HYBE America CEO Lenzo Yoon Talks US Launch, Pacts With UMG & Scooter Braun

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Since Lenzo Yoon took over as Big Hit Entertainment’s global CEO in 2020, the Korean agency behind K-pop superstars BTS has been scaling beyond music through new partnerships and acquisitions. Now Yoon is heading to Los Angeles to help lead the company’s growth in the U.S.

In February, Big Hit announced a strategic partnership with Universal Music Group focused around music and technology. A month later, the company rebranded Big Hit as HYBE to encompass its system of music labels, tech platforms, and educational, video and gaming services. Then in April HYBE acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings for $1.05 billion, which was celebrated by the likes of BTS, Justin Bieber, and J Balvin.

In May, the company received approval from South Korean regulators to merge its fan-community platform Weverse with the popular V-Live streaming service after acquiring it from Korean tech giant Naver.

The moves all helped HYBE improve its second quarter revenue by nearly 80% to 278.6 billion KRW ($244.1 million), according to HYBE’s earnings report released last month.

In an email interview with Billboard, Yoon says he feels “great responsibility” as the company continues to move and think more globally. He says his new role as CEO of HYBE America is part of a company restructuring in July that led to a “localized CEO system” with hubs in Korea, Japan, and the U.S,. to be led by Yoon and Braun.

Yoon, a 2021 International Power Player, won’t disclose details of larger-scale projects like the stateside boy-band show with Universal (he says a global audition is planned and that “a lot of ideas are being exchanged” with a target timeline to air next year) or if HYBE and the SB Projects roster are planning collaborations. But he is locked in on corporate acceleration.

The growth continues this month with the first HYBE release from new signing fromis_9 under HYBE Labels’ Pledis Entertainment, with international distribution help from UMG-owned Ingrooves. (The act is HYBE’s only active girl group.)

“I try my best to respond promptly to pace and change while maintaining balance to not lose direction and stability,” he says.

In his Billboard interview, Yoon discusses HYBE’s recent partnerships, how his goals align with Braun and how his view on the future of live-streamed concerts.

Let’s start with the Universal Music partnership that was announced earlier this year. What have been the first steps in the new venture?

We are now planning out the details for what’s being called a “global artist debut project” based on the roadmap that we drew together.

You and your partners shared that a new project “will apply Big Hit’s ‘success formula’ established over the past 16 years to the U.S.” Some may be hesitant to say the “formula” will not work in the U.S. What do you say to skeptics?

It’s difficult for a lot of people to understand and appreciate from the beginning since this “novelty” is something no one has experienced before. It’s the mission of a company to challenge and prove it — and if HYBE doesn’t do it, who will? We believe in our own winning formula and the experiences we’ve gained from BTS’ global success but we also don’t think that’s going to lead this project to success. This is why we decided to cooperate with UMG, the leading local company in the market. We will find the most effective way to be successful in this project based on the know-how of the two companies, as well as thinking flexibly in order for all the elements that make up this project — talent, passion, HYBE’s system, local culture, and environment — to harmonize and create synergies. The goal is to present our ideal global boy band to the world.

HYBE is not only training and preparing artists based in the U.S. but in Japan as well. Can you expand on the larger vision with regionally focused artists? 

K-pop is a culture that has evolved over the last 30 years. Today, the whole world is enjoying K-pop and a lot of people want to participate in it. At this point, the birth of new artists and content that combine with — and go beyond — the boundaries of nationality and culture could be seen as another evolution of K-pop. In particular, HYBE America’s project to showcase K-pop artists based in the U.S. itself is an unprecedented attempt in which we will be delivering new experiences to fans and presenting the industry’s new paradigm through both process and outcome.

Big Hit’s relationship with U.S. labels began with BTS and The Orchard, and eventually Columbia Records as well. What is the status of this relationship and do you foresee any changes here? 

Regarding U.S promotions, BTS is working with Columbia Records, under Sony Music Entertainment, and Tomorrow X Together with Republic Records, under Universal Music Group. But nothing has been decided what changes will occur in this relationship and I just believe HYBE America will be able to further support the functions of this relationship in the future.

Can you share your personal vision of how livestream concerts and experiences will evolve in the future?

The format of concerts will be unlikely to return to what it once was in the past even after the pandemic ends. Online services with newly added values will continue to emerge which will be consumed through platforms such as live streaming. These live streaming environments will constantly discover new markets. HYBE is constantly researching “how to enjoy” and focusing on technology for that reason.

When it comes to HYBE Solutions, specifically WeVerse platforms, what do you think these platforms offer that Twitter, Instagram and TikTok do not for artists? 

This platform, in particular, is specialized in fan activities: There are no language barriers thanks to the 10-language translation service … it’s a platform that is possible to grow and expand infinitely as more artists use it as a communication channel with fans as well as constantly upgrading convenient services available for the users to use.

What has the HYBE-Ithaca merger done for you and the company so far?

HYBE and Ithaca Holdings will respectively prove what each is good at and increase the values as a team. In so doing, it’s natural that the resources of HYBE are used for Ithaca Holdings and vice versa. We intend to cooperate in the most efficient way without overlapping in terms of structure. In addition, Korean artists’ promotion activities in the U.S. can be carried out more systematically and vice versa. We have gained a lot more business opportunities with the merger of Ithaca Holdings.

You’ve shared how HYBE America will operate under two branches with you as a CEO as well as Braun as a new CEO of HYBE America. What have you learned from conversations with Braun and his team? 

HYBE and Ithaca Holdings have some things in common, one of which is putting efforts into transforming the business structure of the music industry. There are business models that each has developed and there will be positive effects if they are integrated and linked together.

How are plans for the U.S. location developing? Are you actively hiring?

In addition to Korea and Japan, HYBE America is one of the hubs that connect and expands HYBE’s business globally. Members of HYBE America must be well-aware of the local culture and markets along with being able to communicate smoothly between HYBE’s base and another base or market. Our staff is currently working in Korea and Japan, and we plan to continue hiring more talented people also in the U.S.

You’re planning to lead U.S. operations stateside. How are you preparing for your move here?

I’m currently residing in Korea and taking care of businesses here. I’ll most likely head over to the U.S. sometime in the second half of this year.

All the HYBE artists answered “What do you believe in?” in your brand presentation. What does Lenzo Yoon believe in?

K-pop is an attractive content that combines music, performance, fashion, music video, communication with fans, artists’ efforts, teamwork, and messages altogether. The development of digital environments has led many people to come across this attractive content, and as a result, the world has responded enthusiastically. As long as technology and platform services, which allow artists to communicate with fans in both ways, continue to emerge and develop, K-pop will meet fans in constantly evolving forms and ways. I believe in the value of K-pop as an industry and its infinite possibilities. What’s special about HYBE is that it moves based on the love of music and the mission to innovate the music industry. Our business areas will continue to expand and diversify accordingly.

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