MBW’s World Leaders is a regular series in which we turn the spotlight toward some of the most influential industry figures overseeing key international markets. For the first edition of 2024, we speak to South Korea-based music executive and producer Sung Soo Han, also known as PLEDIS Entertainment’s ‘Master Professional’. He founded SEVENTEEN’s label, developed the group, and oversees all creative processes for the HYBE-owned label’s roster. World Leaders is supported by PPL.
Here’s some K-Pop trivia for you.
Which act currently holds the record for the best-selling album (in terms of physical copies sold) ever globally in the history of K-pop?
No, it’s not HYBE-signed superstars BTS (though they are the best-selling K-pop act overall).
It’s SEVENTEEN, who are signed to PLEDIS Entertainment, in which K-pop company HYBE owns a majority stake.
According to South Korea’s Hanteo chart platform, back in April SEVENTEEN’s FML racked up 4.64 million physical preorders worldwide to make it, at the time, the most pre-ordered K-Pop album of all time.
(This record was later pipped by JYP-signed Stray Kids, whose album 5-STAR surpassed 5.13 million preorders).
SEVENTEEN’s FML then went on to break BTS’ record for the biggest sales for an individual K-pop album ever, surpassing 6.2 million physical copies sold.
That made FML, according to HYBE/PLEDIS, “the best-selling album ever globally in the history of K-pop”.
SEVENTEEN’s success didn’t stop there last year. Their 11th EP, SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN, broke Stray Kids’ pre-order record, with sales of 5.2 million units.
The two albums (FML and SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN) also propelled SEVENTEEN to superstardom in the world’s first and second-largest recorded music markets, the US and Japan.
In the US, both albums, FML and SEVENTEENTH HEAVEN, debuted at No.2 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, in May and November, respectively.
Both albums also secured the No.1 spot on the weekly Oricon Albums Chart in Japan, a key market for the group.
“They achieved extraordinary feats [in 2023],” says PLEDIS Entertainment’s founder Sung Soo Han, who has played a pivotal role in elevating SEVENTEEN to their current status as global stars.
“They now hold to their name the best-selling album ever in K-pop, and over 16 million copies of their albums were sold in total in the year 2023 alone,” he adds.
“But more so than the numbers, what truly fills me with pride is witnessing their continuous growth nine years since their debut.”
As you can see from the stats above, a lot of SEVENTEEN’s success has been achieved with physical album sales.
Commenting on what this tells us about listening trends amongst K-Pop fans, Sung Soo Han suggests that “in K-pop, the idea of a physical album transcends being a mere means of listening to music”.
He adds: “It serves as a medium to convey the messages of artists and producers through both visual and auditory elements. Some tracks are exclusively available on the physical album, and inclusions provide fans with a personalized way to enjoy the artists’ content.
“In K-pop, a physical album offers a quality approach to appreciating an artist’s work. It’s a reflection of a listening trend where audiences do not stop at listening to music; rather, they immerse themselves in the work of art by the artists and producers through a variety of ways.”
“IN K-pop, the idea of a physical album transcends being a mere means of listening to music.”
Sung Soo Han
Since establishing PLEDIS Entertainment in 2010, Sung Soo Han, also known as the label’s ‘Master Professional’, has acted as the executive producer of the label and continues to oversee all creative processes for the label’s roster that includes SEVENTEEN, fromis_9, BAEKHO, HWANG MIN HYUN, NANA, BUMZU, YEHANA and SUNGYEON.
K-Pop entertainment giant HYBE acquired a majority stake in PLEDIS in 2020.
Sung Soo Han tells MBW that the deal “was a great opportunity for mutual growth, a chance for HYBE (formerly BIGHIT Entertainment) and PLEDIS Entertainment to come together, share our talent and know-how, and synergize”.
He adds: “The level of passion and sincerity Chairman Bang has for content and artists he works with was also an important factor.
The exec and producer also explains that PLEDIS Entertainment continues to operate as an “independent label with creative freedom” and that it “continue[s] its traditions, while also benefiting from the support of HYBE’s resources to deliver even better music and content to the fans globally”.
Here, in the latest installment of MBW’s World Leaders series, Sung Soo Han tells us more about his career, his predictions for the business of K-pop, and of course… SEVENTEEN.
Can we start at the beginning of your career – How did you first get into the music business and who were some of your early mentors?
With a background in arts myself, I always had an interest in pop culture. I was particularly fascinated by cases of Korean content reaching global audiences, by its potential to resonate with such a wide range of people.
I became a part of the team at SM Entertainment then, and learned a lot from the experience.
“I always had an interest in pop culture.”
What struck me most was how they viewed ‘the market.’ They were looking beyond Korea, perceiving the entirety of Asia as our target audience, and I think such a perspective laid the foundation for our capacity to create globally appealing content today. It’s gratifying to witness the realization of ours and our predecessors’ dreams today.
You founded PLEDIS Entertainment in 2010. In what state was the music industry in South Korea at that time and what are your thoughts on its evolution since then?
The idea of K-pop has been around for quite some time, but it was in the 2010s that it began to captivate an even broader global audience. With the appearance of many renowned artists over time, K-pop evolved and found ground as a cultural force that resonates with audiences globally, characterized by an intricate balance of relatability and unique artistry.
“While K-pop has become a dynamic force on a global level, there is always demand for something new and different, and hence room for further growth.”
While K-pop has become a dynamic force on a global level, there is always demand for something new and different, and hence room for further growth. And expansion of the market calls for greater diversity in both the artistry and the strategies involved.
For K-pop to continue its upward trajectory, we need to figure out how to further push the boundaries of the field, and the openness to accept greater diversity will play an important role in the process.
We are also preparing to introduce a new boy group at PLEDIS Entertainment. And at the core of our approach to the artist is the goal of adding new layers to what defines K-pop, which makes it even more crucial that we highlight the charm that is distinct to the artist.
What were your ambitions or original goals for the company?
From the beginning, PLEDIS’ goal has always been to discover young talent and help them unlock their potential to the fullest. Truly understanding each talent to develop and define their identity as an artist has been at the center of our mission as an entertainment company, and this principle remains unchanged.
“From the beginning, PLEDIS’ goal has always been to discover young talent and help them unlock their potential to the fullest.”
For instance, SEVENTEEN has grown to be an artist that delivers their honest thoughts and feelings in their own ways, and I believe such sincerity was a key factor behind all the love they’re receiving today. We are striving to help the members of our new boy group do the same—to find the color and the ways that best suit them themselves. They possess different charms from their ‘older brother,’ SEVENTEEN, they have this quality to them that reminds you of boyhood.
They lift spirits for those around them just being who they are, you would want to be around them, and be comfortable around all the time. Our team at PLEDIS is investing a lot of time into drawing out their full potential in the ways that best suit them, and it’s a mission that fills me with both a heavy sense of responsibility and excitement.
How is PLEDIS positioned within HYBE today?
Each label at HYBE operates under a different creative direction and works with artists of different flairs, each contributing to the diversity of music and content produced under HYBE Labels as a whole. PLEDIS also plays its part in diversifying that pool.
I believe the synergy between PLEDIS’ drive to focus on each talent’s individuality and HYBE’s infrastructure, network as well as resources, is yielding great results.
How is HYBE positioned in the global music business today in your view?
HYBE is a ‘multi-label’ company, which ensures the creative independence of each label that shares HYBE’s infrastructure and network.
The approach has made its share of contribution to K-pop industry’s growth, based on the system’s capacity to heighten the quality and broaden the spectrum of content we create.
“I believe HYBE and PLEDIS will continue to lead the way in K-pop, enabling K-pop to further extend its reach.”
The industry of art and culture thrives on the diversity of its content.
I believe HYBE and PLEDIS will continue to lead the way in K-pop, enabling K-pop to further extend its reach, and ultimately push the boundaries of the global music scene itself.
Tell us about how you first discovered the members of Seventeen and their journey to their current superstar status?
The members went through countless rounds of evaluations for both themselves and us to truly understand each talent.
Our role in the process was to guide them in nurturing their skills as artists and collaboratively refine their vision as an artist. The training program also supports each person’s journey towards becoming well-rounded and healthy individuals.
The same principles apply to album production and show production. For SEVENTEEN specifically, the 13 members have always been deeply invested in conveying their authentic selves and emotions through music and performances since debut.
For us to help them do so, it has always been paramount that we know who they are and continue conversations to stay aligned on what they wish to achieve from a creative perspective. They have such powerful energy and talents.
As a producer, it’s a huge blessing to have met such talented artists. To this day, SEVENTEEN is an artist that consistently surprises me with fresh perspectives.
PLEDIS and Seventeen had a particularly successful year in 2023. What drove this success?
As a producer, I believe the fact that SEVENTEEN continued being true to who they are in their artistry is what drove them to where they are today.
SEVENTEEN has always been an artist with a remarkably strong connection to their fans. Going beyond large-scale tours, they are actively involved in providing experiences for the fans and the members themselves to enjoy collectively, exemplified by events like ‘SEVENTEEN STREET’ and ‘THE CITY.’
“SEVENTEEN has always been an artist with a remarkably strong connection to their fans.”
From releasing solo mixtapes that manifest each member’s musical world to showcasing unit dynamics like with BSS, the members are perpetually working, thinking, and evolving to pave their own paths as artists.
This relentless dedication is the reason why I continue to be excited to see what the future holds for SEVENTEEN.
Seventeen have a strong fanbase in Japan. Tell us the growth you’re seeing in this market, your activities in the market, and also how you planned ‘THE CITY’ campaign in response to the fanbase in Japan?
It’s one of the greatest delights to attend your favorite artist’s concert. Upon leaving the venue though, the intense emotions of the concert linger on but feelings of emptiness also follow. ‘THE CITY’ project amplifies the excitement from the concert venue to everyday places and moments.
During SEVENTEEN’s dome tour in Japan [in 2023] — which spanned 5 cities and 12 shows—we had the pleasure of getting to see the fans enjoy ‘THE CITY’ like a festival. Major landmarks in each city were wrapped in images of SEVENTEEN, while photo exhibitions and SEVENTEEN-themed cafes opened their doors to the fans, providing them with the experience of witnessing their surroundings transform into a ‘concert park’ in time for their favorite artist’s show.
“Fans spend weeks, even months waiting in anticipation for concerts, and they invest a lot of time and resources to make it to the shows.”
Last year, we collaborated with 25 companies and organizations across three cities for ‘THE CITY’ around SEVENTEEN’s ‘BE THE SUN’ tour, and it recorded over 250,000 visitors. [In 2023], we are collaborating with over 30 companies to manage over 70 different spots involved in the program across 5 cities, which in turn is also contributing to boosting local businesses. Fans spend weeks, even months waiting in anticipation for concerts, and they invest a lot of time and resources to make it to the shows. Adding in elements of fun in the days prior to the show and the days that follow, we want to make sure that the wait is worthwhile.
The band recently delivered a speech and performance at the UNESCO Youth Forum earlier this year. Can you tell us about this?
Just like how the members of SEVENTEEN came together, it was endearing to see each member’s story come together to complete the speech. I heard many members of our staff were moved by it as well, the staff on-site from PLEDIS, staff from UNESCO, and even the trainees at PLEDIS.
The members put in a tremendous amount of effort into the speech. They thought a lot about the message they’re able to deliver, what would truly help those listening, which words to use to deliver the message, and diligently rehearsed every word until they stepped onto the stage.
Their honest and heartfelt stories, coupled with a passionate performance that had everyone at the forum dancing, were the perfect illustration of who they are as artists.
What are your predictions for the impact that K-Pop will have on the global music business in years to come?
K-pop is an industry constantly in pursuit of change, meaning the avenues through which the field can influence others are also boundless.
On that note, K-pop has also been proposing new business models that touch upon many different aspects of our everyday lives including fashion, beauty, and food. The extent of its influence will grow to be even more relevant to our lifestyle as a whole.
If there was one thing you could change about the music business, what would it be and why?
I do always hope that a culture of openness will be more widespread. Openness to the unexplored and fresh, new styles will allow for greater diversity, open up new opportunities for artists, and ultimately contribute to further growth of the industry as a whole.
World Leaders is supported by PPL, a leading international neighbouring rights collector, with best-in-class operations that help performers and recording rightsholders around the world maximise their royalties. Founded in 1934, PPL collects money from across Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and South America. It has collected over £500 million internationally for its members since 2006.Music Business Worldwide