The impact of Korean pop band BTS on the global music scene is hard to overstate.
Time magazine recently named BTS Entertainer of the Year in its annual tradition of highlighting exceptionally influential figures. Time writer Raisa Bruner called them an “outsize success” for what the boy band has been able to accomplish in 2020: the release of multiple albums, breaking YouTube records, selling nearly a million tickets to a virtual show and securing its first-ever Grammy nomination.
But it turns out BTS also has an outsized influence on magazine sales.
With their recent BTS cover stories, Variety, WSJ. Magazine and Esquire each ended up going back to the presses to print more. Variety printed 30% more copies than usual of its Grammy issue, which featured BTS on the cover, and created a digital version for sale. For the first time since its launch more than ten years ago, WSJ. Magazine went back to the press “[d]ue to overwhelming demand” to reprint its November issue. BTS is featured on the cover as a group, but the Journal also offered individual covers for each of its seven band members.
Esquire typically sells 20,000 copies per issue at domestic retailers and ended up printing an additional 20,000 copies for the US, along with 34,000 copies for South Korea, where they typically sell 100 copies, and another 2,000 copies for Japan.
Time, which published a BTS cover story in 2018, partnered with Meredith (MDP) for a bookazine dedicated to the group that was released on July 31. The 96-page special issue “sold very well,” Meredith (MDP) spokesperson Jill Davison told CNN Business.
Magazine conglomerates and other media companies struggled financially during the pandemic, prompting layoffs and furloughs to keep businesses afloat. Many media companies were hit by a second crisis in the summer, one that force them to look at the representation and diversity in their own ranks — and at magazines, that meant taking a hard look at who made the cover. The success of these BTS covers is a much-needed bright spot in the magazine industry, proving that hard copies of these periodicals are still desirable while serving as rebuke to editors who rely on a white, European standard of beauty to sell magazines.
“It overwhelmed my expectations,” Esquire Editor-In-Chief Michael Sebastian told CNN Business. “I thought that if we executed on this well that the reception would be good. But honestly, I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the response to it.”
‘Perfect confluence of things’
Variety’s executive editor of music, Shirley Halperin, said she was “waiting for the right moment” to put BTS on the cover. She had seen BTS and the ARMY — the name of its fanbase — firsthand while attending the 2017 Billboard Music Awards. Last year, Variety honored BTS as its Hitmaker awards. But the “right moment” for a cover arrived this fall.
“We really wanted to get that perfect confluence of things,” Halperin said. “In September, when the cover came out, they had the success of ‘Dynamite,’ and it was really the first truly explosive US radio hit, and they had come off with this massive stadium tour, and they had a theatrical release, and then there were the Grammys.”
The band earned their first-ever Grammy nomination in November for “Dynamite.”
When the band’s management company Big Hit Entertainment Co. went public on the Korean stock exchange in October, the editors at the Wall Street Journal’s magazine featured BTS on the cover of its 2020 Innovators Issue in November.
These newsworthy moments were also part of the pitch Sebastian, the editor in chief of Esquire, heard from his entertainment director. But he became especially interested in spotlighting BTS when he learned about the group’s messaging around masculinity. The band embraces the use of cosmetics and the members’ skin care and makeup routines have inspired YouTube tutorials that have racked up millions of views. Members of the group talk openly in interviews about mental health and also explore the topic in their songs.
“[T]he world has never seen a musical group make an impact like BTS, so putting them on the cover and telling their story are not only important but also puts us at the white hot center of pop culture,” Sebastian said. “Even better: They have new things to say about masculinity and the notion of role models.”
‘Windfall of revenue during a very difficult year’
Halperin was prepared for the response to Variety’s BTS cover to be “huge.” She recalled that most stories Variety published about BTS rank in the day’s top 10 for the site and that the group’s appearance at Variety’s 2019 Hitmaker awards had garnered 2 billion media impressions. But the impact was even greater than she and her employer predicted. Variety sold out of its single issue copies within an hour — an exceptional feat considering it’s a Hollywood trade publication written primarily for entertainment executives.
“Variety doesn’t live or die by single issue sales,” Halperin said. “It doesn’t have a newsstand presence the way mass market magazines do, so this was a huge, huge win for us. It was a windfall of revenue during a very difficult year.”
Ahead of publishing, Sebastian said Dave Holmes, Esquire’s editor-at-large and writer of the BTS cover story, was predicting either success or failure — and nothing in between.
“Dave said, ‘Well, tomorrow morning, I’m either going to be doxxed, or I’m going to have perfect credit,’ and so we went to bed with that in mind,” Sebastian said. “When we woke up the next morning, the response was better than I had even anticipated.”
Esquire had veered from its traditional publishing strategy for the BTS issue. While Esquire typically publishes stories early in the morning, the site posted the BTS story at 12:01 a.m. the day after the American Music Awards so the first readers would most likely be fans in South Korea.
Esquire also released other related content including outtakes from the cover shoot and a transcript of the band’s interview with Holmes, both of which required a paid membership to Esquire Select. The magazine created a series of digital-only covers, one for each of the band members.
Sebastian could see firsthand the massive response online — on Esquire’s site, Instagram and YouTube — but he learned of the high demand for the print issue after he received a direct message on Instagram from a magazine store in Manhattan. The message said the store had sold out of issues and was hoping to get more.
Bruner, the staff writer at Time, told CNN Business that when she wrote the magazine’s BTS cover story in 2018, “It was abundantly clear they were primed for major success.”
She predicted that BTS will continue to be something to cover in the years ahead. In a recent series of tweets, Bruner wrote, “I have no doubt there will be much more to write as they continue to challenge our understanding of what pop means and what celebrities can do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when BTS appeared at the Billboard Music Awards and where Halperin was working at the time. It was 2017, and Halperin was at Variety.