Pin It
K-pop stocks
Illustration Callum Abbott

The K-pop fans buying shares in BTS

In October, Big Hit Entertainment – the label behind the superstar band – went public, giving fans the opportunity to actually own their faves

Ownership is often at the heart of what it means to be a fan. Maybe you buy merch, or set your alarm early to buy tour tickets. Maybe you make fan cams, learn dance routines, or invest in special edition vinyls. But what if you could literally own your favourite band?

This was the question put to BTS fans in October, when Big Hit – the label behind the K-pop superstars – went public. Its listing on the stock market was the biggest financial event in South Korea since 2017, and turned label-founder Bang Si-Hyuk into a billionaire. Fans concerned about the fate of BTS were relieved to discover that Bang had also gifted millions of dollars in shares to RM, Jin, SUGA, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook, crediting them with turning the label into the juggernaut it is today. But while there was much to celebrate, BTS fans – known collectively as ARMY – were right to be wary, too. 

BTS are the epitome of the underdog story. When they debuted in 2013, after recording their first album in a garage, the market was dominated by K-pop’s hyper-influential “big three” talent agencies. Now Big Hit is worth more than those three agencies combined. 

This meteoric rise is as much to do with BTS’s charisma, dedication, and chemistry as it is their deep relationship with ARMY. A love affair born of shared hardships, the group regularly acknowledge ARMY’s passionate efforts to combat their disadvantages, both on home turf and in the global pop market. As well as breaking myriad YouTube records and winning them Billboard’s Best Social Artist for years in a row, fans have sent flowers to radio DJs to try to beat the xenophobia faced by the band.

According to Bora, ARMY is also incredibly well-informed about BTS’s financial affairs. Bora runs a pseudonymous fan Twitter account, and since late 2018 has translated articles about BTS’s impact on the South Korean economy for over 140k followers. “It’s an intersection of my personal interests, and I just felt like it was really interesting to share this with the fandom,” she explains. “It’s really important to have accurate information out there, instead of the misinformation that often comes from a Western perspective, and lacks context about Korea.” 

Bora personally invested in Big Hit, but “only a few shares”. She tells me it doesn’t change how she sees her role in ARMY, and although she considers the agency to be a good investment, it’s not about any potential gain. “It’s more like owning a very small piece of history,” she tells Dazed. “Kind of a collectible… albeit pretty expensive.” 

“It’s more like owning a very small piece of history. Kind of a collectible… albeit pretty expensive” – Bora 

Other fans share her sentiment. On Weverse, a social platform run by Big Hit, a user called TaeTime7 tells Dazed that they intend to invest for one simple reason: “I support everything they do.” Though this might sound as if fans see shares as elite-level merch, it actually reveals a deeper truth: ARMY doesn’t need stocks to have a seat in the Big Hit boardroom. The group’s ownership of BTS manifests in other, arguably more powerful, ways. 

Aside from the fact that stocks are prohibitively expensive for most fans, buying shares doesn’t translate into the immediate, quantifiable kinds of success for BTS that ARMY is used to achieving. The fandom’s goals for BTS’s new album, due in November, would intimidate the most seasoned of sales reps: seven million album sales worldwide, simultaneous number ones on five Billboard Charts – including the Hot 100 and number one iTunes album in 100 countries. 

It’s exactly this clout that makes ARMY so wary of bad actors taking advantage of their relationship with BTS. The fandom is currently at loggerheads with Jason Derulo for demanding 10 million likes from ARMY on TikTok, while repeatedly downplaying BTS’s contributions to his number one single “Savage Love”. They’ve battled this behaviour for years, particularly from Western radio stations requesting astronomical social engagement in return for BTS radio play – a problem that Western artists don’t face.

The fandom’s protective spirit is certainly justified, but sometimes this sense of ownership goes too far. Earlier this year, a small group of fans decided to protest – unasked – on Jin’s behalf. They perceived him to be underused in the music video for “Dynamite”, BTS’s chart-topping hit, and sent a billboard mounted on a truck to broadcast their demands outside Big Hit’s Seoul HQ. The rest of the fandom was horrified, calling the stunt patronising and overly controlling.

The ‘JinTruck’ stunt went unacknowledged by Big Hit, but it speaks to a long history of fandoms attempting to micromanage their faves. For instance, in 2005, a group of Super Junior fans used the stock market to protest the addition of new members to the band. Although they managed to purchase 0.3 per cent of the major agency SM - no small feat - their complaints were ignored. 

It’s not impossible for ARMY to band together to buy up a serious percentage of Big Hit but – put simply – they don’t need to. The fandom is already expert when it comes to wrestling with the machinery of the pop industry. Just this month alone, ARMY has challenged incorrect reporting from Reuters and petitioned Spotify over inaccurate labelling of BTS on the streaming platform, acting more like a global conglomerate of agents than your average fanbase. 

“It’s not impossible for ARMY to band together to buy up a serious percentage of Big Hit but – put simply – they don’t need to. The fandom is already expert when it comes to wrestling with the machinery of the pop industry”

Instead, Big Hit’s public listing has made explicit the way artists are valued under capitalism – and it revolves around their fans. Investors are beholden to ARMY’s powerful commitment to BTS’s art, and without respecting the fans’ purchasing power and industry knowhow, those shareholders could be left with nothing.

During BTS’s recent, record-breaking digital concert – held just two days before Big Hit went public – ARMY members were livestreamed into a huge Seoul arena, their faces making up the entire backdrop to the stage. The fans’ emotional interactions with the members created an infinite feedback loop, refracted through BTS’s own cameras. It’s this symbolic, symbiotic relationship between artist and audience that appears so lucrative to investors – but, ultimately, leaves those same investors powerless. As Bora puts it: “How fans utilise this leverage is a question that hasn’t been answered yet.”