korean group sold more than 4.5 million albums in the first week of release last month and seems to be willing to carry the torch not only for the K-pop genre but the seldom-seen boy bands. The group’s most recent EP, FML, shot to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart and set the record for the highest-selling K-pop album in its first day and week worldwide, making the idol group, a term often used to describe Asian pop ensembles, ready for a bigger stage.
“It might be shocking to Americans, especially, to see a 13-member boy band at the top of the charts but to me, as someone who has been watching their story, it all truly works because of their members, and you got a sense they could always do it,” Jeff Benjamin, a journalist who specializes in covering K-pop, tells Pollstar. “I think your uniqueness gives you an advantage, and SEVENTEEN’s uniqueness is in the fact that they are so involved in the music.”
The group got its name from simple math: 13 members divided into three teams (vocals, hip-hop and performance) forming one cohesive group, so 13+3+1=17. S.COUPS leads the group (perhaps analogous to RZA of Wu-Tang) as well as the hip-hop team, which includes WONWOO, MINGYU and VERNON, who was actually born in New York. WOOZI, who produces the albums along with BUMZU, heads the vocal group comprised of JEONGHAN, DK, SEUNGKWAN and JOSHUA, who is from Los Angeles. HOSHI is the leader of the performance team that includes DINO and Chinese-born members JUN and THE 8.
Part of what makes SEVENTEEN unique is the fact that, unlike some boy band acts from the past, everyone is given space to hone their craft and contribute to the band, an intentional move from PLEDIS Entertainment, the Korean label that formed the group and is under the HYBE entertainment company umbrella. Sung Soo Han, the label’s “master professional,” who oversees all of the company’s creatives, tells Pollstar it is “the producer’s job to assist artists in excelling at what they are good at and what they pursue” and “make sure that the message the artists want to express and their strengths are showcased in the best possible way.”
“To do that, getting to know the members by frequently communicating with them is a crucial but challenging role,” Han adds.
The rigorous training and communication certainly paid off for the label and SEVENTEEN as the self-producing group steadily ascended to stardom, becoming a force not only in K-pop, but globally. Since 2016, SEVENTEEN has earned $61.2 million off 27 reported headline shows, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. After their “Ode to You Tour” from 2019-20 was cut short due to COVID-19, the group made a triumphant return to live entertainment in 2022 with “Be the Sun,” a 29-show run promoting the album Face the Sun across 21 cities – including arenas in Los Angeles, Oakland, California, Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas – that placed them 65th in Pollstar’s Top 200 Worldwide Tours last year and left an indelible mark on the group.
“Hosting a show means coming to share a single experience with everyone there in the concert venue, alongside the spectrum of emotions that follow being at a concert,” SEVENTEEN’s WONWOO says. “The feelings are palpable and raw, hitting us like instances of joy and sadness as sheer as something a child would feel. These experiences turn into shared memories, and once they’re all stacked together, I think we’ll remember these memories as our youth.”
Benjamin attended the show at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, in September 2022, calling it “a much-needed collective experience” at the time. The sold-out concert grossed more than $1.4 million, and the group also sold out their fan meets, a form of live shows where there is a greater emphasis on audience interaction and feature multiple elements, including live performances, talk segments and games.
“Last year, with the resumption of in-person events after COVID-19, the group presented 34 live shows, including fan meets and a world tour in Korea, Japan, North America and Asia. We believe that the energy and excitement of these events have contributed to the explosive growth of their fandom,” Han says. “… I think more people are starting to recognize SEVENTEEN’s sincerity and passion in what they do, how they continue to grow endlessly by taking on new challenges, even in the ninth year since their debut.”
And that fanbase continues to grow as the group sold 1.27 million albums of its back catalog during the first quarter of 2023. SEVENTEEN named their fans CARATs following the release of the song “Shining Diamond” from their debut EP, 17 Carat. You know you’ve made it in the industry when your rabid fanbase earns a moniker.
Anyone following the industry shouldn’t be surprised to see SEVENTEEN’s rise with the telltale signs surrounding K-pop, a genre that quickly evolved since Psy burst onto the Western scene with “Gangnam Style” in 2012. Since then, Asian artists have not only managed to break into mainstream culture but elevated their respective genres to heights never before seen. One obvious success story is that of BTS, which became the second Korean act to make Billboard’s Hot 100 and was one of the biggest global acts, selling out stadiums across the world. Another feat is that of all-girls group Blackpink, which became the first Korean group to headline Coachella in April.
Han says it’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason for K-pop’s recent explosion but attributes the popularity of the genre to “its musical versatility, mesmerizing performances, eye-catching visuals, along with global promotion that amplify the value of the artist and their work. Also adding value to the scene are the scale of production and the efforts of the producers, choreographers, designers, dancers and many more behind the scenes, who work tirelessly alongside the artist for the best possible music and content.”
With SEVENTEEN’s three creative teams, versatility may be their secret to maintaining success and overcoming the dreaded “seven-year curse,” which refers to the year when Korean acts either disband due to members leaving or expired contracts. Unlike other other groups, SEVENTEEN re-upped its contract with PLEDIS in 2021, a testament to their brotherhood and cohesiveness as a unit.
“There’s been a really smart strategy and just overall management of how to consider a 13-member boy band and how to make sure that no individual gets lost in the sauce,” Benjamin says. “I think SEVENTEEN is a brilliant example in the industry of artists who genuinely took ownership in their music, and that has for sure resonated with overseas fans in particular. When they’re really involved in the music and in sync with one another, this develops that deeper fan relationship, a deeper interest in the artist themselves.”
They’re also one of the few boy bands to remain intact at the height of their powers.
Groups such as NSYNC and One Direction disbanded with members seeking solo careers, and BTS is going through something similar, having announced that the members would be focusing on solo projects last summer. The strategy behind SEVENTEEN may just be the blueprint for not only K-pop groups but all such bands.
“I really do think [PLEDIS Entertainment] is smart for leaning into the group’s specific identities,” Benjamin says. “There isn’t a one size fits all for humans and musicians. I think there’s going to be bigger rewards that will be seen if you really lean into each group’s identity, SEVENTEEN being a wonderful example.
“We might be a little cynical of the boy bands and girl groups because they seem to be a launching pad for the Beyoncés or Justin Timberlakes of the group,” Benjamin adds. “A big reason why the West is leaning into these boy bands and groups from Korea is because they have been a bit more sustainable, and we haven’t totally perfected that idea.”
SEVENTEEN isn’t taking its foot off the gas pedal as the group announced concerts in Seoul in July followed by a large-scale tour across five cities in Japan. SEVENTEEN is coming off a two-day fan meet at Japan’s Kyocera Dome Osaka where approximately 80,000 CARATs gathered to get a glimpse of the K-pop sensation. The group performed two shows there in November and sold 78,593 tickets for a total gross of $6.32 million, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports. With figures like that, SEVENTEEN may very well again earn a spot in our year-end highest-grossing tours.
“Since we’ve just released more of SEVENTEEN’s music, it only makes sense that we put these songs on many more stages and we’ll always continue expanding the number of stages we’ve performed on,” the group’s S.COUPS says. “We have concerts coming up in Seoul in July, and then in Japan. We’ve come full circle back to Seoul, a year after we set off to be on the road for our ‘Be the Sun’ tour last year following the pandemic. It’s going to be another exciting ride!”