With K-Pop ‘in Crisis,’ HYBE Is Focused on Global Expansion Beyond the Genre

HYBE founder and chairman Bang Si-hyuk said his company is only getting started in its bid to grow into a global music powerhouse that can rival the three major labels.

The South Korean company’s two U.S. acquisitions — Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings and QC Media Holdings, parent company of hip-hop label Quality Control Music — are “just the beginning,” Bang said Wednesday at Gwanhun Forum in Seoul. The executive behind supergroup BTS insisted HYBE must have a “sense of urgency” and look outside of Korea to continue to grow.

“We are living in an era where everything we do in the content industry resonates beyond geographical boundaries,” Bang said. “At the same time, K-pop has become a global industry that can only continue to grow by targeting both domestic and international markets.”

At home, Bang said HYBE and its Korean rivals can’t do it alone. In his speech, he called on the South Korean government to support the K-pop companies in their bid to take on the global majors – Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group — by helping them become national champions in the way that electronics companies Samsung and LG have become global powerhouses with government support.

While K-pop built HYBE into a powerhouse, the company might have only a brief window to capitalize on its global success. “K-pop is in crisis,” the HYBE chief said, asserting that by most measures the genre is in decline in Southeast Asia, other than growth in China and spending per consumer. In the United States, 53% fewer K-pop tracks charted on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2022 than the previous year, according to Bang. He attributed the K-pop slowdown to BTS’ hiatus as a group in 2022 and said he doesn’t believe the group’s eventual comeback will bring back the lost revenue.

When Bang talks about exporting K-pop around the world, he isn’t referring to just a genre of music. To him, K-pop is “a culture that encompasses music-oriented systems such as music and content production, distribution, marketing, communication with fans, and other systems of music.” In HYBE’s “multi-label” structure, he added, the Korean headquarters provides guidance to its labels and disperses the risk so its subsidiaries can operate “in a healthy competition that drives each other to improve.”

For HYBE to make inroads in the United States, the world’s largest music market, it needs “a strong network and infrastructure … to minimize the cost of trial and error” involved in exploring an unfamiliar landscape, Bang added. In the U.S., Braun leads HYBE America, the umbrella organization for SB Projects’ management clients, Big Machine Music Group and Quality Control. HYBE also has a joint venture in the U.S. with Universal’s Geffen Records to develop a girl pop group for the domestic market.

While Bang didn’t say which companies HYBE is targeting for further acquisitions, in a press conference after his speech he noted HYBE’s interest in Latin labels. The company certainly has the resources to buy additional record labels, artist management firms or tech platforms to further fuel its expansion: HYBE had cash and cash equivalents of 903 billion won ($689 million) as of Sept. 30, 2022, the latest date for which data is available. The goal, said Bang, is to achieve scale “that can’t be ignored.”

Even though HYBE dominates K-pop and generated revenue of $1.4 billion in 2022, Bang described his company in biblical terms: He is David, the three major labels are Goliath. Major K-pop companies account for less than 2% of the global music market, he said, while the majors own 67.4%.

Looking around the world, Bang sees “alarming trends,” including K-pop commanding fewer chart positions in 2022 than in the previous year. “In this context, the existence of global K-pop artists without a dominant global entertainment company inevitably leads to concerns about the industry’s ability to be on the lookout for future uncertainties,” he said.

What will it take for HYBE to turn from David into a sustainable Goliath? Bang wants more scale and stronger distribution partners to give K-pop additional bargaining power to negotiate more favorable distribution rates. In that way, he said, HYBE can improve its financial performance “and enable the company and our artists to grow.”

Further entering the U.S. market will require building “a strong network and infrastructure,” Bang said. “Through this, we need to minimize the cost of trial and error caused by situations that are difficult for us to change, or due to our unfamiliarity with the local conditions, and secure an equal level of presence and influence in the mainstream market equivalent to local companies.”

Breaking artists isn’t a matter of “luck or sheer intuition,” the HYBE founder added. Rather, success is the result of a management process that can be systemized and replicated in other markets. HYBE’s multi-label structure demonstrates this approach, Bang said: “It is a system that has been meticulously established based on experience, trial and error, and contemplation to enable the company’s success.”

Additional reporting by Jeyup S. Kwaak

Colin Stutz