How BTS is Pioneering Cross-Platform Storytelling

South Korean boy band BTS at the 2019 Seoul Music Awards by TenAsia (via Wikimedia Commons)

In April, 2015, Korean group BTS (also known as Bangtan Sonyeondan) released their mini album, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Part 1, and began one of the strangest and most interesting examples of cross platform storytelling in modern media. Four years later, the story is being told not only in their subsequent music videos and songs, but also through a weekly webtoon, a novel, tie-in websites, short booklets included within their physical albums, and even concert videos.

BTS is well-known for having one of the most engaged fandoms on the planet. On twitter, their mentions far exceed any other artist and they were the most tweeted about celebrities of 2017 and 2018. Theories about the “Bangtan Universe (BU),” as it’s officially called, are a popular topic of discussion and promote continued engagement with the group even when no new music is being released.

Over the years, the story of the Bangtan Universe has developed from snapshots in a music video to a fully realized tale across multiple platforms. By pacing the growth of the universe, BTS has created a model that encourages new fans to dig into the groups past releases for clues while also rewarding long-term fans with new content and puzzle pieces.

Bangtan Universe

The story of the Bangtan Universe is centered on the character portrayed by vocalist Jin and his attempts to turn back time to save the remaining six members from various dark fates. The characters in the story are all referred to by the group members’ given names rather than their stage names.

The story is told in a nonlinear fashion across multiple music videos and other content. The YouTube page for each related music video contains a small note in the description that says, “BU content certified by Big Hit Entertainment.” So far, the video component of the Bangtan Universe includes seven music videos, as well as various short films, highlight reels, and song teasers with additional scenes (A full list of all Bangtan Universe content is available at the end of the article).

The Bangtan Universe didn’t began without hiccups. The first video in the universe, the music video for I Need U, did not pass Korean censorship standards and had to be re-edited shortly before release. The original version was then released about two weeks later with a 19+ rating. The original version is two minutes longer than the cut version and includes a scene of Taehyung (portrayed by vocalist V) killing his abusive father to protect his sister.

In the lead up to the release of their second full length album, Wings, BTS released seven short films, each starring a single member. Each film began with rapper and group leader RM narrating a passage from Hermann Hesse’s 1919 novel, Demian, and depicted a scene relating to the Bangtan Universe story. Taehyung, for example, was shown being interviewed by the police.

2017 was the start of the cross platform expansion of the Bangtan Universe and introduced two key plot elements: Jin’s ability to re-live days and change what happens, and a special flower called smeraldo. Some fan theories had correctly guessed that Jin was likely traveling through time or alternate universes based on scenes in the Japanese music video for their song, “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” but a series of short films dubbed “Highlight Reels” as well as the short film, “Euphoria: Theme of Love Yourself 起 Wonder” made this ability much more explicit, with several scenes in “Euphoria” depicting members being rescued from their previous situations.

The smeraldo flower is a fictional flower that for purposes of the story has the meaning of “the truth I couldn’t tell” in the language of flowers. The flower was introduced through a tweet by Jin showing him posing with the flowers in August 2017.

Shortly after that, a blog (in Korean) created by the group’s company detailed the history of the flower, from its discovery in Italy, the legend behind it, and its subsequent rediscovery in present times. The blog is written from the perspective of a flower shop owner opening the first smeraldo flower shop in Korea. The flower shop’s delivery van also appears in the final highlight reel and the blog details selling flowers to a customer matching Jin’s description.

The smeraldo flower goes on to feature in both the regular and extended music videos for “Fake Love,” as well as the music video for “Intro: Singularity” (though, notably, Singularity is not an official Bangtan Universe video). The tale of the smeraldo flower’s origin is also the subject of the song “The Truth Untold” on BTS’ Love Yourself: Tear album.

Large Scale Expansion

With the release of their 2017 album Love Yourself: Her, BTS began including booklets called “花樣年華 (The Most Beautiful Moment in Life): The Notes” in physical copies of their albums. Each booklet contained short diary entries from the members’ characters in the story, fleshing out scenes previously portrayed in music videos and detailing new ones. Subsequent notes were included in both of their 2018 releases, Love Yourself: Tear and Love Yourself: Answer.

In January, 2019, BTS announced that they had partnered with Line Webtoon to release a webtoon titled “Save Me” chronicling the story of the Bangtan Universe. The webtoon is currently ongoing, updating once a week. It’s also free to read, though people may also choose to a pay a small amount to read up to two episodes ahead.

The webtoon is subtitled “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life Pt.0” and tells the beginning of the story. The story is continued in novel form with the book, “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: The Notes 1,” released in early March and available in Korean, English, and Japanese.

The Future

With a new album release expected in the first half of the year, it’s likely that that the narrative of the Bangtan Universe will be further expanded in the months to come. However, even now it’s fair to say that the Bangtan Universe has become one of the best examples of modern cross-platform storytelling.

BTS’ music and music videos remain the core of their storytelling, along with the short films released on their YouTube channel. Along with the webtoon, “Save Me,” this ensures that the vast majority of Bangtan Universe is easily accessible online for free. Additional content like “The Notes” encourage fans to buy physical copies of their albums as well as their related novel.

Spreading along multiple platforms also allows BTS to keep its fan base engaged and energized even while no new music is being released, ensuring their continued domination of social media.

However, behind the business and the numbers, the story of the Bangtan Universe is ultimately too big to be told adequately through music videos alone. Expanding the story into books, webtoons, and short films allows the story to unfold more naturally, giving space to the more introspective moments in prose while showing the most dramatic moments onscreen.

Tie-in websites like the smeraldo blog encourage fans to dig deeper in to the universe’s mythology and share theories with each other while simultaneously filling out the edges of their fictional world.

As BTS’ prominence in the music industry continues to rise, it will be interesting to see if any other acts attempt to model their techniques. BTS’ company, Big Hit Entertainment, recently debuted a new boy group, Tomorrow X Together (pronounced Tomorrow by Together), after introducing them with morse code filled messages. It remains to be seen whether the new group will eventually have similar world building connected to them, but as BTS’ success has shown, the market for cross-platform storytelling is strong and still largely untapped.

List of Bangtan Universe Content

Music Videos: “I Need U” (original version), “Run”, “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”, “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” (Japanese Version), “Fake Love”, “Fake Love” (extended version), “Epiphany”

Short Films: “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life On Stage: Prologue”, “Begin”, “Lie”, “Stigma”, “First Love”, “Reflection”, “Mama”, “Awake”, “LOVE YOURSELF Highlight Reel ‘起承轉結’”, “Euphoria: Theme of Love Yourself 起 Wonder”, “Fake Love Official Teaser 1”

The Notes: Love Yourself: Her, Love Yourself: Tear, Love Yourself: Answer, The Most Beautiful Moment in Life: The Notes 1

Webtoon: Save Me

Social Media: Smeraldo Blog, Smeraldo Books