K-pop turned its fans into an industry

Members of Korean band BTS perform on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ show in Central Park in New York City, US, in 2019. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of Korean band BTS perform on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ show in Central Park in New York City, US, in 2019. (Photo: Reuters)


  • With the number of users spiking post the pandemic, Korean fan platforms sniff an opportunity to monetize
  • The K-pop platforms are pushing the monetization button. Fans can make in-app purchases from the Weverse Shop, and buy a membership to access merchandise and concert tickets

MUMBAI : You were worried about it, right? I’m recovering well! :-)"

On Wednesday night, Park Ji-min, one of the seven members of the record-breaking South Korean music band BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan or Bulletproof Boy Scouts) posted this message online. His fans were concerned—the singer-dancer underwent surgery for acute appendicitis earlier in the week and had tested positive for covid-19.

An outpouring of love from the boyband’s hundreds of thousands of fans in India flooded Twitter and Instagram. Hashtags such as #Jiminie, #WeLoveYouJimin and #GetWellSoonJimin trended.

However, Ji-min’s original post, which fetched over 20,000 cheers and comments each in less than three minutes, was neither on Instagram nor Twitter. It was posted on an app called Weverse.

Weverse, not related to the metaverse (yet), is a fandom platform owned by BTS’s parent company, HYBE Corporation. Besides the boyband, the app allows fans to interact with over 36 artists, including popular K-pop (Korean pop) groups like Blackpink, Seventeen, TXT and individual Korean artists like singer-songwriter Sunmi and rapper CL. On the app, fans can choose which artist to follow, join their fan community, and get notified when they post something. They can direct a post towards a particular artist by adding the hashtag #to<insert artist name>. Artists respond to these fan posts occasionally, with a heady mix of wit and sincerity.

“Joonah, do you know the way to quit eating delivery food?" an ‘ARMY’ asked Kim Nam-joon, the leader of BTS, recently. ARMY is short for Adorable Representative MC for Youth—that’s how BTS fans are known, globally.

“No," replied Nam-joon, who also goes by the stage name RM, in a matter-of-fact manner.

In a span of 17 minutes, RM interacted with 40 such fan posts that day, leaving movie and song recommendations for some and answering existential questions for others.

Fans can also make in-app purchases from the Weverse Shop to consume content featuring their idols or buy a membership to get access to exclusive merchandise and concert tickets. “Many newer fans, especially the BTS ARMY, spend a lot on in-app purchases such as special online concerts, stickers or themes that they can use in the app," says Sanjay Ramjhi, founder of The K-Wave India, one of the longest-running Korean culture-centric communities based in Chennai.

Every time an artist posts on Weverse, a few dedicated fan accounts either repost the content on Twitter and Instagram or put out a part-cryptic, part-clear commentary on it—that’s enough to fully pique a rookie fan’s curiosity. It is how most newbies discover the fandom platforms.

If Weverse is an amalgamation of Twitter, Instagram and Amazon/Flipkart; V Live is the YouTube/Twitch of the K-pop universe. The live-streaming app, launched by South Korean internet conglomerate Naver Corp., has over 1,400 channels and are used by top Korean music bands and artists like BTS, Exo, Red Velvet, Got7, Mamamoo, to connect with their audience through live sessions.

In pre-covid times, fans could count on concerts and fan meetings to interact with their favourite idols. As fan interactions shifted online during the pandemic, apps like V Live and Weverse have become a necessity, leading to an unusual spike in users globally. And India has emerged as one of the top three countries in terms of audience. Yes, K-pop started becoming a global cultural movement in 2018 and has over the years moved beyond the circles of youngsters to capture the imagination of listeners across age-groups.

Minting the fandom

The K-pop industry is now monetizing its fandom platforms like never before to create a global ‘fandustry’ (a portmanteau of fandom and industry). And HYBE seems to be at the forefront of all the action.

As per HYBE’s latest financial report released in November 2021, Weverse had around 6.4 million monthly active users (MAUs) globally, an almost 268% spike from the 2.4 million MAUs it had in March 2020, or before the pandemic. In India, the app’s growth trajectory is even better. According to web analytics firm Similarweb, Weverse on Android devices in India grew almost fivefold, from 482,000 MAUs in the fourth quarter of 2020 to about 2.7 million in the third quarter of 2021.

V Live clocked a staggering 1,200% growth in monthly active users from India, from 568,000 MAUs in the last quarter of 2020 to 6.7 million in the third quarter of 2021, as per Similarweb data for Android devices. The app reportedly has over 30 million MAUs globally.

At present, Weverse hosts a bunch of international artists like American singer-songwriters Gracie Abrams and Alexander 23, and British pop trio New Hope Club, thanks to its strategic partnership with Universal Music Group (UMG). HYBE is working on multiple projects with UMG, including investing in platforms like VenewLive for virtual concerts and working on a reality show to put together a K-pop band in the US.

Come March, V Live will integrate with Weverse as part of a merger deal that was signed between the parent companies, Naver and HYBE, last year, making the integrated Weverse app the largest fandom platform of its kind. International fans comprise 85% of their combined userbase, as per company statements. An NFT platform is set to be launched soon, as per multiple media reports. In an interview with news site Asia Today, Park Ha-kyung, a researcher at Korea Investment & Securities, pegged the value of Weverse to be worth 6 trillion won, equivalent to $4 billion, and predicted that “Weverse will strengthen the solidarity of fans based on content, and the NFT platform will increase the number of users based on tangible rewards".

“If HYBE can successfully convince the existing V Live (30 million) and Weverse (6.4 million) monthly active users worldwide—many of whom willingly pay monthly fan club fees and/or purchase music merchandise items from these apps—to convert to its newly revamped K-pop fandom community app, it could very quickly and very disruptively debut as a global top 10 paid music service platform," Seoul-based Bernie Cho tells Mint. He’s president of DFSB Kollective, an artist and label services agency that specializes in providing digital media, marketing, and distribution solutions to 1,500+ Korean music artists.

A tight-knit community

Weverse and V Live, however, are not the only platforms making news.

Recently launched fandom platforms like Universe, published by gaming company NCSoft Corp., and Bubble, a subscription-based fandom platform by software development company Dear U, have also found hundreds of thousands of takers in the last 12-18 months. Music Cow, a one-of-a-kind K-pop song copyright trading platform (available to only Korean fans at the moment), is steadily growing its user base and prepping to go public by the second half of 2023.

So, what makes these fandom platforms thrive?

“Korean fandom platforms have been able to grow alongside, rather than at the expense of other international social media platforms because they often offer a differentiated, more direct, and far deeper interactive experience between K-pop fans and artists," says Cho. “In many ways, these apps bundle the best aspects of other popular social media platforms—live streaming, posts, chats, paid subscriptions, exclusive content, e-commerce, etc— into a unique music-tech kimbap (Korean seaweed rice roll)."

Ishan Agarwal, a 19-year-old ARMY, agrees with the best-aspects concept. “I love the fact that you are notified about or can access communities of only the artists you want to follow. No other artists are pushed on you by any sort of algorithm," he says. This is what many users expect from Twitter: to only see the tweets of users they’ve followed. These apps also make fans feel that they are part of a tight-knit community, says a BTS ARMY who goes by the Twitter handle @Diyankilaco.

This trend of having dedicated fandom platforms is unique to K-pop—you wouldn’t find such communities in other music genres like heavy metal and hip-hop. “There’s no community like the K-pop community right now," says Pratika Prabhune, a rapper-singer from Mumbai. “It’s the first of its kind global cultural movement coming from an eastern country. So, you can see the whole community come together to make it more impactful. Their fan base has been as dedicated and loyal as the hard-working performers."

Sahil Makhija, vocalist and guitarist of Demonic Resurrection, a Blackened death metal band from Mumbai, says that unlike metal, where commercialization is frowned upon, parent companies of Korean bands like BTS have been able to use tech to scale the apps and monetize fandom.

A safer space

This is not to say that the K-pop platforms don’t have glaring issues. The in-app translation feature of Weverse often does a shoddy job of translating content posted in Hangul, the Korean script. Grammatical errors apart, the context in a communication can be lost.

Akshada Pillai, a fan of the South Korean girl group, Mamamoo, recalls having to wait 38 days to get a subtitled version of one of their concerts. “As an international fan, that was upsetting," says the Mumbai-based screenwriter and poet.

Content moderation troubles keep cropping up every now and then, as well. A fan who goes by the handle @Diyankilaco still wishes she could erase the memory of PG-rated content she once saw on the message board of V Live.

Nevertheless, at present, the Korean apps do ensure relatively fewer toxic comments and feeds compared to the mainstream social networks, says Ramjhi of The K-Wave India.

That said, the apps do give fans a window to understand the interpersonal dynamics between various artists, hard to come by on mainstream social networks. “I love it when your favourite artists spam on these apps or interact with their group members," says Agarwal, the tech blogger who is a fan of BTS and TXT. “Last year, TXT band members had this friendly fight (between themselves) on Weverse that was really fun to follow and laugh about. It really made my day and also went viral on K-pop Twitter," he recalls.

“Korean artists are very private, compared to say celebrities in the Hindi film industry who do engage with their followers via Twitter and Instagram," says Monica Yadav, a Mumbai-based entertainment journalist who has been covering K-pop artists and the growth of their fandom in India for a few years now. “If you notice, most Korean music artists only upload pictures via their label’s official accounts. Some create a personal Instagram account after years of being active in the industry. Some do live broadcasts and share snippets of their lives that they are comfortable with, which fans respect."

Dedicated fandom platforms provide them with a safe space to share the kind of stories that made Agarwal’s day.

Can the Indian music industry benefit from adopting the Korean ‘fandustry’ model?

“Sure," says Mandar Thakur, COO of Times Music. Can it emulate the model though? Not really.

“South Korea has an institutionalized approach towards music that is hard to emulate in the Indian context," says Thakur. “Because, culturally our relationship has always been with the song and not the singer/musician. And fandom is usually associated with the artist and not the art. If you look at the fandom culture for BTS, people are paying for things other than the music," he points out.

Further, the triumvirate of artist-label-artist management doesn’t work well in India, he adds. What does he mean?

Unlike in China, Japan or Korea, the record label company has little control over the creative output of an artist in India. There’s little incentive for the label to invest in an artist for the long-term. Additionally, artist management agencies also act as mere agents in India as opposed to the Korean music industry where the agency heads are all powerful and often make decisions on behalf of the artist.

However, Thakur sees a few young folks trying to bring in a more institutionalized approach to the industry. “Maybe things are beginning to change."

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