The global K-pop music craze is generating a fortune for Bang Si-hyuk, a South Korean producer known as “Hitman.”
Thanks to legions of fans obsessively devoted to boy band BTS, known collectively as the Army, the estimated value of his production company has soared, making him one of the biggest winners in the K-pop boom. Bang, 46, is worth $770 million, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The band — short for Bangtan Sonyeondan, which translates to Bulletproof Boy Scouts — sold out London’s 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium in 90 minutes this year. The BTS members, all in their 20s, bond with fans by opening up via social media about their anxieties and struggles, which Bang called a “window into the soul of BTS.”
The producer and his Big Hit Entertainment are riding a 20-year wave of popularity for a formula of highly choreographed, photogenic performers and synthesized beats. The industry that unleashed such hits as Psy’s “Gangnam Style” is now worth $5 billion, according to Korea Creative Content Agency.
“Bang’s focus on fan communications has become the biggest driving force of BTS’ popularity,” said Kwak Young-ho, co-founder at Hanteo Chart, which partners with Billboard on album sales data. “BTS has now become a platform.”
The mania has delivered sold-out concerts, No. 1 albums, billions of YouTube views, and it made the group’s seven members the world’s most tweeted-about celebrities. The band collaborated on Unicef’s anti-violence campaign, with the hit “Love Yourself” albums, and last year its members became the first K-pop stars to address the United Nations.
Big Hit had considered a potential initial public offering in 2017, but Bang said at the time that the company would need to become bigger and establish a more sustainable production system before making that move.
Bang, who owns 49 percent of Big Hit, declined to comment for this story. The firm’s second-biggest investor is Netmarble, a gaming company led by his cousin.
“I’m happy, but at the same time it feels surreal,” Bang said of his success in a rare 2017 interview with Bloomberg.
A songwriter and fan of American hip-hop, Bang entered the music industry in his 20s and came up with a string of hits at JYP Entertainment, helping to set the foundation for K-pop idol culture. Although the “Hitman” moniker was derived from his family name, Bang earned his reputation as a hitmaker and launched Big Hit in 2005.
He struggled initially, and the company edged toward bankruptcy in its early years. Business was sometimes so quiet that artists stopped by the office only to play tennis matches on Big Hit’s Nintendo Wii, he said in the interview.
As the band’s popularity surged, companies from Coca-Cola to Puma and Hyundai have signed up the stars as brand ambassadors. In addition to Big Hit’s proprietary merchandise such as games and cushions to pajamas featuring characters created by BTS, there’s even a line of Barbie dolls.
Bang is a low-key figure not known for the ostentatious displays of wealth often seen in K-pop. While known as something of a foodie, he was downing a $3 bowl of soup from a convenience store during the 2017 interview. Appearing as a mentor in an “Idol”-style television show, he bluntly scolded contestants for not trying hard enough.
The BTS whirlwind is now sweeping the U.S., with the band making its debut on “Saturday Night Live” and a May 1 appearance at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas.
In 2017, Bang was asked whether Big Hit would make as much money with BTS as artists like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé.
“Yes,” he said. “Only if I make the right moves.”