BTS is the Pied Piper of the 21st century: any time they do or release anything publicly, a massive number of people on the Internet flock to them. If they are on the red carpet of an awards ceremony, that awards show will trend on Twitter worldwide and the brand or designer of their outfits will receive media attention all over the world. In this way, whenever BTS do anything, they are building their own platform, and effectively function as one for the various companies and people related to the group and their activity as fans quickly seek them out. Just as in the past when any post featured on search giant Naver’s front page would become a hot topic, anything related to BTS becomes a hot topic and attracts people. It is normal for stars, celebrities and other famous people to have this effect, but the popularity of K-pop idols is rooted in the strength of their fanbases. When fans choose media or platforms, the first thing they check is whether there is content about, or made by, the people they are interested in. It matters little for the fandom if BTS appears on TV or on TikTok. Wherever it takes place, ARMY will make sure it is trending or a most-viewed video through their passionate response.

It would be difficult to discuss in detail the many reasons BTS will occupy several pages in the history book of the Korean popular music industry, but the basis for BTS being the representative third-generation idols is revealed not only in their success but also through their process. BTS spread their content to fans directly through social media and set the foundation for how Korean idols to come should communicate, making it the standard—it being necessary, of course, to have the capacity to create content that can captivate fans. Consequently, the influence of fandoms, which were well-established but whose effect had been difficult to measure, became clear. Now we know how this overall phenomenon of increased followers, fans retweeting media, search rankings, and the buzz all of this creates moment by moment reflects an idol’s popularity and the efforts of their fandom.
In the idol industry, a generation or era is most intuitively measured by determining which artist dominated the scene during that time. However, the rise of such artists spells a change in the world of idols. The arrival of Seo Taiji and Boys brought with it the first instance of a powerful fandom shaking the entire music industry. Beginning with H.O.T., the first generation of idols started to build a market with characteristics different from that of the existing music industry by focusing on not only music but also TV dramas and variety shows, teenage subcultures, and more. From the era of idols like TVXQ, Girls’ Generation and Big Bang, international presence became a must. Building on top of that, BTS would release Korean-language content instantly across the globe through the Internet, and between releases maintain real-time communication with fans to cultivate one singular fandom. The focus of the market has shifted away from traditional media and toward social media easily accessible by smartphone, and the strength of BTS’s fanbase has led social media users from all over the world to pay attention to the group. The number of countries within the sphere of Korean idol music has grown exponentially as fans have come to fully realize how to exert their influence.

It remains to be seen what kind of industry the idols that we have started to refer to as the fourth generation will make. It seems that, just as for today’s teenagers and Generation Z, there is no longer any new world or market for Korean idols; all three previous generations of idols already carved their way into overseas markets and made heavy use of social media and promotional strategies rooted in their fandoms’ influence. On top of this existing foundation, however, something new is taking place. Under Big Hit Labels, BELIFT’s rookie group ENHYPEN debuted last year on Mnet’s I-LAND. The highest viewership for the TV broadcast was 1.7% (according to Nielsen Korea), which is not exactly high. Yet worldwide viewers for the live stream of I-LAND on Big Hit Labels’ YouTube channel totaled 19,809,189 over the course of 12 episodes, and people from as many as 178 countries cast their votes for the contestants on the show. It seems that ENHYPEN is demonstrating the possibility for new recruits who rise to fame after BTS to reveal themselves to the world from the moment they debut. Thanks to social media connecting a Korean idol’s international fanbases into one worldwide fandom, artists no longer have to hold an event in Korea and then target international audiences separately; instead, they can develop their worldwide fandom all at once through their domestic activities. Depending on the situation, international fans may respond first, only after which does it go viral locally.
There is something unique to a team like ENHYPEN, something different from the previous generation, that comes out of this process. Groups who are already building their fanbases from the moment of their debut require a method to bring fans from all around the world, who have their own reasons for liking the group, together as one, with particular attention paid to the languages and platforms they use. It is here that Weverse, its recent acquisition V LIVE, Universe and other fandom platforms are particularly valuable. Even before ENHYPEN was formed, there was a space on Weverse for I-LAND where viewers of the show could vote, view media and share their opinions with other fans. Once ENHYPEN debuted, it became a space dedicated to the group’s fandom. Different content related to ENHYPEN can be accessed on YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and elsewhere; fandom platforms not only collect all of this media in one place, but also provide a unified space where fans can interact. The artists are also able to play a more active role here than on traditional social media networks. In a dedicated fan space, they can see their fans’ comments and respond in real-time and have live conversations almost like creating a group chat on a messenger app. This way, fans immerse themselves in the artists’ reactions and the replies from within the fandom that spin off from those reactions. ENHYPEN sold more than 280,000 physical copies of their debut album BORDER: DAY ONE, making them the most successful team to debut in 2020. That, surely, is the direct result of mixing the global social media environment with the unique traits of Korean idol fandom to generate concentrated interest on Weverse.

For fans, content consumption is just the beginning; they want content that they can be engrossed in and “dive into” at all times. If we say that BTS had demonstrated this process in the social media world, then gathering the fandom together through Weverse is more like perfecting fans’ preferences for this deep diving. Fandom platforms bring fans together by centering the communities around the artists. Fans who check a platform’s notifications and keep up with new content as well as the artist’s comments that go along with it quickly become tightly knit with the artist and the fandom. Although still in their relative infancy, fandom platforms are continually building up steam by combining all the fast and, because they are so engrossing, often hectic elements of Korean idol-centric fandom culture in one place.

TOMORROW X TOGETHER could be called the first fourth-generation idol group, making ENHYPEN one as well, but this is not simply because a certain amount of time has passed since BTS’s debut. Building on top of the market newly defined by BTS, these two groups demonstrate what this next generation of idols is capable of. TOMORROW X TOGETHER made their first appearance on Big Hit Labels’ YouTube channel. When TOMORROW X TOGETHER debuted in March 2019, Big Hit Labels had around 21.5 million subscribers; two years later, that number now stands at 51.3 million. After an era when groups like BTS became an “IP” (intellectual property) as well as their own platforms, TOMORROW X TOGETHER and similar groups now debut through platforms full of people from all over the world who are already enthusiastic about and ready to greet new idols. Fandom platforms, including Weverse, also take the combined interest generated by fans on YouTube, Twitter and TikTok and enable users to dive in to their hearts’ content, even if they speak different languages. Content is uploaded, discussion follows, a hot topic is born, and followers become core fans; if fan engagement with the idol industry has up until this point been carried out over individual social networks, as well as in offline spaces, fandom platforms now represent the comprehensive base camp, or “-verse,” that connects all existing modes of communication and the fan activities therein. If someone were to ask why Big Hit, which increased its annual sales in 2020 by 36% from the previous year to 796.3 billion won in spite of the pandemic, is a big company, it is not merely because of big deals like laying the framework for the merger between Weverse and V LIVE. Rather, the Big Hit of today has gone beyond producing media and running its own platform to disseminate it. It is now combining the two to provide services that make it easy, fast, and exciting for anyone who calls themselves a fan to participate. In other words, they are able to shape the whole process that allows artists to engage their fans through their content and communication.
Universal Music Group (UMG), the company at the very center of the United States music industry, if not that of the world, said they partnered with Big Hit because Big Hit is “one of the world’s most innovative music entertainment companies.” No one can be certain that the innovation UMG talks about will continue to lead Big Hit to the success their name suggests; there are few fields with as many plans gone awry as the entertainment industry. Big Hit, however, keeps proposing ways to find new markets with the next generation of idols, then help them to debut and perform well as they inch closer to success. TOMORROW X TOGETHER’s album minisode1: Blue Hour sold over 300,000 physical copies in its first week, the most of any group to debut that year, and their first full-length Japanese album, STILL DREAMING, reached number 173 on the Billboard 200 in the US, the second Korean idols after BTS to do so. It is impossible to say how things will turn out, but the road ahead is clear: Whether that road will be called the fourth generation or not, the world at the end will certainly be different from the past.
Article. Myungseok Kang
Design. Paperpress
Visual Director. Yurim Jeon