Before BTS took the stage in Seoul last year at the three-date finale of its Love Yourself: Speak Yourself stadium tour, an advertisement announced that the group’s annual reality show, Bon Voyage, was coming to a new home.
The 130,000 fans in attendance — as well as those livestreaming at home and watching at movie theater screenings — learned the digital series documenting the K-pop act’s international travels would no longer air on South Korean video streaming service V Live, but rather on a newly created app called WeVerse.
The small but crucial change offers a window into the future of K-pop video content. One of the keys to K-pop’s popularity has been the industry’s use of video. Both polished productions and seemingly unscripted behind-the-scenes content — artists have been depicted at dance rehearsals, waxing appointments and giving tours of their homes — have fueled fans’ interest in the idols. But in 2019 K-pop companies began moving beyond YouTube to set up their own proprietary subscription-based apps where they can better control and monetize video content — a historically low-margin business given the high production values expected by fans.
“The biggest priority for new artists is always discoverability, and YouTube was arguably the biggest game-changer for K-pop because it allowed labels to access and win over a built-in audience of music fans from all over the world,” says Jenny Zha, CEO of Infinitize, a digital media consultancy that has worked with K-pop labels. “For market leaders like BTS, who already have the biggest K-pop following on major platforms, the focus shifts from discoverability to ownership. Labels want to use this opportunity to create an asset they can own and mobilize for other artists and ventures because they know that fans will follow to where the content is. It creates more security for the label for the long term.”
Take WeVerse, which BTS’ label, Big Hit Entertainment, and its subsidiary tech company, beNX, launched last year as a fan club social media platform. With 1.4 million daily visitors and active users from 205 regions globally, according to beNX, WeVerse delivers individual posts from BTS members and creates direct artist-to-fan interactions through Twitter-like push notifications and Instagram Story-style updates. WeVerse is free to use, although the fourth season of Bon Voyage required fans to sign up for BTS’ annual $30 global fan club membership or pay about $20 for the individual season through the online WeVerse Shop (formerly known as Weply), another Big Hit/beNX collaboration. Despite the platform change, beNX reports sales of Bon Voyage’s fourth season surpassed that of the third season that ran on subscription-based V Live+.
In August, BTS launched its Bring the Soul: Docu-Series that expanded on the film that preceded it, Bring the Soul: The Movie. The six-episode arc is available to purchase for $17.99 on WeVerse. Also available, for $12.99: Bring the Soul: The Movie Commentary Package, in which fans can watch the film synchronized with BTS members’ reactions to their scenes.
WeVerse also offers a monthly, on-demand content subscription plan called Behind that delivers never-before-seen photos and videos of BTS and Big Hit’s new boy band Tomorrow X Together. A 30-day subscription costs $2.99; 180 days goes for $14.99. Unauthorized distribution of the content is “punishable by law,” according to the app.
So far, 3.6 million BTS fans have already signed up for either the free or subscription service — the app’s home screen keeps a running tally for each act — while Tomorrow X Together has amassed nearly 1.4 million, and girl group GFriend has drawn about 435,000. Boy band Seventeen, which had Korea’s second-best-selling album of 2019 after BTS, will join the service in March as WeVerse’s first non-Big Hit artist. Seo Wooseok, president at beNX, says that artists from other K-pop agencies and overseas labels are currently under discussion for addition to WeVerse.
“Artists can easily reach out to fans through YouTube or Twitter, but that’s closer to content delivery rather than communication — artists needed to interact with devoted fans on a deeper level while the fans wanted a more in-depth experience than just simply watching,” says Seo of the limitations that he observed in other apps. “The goal of WeVerse is expanding the communication, and the goal of WeVerse Shop is to expand convenience.”
In establishing the proprietary apps, K-pop companies seemingly intend to lure away the fan bases they’ve built on other platforms, such as the 25.8 million subscribers BTS has amassed on YouTube, its 24.2 million Twitter followers and the 17.5 million it has on the V Live app. Seventeen, GFriend and Tomorrow X Together have all hosted multiple mid- to long-form series on their respective YouTube and V Live channels, making it likely that they will make a pay-to-view shift to WeVerse as well. Eight months into operation, beNX says WeVerse has generated over 29 million posts and 37 million comments. Activity isn’t isolated either: A WeVerse post from BTS member V asking for Simpsons-inspired fan art of him and his Pomeranian caught the eye of the cartoon’s longtime writer Al Jean on Twitter who later said he’s trying to get BTS on the show.
SM Entertainment also entered the proprietary app space in 2019 with Lysn, which acts as a global fan community for its artists. Lysn is free to use, but a paid fan club membership brings more interactive features and a membership box of goodies that include photo and postcard sets and accessories like wallets and pins. SM has not hosted video content yet, but its artists have used the app to share news updates in a fan-supported environment (versus an online space that is accessible to all comers). In January, Chen, a member of boy band EXO, posted a handwritten letter on Lysn, sharing that he was getting married and expecting a child with his future wife. The reveal resulted in an online tsunami of reaction, with some fans demanding he leave the group. SM was eventually forced to respond that he was staying put.
Later that month SM launched a personal-message system called “Dear U” where fans can subscribe to receive personal messages sent from their SM idols. A subscription to an individual member costs $3.49 per month, while, for instance, subscribing to all 14 NCT members will cost fans $40.99 per month. Fans can message the artists as many times as they want, but it’s entirely up to the band members to respond.
Zha at Infinitize says the apps will enable K-pop companies to retain all of the ad revenue generated by the content they post. YouTube’s revenue-sharing model only gives 55% to channel owners, which can get more complicated when international viewership is involved. The strategy will allow the companies to build their own revenue models and wring more profits from fans in a sector of the K-pop business that hasn’t proved very lucrative up to now.
“The key is finding a sustainable business model,” says Zha. “There’s a unique emphasis on the quality of visuals for K-pop content so production and promotional costs are often high, leaving little — if any — room where money could be made. By owning the audience, labels have the freedom to deliver the content directly to the fans and create a larger profit margin.”