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BTS and Billboard: Why punish K-pop fans for passion?

"Butter" by BTS spent nine non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Image credit: Big Hit Music
Image credit: Big Hit Music

I’m not even a fan of BTS — I’m a BLINK — but I’ve read the Billboard article and find the allegations of chart manipulation ridiculous.

What’s worse is that obviously when Billboard planned this magazine, it’s with the expectation that fans of the world’s biggest boy band — known as ARMY — would buy lots of copies. No wonder the hashtag #BillboardApologizeToBTS has been trending on Twitter.

It’s ironic because it’s Billboard which created the metrics for its Hot 100 chart, where the BTS single “Butter” made history by spending nine non-consecutive weeks as the No. 1 song. To slam ARMY for physical album sales and digital downloads is ridiculous, because they are actually buying instead of just streaming or listening on the radio. It shows the difference between the South Korean and US music industry, and the passion of K-pop fans compared to the followers of Western artists. It’s the fans of Western artists that Billboard should be asking: why aren’t YOU as passionate?

Smooth like butter

Why have the album sales of most US artists stagnated since the mid-2010s to the point where streaming has to be considered as “album units” instead of just counting pure sales? And why is radio play still a metric for the Hot 100, when a lot of people don’t even listen to radio anymore and the specter of payola has haunted that medium for decades? But the point remains: Billboard made the rules for the Hot 100 — which you could argue actually favors Western artists — and based on these “Butter” was No. 1.

As a K-pop fan, I have to admire how BTS leader RM responded during that Billboard interview:

“These efforts have buoyed the group’s singles, as they have sailed to the top of the charts despite BTS’ weaker streaming numbers and radio airplay than some of its pop contemporaries. “It’s a fair question,” says RM of allegations that ARMY’s work amounts to chart manipulation. ‘But if there is a conversation inside Billboard about what being No. 1 should represent, then it’s up to them to change the rules and make streaming weigh more on the ranking. Slamming us or our fans for getting to No. 1 with physical sales and downloads, I don’t know if that’s right … It just feels like we’re easy targets because we’re a boy band, a K-pop act, and we have this high fan loyalty.’

The devotion that ARMY has for BTS is genuine. No one is forcing them to buy all these albums and digital downloads. Everyone saves up for every comeback — that’s why K-pop fans are always saying they’re broke — and the fandom unites to make sure their idols will succeed.

Highs and lows

This shows how much K-pop fans appreciate their idols — the kind of personal connection that I think many Western artists don’t have with their own fan base.

K-pop artists spend years training under the Korean Idol System before they debut, unlike in the West where any amateur can decide to become a music artist. This explains the devotion of K-pop fans to their idols. Some of these fans have witnessed the journey of their idols from the very start — maybe even before they actually debuted. They’ve experienced the highs and lows, especially when their idols were underdogs that the industry wasn’t taking seriously, and have remained loyal all these years.

So in return they do everything they can to support their idols and show their appreciation — whether it’s buying their albums, attending concerts, streaming music, voting in music shows, joining fan meets, and so on.

Love your idols

Why blame K-pop fans for being that passionate? And for self-organizing to act as an army of millions of volunteers?

This Teen Vogue article gets it.

“That feels crucial, the idea of ‘easy targets.’ BTS fans are far from the only fandom to leverage their collective power to support the artists they love, though perhaps they are the most organized. It’s an ironic question coming from the outlet that sets up the chart formats, to be sure, but it also provoked a compelling answer from RM. Whether you agree with ARMY’s ways of showing support or not, it ultimately seems to come from a place of pride and wanting to see your faves succeed in a market that has seldom recognized non-English-speaking artists. Isn’t one foundation of music wanting to share what you love with other people, to help them feel the way you feel?”

To the fans of Western artists, just enjoy the music of your idols and focus on supporting them. We K-pop fans are doing that for ours.