Deep Dive

Branded Light Sticks Are Brightening the Bank for K-Pop

SEVENTEEN
SEVENTEEN performs in concert during their "Ode to You" tour at Toyota Music Factory on Jan. 14, 2020 in Irving, Texas. Omar Vega/Getty Images

The band-branded light sticks, which are increasingly Bluetooth-enabled and cost as much as $80, have become a revenue-generating staple of the merchandising machine that drives the South Korean music market — and it’s only a matter of time before they are adopted by fans of other genres as well

As dusk descended on the Rose Bowl last May, tens of thousands of BTS fans streamed to their seats at the famed Pasadena, Calif., stadium with more than their tickets in hand. After braving hours-long lines at the merchandise booths, many of the K-pop faithful clutched boxes of $60 Bluetooth-enabled light sticks called ARMY Bombs, named after BTS’ fan club. (For the uninitiated, ARMY stands for Adorable Representative MC for Youth.)

After connecting the devices to apps on their cellphones, the concertgoers plugged in their seat information. That enabled the band’s lighting engineers to control the color and rhythmic pulsations of the light sticks and incorporate them into the show. At one point the ARMY Bombs were synced to accentuate the green and purple hues of the shimmering Dior stagewear worn by the band members. And at another memorable moment, BTS member Jungkook — suspended from a cable — soared over the audience while singing “Euphoria” as fans’ light sticks pulsed and changed color in unison.

A significant advancement from the glow sticks that were ubiquitous at raves — and the cellphone flashlights and cigarette lighters used at more conventional concerts — light sticks, also known as bongs, the Korean word for "stick," and sometimes called fanlights, have become a key staple of the gear that K-pop fans use to cheer on their favorite acts.

Currently, the devices are unique to K-pop, but one of the largest manufacturers of fanlights says it is working to expand the trend to other music genres.

The light stick's emergence as a concert mainstay can be traced back to 2006, when the K-pop group BIGBANG began selling a gold-colored crown-like device outfitted with flashing LED lights.

As they grew in popularity, light sticks became more sophisticated and proprietary, with each act releasing its own official digital torch for fans to wield. Once single-hued, they are now capable of displaying a multitude of colors, and the most recent models are interactive and, in some cases, include moving parts and sound capabilities. ATEEZ’s and Stray Kids’ fanlights incorporate spinning elements while Blackpink’s squeaks like a pet toy.

Some are marketed as collectors’ items meant to be displayed like artwork when not being waved at a concert. The first version of TWICE’s light stick was sold with a base that converted it into a mood light.

Carrie Choi, a representative of the Dreamus Company, which produces light sticks for all of SM Entertainment’s artists — including SuperM, EXO and Red Velvet — says the popularity of light sticks has grown substantially over the past two years, with the company experiencing an 80% year-over-year increase in sales from 2018 to 2019. Dreamus sold 530,000 light sticks in 2019, compared with 295,000 in 2018, and the company expects that growth to continue in 2020.

“The market for this business has grown rapidly since 2017 with the introduction of wireless control technology,” says Choi. Four out of the top five best-selling items on SM Entertainment’s official online store are light sticks. SM — one of the “Big Three” entertainment companies in South Korea, alongside JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment — earned revenue of $516 million (612.2 billion won) in 2018, and approximately 25% of that was from “other” sources, which include merch such as light sticks, fan clubs and subscription services. Choi declined to discuss whether light sticks were a profitable business for Dreamus.

Another sign of their popularity: Dreamus says counterfeiting has been a problem since it began producing light sticks in 2017. Knockoffs can be found on mainstream sites like Amazon and eBay within two weeks of the release of a new model. According to Dreamus, the counterfeit devices reveal themselves at concerts when they don’t change colors or stay in sync with the official versions.

Dreamus says it is continuing to explore ways of adding more technology to the light sticks it manufactures as, like cellphones, new generations are released — usually every two-and-a-half to three years.

K-pop acts also release multiple versions of their branded light sticks, counting on merch-hungry fans to buy more than one model. BTS is already on the third version of its official light stick, which is manufactured in Korea and copyrighted by Big Hit Entertainment, which manages the group.

While demand for the light sticks is still strong in the K-pop world, Dreamus has begun looking at global pop stars as the next frontier for their products. “We would highly welcome producing fanlights for those worldwide pop stars,” says Choi.

With artists and labels perpetually looking for new revenue streams, it’s only a matter of time.

Additional reporting by Tamar Herman and Alexei Barrionuevo.

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