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How BTS Is Adding An Estimated $5 Billion To The South Korean Economy A Year


There's an annual debate in the U.S. over the song of the summer. The consensus this year seemed to be "Butter" by Korean pop group BTS, or at least it was, until "Butter" was replaced by "Permission To Dance," also by BTS. Stacey Vanek Smith, host of our podcast, The Indicator From Planet Money, looked into the band that has become a global economic force, creating jobs, billions in revenue, even moving the needle on South Korea's GDP.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Tamar Herman is a reporter for the South China Morning Post and author of "BTS: Blood, Sweat & Tears." She says as big as having a song of the summer is - much less two songs of the summer - this is like a blip for BTS, which has been on a streak of success that's almost hard to fathom.

TAMAR HERMAN: They're just so big. You can't just look at BTS and be like, ah, yes, this is just the same cloth reshaped. No, it's a brand-new cloth.

VANEK SMITH: BTS fans are devoted. In the last couple of years, they started bringing in so much money, the South Korean government decided to try and measure the economic impact of the band. Park Chan-Wook is head of cultural industry research at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute.

PARK CHAN-WOOK: (Through interpreter) We have some tools that can help us make estimates from the Bank of Korea, which lets us see the impact of sales growth spilling out to other industries.

VANEK SMITH: An online concert held by BTS during the pandemic brought in more than $70 million in ticket and merchandise sales. But, like Park Chan-Wook says, there is a major ripple effect. BTS's popularity is fueling tourism to Korea, study of the Korean language, interest in Korean movies, television, fashion and food. All told, BTS is bringing in an estimated $5 billion a year to South Korea. That's around half a percent of the country's entire economy.

PARK: (Through interpreter) The influence impact of fandoms are huge and started to spread globally with the success of BTS.

VANEK SMITH: BTS fans are known as A.R.M.Y., and there are huge groups of A.R.M.Y. in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and The Indicator. Michael He is our intern, and he's a huge BTS fan.

Wait, did you learn Korean?

MICHAEL HE, BYLINE: I'm terrible at Korean, but...

VANEK SMITH: Wait, you learned Korean for BTS?

HE: I learned Korean from their songs.

VANEK SMITH: This is not unusual, according to journalist Tamar Herman. She says many of BTS's fans, A.R.M.Y., they connect with the band and with each other through the study of these songs.

HERMAN: Literally, like a linguistics class - so this word means this thing, but it also can relate to this situation in Korea and history.

VANEK SMITH: And fans respond by buying everything BTS touches. And BTS is touching a lot of stuff. The band has not been shy about brand partnerships. They've collaborated with Samsung Galaxy on a BTS phone, with FILA on a sportswear collection, with Hyundai on the Palisade model that ended up in six-month backorders, with Baskin-Robbins, Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton and McDonald's on a special Happy Meal. And in every case, everything sold out. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.