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BTS' 9-year journey: From an almost bankrupt K-pop label to global superstars

While BTS' 'chapter 2' has begun with the members now focusing on their solo careers, let's take a look at their journey from their debut days
UPDATED JUN 18, 2022
BTS return to music shows one last time before focusing on solo endeavours (@bts_bighit/Twitter)
BTS return to music shows one last time before focusing on solo endeavours (@bts_bighit/Twitter)

With BTS now branching out and each member establishing their solo careers, it is time to get nostalgic and go through their epic past and where they came from. BTS debuted in 2013 with seven members - RM, Jin, Suga, J-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook. And before they became the global superstars that they are now, BTS came from BigHit, an almost bankrupt K-pop label that stayed afloat only thanks to collabs with JYPE and a ballad group 8Eight.

BTS’ story is as inspiring as it can get as they came from nothing, had to face the monopoly of the Big 3 K-pop labels (JYPE, YG and SM) as well as the racism, xenophobia and homophobia of the West. However, against all odds, they rose up slowly and gradually, becoming bigger than K-pop and dominating the global music industry in general. While BTS’ chapter 2 is now in full swing, let’s take a look into BTS’ 9-year journey from their debut days.

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BTS at their first mini fan meeting on June 16, 2013 (@bangtan.official/Facebook)

Before debut

What most don’t know is that BTS was actually formed in 2010 and had a completely different lineup. Leader RM is the original member who has remained since day 1. While BTS was meant to be a hip-hop group evident from their debut concept, Bang PD, the CEO of BigHit opted for the idol route since it was more profitable. The label had almost faced bankruptcy in 2007 and they were barely staying afloat. Despite co-managing JYPE’s groups like 2AM, the label did not have enough funds for BTS to have a glamorous debut. The group amassed a small fanbase online by releasing song covers and featuring in songs by 2AM and Lee Seunggi.

BTS for their first concept photo (BigHit/Naver)

2013 - Flying under the radar

Anyone who even dabbles in K-pop knows of the phrase ‘BTS paved the way’. While non-fans get irritated by it, ARMY love it. But its origin begins with the fact that the K-pop industry was not welcoming to artists who were not under the Big 3 K-pop labels who controlled and monopolized broadcast stations and award shows. BTS came and broke their domination by allowing equally talented artists of lesser-known labels to get recognized by the K-pop industry.

But that did not happen immediately as, during their debut year in 2013, they barely made waves. They were not big enough but they were also not ‘nugu’ (unknown) as they caught the attention of the youngsters with their inspiring releases like ‘O!RUL8,2?’ and constant appearances on funny variety shows. This helped them secure the ‘Rookie of the Year’ awards at a couple of major Korean award shows like MMA, GDA and SMA.

BTS attends the Mnet America show Danny From LA (DFLA) KCON 2014 - Day 2 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena (Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

2014 - Gradual acceptance by the K-pop industry

While the K-pop industry started opening up to them, BTS had tough competition from already big groups like EXO, SHINee, 2NE1, BIGBANG, Super Junior and the like. However, they held their own pretty well as they topped Gaon for the first time with ‘Skool Luv Affair’, entered Billboard for the first time right at #3 and attended their first KCON in LA. But they still had a long way to go as they had to ask people to come to their free concert in Hollywood. While their first studio album ‘Dark & Wild’ charted on Gaon and Billboard their first world tour ‘The Red Bullet Tour’ had Asian venues with an average of 6k seats. But by the end of the year, they saw considerable fame, debuted in Japan and extended the tour to the Americas in 2015.

BTS for 'The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2', their first Billboard 200 charting album (@bangtan.official/Facebook)

2015 - Finding stability as a K-pop group

By 2015, BTS had become a known K-pop group with their tracks ‘I Need U’ and ‘Dope’ establishing their color. Even those K-pop fans who did not stan BTS knew about their songs while ‘Dope’ became one of the representatives of K-pop along with songs by Girls’ Generation, EXO and 2NE1 for the West who were becoming more open to Korean pop culture. BTS began their Billboard reign by entering Billboard 200 for the first time with ‘The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2’. And just after finishing ‘The Red Bullet’ tour in June, they began the ‘The Most Beautiful Moment’ tour in November and saw a glow-up from 80k attendees to a whopping 182k fans.

BTS for 'Wings' their first million-seller album (@bangtan.official/Facebook)

2016 - Entering the Western market and taking over K-pop

Following the immense success of their world tour which ended in August 2016, their first compilation album ‘The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: Young Forever’ stayed at the top for two weeks straight. BTS also got their first 'daesang' (grand prize) by winning ‘Album of the Year’ at 2016 MMAs. BigHit also started pushing the group into the Western market which acknowledged BTS’ rising fame as they headlined KCON in Newark and LA.

BTS finally solidified their position in K-pop as a force to be reckoned with after the release of ‘Blood Sweat & Tears’ which got an ‘all-kill’ (topping all Korean charts) while its album ‘Wings’ became their first million-seller album. With over 1.5 million sales which no K-pop group's album had done in the past, it became the best-selling album in Gaon history to date (2016).

Music group BTS accepts the Top Social Artist award onstage during the 2017 Billboard Music Awards (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

2017 - Getting big in USA

From asking people to come to their free concert in Hollywood in 2014, BTS saw a 360 change in their fortune as they were invited to the BBMAs and were sought after for American interviews. They also became the first K-pop group to ever win a BBMA award by bagging ‘Top Social Artist’. BTS’ concert venues started including stadiums and arenas while the tickets for the American leg of their tour sold out in minutes.

They also started collaborating with Western stars like DJ Steve Aoki and Desiigner. Meanwhile ‘DNA’ became the first K-pop boy group song to chart on Billboard Hot 100 and making BTS the first K-pop group to get platinum singles by USA’s RIAA. 2017 was a year of a lot of firsts as BTS also became the first K-pop group to perform at the AMAs, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve’ and the first group not from the Big 3 K-pop labels to win 'daesangs' at GDA and SMA.

BTS becomes the first Korean act to perform at a US stadium (@bangtan.official/Facebook)

2018 - Going global

By 2018, BTS was already considered one of the biggest K-pop groups. From YouTube documentaries to even their Japanese albums charting on Billboard, the group started slowly branching out of the K-pop genre. They continued to make history at the BBMAs as they performed for the first time and became the only Korean act to win two awards in a row. ‘Love Yourself: Tear’ became their best-selling album yet as it debuted directly at #1 on Billboard 200 becoming the first K-pop album to do so. They also entered UK’s Albums Chart and made waves in Canada and Japan. Their third world tour ‘BTS World Tour: Love Yourself’ was their biggest one yet as they became the first Korean act to perform at a US stadium.

The locals start equating K-pop with BTS (Saturday Night Live/YouTube)

2019 - Acknowledgement by American and Korean award shows

BTS continued to fly high as they went on to perform for 60k fans in one concert alone in Pasadena while selling out Wembley stadium. They were in the same league as the Beatles by having three albums top Billboard 200 three times in a row. Later on in 2021, they would go on to closely follow the British band for the shortest time to hit six #1s on Billboard Hot 100 chart. BTS also got their first Grammy invite, were named as one of the most influential people of 2019 by TIME and became the first Korean act to be cast on SNL.

‘Boy With Luv’ featuring Halsey was one of the biggest pop songs of 2019 while ‘Map of the Soul: Persona’ became the best-selling album in South Korea to date with just 3.2 million sales in a month. Their impact in South Korea was no less as they became the first artist ever to win all of the 'daesangs' at the MMAs and the MAMAs while winning the 'daesangs' for the physical and digital categories at the GDAs.

(L-R) RM, V, Suga, Jin, Jimin, Jungkook, and J-Hope of music group BTS attend the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

2020 - For the fans

A lot was planned for 2020 from ‘On’ being their last K-pop comeback as a group for a while to their world tour in new countries like India. However, despite the pandemic ruining these plans, it was still a good year for BTS. From becoming the first Korean act to perform and get nominated at the Grammys to selling more than 20 million albums ever, BTS continued to make history. However, most of their activities were for their fans from the two-day online concert 'Bang Bang Con', the impromptu release of ‘Dynamite’, their record-breaking first English single and ‘MOTS’ online concert. South Korea also ended up changing the drafting law by making the maximum enlistment age from 28 to 30 years so that BTS could postpone their mandatory military service.

BTS make their runway debut with Louis Vuitton (@TeenVogue/Twitter)

2021 - Above and beyond K-pop

2021 was BTS’ best year yet as they were acknowledged worldwide as superstars. From being roped in by Louis Vuitton to teaming up with McDonald’s, the group proved their influence outside of music as well. Their next English singles ‘Butter’ and ‘Permission to Dance’ kept on making Billboard history every week as they stayed on the top for 10 weeks straight. ‘My Universe’ with Coldplay was the biggest collaboration of the year with Chris Martin also making an appearance at BTS’ sold-out four-day show in LA. BTS also made history at the AMAs as the first Korean act to win a grand prize while becoming the most awarded group at the EMAs.

BTS return to music shows like 'M Countdown' one last time before focusing on solo endeavours (@bts_bighit/Twitter)

2022 - Chapter 2

With only six months into 2022, BTS continued to rack up achievements as they single-handedly earned $75 million with just seven of their ‘Permission to Dance On Stage’ concert series in 2022. They pretty much broke iTunes and Korean streaming platforms with the release of their anthology album ‘Proof’ while also making history at the Grammys and BBMAs with their nominations. They became the first Korean act to get nominated twice at the Grammys while becoming the most-awarded group at the BBMAs.

On their ninth debut anniversary celebrations, BTS announced ‘Chapter 2’ of their career which would focus more on their solo projects. Their continued impact as a group was once again displayed as their label, HYBE’s net worth fell by $1.7 billion as the internet misinterpreted ‘Chapter 2’ as BTS unofficially disbanding which the members personally denied.