The multi-billion Kpop industry has taken the world by storm, with Korean idols connecting to their global fans through innovative means like social media and broadcasting apps. However, this simply wasn’t enough for some fans who crave more intimate social interactions with their beloved artists, so entertainment companies could not ignore this tantalizing interest. New in-house apps such as Lysn (Bubble) and Weverse are born, with the agencies facilitating this parasocial relationship far and beyond. However, is this a win for everyone involved, or does it also amplify the problematic sides of the industry and fan culture?
So…What Do These Apps Exactly Do?
For the longest time, Kpop idols have communicated with their hardcore fans through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Weibo and shared their content through broadcasting apps such as Vlive. However, local fans have access to fan cafes, where artists post and respond to fans more speedily, personally, and consistently. While this is not a novel concept, entertainment companies saw the opportunity to expand this model to the Kpop global universe as fan cafes are mostly restricted to Korean users/speakers and require paid membership. Therefore, entertainment moguls such as Big Hit Entertainment (the management agency for BTS) and SM Entertainment (the management company of Red Velvet, NCT, EXO, etc.) have teamed up with tech companies and created private platforms offering exclusive content and catered interactions. These smart business moves now allow companies to have more distribution control over their content without outsourcing to third parties. They also generate more profit from this new revenue stream as some services are only accessible for paid users.
The Pioneers and How They Are Winning
The headliner for this newfound craze is none other than Big Hit Entertainment, the home to the world-renowned BTS as well as TXT, SEVENTEEN, and G-FRIEND, with their app Weverse. According to the company, Weverse is a global fan community platform that provides multimedia content and enables artist-to-fan communication on a “deeper level.” While the app is mostly free for all users, Big Hit also launched Weverse Shop, where fans can purchase paid memberships, merchandise, or individual series to unlock special content and perks not available for ordinary users.
They sell it all: from membership kits to early access to concert tickets, the company has devised every single service catering to the fans’ gigantic demands. As the Kpop conglomerates are extremely tactical in monetizing their artists, global fans are more willing than ever to pay for their favorite idols, even when a subscription package can cost up to $150. According to Fast Company, Weverse boasts 1.4 million daily users, while the paid Weverse shop records 1.8 million users in 2020.
The app also offers a built-in translator and a section called “Learn Korean with BTS,” where previous clips of the boy band are edited to highlight commonly used Korean phrases with these companies advancing their international ambitions. But why are all the added work for these already fervently famous Kpop stars? According to Jenny Zha, a CEO of a digital media firm, Kpop’s biggest acts like BTS “no longer need to focus on being discovered but rather on monetization and ownership of their content.” Therefore, labels need to create assets that can sustain them in the long run because “wherever the content is, the fans will follow.”
SM Entertainment, another large-scale company, took this parasocial interaction to a new level with their Lysn app. While Lysn houses similar functions as Weverse, its messaging feature called Bubble, launched in February this year, has revolutionized the game, allowing fans to converse with artists for the price of $3.49/ month per artist. Despite the app initially being labelled as one of the company’s “most money-draining affiliates,” its appearance boosted SM Entertainment’s revenue to nearly $3.7 million in the second quarter of 2020. This feature is an absolute win for hardcore fans: No more hopelessly DM-ing your idols on Instagram as this closed-circuit system guarantees a higher response rate. For the companies, as long as they can make money from their artists, they are already winning. But, do the artists really win? And where’s the line between interacting with fans and invading their private lives?
Are Kpop Artists Becoming Products?
As an avid Kpop fan, I thought I have seen it all, the good and the bad. As flashy and perfect as the image the industry portrays, the concept of artist-fan personal relationship poses many concerns, with fans overstepping their boundaries into the superstars’ private lives.
Long-time Kpop fans are no longer foreign with the concept of “sasaeng fans,” where these obsessive “fans” stalk and invade the idols’ privacy. While this issue has always been prevalent in the industry, it has become acutely alarming in the past few years, with the global proliferation of Kpop and social media interaction between artists and fans. Stalking cases like TWICE and EXO have proven how the already fragile walls between fans and artists have become more and more volatile in the digital age. On the Lysn app itself, rude and offensive posts and messages were directed at the girl group Red Velvet, where its members Seulgi and Irene were sexually harassed online.
While idols also wish to promote their personas outside of their profession as approachable and boy/girlfriend-like by disclosing personal details, obsessive fans have constantly pushed this limit. And their management companies are also perpetuating the problems.
Artists are treated as commodities or products that their labels can monetize and take advantage of while being at the peak of their careers.
Now, with ventures like Bubble and Weverse, idols are, to a certain extent, forced to interact with their fans to keep the platforms afloat, on top of their hectic schedules. Are these companies showcasing the artists’ talents or merely selling their images as idols are slowly deviating from their role as singers? While some might argue that these services help the artists accumulate and maintain popularity, the increasingly capitalistic and exploitative system does not lead to sustainable growth.
Nonetheless, I am still an outsider, and the artists might actually enjoy this pseudo-confidant relationship with their fans, playing with a risky and delicate line that potentially reaps more benefits than we could ever imagine. Regardless, it is saddening as the companies have actively chosen to ignore these ongoing issues and magnify them to earn more profits. After all, it may be a win-win situation, but the winners and losers continue to remain mysteries to the outside world.
Cover: The Kraze Magazine