From left, V, Suga, Jin, Jungkook, RM, Jimin and J-Hope of K-pop titan BTS pose during a press conference in Seoul, May 21. Courtesy of Big Hit Music
By Dong Sun-hwa
K-pop behemoth BTS has etched its name into history, with its summer banger “Butter” becoming the Billboard main singles chart’s longest-running No. 1 song of 2021.
Following its May 21 release, “Butter” reigned atop the chart for seven weeks in a row before yielding the spot to another BTS anthem, “Permission to Dance,” dropped July 9. The former, however, dethroned the latter only a week later and has since ruled the chart for nine non-consecutive weeks as of Monday (local time.)
The K-pop megastars have hit an apex in their career with this feat, but their accomplishment deserves more attention for many reasons, according to industry experts.
“BTS’s recent chart success is meaningful because it implies one of the victories that the group ― which consists of non-white, non-American performers ― and its global fans have achieved in the ideological battle against the white-dominated American entertainment industry,” Stephanie Choi, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at New York University College of Arts and Science, said in a recent Korea Times interview.
Brooklyn-based music journalist Maria Sherman, who authored the 2020 book “Larger Than Life: a History of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS,” pointed out that BTS’s continued dominance is a testament to its “massiveness.”
“For many, the Billboard charts are still the ultimate barometer for achievement and there is no more reputable way to show the success of an artist or what the biggest song in the U.S. is at any given moment,” Sherman said. “Its latest accomplishment is proving that it is the biggest band on the planet. In fact, Butter is the group’s fourth consecutive No. 1 hit ― following Dynamite (2020), Savage Love (2020) and Life Goes On (2020) ― and no other acts have done that so quickly since the Jackson 5 in 1970. On top of that, BTS’s success has altered the way pop music fans think about the chart. Once, non-English-language artists could never top it, but now a Korean group has taken it over. The Hot 100 is finally, truly, global.”
‘BTS and ARMY are playing fair’
BTS’s “Butter” has dominated the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart for nine non-consecutive weeks so far. Screenshot from Billboard’s Twitter
There are, however, some voices in the U.S. criticizing the seven-member group and its global fandom ARMY for “skewing” the Billboard chart. They insist the fans, who often get involved in mass-streaming or bulk-buying to help their singers secure the top spots, are preventing it from reflecting the actual popularity of different songs. In fact, the fairness of these tactics has long been a hot talking point in the Korean music industry, too.
Asked about their perspectives on the issue, the U.S.-based experts mostly said they believe these fans are still playing fair.
“As long as they’re not cheating ― for example, artificially boosting streaming or sales totals with robotic replays or fake purchases ― it is totally fair for them to buy all of the remixes or buy a song on vinyl that they already have as a download,” chart analyst and pop critic Chris Molanphy told The Korea Times. Molanphy is also the host of the Hit Parade podcast and the writer of Slate Magazine’s “Why is this song No.1” series.
Sherman echoed this sentiment. “I think there are some savvy music fans and industry professionals who believe that BTS followers are somehow juking the chart by shelling out money to make sure Butter or any other BTS single hits stay at No. 1. But that is simply how the charts work,” she said.
“It is something other Western artists like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande have done for a long time. They have used bundle sales to prop up their position on the chart. In the past, diehard fans would request their favorite songs on the radio to bump up those numbers. But there is nothing illegal or unethical being done here.”
The fans’ actions to affect the chart are the proof that they are “wise consumers,” Choi says.
“Fans are smart listeners,” she commented. “Those who criticize BTS and its followers for juking the chart want music listeners to always remain passive and ignorant about what they want, what they like and what they listen to, and keep the chart not as a performative but phenomenal site. They should accept the fact that these fans are intelligent consumers leading global trends.”
Molanphy, however, noted that the fans’ bulk purchasing and chart “gamesmanship” may be artificially inflating the expansion of BTS’s fan base in the U.S.
“A single fan buying Butter six times in six weeks does not mean BTS gained five more fans in America in that time,” he said. “There are certainly more BTS fans in the U.S. now than there were a year ago, but the charts only measure activity one week at a time. Repeat buying ultimately does not do much to make the BTS fandom bigger, but just keeps Butter on top of the Hot 100 longer.”
BTS’s tactics: How they were different
BTS’s Billboard success story naturally raises the question: What are some of the contributing factors? Molanphy believes the group’s release of different versions of remixes has played a central role.
“Columbia Records, BTS’s label in the U.S., has encouraged fans to buy multiple copies,” he said. “A Hotter remix came out in the second week, followed by Cooler and Sweeter mixes in the third week. All of them were discounted to 69 cents on iTunes and other download retailers, whereas the normal price for a download is $1.29, nearly twice as much.”
Columbia also issued two physical versions of the single on vinyl and cassette, he added.
“At one point, around the song’s fifth week, BTS released a version of the digital single with a different cover ― not a physical cover, just the digital image that appears in the window on your phone or laptop when you play the download ― and even that spurred fans to buy the song again.”
Sherman elaborated, “BTS, unlike many artists, have a fervent fan base that is willing to pay for music across mediums. So its continued, incredible chart-topping success is proof that it is in the unique position where their followers spend money on their music instead of just, say, concert tickets and merchandising. Its fans know what it takes to get their group to No. 1, and they will use their incredible digital coordination ability, their mobilization efforts, to ensure their group stays there.”
One notable phenomenon is that BTS’s chart dominance has been largely attributable to sales instead of streams. Although sales are far weaker than they were in the past, “Butter” had sold 1.1. million downloads and tens of thousands of vinyl and cassette singles, which is the biggest sales total of any current hit, according to Molanphy.
“Olivia Rodrigo’s Good 4u, another No. 1 hit that is just a bit older than BTS’s Butter, has sold less than 100,000 copies as a download. However, in a typical week in July, Good 4u was streamed anywhere from 26 million to 32 million times per week, whereas in the most recent week of July, Butter was streamed in the U.S. only 9 million times.”
He explained that the demand for BTS on streaming services is somewhat lower than a typical act of its popularity level, mainly because fans who have those downloads on their phones and laptops have no need for streaming the music.
“They are highly motived to show their devotion by buying whatever the group puts out, but once they own it that way, they don’t need to play it on Spotify.”
BTS and radio
A teaser image for BTS’s CD “Butter” / Courtesy of Big Hit Music
But even for global sensation BTS, venturing into the U.S. radio airwaves is still a major challenge to tackle. Although its radio presence has been growing since it dropped its first English-language song “Dynamite,” many believe the K-pop superstars are still not receiving enough radio airplay, a crucial medium for its chart performance. “Dynamite,” which ranked No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart, ended up peaking at No. 10 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart.
Choi attributed the septet’s lack of radio presence to racism.
“When BTS first officially set foot into the American mainstream market, it announced it would sing in Korean, under the belief that the American industry respects one’s cultural identity,” she said. “But it turned out to be false. The production quality of their tracks ― from Fake Love (2018) to ON (2020) ― was indisputably magnificent. Although these tunes conquered multiple music charts, American radio stations completely ignored their presence, which led fans and music critics to assume that it was because the songs were not in English.”
Noting that “Butter” is seeing a fall on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart after peaking at No. 20, Molanphy said it was a pity that most BTS songs were not played on the radio more frequently despite their quality.
“I thought Life Goes On was an excellent song, but it generated almost no U.S. radio play, and I thought the BTS remix of Savage Love by Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo was the best version of the song, but radio didn’t play it much,” he remarked. “Radio programmers will have to be convinced that BTS connects not just with its fans, but with more passive radio listeners who might not dislike BTS but are not as motivated to consume them as the followers are.”