For those uninitiated to the world of Korean pop music, entry to the genre can be daunting. That’s because it is not simply a genre: it is an entire ecosystem. It’s a culture, one that has its own unique stylings, fashions, identities, and lucrative global outreach. It can seem twee and highly manufactured but, the truth is, K-pop has an influence that can rival just about any phenomenon in the world.
Behind every great recognisable face of K-pop, namely the members of groups like BTS, Girls’ Generation, Blackpink, Twice, Exo, or any other highly successful act, there is a whole team of handlers and professionals whose job is to keep their group working at maximum capacity. This includes songwriters, managers, choreographers, lawyers, makeup artists, and perhaps most infamously, agencies.
Historically, there have been three major K-pop agencies that have handled the careers of the genre’s biggest acts: SM Entertainment, YG Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. But recently, thanks to the ginormous success of BTS, a fourth agency is vying for newfound supremacy: HYBE Corporation, founded by longtime K-pop svengali ‘Hitman’ Bang.
Bang Si-hyuk did not invent K-pop. The modern phenomenon we know as K-pop has a large amalgam of influences, precedents, and detours that map out the larger Korean music industry and indeed much of modern Korean history itself, reflecting the industrialisation and economic growth of its southernmost country. But if you were to point to a single figure who quite possibly had the largest influence over K-pop as we know it today, Bang would be that figure.
Bang was born in Seoul in 1972, nearly twenty years after the official, but unsigned, armistice and cessation of the Korean War (the conflict is still technically ongoing). During this period, South Korea was ruled by President Park Chung-hee, who had overtaken the previous government in a military coup and ruled as a de facto dictator. Despite rapid economic growth during his tenure, Park rewrote the nation’s constitution to greatly increase his own power and greatly reduce the human rights afforded to its citizens, namely censoring all media, including music. Park would be assassinated in 1979, and the modern democratic South Korea would take another decade to fully shape.
Bang came from an elite and highly educated family: his father was the chairman of the Korean Worker’s Compensation and Welfare Service, while his mother graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in English Literature at a time when women were just beginning to receive access to higher education in the country. Bang was a studious, insulated, and emotional figure who found refuge in books, movies, and eventually music.
While not especially suited for stardom on stage, Bang found success in the Korean music business by pairing with influential figures like Shin Seung-hun and Park Jin-young, the latter of whom founded JYP Entertainment, greatly influencing Bang in the process. It was around the mid-1990s that Korean pop idol culture began to solidify into the recognisable form that it takes today, and Bang was at the forefront by producing influential acts such as g.o.d., 2AM, Wonder Girls, and singer Rain. It was during this time that he acquired his ‘Hitman’ moniker due to the his unrivaled ability to produce chart-toppers.
Bang left JYP Entertainment in 2005 to create his own agency, HYBE Corporation. He had a reputation for success, but striking out against the major players of the time was a risk, to say the least. In order to reach the heights that he envisioned for his agency, and himself, Bang had to instigate a minor revolution in K-pop. The artists signed to the HYBE Corporation would have to not only be major stars in Korea, but transcend geographic barriers and make an impression on the global music industry.
That’s where BTS comes into the story. Not the first act singed to Bang’s new agency, BTS was nevertheless the catalyst for HYBE’s subsidiary, Big Hit Music, to take over as the company that would take K-pop to the global market. Apart from a small roster of other artists, Big Hit Music mainly works to manage the lucrative career of BTS with near exclusivity, watched by the careful eye of Bang.
The unprecedented worldwide success of BTS has had the biggest impact on Bang, who is now estimated to have a net worth of well over $2 billion. In the public eye, however, Bang remains a figure shrouded in mystery, despite being the principal architect behind what is largely considered to be the most successful Korean musical act of all time, a group that is only now hitting its zenith of international popularity.
To investigate Bang outside of business stature, or his carefully cultivated public image, is to wind up with a number of dead ends. He is a figure who prefers to work behind the scenes, and there are rumours of intense, perhaps even abusive, practices from those who are in charge of the careers of K-pop artists. While his relatively small number of television appearances present him as a softly-spoken and humble man, Bang’s director style in the studio and in regards to business is said to be more domineering.
BTS are less coddled than other K-pop stars: their members have access to their own personal social media accounts and have the ability to speak freely about topics of their own choosing. They’ve certainly earned that right, but it all still remains under the tutelage, and conservatorship, of Bang. Every hit song, every album that reaches number one in a foreign country, and every brief appearance on the Friends reunion special is approved of by the ‘Hitman’. Crossing him would at the very least be considered a poor economic move.
Bang, in his most basic form, is a craftsman. Of sounds, of images, of identities, of anything that can be distilled and shaped into its most potent product. Although fairly anonymous by the comparable status of the stars he manages and writes for, ‘Hitman’ Bang is the one man who can claim the crown as king of K-pop.