To millions of K-pop fans, hello82 has been a destination to watch their favorite idols take on viral challenges, play celebrity babysitter to kids, attempt karaoke in foreign languages and star in other ready-to-share videos. But in the past year, the company behind the multi-language YouTube channels has expanded its e-commerce offerings to better meet its’ viewers’ wants. The results have led to success for the four-year-old company on the Billboard charts and, as of last week, completing their first “tour.”
When ATEEZ‘s first U.S. shows since 2019 kicked off in January for The Fellowship: Beginning of the End tour, the band was selling out arenas but had yet to break into the Top 40 of the Billboard 200 like many of their K-pop peers. While a relationship with Korean management label KQ Entertainment led to the channel’s top-watched video (an 11-minute prank of ATEEZ member San disguised as a break-dancing senior has over 32 million views), hello82 saw an opportunity to better connect to the band’s ATINY fans directly in the States.
With offices in Los Angeles, hello82 spent 2021 becoming a trusted hub for international K-pop fans to shop for physical album imports, merch, and virtual experiences like live events and artist-fan calls during the pandemic after COVID-19 concerns forced the company to expand into different offerings. Physical-album distribution in the U.S. has helped Korean artists soar high on the Billboard albums chart (largely thanks to being issued in collectible deluxe packages, each with a standard set of items and randomized elements). hello82 saw how expanding their e-commerce channels could create a new business opportunity and simultaneously deliver the same communitive aspect they looked to develop with their video content.
“We just wanted to go meet where the demand was with the supply,” says Sang H. Cho, co-founder of hello82’s parent company KAI Media and its current COO, from his Beverly Hills office. “We just felt like few K-pop groups are well represented and were getting the sort of recognition or credit they deserve when it comes to things like charts. Obviously, we’re a business that wants to make money, but we also understand the fans, their psychology, and their needs too. Having them getting involved and getting them to feel the sense of accomplishment and community. And we obviously knew the opportunity was there for all of us to achieve that together.”
What began in 2021 as distributing two ATEEZ albums from a virtual storefront—September’s Zero: Fever Part.3, which peaked at No. 42 on the Billboard 200, followed by December’s Zero: Fever Epilogue at No. 72—turned into larger ambitions for ATEEZ’s The World EP.1: Movement album released this past July. Not only was this ATEEZ’s first release after reuniting with their ATINY fans during their early 2022 tour, but also ignited a new musical era for the group.
“We saw the potential to make it much, much bigger,” Cho says with his team looking to both traditional, big-box retailers alongside local, fan-driven pop-up stores to activate beyond the virtual.
Chain department stores have been increasingly carrying more K-pop content, but almost exclusively by those with label deals or representation in the U.S. While RCA Records under Sony Music signed ATEEZ in 2019, the group had yet to have its music available in retail stores stateside. (RCA declined to comment by time of publication on its relationship with ATEEZ) With Cho’s background in retail finance, plus other internal relationships, hello82 quickly made inroads.
“There are a couple of retailers that understand and know the K-pop market pretty well: Target is one, Barnes & Nobles is another, and we’ve worked with those two pretty extensively,” Cho says. “Those guys don’t necessarily buy from new suppliers very easily—especially when it comes to physical media, but we were lucky enough to know some people that could get us in front of these buyers fairly quickly in an official manner and make sure we check all the boxes to make sure we’re qualified for them.”
The move instantly connected hello82 and, finally, an ATEEZ album into some of the world’s biggest retail giants. The World EP.1: Movement was available online and in Barnes & Noble stores, plus in online stores for Target, Walmart and FYE. “The margins are thin at these big-box retailers,” Cho says. “But they also give you a lot of coverage and you get a lot more fans who aren’t close to places like big cities so we’re happy about that.” There are hopes for upcoming ATEEZ projects to be in actual Target stores.
Yet perhaps the most meaningful part of their chart goals was creating more than a dozen pop-up stores across the country directly alongside fans. With a hello82 rep at each store, local ATINY volunteered (some reaching out on social media before the company could even make the call for help) after being vetted by the team to help work at their local locations that were decorated with photo walls, giveaways and customized merch.
“We knew that we could probably do a few pop-up stores on our own, but we really wanted to activate the fans and make them one of the stakeholders in the entire campaign,” Cho says of the 19 pop-up stores they held in hotspots like Chicago and Atlanta, but also in smaller cities like Yuma, Ariz. and Southfield, Mich. Utilizing cafes and existing stores (some very familiar to K-pop fans like NYC and LA’s LINE Friends stores that sell BTS‘ BT21 and TREASURE‘s TRUZ products), fans could pick up their copy of The World EP.1, an exclusive box version prepared by hello82, and connect with other ATINY in person.
“Doing pop-ups has its own merits; it can be flexible in terms of locations, timing and all of that,” Cho reflects. “I just feel like K-pop fans in certain areas now deserve a place that they can go to to hang out, not just access to all the products and albums. These fans like to just get together. And it’s not just K-pop fandom, I feel like it’s all most fandoms: I’m a big Philadelphia Eagles football fan and I would go to a sports bar just to hang out with other goofy MFers from Philly.”
The strategy broke ATEEZ through with The World EP.1: Movement opening at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 (behind Beyoncé and Bad Bunny) with 50,000 equivalent album units earned in the week ending Aug. 4, with album sales comprising 47,000 of that total, according to Luminate. The set has earned 86,000 U.S. equivalent album units through Dec. 1.
The first week marked a massive jump from the opening sales of Fever Epilogue (which earned 16,000 units in the first week) and Fever Part.3 (13,000). Along with KAI Media co-founder and current CEO Jae Yoon Choi, Cho emphasizes ongoing dialogue with Billboard and Luminate to ensure “we’re doing everything by the book.”
“It’s the first time for us doing it this scale so obviously there were some hiccups but release week was actually pretty calm,” he recalls. “We kind of knew where we were gonna go, but you never know…when we were at the top of the charts, I mean, we were obviously ecstatic. Not just us, but with the fans that we got a lot of ‘thank-yous’ and ‘great jobs.’ Our community manager who talks to a lot of those guys directly also shared an almost tears-of-joy moment on release day, and then, ultimately, when the charts officially came out. So, it was exciting.”
The company kept that energy alive with pop-up stores throughout the 11 dates in the North American leg of ATEEZ’s The Fellowship: Break the Wall tour, the group’s second tour in 2022 and most expansive run yet. Each of seven cities on the trek, along with two that weren’t on the tour route, set up shop for at least two days each as the official pop-up for tour merchandise.
“After the successful album distribution, we are now distributing merch in association with their upcoming North American tour,” Cho explains. “We have always looked at ourselves as a bridge for management companies between South Korea and the U.S. market, where we can help them connect directly with their fans here and create a lasting fandom.”
Stores in LA and Oakland opened ahead of ATEEZ’s Nov. 7 and 8 shows at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Fans could grab new items like jackets and T-shirts while participating in activities like writing sticky note messages for ATEEZ.
By the tour’s final stop in Toronto on Dec. 2, hello82 showcased what may be their most visible project yet when they played their “Project Star 117 – From ATINY to ATEEZ” video played during the show with on-camera messages from fans and the sticky notes written by pop-up attendees. The band themselves watched with a heartfelt gaze and led to leader Hongjoong crouching down in tears. The official upload video has more than 50,000 views in under five days.
hello82 isn’t a dedicated music-service company, but they watch industry trends and consumer behaviors to consider new business.
“The music industry is now sort of maturing into this real combination of on-demand, ubiquitous consumption of music, but also this very active and passionate sorts of fandom activities as well that drives a lot of commerce,” he adds. “I think all of these things have always been part of music business, but it’s coming back with the vengeance now and we’d like to partake in all of that. The K-pop audience, K-pop fans, they’re sort of at the forefront of all of these activities so, we see a bright financial future and our investors do as well.”
Cho notes that the ATEEZ strategies have caught the interest of other artists and labels looking to impact America. However, the company is interested in partners who will engage heavily with fans and “be a little bit experimental.” There are also hopes for the company to take the business beyond North America and “hopefully, eventually expand out to other underserved markets around the world.”
While Cho and colleagues are directly discussing high-level plans with Team ATEEZ (“Credit goes to KQ for having the foresight and ATEEZ for being a great band—they were kind enough to give us the opportunity, and they were willing to risk a lot”), they are also putting in work at hello82’s retail stores themselves.
“We make sure that everybody does a rotation,” Cho says. “The look and joy you see on fans’ faces—especially when you’re pulling the right photo card for them—that’s what makes our day.”