BTS ARMY and the Fandom Dilemma: What Defines 'Popularity'?

BTS' highest engaged fans comprise ARMY, a fandom that has been both maligned and praised by Western media. Here, ARMY member Ami Patel gets to the bottom of the question: What is BTS ARMY?

BTS ARMY and the Fandom Dilemma: What Defines 'Popularity'?
Ami Patel
Ami Patel
October 25, 20219 min read
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Editor's Note: Ami Patel is a music marketing strategist from Houston, Texas, with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing and Entrepreneurship from the University of Houston. She has a passion for artist development and the global music market and frequently shares her thoughts on current music trends and new music discoveries on her website.

In June 2021, Patel penned a 3,600-word tome titled “Anatomy of a modern pop fanbase: How fans use data to build their own music marketing powerhouses.” The K-Pop guide was rigorously researched and written by Patel and edited by Cherie Hu, who runs Water & Music, which is a membership-funded email newsletter, research hub, and community forum dedicated to unpacking the fine print of commercial, technological, and cultural change in the music industry.

Fans are the core of the music industry. Whether casual followers or enthusiastic stans, fans contribute to an artist's success by attending concerts, buying albums, and expressing their love on social media. When an artist has an impact on their audience, it goes beyond primary music consumption. It ripples into creating an interactive community of inclusion, diversity, and passion.

There have been conversations regarding what defines success and popularity. Many will claim you need to have mainstream success to be considered popular. This is questionable, considering traditional popularity consists of passive listeners who aren't actively participating with an artist's release. On the other hand, fans are long-term followers who support artists by buying music, sharing their excitement with every rollout, and connecting with other fans over similar interests.  

For BTS’ fandom, aka ARMY, they aren't just listening to the music but actively participating in events and conversations, generating an ecosystem filled with rich and creative content spreading across a network of fans worldwide. Thus, it makes sense that BTS have been able to host stadium tours since 2018, pull 2M concurrent viewers for Bang Bang Con (a free streaming event of their past concerts on Youtube), sell 1.33M tickets from 195 different regions around the world for their virtual SOWOOZOO Muster concert, have McDonald's attribute a 26.9 percent boost in sales to the BTS meal, and have fans raise $100k to support three different charities over the excitement and support of a collaboration between BTS and Megan Thee Stallion.

Listen to our conversation with Ami about BTS ARMY below.

Who Is Allowed to Work the System?

Singling BTS ARMY out for "mass buying" or "bulk buying" BTS' music persists with the most unusual takes. In reference to Lil Nas X, a Billboard writer claimed,  "As long as BTS is going to sell as many copies as they need to stay on top each week, No. 2 debuts are basically the new No. 1 debuts." Not only does a take like this undermine BTS' success, but it also devalues Lil Nas X and his passionate fanbase. Both artists have hits, videos, live performances, personalities, and the social media presence to be considered the biggest Pop acts of 2021.

Another recent Billboard piece suggests, "Through above-board means, ARMY has long exploited loopholes in music chart rules (including those of Billboard) to propel BTS singles' performance." That's an interesting critique when fans are just following the rules set by Billboard. Claiming that ARMY's efforts have helped BTS "despite BTS' weaker streaming numbers and radio airplay than some of its Pop contemporaries" means overlooking industry practices implemented to keep those Pop contemporaries at the top precisely because they don't have the same organic pull as BTS do with ARMY.

In response to critiques similar to those above, BTS leader RM replied eloquently, "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."

Another critique from Billboard relates to how BTS "typically releases multiple versions of a particular single — including both digital and physical — that can add up to multiple sales per consumer. ('Butter,' for instance, had six digital versions plus two physical singles.)" The irony with this particular argument is that Western artists and labels have long pulled many different strings to help increase sales and streams, including bundling random merch with singles and albums. For example, Dua Lipa has six versions of her single "Levitating," Taylor Swift has nine different vinyls for her album Folklore, and The Jonas Brothers bundled their album Happiness Begins with their concert tickets in 2019. While these strategies have been common practice within the industry, persistently, non-Western acts are deprecated for implementing the same strategies that American Pop has been doing for years.

Back in 2019, when Indian rapper Badshah (Forbes India's Celebrity 100 and regular YouTube, BBC, and Billboard charting artist) broke the 24-hour YouTube record for his track "Paagal," YouTube failed to acknowledge the achievement for unstated reasons. Badshah claimed he had used Google Ads to boost views just like many other prominent Pop stars. Months after the release, YouTube clarified they "are no longer counting paid advertising views on YouTube in the YouTube Music Charts calculation." Still, whether you agree or disagree with his methods, it is interesting that he didn't get recognition for his milestone despite many other acts receiving praise while also utilizing Google Ads.

All 'Global' Platforms Skew Geographically

Some mainstream artists pull in substantial airplay and playlisting numbers but ironically aren't replicating those same numbers offline or on other platforms globally, so it is essential to consider other platforms on which users are consuming music worldwide.

Most notably, YouTube is gaining popularity in many major markets like the US, India, and France, based on a recent study conducted by YouGov. When looking at the top artists on YouTube, Indian artists occupy seven out of 10 spots, with Alka Yagnik at No. 1 and BTS, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin at No. 2, No. 4, and No. 8, respectively.

In Japan, Line Music is considered the top domestic streaming service, and BTS dominates the platform with the third most Artist Likes and the most track likes and plays.

Reach Does Not Equal Engagement

Although Spotify features a large user base of 365M monthly active users, it makes more sense to analyze fan behavior at the artist-level. BTS trails behind Dua Lipa and Olivia Rodrigo when it comes to Spotify Monthly Listeners (a reach metric). The latter two artists have a higher playlist reach than BTS, suggesting that these artists have the potential to reach a larger audience as a function of being included in more editorial playlists with higher follower counts. However, that doesn't necessarily mean these artists are converting those potential listeners into followers or fans.

If we consider fan conversion rate, aka Spotify follower ratio, which is calculated by dividing followers by monthly listeners, BTS towers over most artists with a 113.95 percent rate of conversion. In comparison, the rest are under the 40 percent mark. In other words, though Dua Lipa and Olivia Rodrigo are reaching a large audience, they aren't necessarily converting those audience members into followers and, consequently, an engaged fandom.

These conversion rates are significant when we consider engagement across various platforms. Platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, and SoundCloud, to no surprise, have high BTS follower engagement compared to other artists.

Even considering Chartmetric's Cross-Platform Performance rank, which looks at an artist's performance across 16 social and streaming platforms worldwide, BTS has been within the Top 5 from May to August 2021.

This isn't to say Dua and Olivia don't have fans. They most certainly do. Their fans are engaging creatively on multiple platforms, but they do not pull the level of engagement that ARMY does.

Radio as a Popularity Standard

Radio culture has long been considered a barometer of popularity since it contributes to chart rankings and artist recognition despite excluding specific genres, languages, and non-Western acts. K-Pop acts rarely, if ever, have a chance of their music being played on the radio regardless of their growing popularity and passionate fanbase.





As an example, despite "Butter" being a record-breaking track sung in English and credited with Western producers and songwriters, it still does not receive the same airplay numbers as other artists like Dua Lipa or Olivia Rodrigo.

This is an issue that many artists from the Latin music industry have also faced. Global artists like Bad Bunny and J Balvin have a massive following, but they arguably don't receive the amount of airplay they deserve.

Except for "Dakiti" by Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez, the only tracks that received a fair amount of airplay comparable to Western artists are tracks with English features. This raises the question: Why is radio considered a channel for popularity when language seems to be an apparent barrier? How can the discussion around needing mainstream success exist when notable acts like BTS, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin aren't getting the same exposure as their peers despite having a comparable following and global presence?

Radio is a passive form of consumption that does not always equate to fan conversion, and because specific genres and languages are restricted or underplayed, radio becomes a dated measurement of popularity. These inherent structural limitations mean non-Western artists face greater difficulties ranking on charts, opening up more opportunity for critics to question the legitimacy of their popularity. However, acts like BTS are "a sign of globalization and the decreasing importance of traditional radio in an increasingly virtual world," as Aja Romano points out.

Ultimately, it makes sense why a fanbase would want to work hard to overcome these structural inequities and inherent industry obstacles by implementing strategies like hosting streaming parties on StationHead, a platform "started with the vision to democratize the airwaves and give the power back to the people." Results show fanbases like Bardigang for Cardi B generating 137K streams in March 2021 and ARMY generating 5.4M streams in May 2021 through the platform. Fandoms are utilizing the necessary tools and resources to help their favorite artists succeed while simultaneously enjoying the music they want to listen to — radio airplay or not.

Maybe '1K True Fans' Was Right….

Kevin Kelly's theory of cultivating "1K True Fans" may hold true for artists trying to navigate the overly saturated and competitive music market. Instead of focusing on the next viral hit, Kelly argues you "need to acquire only 1K True Fans to make a living." A true fan, according to Kelly, is defined as someone who will purchase and support anything an artist produces. To retain these fans' support, an artist needs to maintain direct contact with them, which can further help artists nurture and establish a strong relationship with their fanbase.

Ultimately, popularity comes down to impact. An artist connecting with 1K fans who wholeheartedly support their music is arguably more meaningful than a viral track flaming out after a month of entertaining 1M passive listeners. Music that transcends language and resonates with fans worldwide is louder than a sea of ARMY critiques. There's no better definition of popularity than fans doing what they love: celebrating an artist and their music.

Listen to The Data-Driven Fandom of BTS ARMY With Ami Patel on your favorite podcast listening platform here.