That’s what Universal Music Group and BTS’ label, Big Hit Entertainment, are betting on. As part of a broad strategic collaboration announced Wednesday (Feb.17), the South Korean label and the U.S.-based major are planning to create an unprecedented joint venture recording label and an American Idol-like audition show in the U.S. to find the next global K-pop group.
Under terms of the deal, Big Hit will create the joint label with Geffen Records, which helped shape artists like Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses, Elton John and recent breakout artist Olivia Rodrigo. The new label will operate from Los Angeles.
“I strongly believe that UMG and Big Hit, two companies that endlessly pursued innovation, will create a synergy that will rewrite global music history,” Bang Si-Hyuk, Big Hit’s founder and CEO, said in a video announcing the partnership. He was joined by UMG CEO Lucian Grainge, Interscope Geffen CEO John Janick and Big Hit global CEO Lenzo Yoon.
The joint venture marks a major step forward in the collaboration between the major international labels and Korean music companies, which have traditionally exercised tight-fisted control over the formation, training and music and visual production of K-pop artists.
More recently, the K-pop labels have been loosening the reins somewhat and engaging more with the majors, who are eager to jump on the K-pop money train, especially given the global success of groups like BTS and Blackpink, who command massive and rabidly loyal fanbases on social media.
Deals between Korean label and the major labels have typically involved distribution and marketing of K-pop artists outside of Asia, not A&R or creative ventures like in-studio production.
Big Hit, which went public on the South Korean stock exchange last October, has done a series of deals recently buying smaller labels, investing in rival artists’ IP and developing live stream and fan platforms. The company is under pressure to diversify its roster beyond BTS, especially with required Korean military service still looming for the group’s oldest members.
Under terms of the arrangement, the two companies will also explore enhanced “direct to fan” communications through Big Hit’s Weverse fan platform. Grainge said UMG artists Gracie Abrams, New Hope Club and Alexander 23 were already utilizing the platform. Wednesday’s announcement follows the news last week that UMG had become an equity investor alongside Big Hit, K-pop rival YG Entertainment and Kiswe in livestream platform VenewLive.
Yoon said the partners plan to air the K-pop audition program in 2022 with a U.S. media partner, which they did not name on Wednesday. Big Hit will be in charge of discovering and training the K-pop artists, with UMG handling music production, distribution and co-production of the show with the media outlet.
Just as American Idol and The Voice have discovered major pop stars in the U.S., singing competitions have been commonplace in the K-pop market for years. Korean companies have used the format to finalize their new groups while developing an audience.
YG Entertainment pitted two potential boy bands against one another in 2014’s WIN: Who Is Next. The show, which aired on public television in Korea, led to the debut of WINNER, with the losing band competing in another show that year, Mix & Match, to determine the lineup of boy band iKON.
In 2015, JYP Entertainment found success with the show Sixteen on Mnet, which whittled down 16 potential female trainees at the company to the eventual nine-member group TWICE, who have broken sales and touring records for female acts in Korea and Japan.
Then in 2016, survival singing competitions took on a new spin with the debut of Mnet’s Produce 101 series where 101 K-pop hopefuls from various companies (known as “trainees”) competed for a spot in a temporary group. The first season featured female trainees and generated high ratings and a national sensation in I.O.I., an 11-member girl group.
The second season featuring male trainees created boy band Wanna One. In their one year together, the group earned 2017’s fourth- and fifth-best-selling albums in South Korea (per Gaon Chart, the longest-running chart service in Korea), and 2018’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-best-selling albums (behind BTS and EXO both years).
The third Produce season, known as Produce 48, brought Korean trainees and Japanese singers from girl group AKB48 to compete for spots in a 12-member group IZ*ONE, who have had success in Korea and Japan. The fourth season, Produce X 101, created X1 who produced Korea’s fourth-best-selling album in 2019.
While they have launched careers, Korean singing competitions have also been mired in revelations about voter fraud and harsh working conditions for contestants. Viewers of Produce X 101 demanded an investigation into voter manipulation by Mnet, which led to Korean court investigations that found the show’s producers had rigged the final lineups of X1 and IZ*ONE. Courts ordered jail time for the producers and penalties for the TV channel.
Artists have not always fared well after Produce. Two girl groups with members of I.O.I disbanded due to disappointing results. Many acts tend to debut with groups or as soloists to large buzz but can’t sustain their album sales.
Big Hit and UMG hope their show can change that. ENHYPEN, a boy band formed in late 2020, came out of I-Land, another survival reality show on Mnet.
The Search for Stars Beyond BTS
After years of nearly undivided attention on BTS, Big Hit has over the last two years begun to focus on diversifying its artist roster and investments. In the third quarter ending Sept. 30, 2020, Big Hit reported the company’s revenue grew by 54% from the third quarter of 2019, to 190 billion won ($171 million).
In March 2019, Big Hit debuted its second-ever boy band Tomorrow X Together, who have sent two EPs to the Billboard 200, and notched growing sales with each album release. Big Hit’s joint label with Korean conglomerate CJ E&M, called Belift, also co-produced ENHYPEN’s debut EP titled Border: Day One.
Beyond a few minor examples, the relationship between K-pop labels and the majors have mostly focused on distribution and promotion.
Columbia Records distributes BTS in the U.S. and JYP Entertainment signed with The Orchard, a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment, for global distribution in 2019. Interscope Records represents Blackpink outside of Asia.
A stronger example of a full-fledged K-pop/U.S. label team-up was between Monsta X and Epic Records, which collaborated on the 2020 all-English album All About Luv. The album featured Sony artists French Montana (Epic) and Pitbull (RCA). They earned a top 5 album on the Billboard 200 (the first time Monsta X entered the chart) and the album was physically available in the U.S.
Republic Records now has four K-pop acts listed on its roster with Big Hit’s Tomorrow X Together, JYP’s TWICE, Cube Entertainment’s girl group (G)I-DLE, and the recently debuted girl group TRI.BE. Tomorrow X Together and TWICE have both entered the Billboard 200 twice each after signing with Republic. But those arrangements essentially involve distribution and promotion on the part of Republic.
Warner Music Group has K-pop artists like AB6IX signed to subsidiaries.
Big Hit Making Other Business Plays
Big Hit has recently been active on the acquisition front as well. In July 2019 the company acquired K-pop label Source Music, home to girl group GFriend, and last May Big Hit became the majority stakeholder in Pledis Entertainment, home to Seventeen, which had 2020’s third-best-selling album in Korea behind BTS’ two releases. Big Hit also bought KOZ Entertainment, a label founded by rapper-producer Zico, who had one of 2020’s biggest viral K-pop hits in “Any Song.”
Big Hit has been enhancing its technology subsidiaries, in particular Weverse, and expanding through overseas offices. Big Hit Entertainment Japan is preparing a boy band, and Big Hit Entertainment America, announced in 2020, is actively hiring in Los Angeles.