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Artists Interviews K-pop

How BTS ARMY’s Digital Dominance Helped Stationhead See Its Biggest Numbers

What was a linear relationship between the South Korean pop titans and their fandom has branched out, impacting industries, economies, and even the socio-political scene

Divyansha Dongre Jul 23, 2021

Ryan Star [L], CEO and Co-Founder, Stationhead and Pop Titans, BTS [R]. Photograph: Courtesy of the artists

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Fandoms have been around for decades-roots of which can be traced back to sporting events. Eventually, the sporting subculture led to the rise of several fandom-based activities such as fan chants, merchandise, online forums, and more. Today, an identical set of behaviors are found in fandoms originated from television shows, films, books, and music, where they play a crucial role in determining the cultural and economic impact of these assets.

With the rise of K-pop in the past decade, music fandoms such as the BTS ARMY have become one of the most prominent voices in today’s pop culture realm. Powered by their digital dominance, the fandom has shaped narratives on social media and leveraged its reach to benefit not only BTS, but several communities too. Mirroring their idol’s philosophies, the fandom has time and again extended aid in times of crisis and come together to execute some of the biggest global-level marketing plans to promote the septet. 

BTS at the press conference of their second all-English single, “Butter”

Despite the unavailing efforts by trolls and media to downplay the power of online communities, fandoms continue to kick misogynistic mindsets to the curb with every passing day– no wonder businesses such as live social audio American start-up Stationhead are empowering fandoms, driving benefits for both parties involved. 

“There are about 400 to 500 fan stations on Stationhead,” says Ryan Star, musician-turned-CEO of Stationhead. Star, who left behind four major record label deals to set up Stationhead in 2018, sat down with Rolling Stone India to talk about the fandoms, business, and more. “Fandoms are taking back the airwaves, and they’re turning to Stationhead to take their songs to number one.”

Fandoms through the years 

Historically, fandoms are known to be the driving force behind some of the biggest musical acts in the world; take a look at ‘Beatlemania’ (a term coined in 1963 to describe The Beatles taking over the world) for example. From the 73 million viewers in America who tuned in to watch The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, to the group’s unprecedented domination on global charts with timeliness hits such as “Please Please Me,” “From Me To You” and “She Loves You,” ‘Beatlemaniacs’ built the early foundations of fandom power, demonstrating just how paramount a fandom can be to an artist’s career.

Decades later, the same power was mirrored in the career of yet another group originating from the United Kingdom: One Direction. Destined to be one of the biggest boy bands the world would see, One Direction were second runners up on the 2010 edition of X-Factor UK but went on to sign with Simon Cowell and make their debut together in 2011. With the support of their global fanbase, the British-Irish group would eventually go on to generate USD 290,178,452 in revenue from the ‘Where We Are Tour,’ their first world stadium tour just three years after releasing their debut smash-hit, “What Makes You Beautiful.” 

“There was this group of what I call ‘superfans’ and they were like promoters,” Simon Cowell explains the secret behind One Direction’s rise to global domination in the 2013 documentary, This Is Us. “So a small group of British girls became a huge group of British girls, who then turned Europe into huge fans. America then stepped in. So, in the space of months, the fans got the entire planet to support One Direction.” 

British-Irish group, One Direction quickly found fame outside the borders of the UK. The group went on four world tours, two of which were all-stadiums, making One Direction one of the biggest boy bands of this generation.

Cowell’s words perfectly sum up how a fandom swiftly mobilizes itself to uplift artists that have proven to provide comfort and solace through their music. But in today’s changing landscape with social media platforms such as Twitter being the center of all the action, fandoms have proven to influence businesses outside the realms of their favorite musical acts. 

Today, K-pop fandoms have become a force to be reckoned with. Known for their perseverance and dedication, K-pop fandom communities have managed to take their idols to the global stage with a seasoned understanding of music marketing and charts. It’s this mix of business literacies and passion that continues to kick misogynistic mindsets that belittle fandoms back to the curb.

Fandoms as influencers

“It felt like a space shuttle taking off,” Star recalls the day #StreamingButter– a streaming party organized by the popular Twitter fan account, BTSCHARTDATA– was held on Stationhead. “We saw the numbers go from 10,000 to 20,000. Oh, there’s a record right there for social audio. Okay, now it’s up to 30,000. And then to take that all the way to 200,000 concurrent live listeners at once blew everyone’s mind and that’s historical for a social audio platform–that’s 10 times of Clubhouse or Twitter spaces.”  

That day would turn out to be monumental for both Stationhead, which set the largest live social audio event on its platform with 400,000 attendees, and the BTS ARMY who drove 5.4 million streams for BTS tracks across Spotify and Apple Music from just one streaming party. 

Streaming parties are one of the many strategies implemented by fandoms to push songs up the charts. Thousands of fans from around the world hop on to their preferred streaming platform, usually iTunes or Spotify at a predefined time slot. Through their shared understanding of streaming and filtration methods, fandoms curate specific playlists and embark on a musical journey, sharing their feelings under a common hashtag on Twitter, which in many cases, takes over the worldwide trends in a matter of minutes.

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With one million tweets to its name, the official streaming hashtag was used by fans across the globe, making it the number one trending topic on Twitter.

“Butter,” the digital single by global pop sensations BTS, is the latest example to reflect the efforts of fandom activities. With the biggest debut on Spotify Global Charts with 11.04 million streams and the largest single-day streams in Spotify history with 20.9 million streams, the single has quickly become a favorite worldwide. With 128,000 in sales and the growing popularity of the act, it’s no surprise that “Butter”  spent seven consecutive weeks as the Number One song on the prestigious Billboard Hot 100 chart, becoming the longest-running #1 debut recorded by a single group in the chart’s history. Assessing the benefits of streaming parties, HYBE Corp (BTS’ label) and Columbia Records seized the opportunity that lies within streaming parties by dedicating seven days to exclusive  “Butter” global streaming parties. 

Taking the spirit of streaming parties a notch higher, fandoms are now exploring creative routes to maximize streams with social audio streaming platforms such as Stationhead.

Started with a vision to democratize the radio waves, Stationhead is a live radio application that allows users to broadcast live anytime, anywhere. For a truly social experience, station hosts can take in callers and play music during their shows by linking their Apple Music or Spotify accounts– all this while earning money from listeners in the form of tips that can be cashed out to a bank account. Star has seen the platform grow exponentially with more fandoms joining in. “We went from 125,000 users in the beginning to now close to a million,” he says. “We started with 5,000 hosts to build the future of radio and today we have 10,000 on the Android hosts’ list.”  

“It’s really cool to see this and it’s flipped, right? Who are the influencers? Well, now the new influencers are the fandoms, which is beautiful.”- Ryan Star

Over the past months, Stationhead has been home to several other fandoms such as Ariana Grande’s fans, Arianators, Lady Gaga’s Monsters, and Cardi B’s Bardigang, who also received a sweet surprise from the rapper when she joined one of her fans’ stations. “After the Grammys, Cardi B– on her way to get some tacos– called onto her new favorite creators and went on air with them for an hour, and she’s been going on her fan stations,” says Star. “It’s really cool to see this and it’s flipped, right? Who are the influencers? Well, now the new influencers are the fandoms, which is beautiful.”

Due to its growing popularity, Stationhead has now become an integral part of the digital activities executed by fandoms.

With the announcement of the #StreamingButter party on May 25th, BTSCHARTDATA would go on to introduce Stationhead to its 1,796,535 followers on Twitter. The results would take the Internet by storm with Stationhead entering the top charts on Apple Store at the Number Three position and boasting a rating of 4.9 on Playstore, overflowing with appreciation from the BTS ARMY.

According to SocialBlade, Stationhead’s Twitter community grew by 25,950 on May 26th and by 6,515 the following day. In just days, the platform experienced an increase of 87.24% bringing its total community count from 4,783 to 37,498. For a start-up as young as Stationhead, these figures are a testimony to their hard work. “Stationhead has been spending time building and believing with every ounce– and literally every ounce of me and every ounce of the 13 of us– made in Brooklyn. I love that people are shouting out at my teams getting sent gifts because we’re bringing communities together,” gleamed Star. 

On handling the sudden traffic, he responded, “The team was very proud that things were handled smoothly. And that’s what we see in the love from the community–that we were there for them. They [BTS’ fandom ARMY] told us that they’ve crashed YouTube servers before, and we were able to support them. That’s because we take what we do very seriously. We’re a product-first company and community first company.”

Present in almost 150 countries, with the USA, India, Philippines, Mexico, and Brazil on the top five spots, Staionhead understands the potential fandoms holds and will give birth to the future audio stars soon. “They also will be the most influential people in music, because of the way we build our technology in partnership with the streaming services,” states Star. “The old model and the gatekeepers need to leave this is a new world. This great user-generated content will rise to the top, building the future of radio, and with it comes the empowerment of the fandoms and the artists.”

Fandoms as entrepreneurs

Outside of discovering and uplifting businesses, fandoms also house the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Merchandise plays an essential role in defining one’s fandom experience. It brings a sense of pride, identity and offers a new way of staying connected with your favorite musician. However, due to shipping restrictions and the astronomical shipping charges, many fans are unable to own official merchandise– a gap that is now being bridged by ‘fantrepreneurs’ offering reasonably priced fan merchandise.

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“BTS is the main reason I got started,” explains Nitisha Sham, a Hyderabad-based Physiotherapy graduate, and owner of the online store, AuroraHopePins. “I absolutely love creating BTS merch and art to a point where it doesn’t even feel like work. I also wanted to make some money to be able to see them live in concert one day–it’s a dream of five years.” 

Leader RM recently released a self-produced track, “Bicycle” as a gift to the BTS ARMY.

What started as an idea to meet the demands of the Indian BTS ARMY with meaningful, comforting, and minimalistic BTS merchandise, has now helped Sham reach customers outside the fandom. “BTS ARMY are my core customers, but sometimes, non-K-pop fans purchase items that resonate with them or to gift to their ARMY friends which is so lovely to witness.”

In a report by Bain and Co. and Sequoia India, it was estimated that social commerce in India will touch USD 16-20 billion in gross merchandise value over the next five years. As part of this booming industry, Sham has experienced a fair share of milestones just one year into her business, “Combining both Indian and international, I’ve gotten nearly 1,000 orders so far and reached over 5,000 followers on my Instagram account. These numbers are so much more than what I expected when I started my shop. It truly means the world to me and I’m forever grateful to my fellow ARMYs for supporting shops like me!” 

Fan-run businesses such as Sham’’s are supported unconditionally by the fandom they originate from. There’s often a sense of pride to seeing members of your fandom embark on their entrepreneurial journey, “It’s only because of the BTS ARMY that I have come so far. ” states Nitisha, “To help each other grow, ARMY-ran small business owners share each other’s work, plus buyers leave super kind reviews which help us reach new people. It is an insanely supportive community.”

Earlier in May, HYBE Corp’s tech subsidiary, Weverse Company announced its partnership with U.S.-based fan-to-fan start-up company FAVE, which provides a marketplace for fans to buy and sell their art pieces. Through Weverse’s investment, the South Korean organization seeks to pursue new business opportunities that lie in fan-to-fan platforms such as FAVE while working towards enhancing the overall fan experience. 

Fandoms as a social catalyst

The K-pop community is synonymous with philanthropic activity. From the BTS ARMY matching BTS’ USD one million donations to the Black Lives Matter Movement in June 2020 to playing an active role in social activism, fandoms are constantly extending a helping hand in times of need. Recently, the BTS ARMY in India raised over INR 20,00,000 in 24 hours for COVID Relief Funds. The donations were then distributed to organizations providing free oxygen cylinders, meals, and medical supplies. 

The fandom has also previously shown its commitment to community building by donating to charities that support survivors of acid attack and sexual assault and raising over INR 5,80,000 in relief funds for victims of the Assam flood tragedy–which BTS themselves have previously acknowledged. 

The spirit of community well-being and development are displayed by other fandoms too– to celebrate the birth of EXO member Chen’s daughter, EXO-L s from Manipur adopted a local girl and committed to looking after her well-being and expenses until she’s off to university. On the other hand, Indian ONCEs (girl group TWICE’s fanbase) tied up with a local organization that provides free sanitary napkins to women who do not have access to menstrual hygiene products. 

Other fandoms to contribute towards the Assam relief fund includes BLACKPINK’s Indian Blinks who raised more than INR 20,000, EXO’s international fan club who raised INR 300,000, and Indian fans of MAMAMOO and GOT7 (Moomoos and Aghase respectively) who held a joint donation drive. 

The future of fandoms

As catalysts of social change and a hive brimming with untapped potential, fandoms will continue to shape the socio-economic landscape, irrespective of whether gatekeepers and alike take down their misogynistic lenses. 

Having first-hand experience in social media marketing, community management, and in many cases, content creation, fandoms will birth the marketers and music writers of tomorrow. While marketers will have a more nuanced understanding of social listening and human behavior, helping them bridge the gap between musicians and fans with exceptional story-telling, writers will have an already developed understanding of the art and the industry, giving rise to well-researched stories that matter. With entrepreneurs already in the mix, fandoms will also give rise to honest singers, songwriters, and producers, who’ll grow to value their fans and understand the market demands better.

 “As an artist, even the word ‘fan, which I’m pretty sure comes from the word ‘fanatic,’ never felt right to me,” reminisces Star. “It felt derogatory to the people that I actually loved most and the people that loved me most. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful relationship; the artist needs the fans and the fandoms need the artist.” With Stationhead, he hopes people will see that fandoms have their own value and image as creators, influences and leaders of positive change. “Honestly, the evolution of the fandom culture is truly beautiful.”

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