China’s economy is rebounding. The Dodgers reach the World Series. And the Supreme Court may be about to get even friendlier to corporations.
But Big Hit Entertainment’s extreme reliance on BTS could turn out to be just as much a liability as it is an asset.
The company raised nearly 963 billion won ($840 million) by selling shares in its initial public offering, making it South Korea’s largest IPO since July 2017, according to data compiled by Dealogic.
Early reception was very positive: Shares opened Thursday at 270,000 won ($236) each, well above the IPO price of 135,000 won ($118) each. They were last trading at 301,000 won ($263).
Before trading began, Big Hit was worth 4.8 trillion won ($4.1 billion), making it more valuable than the country’s three biggest listed record labels combined. And that’s almost entirely thanks to the meteoric rise of BTS. The group accounted for 97% of Big Hit’s sales last year.
While BTS has broken out in a way that no other South Korean act has before, there are some glaring risks.
Relying on the creative output of any celebrity talent comes with a range of potential problems, from scandal to unforeseen tragedy. But BTS has a unique complication that could threaten the business: South Korea mandates more than a year of military service, and the group’s members are fast approaching the deadline to enlist.
Before their rise, South Korea’s music industry was dominated by three music labels — JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment — that turned out K-pop’s biggest acts, including Girls’ Generation, SHINee, GOT7, Big Bang and PSY.
But BTS, an acronym for Beyond the Scene, was created by the much smaller Big Hit. The label was founded in 2005 by producer Bang Si-hyuk, also known as “Hitman” Bang.
The group’s success has transformed Big Hit’s fortunes. Last year, Big Hit reported 587 billion won ($512 million) in sales — nearly double the previous year’s total.
But it also highlights the need for Big Hit to diversify.
“Ninety percent of Big Hit Entertainment’s revenue is from BTS, so the risk is there,” said Park Ju-gun, a business analyst from corporate analysis firm CEO Score. “But it has started to shift its revenue structure to a multifaceted portfolio.”
Over the past year or so, the company has acquired other music labels so it could bring more acts into the fold and debuted the boyband TXT, or Tomorrow X Together. Big Hit also launched a platform called Weverse where fans can see exclusive content and message their favorite artists — a service that sets the company apart from the other major labels, according to Ji In-hae, an analyst from Hanwha securities firm.
The changes haven’t been revolutionary. BTS still made up nearly 88% of sales through the first half of this year, according to the company’s IPO prospectus published in September. And there’s no guarantee that new groups will repeat the success of BTS.
“We don’t know if there will ever be another group that can achieve BTS’ level of popularity,” said Indiana University Bloomington professor and K-pop expert CedarBough Saeji.
BTS, meanwhile, may soon face a massive disruption: compulsory military service.
In South Korea, almost all healthy men are required to register for the army and serve 18 months. People can delay their service for reasons including higher education or special training until they’re 28 years old.
BTS’ oldest member, Kim Seok-jin — also known as Jin — turns 28 in December, while rapper Suga whose real name is Min Yoon-gi, turns 28 in March.
Big Hit has acknowledged that military duty is a risk for investors. But the company also suggested that the band still has some time: Big Hit told CNN Business that Jin has enrolled in a graduate school program. That would allow him to delay his service until just before his 29th birthday in 2021, according to South Korean law.
Whether BTS and other pop groups should have to serve their entire term has become a topic of national debate. Unlike other artists, classical musicians and sports players, top K-pop stars can’t receive exemptions from full military service.
“The value of their contribution to Korea Wave and our country cannot be fathomed,” Noh Woong-rae, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party said at a National Assembly meeting earlier this month. “Now is the time we must discuss how these proud young men could better serve our nation.” The country’s parliament is considering a bill that would allow K-pop groups to delay military service for two years beyond the current deadline.
The rules as written, though, could disrupt the group for years.
That likely means more solo projects — though the group tends to do better as a unit.
BTS is incredibly prolific, releasing eight studio albums in seven years along with elaborate music videos, candid vlogs, behind-the-scenes videos, mini-series, solo projects, mix tapes and television appearances.
Korean K-pop fans are used to their idols disappearing for military service, but this will be uncharted territory for international fans who were introduced to the genre through BTS. Saeji, the Indiana University professor, said that could mean an “uncomfortable transition period,” although she was optimistic that fans would stay loyal to BTS through their absence.
Big Hit also noted the group’s reputation as a potential risk in its filing.
“There are things that can happen which can deeply damage a company, and we saw that with YG Entertainment,” said Saeji.
“No one should be investing in the creativity of artists and their connection with fans without understanding that there are things that can happen,” Saeji added. “This is not a get rich scheme.”
“The best way to preserve the stocks would be to keep working and stay as a seven-member group,” Saeji said.
Despite the risks, Big Hit has a lot of reason to be happy with its superstars.
Even though the coronavirus pandemic forced BTS to cancel a world tour this year, the group seems to have managed to become even more popular.
“What they’re offering in terms of positivity has been so perfectly attuned to the moment that we’re living in,” Saeji said.
The continued popularity of BTS has salvaged Big Hit’s bottom line during the pandemic. Concert revenue plunged nearly 99% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same time a year ago. But album sales shot up 80%. Overall revenue fell just 8% compared to last year.
“If the company is highly valued now in the midst of a pandemic, it will be an opportunity to gain even more momentum next year post-pandemic,” said Park, the CEO Score analyst.
For some companies, the only response to the pandemic has been to hunker down and try to avoid running out of cash before their customers can return.
Pret, the 37-year-old British sandwich and coffee chain that’s ubiquitous in central London, is now clearly willing to try anything, Eshe Nelson reports:
Pret wants to sell its food in supermarkets, and has already begun selling coffee beans on Amazon.com.
It has signed up to all the major food delivery platforms to bring its sandwiches, soups and salads to its work-from-home customers.
It opened a so-called dark kitchen in North London to prepare its food strictly for delivery, modeled on the success of Sweetgreen and Shake Shack, and hopes to open another dark kitchen in either New York or New Jersey soon.
It is devising a special menu of hot evening meals for delivery, such as a Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl.
And then there is the coffee subscription, an effort to drive people back to the stores: Five drinks a day made by a barista (coffees, teas and smoothies) for £20 a month. On the face of it, it could be an extraordinarily good deal. With two lattes a week, a subscriber will break even. And the first month is free. (Small print: You can’t order five drinks at once — there must be 30 minutes between each drink order.)
The skyscraper, the iconic urban office tower, still captivates by offering jaw-dropping views and the thrill of hovering in the clouds. But in the pandemic, the groundscraper — a building as horizontal as a skyscraper is vertical — has been grabbing attention.
There is no hard-and-fast definition for a groundscraper, which some loosely describe as a million or more square feet in only a handful of stories. Tech companies in Silicon Valley have long embraced the low-rise approach.
These earth-hugging structures have traditionally been considered less exalted than their soaring brethren, but some aspects of these buildings — such as the ability to reach offices via stairs, rather than elevators — have become doubly attractive during the pandemic.
“The interest in groundscrapers reflects our evolving views on how we come together in office spaces,” said Sam Chandan, dean of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University’s School of Professional Studies.
Classic examples include the Old Post Office in Chicago, a nine-story limestone landmark that is three city blocks long and a block wide, and the James A. Farley Building, a former post office that takes up two double-wide blocks in Midtown Manhattan. Groundscrapers built in this century have taken striking forms:
The Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China — which was designed by Steven Holl Architects to house apartments and a hotel in addition to offices — consists of angular, interconnected segments on stilts.
In Frankfurt, Germany, a gently curved office building called the Squaire was erected over an airport rail line and looks almost like a high-speed train that has just pulled into the station.
Google is planning an 11-story groundscraper in London.
Such buildings can accommodate the health and wellness concerns that were at the fore of office design before the pandemic. Employees can get their steps in by hoofing it to colleagues on another part of a vast floor or climbing stairs rather than pushing an elevator button. And the large rooftops can be landscaped for outdoor meetings and recreation.
But the pandemic has pointed to another benefit: Groundscrapers tend to have multiple entrances, in contrast to the typical skyscraper, which funnels everyone through a single lobby. The decentralization of arrivals and departures can help with social distancing, experts say.
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